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Corrections Systems: Creating Positive Culture and Dynamic Leadership
By Carol Flaherty-Zonis, MA, MSW, Arizona-based consultant and trainer
Published: 10/19/2009

Prison building Corrections facilities often operate as if they are comprised of independent parts—the silos we hear about and experience. The staff of each part know very well their perceived level of importance and the power of their voice. All too often, voices that are not as highly valued, coming from staff who are nonetheless critical to the running of the facility, are not heard, or are stifled and disregarded.

My work as a consultant to numerous corrections facilities and systems since the 1990s has involved exploring their cultures (the values, assumptions and beliefs that drive the way people think and behave at work) and working with management and staff to change the culture where people in the system thought change was needed. In addition, using a unique strategic planning process I (with a few corrections professionals) developed under agreement with the National Institute of Corrections (the publication detailing the process is Building Culture Strategically), I have guided the planning/culture change process in several large facilities. This work focuses on strategic thinking, planning, management and response, in the context of exploring all aspects of the culture and organization.

In the work I have done (using Rubik’s Cube® as the theoretical model), I have found the cultures in corrections facilities to be dominated by the following characteristics: conventional, “don’t rock the boat” thinking; a pattern of dependence, with a value on following rather than leading; avoidance of conflict, leaving many disagreements unresolved and even unidentified; a high level of oppositional behavior, focusing on what is wrong and holding on to past wrongs rather than working to find solutions; and a limited willingness to share power and information. While I have found many staff working to reach a high level of achievement, managers encouraging staff’s potential, and a sense of camaraderie, I never have observed these traits running on all eight cylinders in one place.

When I have asked people working in the facilities to describe the culture as they would want it to be, they invariably want the workplace to have a focus on high achievement; to provide opportunities to develop their potential; to function with a sense of team; and they want to be encouraged and valued.

What can be done to bring about the positive change people want?
  • People need to feel safe, secure and valued; they need to operate in a climate of trust.
  • The vision, mission and values of the facility and Department need to be integrated into daily operations.
  • Goals, objectives and measures of success need to be understood and shared at all levels.
  • Formal and informal leaders need to be out front, promoting and supporting change.
  • Management needs to truly operate as a team, building on each other’s strengths, thinking together honestly, challenging one another to achieve the best outcomes.
  • Each person needs to understand and value his/her role in achieving the vision and mission of the facility and the system as a whole.
  • People need to learn to think and behave strategically, aware of the consequences of their behaviors throughout the system.
  • People in each piece of the organization need to learn to value the others.
  • People at all levels need to learn to interact in ways that encourage a more positive environment and a sense of interdependence.
  • There ought to be both adherence to and constructive questioning of policies and procedures.
  • Supervisors need to understand their pivotal role as supervisors, coaches, and mentors and as conveyors of information up, down and sideways.
  • New leadership needs to be cultivated at all levels.
  • People need to be encouraged to try new behaviors and ideas.
  • Avenues for sharing ideas have to be opened, particularly so that people on the front lines can feel heard and involved in change.
  • Emphasis needs to shift from blame to problem solving.
  • Staff development needs to be relevant, useful and innovative, based on mandates and the needs of the staff.
  • Staff need opportunities to develop their potential prior to promotion, so they can move into new positions with the capacity they need to be effective and successful (rather than doing training after they are in a position, having had opportunities to fail).
  • The performance review process has to be meaningful (in that it needs to be an ongoing process, not just a one-time event; the actual review needs to be a dialogue so that the supervisor and supervisee can share ideas and recommendations for the other; the document needs to be real and not just a series of ‘satisfactory’ items checked off; and more).
  • People need to learn to address conflicts constructively.
  • Management and staff have to build strategic partnerships with other parts of the judicial system and with local and state leadership.
  • Offenders can be included in the work in areas where their input is appropriate.
  • Micro-management should be discouraged, while decisions should be made at the lowest level (this means that staff need information and decision-making skills and supervisors need to delegate, develop staff, and share information).
  • And more….

How does this all happen? Not easily or quickly.

The work requires conscious, deliberate and strategic thinking and action. It may require the assistance of an outsider—someone who can gather information and perceptions without creating fear; is willing and capable of honestly identifying challenges and strengths; can provoke constructively; and understands how systems function. It requires leaders who are committed to the work, are trustworthy, and can inspire people to be the best they can be. Ultimately, people have to see “what’s in it for me.” (WIIFM).

More to follow…

Editors Note: Corrections.com author, Carol Flaherty-Zonis, MA, MSW, is an Arizona-based consultant and trainer. She works in the areas of strategic planning, organizational development, leadership and management development, conflict resolution and teambuilding. She facilitates the course, “Promoting a Positive Corrections Culture,” and the “Building Culture Strategically” process, both of which she developed under contract with NIC. Carol can be contacted at cfzonis@mindspring.com.

Other articles by Carol Flaherty-Zonis


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  28. IA on 10/22/2009:

    This is an excellent article. It touches on the changes that are necessary in most correctional facilities. Achieving this level of cooperation and awareness is a daunting task. In my opinion, in most cases outside intervention would need to occur and that intervention would have to include the highest level of the operation to the most base level of the operation so all would have access, understanding and a stake in what is happening within the operation. I believe the escence of change is found in everyone being on the same page and moving in the same direction. AS the ideas in this article are not new, they are extemely relevant and needed to be visited again and again until real positive change is apparent. I believe that an even more overwhelming task would be to sustain a level of cooperation, understanding and a feeling that all employees have a stake in the operation. Finally, I would like to say that I am encouraged, inspired and motivated to play some part in helping my agency to achieve some level of positive cultural leadership leading to positive change within the agency.

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