Transformational Leadership can Improve the Culture of Corrections
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
Adopting a different leadership style could have a dramatic impact on correctional officers and improve the effectiveness of correctional facilities, Michael Pittaro, American Military University faculty member, will tell attendees during his keynote address at the New Jersey Chapter of the American Correctional Association on April 1.
His address will focus specifically on why administrators should adopt a transformational leadership approach to improve the culture of corrections, including boosting morale and satisfaction among correctional officers. It is no secret that morale and satisfaction levels are extremely low among correctional officers. In January 2015, Pittaro wrote an article, “Suicide Among Corrections Officers: It’s Time for an Open Discussion,” which generated a lot of attention in the correctional community and garnered nearly 17,000 views and more than 150 comments. Many commenters shared similar stories of experiencing high levels of stress and receiving minimal support or assistance from their agencies.
In order to change this culture and bring more awareness to the stresses officers face, Pittaro believes there needs to be a shift in leadership style. He has become a major proponent of improving correctional institutions through the adoption of transformational leadership practices. A transformational leader goes beyond managing day-to-day operations and crafts strategies for taking the organization to the next level of performance and success. Transformational leadership styles focus on team building, motivation, and collaboration with employees at different levels of an organization to accomplish change for the better. Transformational leaders set goals and incentives to push their employees to higher performance levels, while providing opportunities for personal and professional growth for each employee.
During a recent appearance on Tier Talk—a podcast dedicated to discussing issues in corrections—Pittaro discussed how transformational leaders work to create a positive environment, aiming to be more like coaches and mentors to correctional officers than disciplinary authoritative figures.
“Transformational leaders aim to increase morale by finding ways to motivate and inspire people,” he said. “And they really work beside you. Often in corrections, leaders are held behind closed doors and not walking the walk and not making efforts to talk to officers. But transformational leaders are different, they aim to engage and involve employees whenever possible.”
Shifting to a transformational leadership style requires drastic improvement in communication. Employees need to understand the vision and mission of the institution and know why changes are happening and why policies are being implemented, said Pittaro. Instead of just handing down orders, leaders need to explain why things are happening so officers feel connected and part of the organization.
“Getting officers more involved in the process and feeling like they’re valued is incredibly important,” he said. It can reduce burnout, improve the engagement of officers, reduce turnover, and create a safer working environment. An officer who is more engaged is more likely to work harder and be in line with the prison’s mission of creating a positive change within the inmate population, said Pittaro.
Pittaro knows firsthand what it’s like to feel dismissed and unappreciated. While working in a correctional facility early in his career, he tried bringing up issues to supervisors and asking questions about policies. “They wouldn’t even hear me out, which lowered my morale to the point that I didn’t feel valued and diminished my willingness to do anything beyond meeting the minimum requirements of my job,” he said.
Instead, leaders need to seek ways to bring a positive and open environment to the workplace. “Leaders can adopt all kinds of different practices like publicly praising individuals for good work. It’s a very simple gesture, but simply recognizing someone for a job well done can be very motivational and inspire other officers to excel,” he said.
It’s important for leaders to also look for “teachable moments,” he said. For example, instead of writing an officer up for a minor infraction, it can be far more beneficial to use that incident as a time to discuss why that policy is in place, why it’s important, and how it relates to the bigger mission of the facility. Although there are certainly instances where punishment is necessary, Pittaro said transformational leaders seek to find opportunities to engage and teach employees.
Shifting to a transformational leadership style benefits not only correctional officers and staff but also has an impact on inmates. When officers feel stressed, they tend to exhibit punitive attitudes towards inmates, which further exacerbate tense relationships between officers and offenders. “Correctional officers are agents of change,” said Pittaro, and that’s not something that’s ingrained enough in them. “They have an impact on inmates. They may never see or know how much influence they had, or could have, on someone because they never see that person beyond the walls, but they do have an impact,” he said.