3 steps to building a successful small team in corrections

The level of effectiveness within your organization is directly proportional to how well your teams work within themselves and with other small teams


These are components of small team building that have proven successful in business, politics and the military: identifying roles, being intentional and fostering an environment for growth.

The basis for the article is not only from professional experience in selecting members of my department’s defensive tactics team and security threat groups, but also an academic study of international military teams, Forest Service fire crews and Fortune 500 businesses. By no means is this an all-inclusive list or a paint-by-numbers approach to team building. Rather, it is my intent to provide real-world examples that may be adapted to work in corrections. 

Let’s look at these concepts in more depth.

Members of your team are more likely to excel at their work when they know what piece of the puzzle they are.
Members of your team are more likely to excel at their work when they know what piece of the puzzle they are.

1. Focus on roles

When you examine specialized teams in the U.S. military and other government agencies, there is a definite focus on roles. A person’s role within the team is defined with specific responsibilities. Each role is valued and appreciated. The role is also allowed to change as the needs of the team and mission change. A person’s role and subsequent job description give them a clear understanding of what they bring to the team. Team building often starts as role building.

Confusion and disillusionment most often result when members do not know their role. When responding to incidents within a corrections setting, confusion can have dire consequences. To prevent this, correctional leaders need to clearly define their role, the roles of team members and the role of the team itself. Members should have specific responsibilities. Members should also know that each role is valued and in a constant state of evaluation. Corrections leaders must also make it known that members must change with and around their role.

Team leaders need to then establish subordinate roles. The team leader identifies what the overall goal or mission of the department is and how their team fits into the grand scheme of things. The team leader will also consider how individuals will work to achieve team and thus department goals.

As an example, when I recruited officers to join the security threat group (STG) team in my jail, I determined there were three primary roles I needed to fill: information gathering, information storage and information sharing, which in the world of corrections equates to interviewing, report writing and in-service training. I knew I needed three officers who could excel at one of those tasks and do the other two adequately well. I knew that they would be working as a team to support the mission of the department by working to create a safer place for the staff and volunteers to work and the inmates to live.

Remember, all roles have value. The value of interviewing and investigating a suspected gang member is high, but all that effort is for nothing if it is not documented. Our approach is one of moderate specialization. The team member who works the night shift is going to have more time to conduct data entry tasks, where the officers who work the afternoon shift can more easily conduct interviews and cell searches. When recruiting officers for the team I made it clear that they would be expected to participate in all three areas but would most likely focus on one.

Members of your team are more likely to excel at their work when they know what piece of the puzzle they are. They will also find the additional workload more enjoyable and less stressful when they understand what is expected of them. As the STG team leader, it was my job to set the conceptual framework for how the STG team members would operate. Once I determined what roles would best support our overall mission, I was able to see how officers may be a good fit. I was able to point to a specific need and ensure the officers knew their role in meeting that need.

2. Be intentional

The most successful companies use the concept of intentionality to drive the actions of team members. CEOs and other corporate executives have learned to be intentional in setting goals or benchmarks to define success. Successful leaders also intentionally communicate with team members about specifics. Small teams are also intentional with their actions and honest with their members. Effective small teams must also be intentional with their support of department goals.

The act of being intentional is akin to having a purpose. Intentionally setting goals and specifying how to measure if those goals were successful is critical to focus your team’s effort. Successful small teams are intentional about supporting the overall mission of the organization. They are also purposeful in communicating with each other and other teams.

Goals are often easily set and just as easily not met. In order to increase the likelihood that your goals are achievable, they need to be realistic, specific, positive and rooted in data. I was our union’s vice president when an act was passed that limited non-law enforcement employee unions from negotiating for pay raises that exceeded the consumer price index. As a union, we knew this would mean officers could never “get ahead” working as a general public sector employee. Union leadership set out to make sure correctional officers received the same pay raise a county law enforcement officer would. This goal was realistic, specific and positive. We met with county board members, human resources and sheriff’s department management. We were able to show the difficulty in hiring and retaining correctional officers before the act was passed, and argued it would be more difficult to do so if our pay did not keep pace with other county agencies. As a result, we were able to have the county board pay out lump-sum payments to correctional officers.

In addition to setting goals for small teams, leaders should also specify how the team will support the overall mission of the agency. Part of the mission of all correctional facilities is to provide services to the inmates such as bible studies, GED classes, medical treatment and counseling. In order to provide those services, our jail relies on several outside entities. Our food service and medical providers are private-sector contractors. Our educational and religious services are provided by a mix of other government agencies and non-profit groups. The people who work or volunteer with the organizations are not necessarily the most security-conscious, so the training cadre of use of force instructors developed a training course to educate the contractors and volunteers on basic jail safety. This training program also allowed the contractors and volunteers to ask a range of questions and quell some of their concerns about working with inmates.

[Read: How effective is your civilian training program?]

Being able to have an honest discussion with the team is essential to creating an atmosphere of trust and it is the only way to prevent groupthink. Do not fear disagreement. When conducted properly, group discussion can identify potential flaws in even the best-laid plans. However, once a decision is made, all members must support the chosen course of action. Publically supporting the decisions made by the team leader and/or the team as a whole gives the course of action legitimacy and fosters a sense of group success and group failure.

Lastly, intentionally train. When creating defensive tactics training for our in-service training, our cadre asks front-line staff about their concerns. We then conduct research to identify solutions for those concerns. We meet as a team and share our findings. We then train each other on what we discovered and go over the pros and cons of each technique or response. We deliberately try to poke holes in the training plan so as to be better prepared when we begin our in-service. This style of training has led the team to have an increased level of confidence and greater participation from the front-line staff.

Being intentional about setting goals, supporting the department’s mission and training are only a few of the ways to increase the effectiveness of your team. Intentionality increases the effort made by team members. Management is more likely to spend money on equipment and overtime when their goals are being achieved. The end-user or front-line staff will also be more inclined to work with a highly motivated, positive and intentional team.

3. Foster esprit de corps

Fostering an environment where individual members of a team feel free to take risks and to grow by experience may be the most difficult portion of building a small team. However, much like an individual needs to take a risk in order to grow, so do small teams within organizations.

The most important thing a team leader can do is build an environment where team members feel free to take reasonable risks. From my experience in assembling a use of force training team, I know the team shares in every individual’s success and failure. I also know nothing can build a team faster than achieving something greater than any one person can accomplish.

It may seem counterintuitive, but I want my fellow instructors to take risks. I want them to develop ideas into lesson plans. I want them to present these lesson plans and training points at planning sessions. I want them to think outside of the box. I want us to "fail" so we can overcome setbacks and grow. In doing so, we are modeling success. 

I also take a page from most Special Forces teams. I require all members of any team I lead to not only participate but also lead planning or training sessions. Members cannot just show up and be present; they need to be active and assume the mantle of leadership, which gives them the chance to learn by experience. They will then learn what it is like to coach others and receive positive and negative feedback about their choices as a leader.

Fostering esprit de corps is intrinsic to a successful team. By leading your team members to take risks, think creatively and support each other, you set a high standard or comradery that will resonate from the training room to the cellblock. Your officers work in one of the most diverse, dangerous and draining environments in America. They deserve specialized teams who will come alongside them and support them in their often-thankless job. After all, who else will?

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