I recently traveled to Indianapolis to present to the IERC (Indiana Emergency Response Conference), the annual conference of the Indiana State Fire Chiefs Association. It was an entirely positive experience: great conversations with fire service leaders, interesting presentations on a range of topics, and my own session was well received. The trip also included a pleasant surprise. Sharing that story has since resulted in some interesting conversations.
I arrived at the airport around 12:30 AM, en route to a hotel that I realized, late in the game, was more than 30 miles away. I saw three police officers near the taxi stand, and approached them with questions. Given the distance, roughly what should I expect to pay for a cab? Was another option available at that late hour?
The officers noted that another traveler had just made the same inquiry. One of the officers then went into the terminal, found the traveler, asked whether he was interested in sharing a ride, then returned to bring me in and introduce us. All three officers were helpful, pleasant and professional. Facilitating ride-sharing as they did was extraordinary. It took about five minutes, and saved each of us around $40. I enjoyed meeting the fellow who shared the ride.
I shared the story with the Indianapolis Airport Police Chief via email, and received a speedy, friendly reply, noting that he was very pleased to hear about his officers’ “Hoosier Hospitality.” It was a small and pleasant event.
In the past few weeks, I’ve told the story to a couple of dozen police officers in the context of leadership development work we were doing together. Most approved of the officers’ moment of awareness and act of kindness. Some were impressed. More than a few people, however, reacted quite differently, expressing a concern that story sets an unreasonable expectation for police officers. They felt that telling this story establishes a standard for action that is simply too high. While this was not a survey, it is fair to say that a significant minority of those cops were even a little angry about the story, because it seemed to ask too much of them.
If the story itself is interesting, it is because these officers exceeded reasonable expectations. It would not be reasonable for department management to expect officers to take those steps. By the same token, it is a bit disturbing to think that we should avoid telling stories of excellence, to prevent management from setting an unreasonably high bar for everyone.
This sentiment is not unique to law enforcement. Years ago I worked in a manufacturing plant, and this reminds me of the peer pressure that some of us got to slow down, so that quotas would not go up. That isn’t good for anyone.
Regardless of what we do or whom we serve, we need to understand our organization’s mission and its values. We need to set clear expectations, linked to pursuing that mission and advancing those values. These expectations should be achievable, and they ought to reflect appropriately high levels of competence and commitment. There should be consequences for persistently failing to meet reasonable, well-grounded expectations.
At the same time, we need to recognize and celebrate excellence, and to appreciate when people exceed our expectations in ways both large and small. There may be times when exceptional performance leads us to raise the bar, but good managers should be able to discern and establish reasonable expectations, and should recognize excellence – the home runs – along with competence – the base hits. By doing so, we create environments where more employees are motivated to swing for the fences, and nearly all employees strive to meet expectations daily.