Diversity of thought: a challenge to group think.

There is a phrase doing the rounds in policing. The phrase is ‘diversity of thought.’ I think I first heard Irene Curtis discuss it in one of her Superintendent’s Association speeches. When I heard it, it pulled chords in me straight away. It’s one of those phrases where you say, ‘Yes!’ the minute you hear it. Since then, I’ve used it a lot. Sometimes it is thrown in a blog, sometimes a talk, sometimes it’s in papers I’m writing. More recently, I’ve had cause to start to research some of the policing identity (jargon buster – concepts, beliefs, qualities and expressions), and it has began to point me towards asking some questions about what diversity of thought actually looks like in the policing context.

So, what does it look like?

I think a lot of the discussion is an indirect critique of ‘group think.’ What is group think? It’s where people within organisations or teams share a common identity that is very strong. It results in consensus quickly when decisions need to be made, limits debate (as there is nothing to debate!), and reduces conflict in the workplace. If you think about these things, they actually seem pretty attractive for any CEO.

Groupthink = less conflict, more consensus, speeds up decision making? Sounds pretty good to most leaders!

I think that this is the stuff that causes most of the problems with diversity in the police. As someone who sports a lot of tattoos, the amount of times I hear – this is me being honest here – comments that amount to bigotry around tattoos is mind blowing. A little story:

I was once at Bramshill before it closed, when a senior leader (ACPO) singled me out, walked up to me and said, ‘You will never be a leader in the police. Look at your tattoos. You will have to remove them. There is no way you will make it.‘ The look of disgust on her face was palpable, and it made me feel about an inch tall – for a second or so. I made my excuses and left the conversation. I’m normally happy to have discussions about my tattoos with anyone who asks, and my neck and hands are clear (and will remain clear) in case I need to look smart (for my wife, generally :-D). I wasn’t quite ready to have the conversation that I should have had with that individual.

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So what is happening here? Well, technically I’m being judged on my leadership ability due to what amounts to colouring in on my skin. Yes, I made choices to have that colouring in, but none of it is in any way offensive. They’ve dropped far more barriers in my service as I must have had hundreds of conversations with people young and old about what they mean and why I’ve had them. They’ve actually diffused incidents, and opened up conversations with some youngsters who were pretty difficult to talk with (from a cop perspective).

So what is going on? How can colouring in on my skin bring about such disgust in senior leaders? I know that conversations around tattoos go on up and down this country, with the defensive label of ‘standards.’ It’s like my ability to work suffers because my forearm has a picture of a rose on it??! How can I possibly be suited to leadership if I have a swallow that is visible? Some members of the public may make negative judgements about me because I have them? Possibly, but then we enter the realm of arguing that the police should be the ones visibly promoting the removal of stigma, instead of reinforcing it. It’s estimated that one in five of the UK population has a tattoo, and one in three of those under twenty-five. That’s a pretty big group to be carrying huge preconceptions about, isn’t it?

Now this is a VERY tame example, and I can hear people saying that one person could be an anomaly. Only, they aren’t. I’ve seen these discussions at high levels, and heard immediate consensus from large proportions of those present. “Tattoos are bad. They bring standards down. They don’t look professional [whatever that means?]. How can we stop people having them? It’s a uniform thing.”

Yes, yes it is a uniform thing. It’s a uniformity of prejudice, that represents a particular view from a particular demographic. It’s regressive, and it’s stopping talented people joining the police service. It’s stopping those conversations with young people, it’s stopping some officers being themselves, and the last thing it represents is diversity of anything.

So, this blog is about Diversity of Thought. That last section was about my experience of having tattoos in the police. How do the two meet? They meet in the level of consensus around decisions being made about appearance, without anyone asking very difficult questions that may bring about significant discomfort. How many frontline officers or members of the public are feeding into their force’s tattoo policy? I would bet you some good money that the answer is incredibly low (if any). Yet that policy affects them on a daily basis, and it affects their interaction with each other. If you leave difficult questions like these to a particular demographic or tight knit group, unless that group is an enlightened one, you can bet your bottom dollar that group think will win out.

Some difficult questions would be very welcome here:

  • What do people of my race, age, class and background think?
  • Do people of other races, ages, classes and backgrounds think differently?
  • What does my profession represent to me?
  • What does it represent to others?
  • What would someone who disagrees with our thinking say?
  • Why would someone agree with us?

These are all practical questions that re-frame the debate, and having tried some of these techniques out, they do alter thinking in the room. They also slow discussion down, make decisions slower, and generally introduce some messy conflict that will need managing. Why would any manager want these things?

This is the key question.

Much of this discussion above represents a jump to action. The police are proud of their ability to make quick decisions, and we should celebrate that. Genuinely, the UK police are a shining light in policing around the world. As a group, we need to be proud, acknowledge our heritage, and hold on to amazing things like high trust from our communities and policing by consent. That we, largely, police without bearing arms is nothing short of amazing.

There are however, big changes that we need to make. The debate above is a very small example about what happens if you compartmentalise decision making into a small group of people that largely represent the same demographic. We are all a product of our experiences, so what happens if you joined the police at nineteen, and are twenty plus years in within the same force you joined, interacting with the same people you joined with? The propensity for unconscious group think is pretty crazy. There will be shared assumptions that guide decision making into a particular box, and if you look in the right places, you will see them in action.

In promotion:

  • I wouldn’t have made that decision there. I think you need to consider making it here in the future [I would like you to make decisions like me, please].
  • You didn’t identify that discipline was appropriate in this example [please follow the same disciplinary standards as me].
  • You  need to network more with senior management [we aren’t comfortable with the relationship we have with you, you may represent conflict].
  • You didn’t come across as assertive or confident enough [I’m an extrovert and I need to see you be more extrovert, please].
  • You haven’t been in neighbourhood policing yet [please follow a similar career path to the current version of group think].

In diversity:

  • No visible tattoos, they aren’t professional [you don’t look like the vast majority of other officers so cover yourself up until you do].
  • These teams can’t operate with a supervisor on flexible working [Flexible working is complicated and requires more effort to manage, I don’t like it or want to administrate it. Keep things as they are.].
  • No unnatural colours in your hair [you wouldn’t look like the vast majority of other officers and I (and by proxy, others like me) find blue hair unprofessional].
  • It’s career or having children, it’s a clear choice [pretty self explanatory].

 

There are plenty of other places that these areas of group think pop up in, and don’t get me wrong, it isn’t all bad. Group think can really help in times of stress, and if fast decisions need making without conflict. It also can make for a harmonious senior management team, who pretty much lie on the same page across the piste (mixing my metaphors with aplomb!). I must also say at this point that I have met many open minded senior leaders, who present the exact opposite picture to that discussed above.

So, if group think can be pretty positive, why do we need Diversity of Thought? Well, the key driver is that change is necessary. The workforce changes that have landed in the police’s lap, along with the Equality Act, and a fundamental change in our demand profile are forcing change in many areas of policing. Change and group think don’t gel, unless of course you agree with what the group think tells you. The current group think (some examples given above) is becoming incompatible with many external pressures, and the unsettling results are there for everyone to see. There are fairly universal reactions from many officers towards missing from home enquiries, mental health incidents and dealing with vulnerability. I’m not saying that these are wrong… Instead I am saying that:

 

 

It is likely we are all getting caught up in the thinking of our bubble, and the very thing that we call for from our leaders – Diversity of Thought – is exactly what we should be practising ourselves.

Finally, what I would say about this, is that breaking or challenging group think (even your own) takes conscious effort and practice. I’ve mentioned it in past blogs, but the ability to critically reflect on your own pillars of thought is such a vital skill that it should come before many others that we take for granted. Being in a place of learning is actively uncomfortable, it brings about feelings of uncertainty, feelings of being lost, and feelings of anxiety. I know that many colleagues feel like this at the moment, and being able to explore it, both personally and together with peers, is a luxury ill afforded by time. It’s up to leaders (and I don’t mean just in rank terms) to grasp the nettle and push into these areas of discomfort. It’s where we all grow.

Finishing on an artistic note, here’s a quote from Keats on the ability to use ‘negative capability.’ He describes it in the context of exploring your doubts without resorting to facts or reason. It is your personal ability to reason that you are actively trying to avoid, and this is really, really hard. Especially in a profession so wedded to quick judgement and strong uniformity of belief and assumption.

 

 

Judgement: Tattoo’s are bad, they are unprofessional and paint a negative view of the service.

Negative capability: Is that my personal reason talking? Is that actually true? Would others agree? What if I had tattoos? What if my son/daughter had tattoos? etc.

Diversity of thought, at a pretty fundamental level, represents an individual recognising that their thought is not the only thought, and that other people’s thought holds equal value to theirs. For any public service that seeks to hold some function that is representative, it’s essential.

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2 thoughts on “Diversity of thought: a challenge to group think.

  1. In my service I have seen Diversity praised – once it became fashionable and politically correct too. Diversity MUST contain an element of dissent from the norm. Sadly the police service became less tolerant of dissent.

    The much criticised “canteen culture”, which I think a certain outsider thought was THE dominant influence, has long since disappeared. Other influences declined too, such as freemasonry and active sports. “Canteen culture” I think had a “bottom up” role.

    Now we hear senior police officers refer to the need to overcome unconscious bias. Is that another tool to stifle dissent?

    The culture has changed a style of “top down”, requiring less discretion and more direction. Which oddly enough is in direct conflict with the much praised traditional model of British policing – not that the “top” notice that!

    Like

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