When Is Good, Good Enough? How Leaders Should Talk About Standards of Excellence
The question, “When is good, good enough?” was recently posed to readers in Brian Willis’ law enforcement and training related newsletter What’s Important Now?, which focuses on ways to prioritize decisions in our lives. The question came from one of his readers who is training foreign police officers but is having trouble getting them to meet the standards of the training he is tasked with developing. Conversations about standards and the level of training needed for operators in any protector related profession are essential to have, yet they can often be frustrating. Without an objectively defined goal and end state for each person in your team or organization, it can be easy to be fooled into thinking that the progress you’ve made to get to the level of good, is actually good enough, when it truly isn’t. In this article, I’ll take a look at a few different aspects of what goes into a conversation about standards so that leaders can continue to advance their organizations in the face of constant change.
Avoiding Predictable Pitfalls While Talking About Standards
Before we begin to talk about what should go into a discussion about performance standards, the first thing a leader needs to decide is who will be involved in the conversation. In our work with our clients in the military, law enforcement and security industries, the number one pre-event indicator to an ineffective meeting about ways to elevate an organization through training is when the person leading the meeting has not given deliberate consideration to who will be taking part in the process. While the desire to want to cast a wide net and include many different people in a conversation about performance standards is natural and can be seen as a safer option than only including a few people, the decision to do that is far riskier than it may initially appear.
When evaluating and working to improve an organization through training, there will be two groups or people involved in the process. There will be the people involved in the defining of performance standards and there will be the people responsible for doing the planning to make that a reality. While the planners and support personnel (administrators and trainers) can be in the meeting where standards are defined, it is important that they understand they play a supporting role to the person who is in the room to talk about the operational requirements of the men and women in the organization. The involvement of administrators and trainers should only begin once the standard has been defined and set by the leader of the organization.
The reason why failing to distinguish between these two groups of stakeholders is such a problem is because support personnel have different professional responsibilities, priorities and concerns than the operationally focused person does. As a result, the planners and administrators can have a tendency to bring a conversation to the specifics of what it will take to do something before the end-state is clearly defined, leading to distractions and frustrations from everyone involved. To keep a meeting on track and focused on the essential parts of establishing the standards, the next section will highlight the four key components of a performance related standard.
Establishing Standards: The Four Operation Focused Factors
To talk about the standards of excellence that members of a team should meet in order to be successful in an operational setting in a rational and objective way, there are four distinct factors that should be considered.
The first is: “How are the people in the organization going to be employed?” Meaning, what type of tasks are we going to expect them to be able to carry out in the course of their duties and what is the desired end state from completing that task?
The second is: “What sort of conditions does the operational environment require that each person needs to be able to accomplish this task in? For example, does everyone love our organization and are very welcoming when we interact with them? Or do they hate us and, in turn, are very confrontational towards us when we try to do our job? Is this a task that can be conducted in the controlled environment of our office or does it require being on the move in dynamic and uncontrolled situations?
The third is: “What is the high probability outcome of that task?” Meaning, given normal conditions, what result do people in the field right now often encounter?
The fourth is: “What is the worst case scenario for someone doing this particular task?” Meaning, if all hell breaks loose and things aren’t going like they normally do, is the person equipped to handle that situation?
When you put these four factors together, you can determine if a person is able to meet the standard of excellence for a particular task if they can get to a successful outcome in the conditions that are present today while able to handle both the best and worst possible outcomes. If they can’t, then they don’t yet meet the standard. By asking these questions, you eliminate much of the noise and the irrelevant conversations that often occur around training or standards. To make these four factors a bit more clear and to show what they begin to do to the conversation, here is an example from a conversation I recently had about the role of de-escalation training in law enforcement (which we’ve written about before) as it relates to officers interacting with people.
Task: A police officer is likely to get tasked to make contact with a group of people who are being loud or disruptive somewhere. The end state for this task is that, if a person is breaking the law, they should be handled appropriately with using the least amount of force needed. If the person isn’t breaking the law, they should be treated with respect as a law-abiding citizen.
Conditions: In the wake of multiple protests over the last few years related to the use of force by police officers, there are many people who are skeptical about the intentions of police officers and proactive policing concepts. There is the report that is currently circulating right now about the attacks on police officers and how people are less hesitant to attack police officers today than they were in previous years.
High probability outcome: Assuming that the police officer doesn’t do something intentionally inciting, these situations are often resolved without conflict and calmed without an incident.
Worst-case scenario: As soon as the officer makes contact with the group, a person in that group decides to attack the officer.
Resulting standard: In my opinion, these four factors would lead to the following standard to train police officers to:
- An officer should be capable of calming a situation down (de-escalating it) if there are tensions and if it is still unclear if a crime has been committed, as this is a method to create the time and space needed to make a more informed decision.
- Using verbal and non-verbal techniques to calm a situation accounts for the most likely outcomes of a police encounter.
- An officer should be capable of recognizing pre-event indicators that would alert them to situations when de-escalation might not be possible and that a use of force might be needed to get to a successful outcome before it is required to minimize the number of split-second decisions that need to be made.
- An officer should be trained and able to shoot, move and communicate in case the situation they are responding to is in fact an ambush and the officer is attacked before they are in a position to observe the pre-event indicators.
The impact of defining standards of excellence for a police contact along these four lines is that it is always judged against what the officer will potentially encounter in an operational environment. Sometimes you hear older police officers say that they never had to go through de-escalation training as they came up as young police officers, and there would be no reason to think that they were lying about that. But when you look at these four questions you can see that it doesn’t matter what was done in the past because the operational environment has likely changed if people are more likely to attack or become confrontational toward police than they were in the preceding years. I’m not saying that the conditions police officers operate in are justified; I’m simply saying they are the current reality. Historically, de-escalation was something that officers did (even if it wasn’t called that) and they relied on common sense tactics to do that. But as technology continues to erode previously normal levels of social skills (report) and as people become less attuned to non-verbal cues that can reveal a person’s emotions (whether that’s aggression, submissiveness, or discomfort) new types of training might be required to ensure that each officer is capable of meeting these standards.
Is “mission creep” (getting assigned additional tasks to do beyond the original scope) a factor in the way police officers are being used today? Probably. Police officers today are being trained to handle mental health issues, they are medics dealing with heroin overdoes, they are doing the assessments of a marriage counselor on domestic violence calls and are serving in countless other roles as the situations they find themselves in dictate. Should they be? Maybe. Maybe not. An argument could be made either way, but highlighting mission creep is an irrelevant point to the conversation about what the standard for a police officer should be. What is important is that they are being used that way. And if they are, that becomes part of the standard they have to meet as well.
I don’t use the example of police officers learning to de-escalate situations to pick on them or highlight just that one field, as we could easily apply this standard to very similar situations in other fields. Think about customer service personnel in the wake of videos being circulated about United Airlines and American Airlines. Their operational environment is changing as well. The gate agent and flight attendant in these two incidents were not trained to handle the scenario as soon as it deviated from the high probability outcome or able to de-escalate the rising tensions before problems happened, forcing their organizations to react to the situation right of bang. Managers in retail stores have failed to de-escalate situations in a mall setting when dealing with upset customers. But until the appropriate standard of excellence is established and articulated, identifying the gaps and creating ways to develop your team can’t be started.
Identifying Gaps in Performance Standards
Once the standards are set for every single task that a person filling a role is expected to perform, the training department can begin creating reports and grades for each member of the team in a yes or no structure. As they determine if a person can perform a task in the assigned conditions, this is where you can also add in the various techniques to accomplish components of that task. Keeping with the theme of de-escalation, the performance standards might be that a person has to prove they can de-escalate a situation using the four available options that stem from the four clusters of individual behavior that we teach in our Tactical Analysis Program here at The CP Journal. For example:
- Have they proven in training that they can de-escalate a situation by displaying the dominant cluster?
- Have they proven in training that they can de-escalate a situation by displaying the submissive cluster?
- Have they proven in training that they can de-escalate a situation by displaying the uncomfortable cluster?
- Have they proven in training that they can de-escalate a situation by displaying the comfortable cluster?
The standard can include proving that they can incorporate information from their environment and use those inputs to adapt to the situation and make decisions in the face of complexity. For example:
- Have they proven in training that they can shift from one conversational style to another to de-escalate the situation based on feedback from the person being talked to when their initial strategy is not working?
- Have they proven in training that they can recognize shifts in a person’s behavior from the uncomfortable, the submissive and the comfortable clusters into the dominant cluster in a timely and accurate way?
- Have they proven in training that they can recognize a person shifting from dominance into one of the other three clusters in a timely and accurate way?
While there are more than the aforementioned seven possible tasks to train to and prove performance in for de-escalation, having the components to the standard identified allows you to not only evaluate a person’s ability, but also to test their decision-making abilities against a standard. Identifying standards in decision-making is a hard task because it is easy for an evaluator to hold someone to a standard based on what they think they would have done in a similar situation. Not only is that impossible, it is also very subjective. But what you can hold a person to is the ability to choose specific factors that should be used in making a decision (like whether the person is becoming more dominant or beginning to transition out of dominance), and their ability to use each of the four techniques and not rely on just one style that is natural to them.
The end result of identifying the different components that exist to training to a standard mean that you can grade people objectively. If there were only the seven components to a de-escalation standard (again, there are certainly more), you can give each person a grade of 0/7 to 7/7, which will allow organizations to focus on their weakest links in order to improve.
The Importance of Grading Standards: Weak Link Organizations
In a podcast episode titled “My Little Hundred Million,” Malcolm Gladwell introduced the concept of “strong link” vs. “weak link” systems as he discussed the pros and cons of donating money to a top tier university or a lower tier university. You can listen to the podcast here or read about it here. The strong vs. weak link theory was originally presented in Chris Anderson and David Sally’s book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, as they make the point that soccer teams are not successful based on a single strong player, but are only as strong as their weakest players. Because soccer is a game that requires passing (one elite player is unlikely to take the ball all the way down the field) teams are better off acquiring players who outperform their worst players than they are trying to pay for a super-star.
Like soccer, law enforcement, the military and customer service positions are “weak link” professions where organizations are judged on the actions of their worst performers, and not their strongest. This is why grading your team based on their ability to perform to the set standards is so important. If policing or the military were strong link professions, we wouldn’t care too much about standards at all, as we could continue to go out and find Jason Bourne and John McClane type characters to solve all of our problems. Unfortunately, it is usually the worst performing member of a military unit, police department or service staff that makes a poor decision under stress and is not ready for the role that causes a problem, whether that be operationally or in terms of public perception.
By being able to evaluate team members against the number of standards they are expected to meet, you can identify who in your organization is a top performer and who the weak links are objectively. If you know that your three weakest performers operate at 45%, 50% and 55% of the level of your top performers, you can now focus on those people who are likely to cause problems either by putting them on performance improvement plans, finding a non-operational role for them (which is not the same as promoting them!), or replacing them with a person who is capable of performing at a higher level (let’s say 60% of the standards of your top performers) than they are. As a result, you can begin the work to bridge the gap between your organization’s current level of ability with the standard of excellence you are striving for.
Bridging The Gap: Lowering Standards vs. Improving Performance
As organizations develop training programs to improve the performance of their team, there is often a point where they begin to consider how much effort it is going to take in order to raise their team to the standard of excellence that they set. Let’s say that everyone on the team is operating at or above 80% of the standard, it isn’t uncommon to hear people say that “we have gotten pretty good,” and it is at this point where they often ask, “Is good, good enough?” This could lead people to question whether the standard itself is simply unattainable and whether you are better off simply lowering the bar to something you can get to in a shorter amount of time or with less effort.
However, blindly lowering a standard is the wrong choice. The reason why you want to consider those four components to a conversation about standards is to ensure that the standard we are setting is realistic for the types of tasks we are expected to perform in the operational environment we work in. The standards are not arbitrarily defined at the beginning of the process based on some obscure definition of “perfection,” but the standard that each individual has to meet in order to be successful in their job. Sending a person into a situation where they have failed to prove their competence isn’t bold decision-making, it is criminal, especially in a field where success or failure can be tied to life or death.
For a standard to be lowered, one of two things has to happen: either the tasks assigned to a person are adjusted or the operational environment changes and no longer demands proficiency in a certain skill. For example, if a person can’t handle a task on their own, maybe they don’t operate autonomously, but instead have other people there who can share the burden and reach proficiency as a team. There is a tendency to think that changing tasks is the equivalent of a demotion, but it shouldn’t be thought about that way if the change is made as a result of careful consideration. For example, during the Iraq War, many Marine units increased their sniper teams from two Marines to a six-man team. It wasn’t that our sniper school was sending out less qualified snipers (snipers continue to be elite infantryman) but the standard for success had changed and required a different solution to meet the standard.
The same concept can be applied to a shift in the operational environment. If the world all of a sudden becomes 100% pro-police, then perhaps the de-escalation component to the standard is no longer a relevant skill. But a standard can’t be changed if it is based on operational reality, you can only change the way you task your organization or change the conditions you operate in. If the standard, the task and the environment cannot be changed in a short time frame, then the third option available to organizations is to improve the quality of the training available to people and do the work required to bridge that gap. By having a defined standard of excellence, you will also become more capable of determining which training providers are helping you progress and meet your goals, and which programs are not delivering what was promised.
There is an often-misquoted statement made by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to war with the Army you have, not the one that you want.” While this statement was reflecting a conversation about materials, equipment and logistics in Iraq, the sentiment applies to personnel and training as well. Figuring out what skills are needed to succeed and excel in the type of environment you work in and designing the training and tasks to ensure your team is set up for success isn’t something that you should get to if you have time, but instead is something that is incumbent on all leaders to do.
The importance of defining very explicitly what the end state is for each person, what standard each individual person has to meet and being able to objectively tell him or her where they are strong and where they are weak cannot be understated. Without that information, any decision you make about how to proceed or how to improve are simply guesses. Think about the definition of the standard and the point a person is currently at like using Google Maps on your phone. Before Google can give you directions about how to get somewhere, it has to know where you are and where you are going. Without those two pieces of information, it can’t provide a recommended route or other possible routes to get you to where you want to go. Defining the standards is empowering to your team because they know what they have to do. You have defined what success looks like in your organization and provided your team with the tools needed to rise to the challenge.
The question is not, “When is good, good enough?”. The real question is, how you can take your team from where they are today and help them attain the standard of excellence that will ensure their success in their job.