Looking up and looking down. Police promotion and cultural influencers…

Writing about police promotion is such a dangerous pastime. It is possible for readers to think that you are discussing the quality of those promoted, or be personally criticising those that work within the police promotion system. Neither of these is true. To use a well known quote from the best TV series ever (The Wire), ‘It’s all in the game.’ If you want to be promoted it stands to reason that you play the game that is requested of you, by those that will ultimately decide whether you are promoted or not. There are lots of ways to look at this, but the fact that this phenomena exists tells us nothing about the people that manage it successfully.

You will often hear – both on the parade room floor and on Twitter – “They are all the same,” “They take the corporate pill and change,” “They used to be one of us, but now they want promotion they are becoming one of them.” This is normally associated with lashings of the rumour mill around who plays golf with who, and speculation on Masonic membership etc. What is the story that lies behind these mutterings? What is happening here? Why is there an ‘us and them’ dialogue that requires change in behaviour for the candidates to be promoted? What does this change look like in people and why is it happening?

I have researched around this extensively, reading from many different walks of life. But, this learning is supplemented by real life experiences and many discussions with some pretty experienced people. If there is a problem here, what does it actually look like?

The Corporate Pill.

Hearing this phrase regularly, I didn’t give it much thought. It’s normally accompanied by, “It’s what you have to do,” or similar. Is there a change that is required between team member and team supervisor? Why is it described in this way?

I’m going to write this as if I was the example for illustration purposes, but what follows isn’t a ‘real life’ example, so to speak.

Well, of course there is a change. Moving from someone who does the daily work, to someone who leads whilst doing it requires a change in behaviour. That’s fair. There’s new responsibility attached to the role, and your team are now your charges. In my opinion, it is your sole job to make their life easier. As a leader, you work harder so they don’t have to. It’s not about putting layers of bureaucracy or tick boxes in their way, it’s about removing them so that they can do their job much easier. Making your team happier brings the team together and they are proven to work harder, the happier they get. Officers joined the police to help people, work hard, and go home safe, if you enable that, then as first line supervisor I reckon you are hitting it about right. Oh, and buying cakes. Very important.

But wait, I would like to lead like this, but would my bosses want the same thing? I want to look down and focus my efforts on my team, what if my bosses don’t agree? What if my bosses want numbers? What if they see looking after the troops as a fad? What if their career is their priority, and me spending my time looking down at the troops isn’t helping? What if my style of leadership doesn’t gel with theirs?

Well, it’s simple. If I wish to progress, I have to swallow the pill, and give the bosses what they want. If I forego what I want to do, in favour of what they want from me, I am far more likely to get promoted. If I deliver what the bosses want, and make myself more visible to them, then I’m assisting my own chances of promotion. What is happening here? Well, I am starting to look up…

The problem is, you only have so much time in the day. So when I start looking up, one of two things happens… I am less able to look down as much as I would like, so my support for my own team suffers, or I put in extra time to do both. If I put the extra hours in, it’s possible to get the bits done for the bosses, but also really support my team. Well it is, but not if you want a life outside of policing. If you want a family, and a home life, and to protect your fitness and wellbeing, then you simply can’t do both. So what many really good supervisors do, is carry on looking after their team and just forget about promotion. That pill is too bitter to swallow and the price is too high.

But there are others who will really look up. It’s here that the issues with cop culture start to rear their heads. You can only get so much visibility in the cops because of the hierarchical nature of the organisation, so looking up and ‘delivering’ can be tough. It requires a lot of effort, and as such the looking down can really suffer. These are the people that receive the label ‘Careerist’ as most of their focus is on securing the support for the next rank or promotion.

The issue here however, is not the people involved in this practice, it’s the culture and system that supports it. If culturally the police require visibility at the upper ranks for promotion, and you hear feedback such as, “We don’t know you up here. You need to get yourself known.” Then problems are afoot, because the value of your career lies in looking up. If we were to look at that interaction through the eyes of values based promotion, then two things happen:

1) Those people who serve their bosses best get promoted as they are most visible and accessible to them through looking up.
2) Those people with the strongest values around supporting their staff are overlooked because they spend too much time looking down.

So what is really happening here? We can see the balance issue around what is required of candidates. It’s clear, and there are issues around team support etc. But there is an underlying problem, and one which really needs addressing. The priorities of the people selecting for promotion, automatically exclude a large cadre of great leaders who are really working hard for their staff. I don’t need to discuss what this may do to the talent pool’s diversity… Needless to say, there is a group of great and valuable talent, with strong ethical values, who may be simply unknown to senior members of staff. The hierarchical culture creates the distance that makes them invisible, the difference in value placed on looking up makes them inaccessible, and them wanting some semblance of home life makes them appear uncommitted.

How do we find this group of people? It’s really simple, we go looking.

To solve a problem, you can’t use the same thinking that you used when it was created. We can’t expect hierarchy to support a new kind of candidate. The culture won’t let that happen. So, how do we step outside of the current structure and make it work? Well, there are many different ways to look at it, but the simplest is to stop placing value on those that continually make themselves most visible to senior mgmt, and go looking for those that you can’t see… There’s latent, good quality leadership going on day-in, day-out, but because their values don’t sit well with looking up, many bosses won’t even know they are there. When have the police ever practiced pro-active talent mgmt? It happens very rarely, it’s always reactive. The candidate always strives and pushes, and puts themselves forwards for projects, and does extra over and above. The important question isn’t how much work they are doing, it’s how is that work distributed? Is the candidate playing the game, at the cost of looking down, because if they are it may be worth questioning their attitude towards their team. And as usual, the more important question isn’t around the individual, it’s around whether the organisation is demanding it from them and enabling that switch in values from a team based focus, to a focus on looking up. If the culture wants it/demands it, ambitious candidates will always deliver it.

To sum up, the culture is creating an environment where looking up has always held great value for career progression. How much value for the public or the staff is there in that decision? How can that value be tipped on its head? How can we find the shut-down talent? Is it about values realignment? If it is, what does that look like and how do we create a system that helps with this? Is it time to find the balance between those that work hard for their team, and those that have the potential to work at higher levels in the organisation? Why do we always demand extra work that creates rifts in home life from the candidates? Why can’t the organisation and the Mgmt. put some real effort into speaking with the staff and finding this latent talent? Where are the candidates that care so much about looking down, that they are simply invisible?

All very valid questions…

Are you looking down, or up?


3 thoughts on “Looking up and looking down. Police promotion and cultural influencers…

  1. I’m having to print this and get my highlighter pen out, there is so much useful information!

    I have recently had to start looking up to get noticed (PC to Sgt). Within a few days someone said Id changed. That hurt so I made a concious effort to ensure the real me was still present. This may have been a genuine observation or it may have been a biased opinion based on dislike of the promotion process. Either way what I had to go back to was value based policing and decision making because whatever I had to do looking up or down, this was the foundation of who and what I was.

    (Can I use this on my sgts app?) 😉


  2. I enjoyed reading your blog and at the risk of involving myself in what you refer to as the dangerous activity of writing on the subject of police promotion it inspired me to this reply!

    Yes, it can be very difficult for those who aspire to promotion to strike the correct balance between what you interestingly describe as ‘looking up’ and ‘looking down’. I agree many officers with potential to progress – certainly to Sgt and Inspector rank – are sometimes affected by a combination of circumstances (some of which you allude to) that can hold them back. It is still (arguably) very much a case of every man and woman ‘looking out’ for themselves when it comes to promotion..

    Of course, it is possible to strike a balance between looking up and looking down, lots of individuals still do and looking in both directions will always feature when positioning for a potential promotion. However I do agree MUCH more could be done by forces in terms of encouraging, developing and supporting those with potential because the right support at the right time can make a significant difference to individual mindset and subsequent approach. Ultimately though, each individual needs to ‘drive’ their own career navigating ‘moving goalposts’ (the game!), organisational rules, criteria, barriers, conditions.…and so a sense of ‘looking forward’ is also important.

    As a coach/mentor (www.ranksuccess.co.uk) currently supporting officer’s aspirations for promotion against the national backdrop of reducing vacancies and increasing competition, my role is to build awareness, responsibility and self belief. From numerous initial discussions with potential promotion candidates on their aspirations, it is often the case that there is a lack of focus around looking forward.

    Making a plan and identifying ‘gaps’ in knowledge is crucial to effective preparation for a promotion process, to building professional awareness and to enhancing personal confidence. It is not unusual to find a lack of meaningful advance preparation (being match fit ready for selection). Many who do prepare – typically confine their activity to a bout of frantic activity over a few weeks once a force promotion selection process is advertised. This is not enough to improve chances of success.

    Having a draft application ready (with examples against the relevant competence framework) and knowing the role of Sergeant/Inspector are just two useful things to have prepared.

    The following is a short extract from an American policing article ‘The Great Sergeant’ written in 1996 by Edward Werder. (Here’s a link to the full article: http://www.neiassociates.org/the-great-sergeant/) which describes the role and challenges facing first line supervisors.

    It is certainly one of the best articles I have read and a good orientation for would be supervisors many of whom (in my experience) have significant difficulty in discussing or describing the different dimensions of the role they aim to be promoted in. There is little doubt that this is because they are too busy doing it!… but it aids confidence to know it, certainly in interview.

    The article, as with your own excellent blog encourages and informs thinking and discussion on this subject and the functions of effective supervision.

    ““The primary loyalty of a Sergeant is to the organisation…the secondary loyalty of the Sergeant is to those under their command. Law enforcement executives must make it clear the sergeant is part of the management team. It is not a position that should foster a “them versus us” scenario in the organisation. New sergeants may have difficulty with this concept. Having just been promoted from the ranks, it is only natural to want to continue to be one of the troops. However, great teachers and leaders know that it is best to have a distance between the supervisor and those they supervise. So with great reluctance, newly appointed sergeants must gradually and diplomatically create an appropriate distance between themselves and those they supervise. People on the department will say you have changed, become “uppity,” or have forgotten from where you came. They likely may be kidding, but you will take it seriously and have second thoughts about your primary loyalties. Forget it! You are different. You have changed. It is your responsibility to support management. You cannot have it both ways. This is not an easy or pleasant task, but the most effective leaders stand appropriately apart from those they supervise. This is not because they wish to dominate them, but because they wish to help them”

    Some of the terminology may be ‘out of sync’ today which you can decide (e.g. subordinates), but it is a helpful article, one that ‘provokes’ thinking especially around looking up and looking down.

    Kind regards

    Steve Cooper


    1. I really like the discussion around looking forward and I think the future lies in good coaching leadership and CPD. The important thing in an organisation like the police is that there is organisational currency in that particular activity. If you are continually held back despite filling your gaps proactively and conducting extra learning, then there’s something missing and that can be incredibly frustrating. I know that coaching can fill that gap, but there still needs to be recognition of the huge progress that can come from creating diverse teams. Where conformity is demanded, all the development in the world will be of no value towards professional progression if the candidate represents a different world view.

      Others have commented on the simplicity of the up/down example, and it is too simplistic. I was kind of hoping to provide a frame of reference for discussion and I think that worked… A little anyway! I think you make the point very well with the ‘forward’ example, but others have mentioned looking across, and being aware of external influence too. All really good points!

      I really liked the Sgt’s article, and you’re right, that separation is there. Cultivating that separation into something that is healthy is tough, but that’s all part of the journey in my humble opinion. Again, I think a good supportive coach can really help with this move.

      Thank you so much for your contribution and adding to the discussion. I really appreciate it 🙂


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