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Can you hear what they’re saying?

How paying attention to all staff messaging will help you lead a corrections team

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Take a moment early in your shift to check in with anyone on your shift who came to work under a dark cloud.


You are two months into supervising a newly formed team. The group is a mix of staff members you have and have not supervised before. Additionally, you have two new members on your team, fresh off training. This is your Monday, and you are in early to get your bearings. You receive your briefing from the outgoing supervisor before handing out assignments for the night. As you leave the sergeant’s office and prepare to brief your team, you hear several conversations going on.

One of your veteran staff members complains to another about working overtime in an especially difficult housing unit. One staff member who is new to your supervision asks the group if they know if the sergeant (that’s you) wants her to issue write-ups to inmates. The two new team members stand out of the way and quietly listen to everyone else talking. Bob is describing in detail what he brought for lunch and jokes that he comes to work primarily to eat.

You step out of the sergeant’s office, and everyone quiets down. You hand out assignments and return to your office to get your paperwork started for the night. As you enter your office, you hear two staff members joking with the guy who just got assigned to Control, “You on light duty or something?”

A few minutes later, one of your training officers walks into your office. “Hey Sarge, I think James (one of the new COs) should be working intakes with a senior officer.” She continues, “He barely made it off training and could use a helping hand.”

Listen to direct and indirect messages from staff

First-line supervisors constantly receive communications from line staff. Messages come in all ways – some direct, some indirect and some messages that are not even intended for the supervisor. Every piece of communication you receive from your staff needs to be considered. If you are not paying attention to the signals your team is putting out, you will only achieve limited success in supervising them.

The veteran officer who complains about working overtime in a less coveted position may phone it in later in the shift. The member may also have a legitimate gripe, depending on the culture of expectations in your correctional facility. There is an expectation in some workgroups that staff ordered in for an overtime shift should get a bit of a break and work in an easier spot.

In other groups, you get the position you get, regardless of how many days you have worked before your overtime shift. Either way, a supervisor should know how team members are responding to work conditions, whether you intend on changing the conditions or not.

It’s worth checking in with a complaining staff member for several reasons, including to make sure the member understands the level of accountability you expect regarding job performance. Further, there may be something else going on with that member, and you care about your people’s well-being.

Take a moment early in your shift to check in with anyone on your shift who came to work under a dark cloud. The issue may be more serious or as simple as a solid team member who hasn’t received enough feedback from command to feel truly appreciated. It is not the supervisor’s duty to address every gripe that comes along but knowing what the complaints are and why will help you with the big picture.

If you overhear staff members asking their teammates questions about your expectations as a supervisor, you’re going to need to do a better job of making your expectations clear to your team. More importantly, the message your staff members are unintentionally sending you, in this case, is that they are not comfortable asking you or a direct supervisor a question about your expectations. Whether it’s your intense nature or your subordinates’ reticent ways, it’s on you as the supervisor to tear down barriers to direct communication with your staff.

Watch out for a careless culture

When you overhear a subordinate joke about caring more about lunch than work, you need to be mindful of the current work culture under your command. Everyone needs room to joke around and blow off steam, especially in the difficult environment of a corrections facility.

Corrections staff often armor up and protect their emotions with an outwardly salty attitude about everything from the coffee we drink to the inmate we just had to wrestle into a safety cell. That said, it’s not unreasonable to keep an eye out to make sure your staff is not promoting a careless culture.

Small negative jokes by senior team members make an impact on new corrections staff. Left unaddressed, a seemingly innocuous set of jokes that celebrate poor work performance can become a clear message that, “This is our work culture and what is expected, so don’t you be a hero and care too much about the job.” If you have a chance to address the jokester in real-time, take the opportunity.

In front of your team, you can respond with something like, “Bob, you do bring the best sandwiches I’ve seen this side of B-Pod. But when no one’s looking, I’ve seen you turn inmate management into an art form.” Honor high performance in your people, especially if they will not. Send a clear message that you run a group that values good performance.

Even when you have a chance to redirect work culture expectations safely in front of your team, it is still worth having a private chat with senior corrections staff who jokingly celebrate poor work performance. Remind them that as informal leaders in the organization, they influence the work environment.

Receive all messages and act accordingly

First-line supervisors are busy. There’s plenty of paperwork and inspections waiting for you during each coming shift. Regardless, good leaders listen to the people who work for them. The best first-line supervisors pay attention to all direct and indirect messages they receive daily from their team and respond to those messages mindfully.

Some of the most important communications you will receive from your staff members are not directed at you. Your duty as a supervisor is not always to respond right away to what you’re hearing from your staff but to pay attention to every message your subordinates are sending you. Knowing where your team’s hearts and minds are at any given moment will give you the tools to navigate small personnel challenges before they become larger problems.

Next: The new sergeant’s dilemma: Navigating the transition from line staff to first-line supervision

Zohar Zaied is a background investigator assigned to the Corrections Division at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California. He served 16 years as a deputy and supervisor at the Mendocino County Jail, including a post in the Gangs and Classification unit and the Home Detention and Work Release programs. His book, “The Corrections Toolbox,” is now available on