Breaches, breaches everywhere…

This blog is about the wider social issues affecting the cops at the moment. It explores the relationship between officers and the College of Policing, and speculates on the relationships now formed via interactions between them over recent preceding years. As usual, I will be discussing research evidence, but I’m hoping that it is still readable and that it gives us some frameworks through which to discuss what is going on.

What is a Psychological Contract?

Everyone uses contracts every day. They are usually tangible, but in many cases you don’t even realise it’s there. When you go into a shop and pick up a mars bar, there are rules governing what happens when you take the mars bar out of the shop – not least of which is the need to pay for it! These contracts are protected by law, and they run through our society from top to bottom. There are lots of other rules that we live by every day, but we often don’t think about them.

A Psychological Contract is the same, but it isn’t governed by tangible rules, it deals with expectations. To give readers a quote that may help:

‘…a series of mutual obligations of which parties to the relationship may not themselves be dimly aware but which nonetheless govern their relationship to each other.’ (Levinson, 1962)

So the rules aren’t written down, we can’t see them, and in many cases we are unaware they are there. If I was to give an example of these, I would say that they are pretty individual and different to everyone, so it is quite difficult. If we put it into a cop context, it would be like discussing your relationship between yourself and your supervision. If you work really hard and constantly work your socks off, you expect your line supervision to support your leave requests. This would be an unwritten rule, and dependent on your relationships obviously, but nonetheless that expectation may develop.

The issue with psychological contracts, is that because they are unwritten and you can’t see them, they develop differently. The line supervision may believe in total fairness when it comes to leave allocation, no matter how hard you work, so although you develop an expectation where you expect reciprocal support if you work really hard, there’s no guarantee that this will be met. This is when something called ‘reciprocity’ kicks in. In this example it would look like this:

Cop works hard –> Cop expects backing for leave –> supervisor sees them working hard, gives them praise –> Cop thinks praise a signal for backing –> cop asks for leave –> supervisor knocks leave back because they see it as unfair to the rest of the team –> cop believes that their hard work isn’t being supported and sees less value in working so hard –>  supervisor sees withdrawal of effort and can’t understand why it’s happening.

Reciprocity is when someone with a psychological contract reciprocates a perceived breach of contract – so basically something happens that doesn’t meet their expectations, so they react accordingly. In the above example, it is a withdrawal of effort, because they aren’t receiving the backing they expect.

The truth is that the above example could actually be sorted out with a quick conversation.

“What’s going on, you seem to have lost a little motivation? Is something bothering you?”

“Well, it has actually as I couldn’t get leave last week and I missed my best friend’s wedding.”

“Oh, I didn’t think it was that important, you should have said.”

“You didn’t know?”

“I didn’t, sorry. I like to make sure we meet the minimum turn out for shift and your request took us below. I didn’t want to leave the rest of the team short and I’m really fair with how I process leave. I’m really sorry, it won’t happen again. Would you mind letting me know in the future if it’s important, as you are a brilliant cop and I want to look after you.”

This all looks fluffy, but what is actually going on is an exchange of expectations. They are talking to each other and defining how to meet each other’s needs. At the end of this conversation, both leave with a clearer idea of how the relationship works and how things can be managed better in the future. As many will know, conversations like this often don’t happen for many reasons. The cop won’t ask as they feel the solution was imposed by hierarchy and many bosses don’t like being questioned. If the question does happen, the answer is usually: “Because I followed policy. It’s fairer that way.”

I could talk about how we can improve this all day, and a great example would be for that leave request to be put to the team.

“Guys, XXXXX needs leave next week for his best friend’s wedding. It takes us below. What do you think?”

“We’re OK with that and can cope.” Or, “I know YYYY from Neighbourhoods can cover.” Or, “It’s Saturday night, can we deviate one from lates?”

Again, this example looks simple, but you are removing decision making from hierarchy and that can be quite against the established culture. It also takes more effort, and when you have a lot of ‘important’ leave requests it can become impractical. The truth is that a simple request can create big issues and start off a chain of events that stops people working for the organisation. Managing the expectations is a complicated job, and supervisors need to put some real effort into finding out what their staff expect from them and vice versa. When you get it right, it’s awesome. When there are clashes, it can break people.

So what does any of this have to do with the College of Policing?
I may have digressed slightly, but I’m hoping you’re with me 
If I were to ask a frontline cop what the College of Policing is for, the answer is usually: “No idea.” Because the word ‘College’ is in there, many assume it is an accrediting body for academia (not true). Many officers have also seen recent changes that are legacies of Home Office intervention, and because they are being implemented via the College, there is an implicit association with the Conservative Government, and by proxy, Tom Winsor and the Winsor reforms.

Let’s have a look at the potential state of the psychological contract with the College of Policing for a frontline officer:


Above the iceberg you have the tangible contract of work and pay. Even this has been recently affected and changed, so the visible top may have some damage. But look at what is beneath the surface of the water… There have been significant changes announced to training and development, recognition, qualifications, status, and importantly pensions. What is the reciprocal effect of these changes to tacit expectations? Look at the left side of the iceberg. Loyalty, commitment, time/hours, effort/ideas, the driving of change, and tolerance are all on that list.

If we look at Twitter over the last week, we have seen a significant uplift in communications by the College. This means an increase in volume of data around the changes, but does it really deal with the expectations of officers? I have seen so many examples of tweets where people ask:

“Isn’t the College meant to be there for officers?”

“What happened to our input?”
“I don’t feel consulted.”

“The College is just an arm of the Home Office.”

Now, I’m not saying that Twitter is the panacea of engagement, but it offers important insights into the psychological contracts of Officers with regards to the College. The above examples tell us:

“Isn’t the College meant to be there for officers?” – I expect the College to represent officers and I don’t feel that it is at the minute.

“What happened to our input?” – I expect to be able to input into policy making and I have no idea how to do that. I don’t feel it has happened.

“I don’t feel consulted.” – If consultation has taken place, it certainly hasn’t included me, and I wanted it to.

“The College is just an arm of the Home Office.” – I don’t think that the College represents me.
These are all Psychological Contract breaches, and if we accept that the theory is robust and pretty much does what it says on the tin, then there will be reciprocity. What will this reciprocity look like? It is likely to be intolerance, disengagement, a lack of trust, reduced loyalty (if there is any) and a lack of motivation to contribute ideas. In short, the landscape is not healthy.

Now the College is in a tough place. It does want to be there for officers, but it is also answerable to the Home Office. I would like to think (in a Utopia!) that the College will eventually be wholly owned by its members, and any changes will come as a result of bottom up feedback from its membership. To be fair, having worked on the leadership review, I did a huge amount of consultation with officers and staff, as well as external organisations. But if you look at the policing family, I would have been lucky to interact with 1% over the course of a year.
Using the methods that we have historically used, how can consultations of 1% lead to acceptance? I imagine that will be very hard. I also think that perceived breaches will continue, especially as further reform (on the right of the iceberg) lands. As these breaches continue, it is highly likely that reciprocity will too, and officers will continue to be disengaged and feel uninvolved. How do we rectify and deal with this?
Well, as given in the conversation above, understanding the expectations of both parties is key. This is a two-way relationship where both sides pro-actively engage in order to find out what each expect from each other. Right now, I think officers are confused as to who the College represents, what its agenda is, and how consultations with officers take place. Engagement therefore, may actually begin with some clarification on both sides, and this can be done in full view and publicised on social media. The more visible this communication, the less likely it is that ambiguity will exist, and ambiguity just leads to lots of breaches.
In the current climate, how can both begin to repair the relationship?

The truth may lie in an exploration of methods; as current methods are clearly not working. The forthcoming membership platform will help, as it is a reason for officers to interact with the College, but what it does not do is clear the mess of differing expectations that currently populate the divide. I for one would love to hear what Officers want from their professional body, and whilst the new layers of reform land over the coming years, that can form a program of work that begins to develop some positive relationships.

One thing I would wish to make clear, is that a professional body is not a Union. It exists to further the development of the Profession. This means that changes will not always be popular. I think that many officers would accept that far more readily, if there was a sufficient understanding and trust around both officer’s and the College’s expectations. Leaving this gap, without filling it pro-actively and positively, will compound breaches and drive wedges between the parties.

I think these last few days have been an indication that things are changing and new methods are being explored, but there is a lot of catching up to do in order to garner the support of an increasingly disenfranchised frontline. We really need that conversation to take place:

“What’s going on, you seem to have lost a little motivation? Is something bothering you..?”


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