We’ve all heard the phrase “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Perhaps that’s true of the canine breed; but as professionals, we have to consider that there may be a better way of doing certain things. Many of you reading this right now may consider yourself one of the “old dogs.” Or some of you who are dedicated to this line of work may consider yourself someone who one day will be one of the old dogs. Or maybe you have been taught by an old dog. Whichever camp you consider yourself to be in, as leaders in criminal justice, there are “new tricks” that we can all benefit from learning and implementing in our daily interactions with staff of all ages that can go a long way to reviving staff morale and improving retention.

These new tricks just might be the way to transform our workplaces into welcoming, interesting and healthy places of work. Yes, even in prisons and jails, we can not only strive for but achieve positive and healthy work environments. With new techniques, we can do a better job of retaining and promoting the most promising of our newest and most talented staff. As we know, hiring new staff is not as challenging as keeping and retaining good staff. This article will provide suggestions that speak to leadership styles that support retention of our staff.

Getting Real About the ‘Good Old Days’

For purposes of this article, “new tricks” refer to leadership and management styles that would appeal to the youngest of our current workforce in our facilities. Even some of us old dogs would probably go along with some of these new tricks as something that no one could have ever imagined in, what we affectionately refer to as, “the good old days.” But here is something to think about: were the good old days we hear about, really all that good?

We’ve all heard the stories about being hired and then placed on shifts without any training or policies and procedures, and little to no equipment. I think most of us agree that it was not easy or the best way to start off our careers. Yes, many of us old dogs survived those days and served as dedicated public servants. Those days make for some really good stories that many still enjoy remembering and telling those who will listen. But, as we know, we are better than that now. Society has evolved. The meaning of professionalism has evolved. Our sense of right and wrong has evolved. Along with that, if we are to be successful in retaining talented staff, correctional leadership styles must also evolve. Leaders who are inclusive, good listeners and good communicators will create the cultures that will produce humane, safe, and secure operations.

7 “New Tricks” Justice Leadership Must Embrace to Improve Staff Morale and Retention

The suggestions to “modernize” leadership styles in the field of corrections are heavily supported in the research. In reviewing these suggestions, consider that change is inevitable, even if staff resist it. How successful you will be in the future may well depend on your ability to adjust to the new challenges of our current and future workforce. These suggestions may require you to unlearn some of the things that you were taught and relearn new leadership skills that are more effective today.

Trick 1: Leaders must be considerate of all needs of each generation of employees.

One size does not fit all. We must accept that Millennials are different than Generation X, and all generations before them, and develop them to be able to take our place in our leadership roles going forward.

The first thing we need to do is to embrace our young people in the workforce and value them for what they bring to the workplace. We should not demonize this generation of employees for being different than us and a part of the Millennial Generation. We must learn to accept the simple truth that they are different from the employees who we started with or the ones we first supervised, and us old dogs must embrace their qualities, not condemn them. We have to find ways to engage this generation in order for them to be able to become the kind of employees we can all be proud of in our organizations.

Trick 2: Leaders need to change how we promote individuals within our organizations.

It is a well-documented fact that the number one reason our new hires are leaving so quickly is because of “bad” supervisors. When it comes to promoting staff, “longevity” isn’t always the best indicator for identifying future leaders.

In the past, corrections organizations have rewarded loyalty by promoting those in the ranks who have the most longevity. Instead, those promoted should exhibit leadership qualities needed now more than ever before: post-secondary education, good communication skills, critical thinking, fairness, credibility and integrity. Corrections organizations should find other ways to show appreciation for employees based on longevity, such as an annual longevity payment. There are other creative ways to recognize longer term employees for their service other than promotion.

Trick 3: Leaders must build a healthy rapport with employees.

The younger generations in today’s workforce respond to a person who shows they care about them and care about their growth as individuals, much the same way a good coach or mentor would.

Quite frankly, most young people do not respond well to the traditional authoritative boss-subordinate relationship. Young people in our work force are accustomed to having a relationship with parents and teachers who are more relationship-oriented, rather than authoritative in nature.

This doesn’t mean you have to socialize after hours with your employees or show up at their children’s birthday parties, but it does mean, to the extent possible, you should know them by name and by the individuals that they are. You must be able to communicate your appreciation to staff so that they know that you care about them individually and that what they do matters to the success of the shift, the team they work on, or the organization as a whole.

Trick 4: Leaders must find ways to engage all employees in order to gain buy-in.

Asking for input, challenging staff to grow professionally, and communicating why things are done the way that they are will promote buy-in and understanding from employees.

With buy-in comes a greater sense of commitment and connection to the overall mission. Since this generation of individuals is accustomed to technology, whenever possible, communication should be short and concise. Training is best when it is blended with individual multi-media tools as well as collaborative face-to-face interaction. Today’s young people are generally equipped to perform well with multi-tasking and may become bored quickly with routine.

Trick 5: Employees will follow your lead if they respect your leadership style and performance, not because of the rank you display on your collar.

Young people are less likely to give respect to an individual simply because he or she holds a title – they’re much more concerned with the style of leadership and how their leader makes them feel as an individual.

Consider the analogy of a medical doctor. A doctor does not get automatic respect from a young person just because they wear a white overcoat and carry a clipboard around the hospital. To the contrary, a doctor would not get respect from a young person if the doctor did not have good “bedside manners” and treat them as a patient they actually care about. The young person will likely find another doctor who will give them the style of care they are looking for, to include being treated as if they care about them as an individual.

In this case, the doctor has lost a patient not due to the lack of medical knowledge and ability, but due to the lack of understanding the patient. The doctor may not feel that losing one patient is a reason to modify her behavior, but if a pattern develops, then her overall practice will not be robust and sustainable. The same example exists with corrections hiring and staff retention data.

Trick 6: Leaders are expected to be positive role models and tout the possibility of success.

Young people depend on their leaders to motivate and encourage the hearts of those working to meet the objectives of the team.

In a very real way, young people expect their leaders to inspire confidence in the employees’ ability to achieve success and to continuously improve the work culture. Leaders, in a sense, are looked upon for encouragement and motivation. They serve as champions who help the staff to overcome obstacles and move toward attaining common goals.

Trick 7: Leaders must find ways to honor what has always worked in corrections and balance it with the need to change practices that can produce the best results from today’s employees.

Developing the great leaders of tomorrow, starts with combining the tried and true methods of corrections leadership (effective chain of command, strong policy and procedures, consistency in implementation, traditions, et al) with data-supported best practices desired by today’s younger workforce.

Easier said than done, yep! But the future of our agencies depends on leaders being able to skillfully do this. If the field of corrections does not embrace this challenge and realize it can be done, and begin now, there is no amount of money that will stop retention rates from continuing to climb beyond a point where we will be able to run safe facilities. The need is simply too great. There are not enough of the “old heads” around who can continue to work double shifts without days off. As they are aging and looking at retirement dates, there is no relief in sight. Agencies must gear up to address these challenges now, and make some drastic changes, or the workforce potential will decline beyond sustainability.

All Hope is Not Lost

In summary, there is hope that the trend of high turnover can be reversed. It will take a concerted effort on the part of agencies to promote the “right” leaders, and to develop them into a combination of leadership styles that will support the workforce who is being recruited and hired to take the place of those “old dogs.” The quality of our organizations and the future of corrections depends on an evolving leadership approach.

As the saying goes, if you are an old dog and you can’t or won’t try to learn new tricks, perhaps it’s time “to get off of the porch.”


Breevaart, K., Bakker, A., Hetland, J., Demerouti, E., Olsen, O., & Espevik, R. (2014). Daily transactional and transformational leadership and daily employee engagement. Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 87(1), 138 157. doi:10.1111/joop.12041

Jordan, J., Brown, M., Trevino, L., & Finkelstein, S. (2013). Someone to look up to: Executive–follower ethical reasoning and perceptions of ethical leadership. Journal of Management, 39(3), 660-683doi:10.1177/0149206311398136

Ferri-Reed, J. (2015). “Millennializing” the work environment. Journal for Quality & Participation, 37(4), 17-18. Retrieved from http://asq.org/

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Meet the Author

5571Improving Staff Retention: 7 ‘New Tricks’ Us ‘Old Dogs’ in Justice Leadership Must Embrace

Mary Livers

Senior Correctional Advisor

Dr. Livers brings a wealth of experience in the corrections field. She has served in a variety of positions in both men’s and women’s prisons, as well as held agency-wide positions in four states including Arkansas, Maryland, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, where she served as Director of Research and Evaluation, Assistant Warden, Deputy Warden, Director of Classification and Programs, Warden, Deputy Director of Community Corrections, Chief of Staff and Operations, and Associate Director. Dr. Livers served as the 104th President of the ACA, and...