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What Works In Corrections: Teamwork; A Tool in Driving Organizational Culture Change
By Daniel Patrick Downen M.S. AJ/S
Published: 03/20/2011

Helping hands This is the second in a series of articles entitled WHAT WORKS IN CORRECTIONS. The premise here to create productive dialog and stimulate innovative thinking that explores strategies to address ineffective decision making in this money pit called Corrections. What I’m talking about is change. Change the way we think about our profession and change the way we do it.

If you succeed in any kind of team activity then you know how important it is that each team member sees the big picture and not just their own part. Anytime one doesn’t know how his/her work fits in with that of the team then the quality and effectiveness of both the team member and the entire team suffers. Basketball is a perfect example. Each player in any given position knows their assignment and how it develops into a play. The better grasp each team member has of the big picture and overall goals, the greater their potential to work together as a team (Maxwell 2009). Together-Everyone-Achieves-More, (TEAM). Incorporating team-building measures to change organizational culture are exactly the type of reformation needed to address correction’s suffering staff moral and performance issues. True, it is a difficult and complex proposition to shift an entire organizational paradigm. However, avoiding a task simply because it is difficult or never been done before is taking the path of least resistance. This is especially true if the end result is higher efficiency in the expenditure of our human and economic assets. Transforming organizational culture long entrenched in antiquated policy and systematic ineffectiveness is the biggest obstacle of change. It’s time to think out of the box and explore “What Works” and apply those techniques to corrections. “Nothing limits achievement like small thinking; Nothing expands possibilities like unleashed thinking” (William Arthur Ward).

Teamwork is performing work by a team for a common purpose. It encourages collaboration from all levels of the organization and as such unleashes untapped thinking potential. In this environment, managers and employees come to understand the value of cooperation in planning, decision making and problem solving. A team culture fosters a participatory atmosphere that encourages staff to make suggestions to improve operations and efficiency knowing that their ideas will be received with open minds. The focus is on contributions and solicitation of input. This type of motivation taps into the synergy of the workforce. Such motivation provides positive reinforcement that increases job satisfaction stemming from a challenging job experience (FEMA/USFA/NFA, 2000). Consequently, employee empowerment promotes ownership of agency performance that equates to more dedicated corrections professional. According to Heathfield, to achieve a successful team environment, several actions must occur,
  • Administrators communicate the clear expectations that teamwork and collaboration are expected. No one individual owns the work.
  • Administrators demonstrate leadership in teamwork in interaction with each other and the rest of the organization, even when things are going wrong.
  • Department members talk about and identify the value of team. This is easily facilitated in annual cycle training programs or development seminars. If team value is effectively discussed, it becomes organizational philosophy.
  • Teamwork must be rewarded and recognized.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. Therefore a facility void of teamwork cannot successfully achieve its goals as an organization. When team-building is not promoted division occurs. When division takes control of a facility an us and them culture prevails and each is viewed by the other as the enemy. With division we work against ourselves and fail to optimize our efforts. For example, division between labor and management, union representation and management, groups within the rank and file and even between facility administrators of differing political ideologies. Such division in many departments has been a catalyst for mediocrity. Division can cripple a facility’s productivity and efficiency potential. A correctional facility overcome with division can be prolific in adversarial relationships. The mission of corrections gets blurred and our obligation to maintain public confidence lost. Personality conflicts and power positioning becomes business as usual. Efficient governance in corrections is replaced with counter productive dissension. Big picture thinking and innovative ideas are easily dismissed as ridiculous or without due consideration. It is this lack of teamwork that has prohibited corrections from achieving high performance in public safety and stymied performance excellence in human resource management.

Team-building on the other hand capitalizes on the strengths of each staff member and highlights their talents or areas of expertise. The focus is on bringing employees together to concentrate in concert on organizational goals. The overall objective is collaboration, not competition. A team enriched environment creates a sense of ownership of agency mission and therefore staff feels they have value to the organization. It opens many avenues of creative input and feedback for management. A win win situation results. The impact on staff commitment to their profession and their employer is positive. Seeking help from staff members who posses expertise in a specific area is a sign of strength, not weakness. The result will be a more dedicated staff who takes pride in what they do because they know they legitimately contribute to the department. “When everyone feels valued, the level of effort and focus increases, leading to a more productive organization. Moreover, when people see that their advice is valued, they look more closely for ways to improve and seek to give more advice, which creates a positive domino effect” ( Liff, 2007).

In corrections we are public servants. As such, we are all charged with a matter of public trust. Our public mandate is to provide the most efficient and effective system of incarceration possible. This involves the safeguarding and prudent management of public assets both human and fiscal. We must begin the process of examining our accomplishments in these areas and as a branch of criminal justice. The time is now to think differently about our commitment to our profession and our responsibility to nurture public confidence. Let’s take it to the next level and stop wasting valuable resources and start capitalizing on what we already posses. Team-building concepts, if implemented wisely will begin the transformational steps to reach high performance and achieve tangible operational and economic benefits.


Abraham Lincoln. (1858). Springfield, IL speech at the capital.

FEMA/USFA/NFA. (2007). FESHE Course: Personnel Management for the Fire and Emergency Services, Version 1.0.

Heathfield, Susan M. (2011). How to Build a Teamwork Culture, Do the Hard Stuff for Teams. Retrieved 2/21/11, from, humanresources.about.com/od/ Involvementteams/a/team_culture.htm.

Liff, S. (2007). Managing Government Employees. AMACOM, New York, New York. Maxwell, John C. (2009). How Successful People Think. Hachette Book Group.

Corrections.com author Daniel P Downen MS. AJ/S received an M.S. in the Administration of Justice and Security from the University of Phoenix and a B.S. in the Administration of Justice from Southern IL. University at Carbondale. He has served in the following capacities, Juvenile & Adult Probation Officer, Intensive Supervision Program Manager, and Agency Supervisor. He is currently a Corrections Counselor With the Illinois Dept. of Corrections.

Other articles by Downen:


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