This Wednesday we held a discussion on leadership in policing. The questions that were posed were as follows:
Leadership is a strange thing.
When I first joined twitter, I got caught up in the endless stream of quotes that are shared liberally by leadership gurus and coaches on there. It’s populated by short collections of sentences that are meant to make leadership easier to understand, but are often contradictory. A great example of this is the current debate (often unseen) between followership and empowerment. On one side, leaders are people that inspire people to follow them where they are going, provide a vision, inspiration and support, and on another, leaders don’t set the way at all, they support others to find it. This clash is often not even discussed, but there are a hundred quotes on either side that do the rounds every day, with people taking inspiration from them constantly.
The truth of course, is that leadership is a lot more complicated than ‘showing the way,’ or becoming a ‘lion’ to lead the ‘sheep’ It’s what is often called ‘negotiated.’ What does this mean? Good question.
When a leader tells someone to do something, there is a process that then takes place in that person’s head. It’s usually unconscious, but contains things like:
• Do I want to do that thing?
• Am I supposed to do that thing?
• Is it legal to do that thing?
• Have I got what I need to do that thing?
• Do I feel capable of doing that thing?
• Do I want to do that thing for them?
• What are the consequences of me not doing it?
In some cases, there’s very little negotiation because the relationship with the leader is just too poor, and some of these questions take precedence over others. For instance, ‘What are the consequences of me not doing it?’ will often override, ‘Do I want to do it?’
In the Police context there’s a lot of this going on under the *corporate jargon alert* banner of ‘discretionary effort.’ Discretionary effort (for me) is all about changing the dynamic of this conversation going on in people’s heads.
Researchers will discuss the amount of discretion afforded to police prior to them making decisions in work based situations. The position of Constable is a unique one, because they often hold the power to choose whether they enact particular disposals eg. give a ticket to someone speeding. This isn’t the same as in other jobs, where refusing to provide something is technically a disciplinary offence automatically. Officers can – and do – refuse to make arrests where they believe it is inappropriate, thus complicating the notion of leadership within the police context even further.
On a personal note, the switch from ‘What are the consequences of me not doing it?’ as the main driver of activity, to, ‘I want to do it,’ is one of the key functions of leadership, and it can come about over any number of scenarios.
The important take home about thinking about leadership in this way, is that the person being ‘led’ has as much (if not more) control over any action’s success, than the leader. Leadership is as much about the people being led, as it is about those doing the leading. Making that responsibility conscious is really important, because good leaders can be ruined by dysfunctional teams, and great teams can be ruined by dysfunctional leaders.
Leadership is a relationship, it’s not a list of behaviours.
External context also has a huge part to play in policing. There are numerous people that the police actually serve. Layering in the Code of Ethics, and understanding that we are there ultimately for the public, whilst delivering for the Home Office as a function of democracy, whilst staying accountable to local communities and being pro-active in safeguarding the vulnerable, is no small ask. It may be the case that delivering a function requested by the people due to issues with the system elsewhere (mental health) may be vastly unpalatable to the workforce. This clash is also where leadership lies, and it can again exist on a spectrum of respecting the workforce’s wishes and pushing back against the requests for demand, right through to listening to the calls and delivering what the public is asking of us.
This is part of a much wider ‘negotiation’ between the public and the police, and it is never as simple as listening to one stakeholder (such as your workforce in isolation) and doing what they request. The future of this ‘negotiation’ is likely to be messy, partisan and full of politics – whether we as officers like it to be, or not.
So, this blog was about starting to layer in some of the complications that affect police leadership at the moment, yet there are changes that are tabled that are to land shortly. This blog has hopefully set the scene for a conversation on @WeCops that sits within the context of the relationships described above…
1) Will the reduction in ranks in policing be positive or negative? Why?
2) How can the voices of officers be heard better by leaders in the police service?
3) There are competing demands for police attendance at present, what role does leadership have in resolving these issues?
Question one is about affecting the physical distance between the top and the bottom of the organisation. Will this help or hinder the relationships that leaders and those being led must navigate?
Question two is about leaders entering into a conversation with those being led. What could help to improve the current situation? This is about developing the ‘negotiation’.
Question three is about what happens when multiple stakeholders in the leadership relationship clash. Who takes precedence and how do we navigate the issues that may arise?
Wednesday the 9th at 21.00. See you there @WeCops
I’m beginning to do some heavy reading about the way that we interact and ‘fit in’ with each other as the basis for my next stint of study. Having been a police officer for quite a while now, questions of how I fit into the organisation have persisted since I first joined. They are still there, and the questions around what ‘fit’ means, and what it does and doesn’t do, to those who may or may not ‘fit’ has driven this personal area of research for me. This is just me sharing some thoughts on the changes in perception of policing off the back of my reading.
My last blog here discusses the fact that the service may be selecting new recruits that have active exposure to the organisation. So, the bulk of the recruits come from specials, PCSO’s, staff and people who already personally know police officers. The research already done into this suggests that a lot of what is going on is just information sharing between people who know each other, but this information holds value in the recruitment processes, and in turn the use of this information then provides overly robust competition for those without it.
So… an example. Many people in my family for their view about policing by what is portrayed on television and online. They are always happy to discuss the latest episode of ‘Interceptors’, and are often quite disappointed when I mention that fact that that work represents a very small part of policing. The ‘cops and robbers’ story is one that as a society we know well. Films, TV, books and online communities discuss the chasing and catching of bad guys like it’s the holy grail of policing, indeed, a lot of officers feel that way too.
When I speak with my family, I often break this perception, and discuss how the work actually is. It isn’t like those programs for most of the time. In fact, most of the time its quite tough emotionally. But those 24 hour shifts have their benefits and it’s not as scary as people think, and you always have back up close by and an emergency button, and you’re one big team and you look after each other… this conversation is important, because it breaks their preconceptions about the job, and ultimately it informs on whether they would ever see it as a potential career. Without me having this discussion, it’s all about fast cars, fighting, and kicking doors in.
The research tells us that a lot of police work is actually very boring and party to high levels of emotional labour. What does this mean? It means that for every bad guy that gets caught, there are hours of generally pointless patrol/graft and lots of time spent dealing with upset victims of crime and administering process. That 5% that you see on TV, that reinforces and develops a lot of the police ‘story’, the cops and robbers, the heroes and villains, the romantic saviour and macho fairytale warriors… all of that is woven into the fabric of society, and people believe it to be true.
This cops and robbers theme is apparent within policing. Commendations go to people fighting with violent and unpredictable people, people risking their lives, and those who deal with horrific calamities. All of these people, are of course especially deserving. What you rarely see, is the reward for exceptional empathy with a traumatised victim, a lengthy and protracted partnership initiative, or the dogged pursuance of that case that everyone thought was dead. The balance is out. The vast majority of very difficult emotional work is under valued and under rewarded, whilst the slight minority of bravery based incidents receive worthy plaudits.
Now, I shall repeat, as often is the case when these blogs are read, someone caught up firmly in the cops and robbers story will say this is about belittling bravery or some other such nonsense. I’m not decrying what we do, I’m decrying what we don’t do.
The future of policing is not policing as we know it. The fairytale version of crime is diminishing, along with the crime types that propagate it. More exposure was given to projects/comments about burglary in the media this last week than the rise of modern slavery and hate crime. We like what we know, and we know cops and robbers. Crime is becoming more complex, the emotional labour for officers is rising, and people who are sold on the story of catching bad guys and keeping people safe see the rising tide of mental health incidents, social problems, and complexity approaching. It’s not comfortable.
So what about cultural fit? The service has to begin asking itself if its image reflects its future demand. Are people joining the service ready for the content of the work that they will be facing? How are we changing what we do to meet these changing needs? What are we doing to build a ‘new story’ about policing? Where in the media is the team following a community officer as they work through the very difficult social problems that they deal with? Where is the story of broken police officers caught under high emotional strain, and receiving amazing support from the organisations where they work? Where is the story of accepting new skills and backgrounds into the service without constant references back to a time when we were hiding in back alleys and catching people carrying swag bags? Where are the stories about supporting and developing and empowering the vulnerable?
I know that people don’t like change. Right now we are in the middle of a seismic period of it. Austerity has ripped capacity away to the brink of reactive capability. Our terms are creaking across the service, from back office to frontline blue light response. One thing hasn’t changed though, and that is the story that accompanies policing. There’s a big question here around cultural fit… what does and did that ‘fit’ look like? How has it been propagated? What amazing things did it bring to our workforce?
But with changing demand looming (sorry, it’s not looming, it’s here), what would a change in ‘fit’ look like? What would it require? How will people wedded to the story of cops and robbers face that impending change? How do we change the perception of those attracted to or who are joining the service now? How do we have that conversation as a profession? How would we select for a new ‘fit’? Do we need one?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. I just know that the present service is creaking, whilst in many cases firmly wedded to a demand profile that is changing rapidly.
Is the answer that there is no ‘fit’ anymore? Or is it that there is a new one being developed? Whatever the answer to these questions, the police identity is in turmoil and settling upon a direction (whatever that may be) will require huge cultural shift efforts from forces up and down the country. This is against the backdrop of hugely reduced capacity, creating stress and rising threats to officers’ mental health.
Whether cops and robbers, or protectors and guardians, the future predicts an identity conflict. Whatever the eventual answer, the journey through that conflict represents a huge challenge…
I’ve been quite worried about posting this, as I watch as other good people on Twitter take abuse and nastiness for no other reason than they represent something different. I’ve been through it, and I pretty much ration my time on here because it’s not worth the angst. This stuff is important though, and it scales up from the smallest processes, right into organisational behaviours. The reason that it is controversial, is that the shop being closed is a pretty comfy way of operating. There’s less conflict, people maintain existing strong familial and friendship based relationships, and we always do what we’ve always done.
This stuff needs discussion, because it lifts the lid on some of the micro interactions that shape the service. It illustrates some of the need for change, and it also prys open the lid on all the speculative conversations about representation in the cops.
Before I start, this blog rests on the assumption that increasing diversity in policing is something worth achieving. I wholly believe this, but the reasons for that belief probably don’t stack up with the ‘accepted’ reasons. Chasing particular strands of diversity to reach targets that have little meaning is counter productive (in my eyes). Encouraging difference as a means to challenge group think and bring about dissent and change? That’s my bag right there.
This research relied on some theory that was around in the 1970’s. The studies were on the labour markets of professional, technical and managerial jobs, they essentially studied how people got into those areas of work and why. Mark Granovetter was one of the pioneers in this area, and his research showed that people got work in these areas via knowing someone who worked within them already. He makes a distinction between ‘Strong Ties’ with the profession in question (family etc.) prior to joining, and ‘Weak Ties’ in the form of friends and acquaintances. He found that in those particular areas of work, friends and acquaintances represented the ties that got people jobs. In other words, organisations often recruited through personal connections with people that already worked there.
I took this method of research, and used it to analyse the last period of recruitment in my Constabulary. Just under half of the people (about 1000) who applied filled in the survey, and this means that it’s pretty good to generate some conclusions from. The results showed very clearly that the Theory of Weak Ties from Granovetter transferred over into policing very well, with Ties proving very significant in the success of candidates.
In total, only 8% of successful candidates had no prior ties with policing. The testing of the stats showed that the difference between having at least one tie, and having none was highly significant. For the remaining number of candidates, the below was found to be the case:
The orange bars are the successful candidates, and you can see the difference in proportion between those that applied, and those that were successful by looking at the differences between the blue and the orange bars. The survey proved that Weak Ties were very significant in police recruitment.
In other words, if you know a cop socially, you’re far more likely to be successful during the recruitment process.
I don’t want to get into discussing the technical aspects of the research as this is a blog and is meant to be readable for everyone. For this reason I’ve left out some important detail that researchers may want to ask questions about (happy to be contacted if so).
What are the implications of this research? It all looks a little abstract doesn’t it? Well in reality it raises some very important questions about the profession. Are current cops more likely to socialise with each other? I would look at previous research on culture and guess that that is the case for a large number of reasons. This will mean that they will have quite a close circle of friends and acquaintances, and in turn this means that cops mix in circles often populated by those in the same social strata.
This makes sense to me. I can’t associate with any one who commits crime, including the taking of drugs, I struggle to interact with people who don’t work my shifts, and there’s a peculiar pessimism that follows cops around wherever they go. Cops are often comfy with very strong childhood friends, or people that they meet through work (this is my experience talking, not my research – yet). If we take the ‘social isolation’ evidenced in other cultural studies, it suggests that the ties that cops build, may not actually be very diverse themselves.
The science also tells us that your close friends, often have the same close friends, and they lack what are called ‘bridging ties.’ These are ties that allow you to access another area of life experience, like those in very different jobs or communities. These bridging ties are very important to job hunters, and the research above tells us that they are important for the police.
What does this research lead me to think?
This research leads me to think that the police suffer from something called ‘ethno centrism,’ fancy words for the ethnicity of your employees, passing information to people of the same/similar ethnicity, which in turn holds value in recruitment processes. Examples of this would be a serving officer having a conversation about the assessment center with a prospective candidate, or passing information about the current priorities of a particular force to a candidate. This information holds value, and it allows prospective candidates to prepare far more rigorously.
As someone who has conducted recruitment interviews, you can spot the person with officer contacts immediately, they are savvy on the new areas being discussed in the force and use the right structure for answering the questions etc.. The various coaching companies that offer advice to prospective candidates take advantage of this benefit that particular information brings, and that is then accessed by candidates too – usually off the back of advice given by a current serving officer who has used them themselves.
This is all very fancy Gareth, but what does all this mean?
There are some who would say, ‘It makes sense for someone to get all the right information about a job before applying, the advantage is a result of their hard work.’ This is to some extent true, but the big question remains: ‘Does everyone applying have equal access to that information?’ If the answer is no, then we have a system that relies on current ties with police officers to select its recruits… and I would suggest that this is why there has been no step change in diverse recruitment for many years.
Of course, this isn’t the only answer to the issues faced, there remains a huge list of issues that also need research, but the knock on effects of the above results could be very damaging, and create questions within communities as they are disadvantaged unconsciously by the current recruitment system.
What can we do about it?
This is a good question. As a researcher, the first answer is ‘more research.’ I am currently looking at exactly what kind of information is passed, and why does it make the difference that it does within recruitment. There are however two things that could take place to tackle this:
- The recruitment system within forces is changed to prevent the passage of this information holding the value that it does for prospective candidates.
- The information that holds value is given to everyone at the point of application.
Both of these solutions do of course require the information that is within the forthcoming research to be wholly effective, but steps can be made right now that are practical and relatively easy…
- Questions that measure current knowledge of force priorities that are not competency based should be reconsidered, as the likelihood is that they measure access to information and not any sort of personal quality.
- Strict ‘policisms’ and jargon should be removed from all internal application processes.
- Increased use of psychometrics and evidence based situational judgement tests should be considered to replace application forms.
- Interview questions should be non-police scenario based.
- The selectors of recruits should be thoroughly trained in unconscious bias and recruitment and selection – and this is time dependent, if the training was 15 years ago, it really needs looking at.
The above suggestions are not exhaustive and can easily be built upon, because underlying this research is an internal bias that we don’t know is there, that we can’t see, and that we are convinced is objective and fair. The research shows that this bias is present, but how we choose to then deal with this information is wholly within our control.
Is policing a closed shop? In this example, 8% of candidates would illustrate that the door is slightly open. The question that now needs answering, is how much more do we need that door to open to prepare us for the future?
I would suggest it is a little more than 8%.
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.
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.
- 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].
- 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.
There’s quite a bit of research in this blog, but it’s not cited. If you want references or want to search for the sources of the data, drop me a line and I will do my best to find them for you. As usual, there’s quite a bit of culture stuff in here, but it wouldn’t be one of my blogs without that 🙂
I started working on Leadership specifically on the College of Police Leadership Review. Prior to that I studied it at Warwick for two years, and I’m back into studying it now. It’s a complex subject, and usually unfairly reduced to soundbites and catchphrases that people throw around with abandon. Classics like:
“Many hands make light work.”
Go hand in hand with:
“Too many cooks spoil the broth.”
It doesn’t take rocket science to realise that these clash quite significantly. This is true of much of the leadership literature. You can find books about keeping ‘grip and control,’ and place them directly across from books by leadership consultants/gurus like Simon Sinek. Sinek will talk about empowerment, and finding meaning, whereas the grip and control gurus will talk about managing process and keeping tight audit.
This clash makes the whole area of study contradictory, and there are few studies that actually begin to discuss how complicated the area of leadership actually is. When you dig underneath the myriad of discussions about leadership ‘styles,’ you realise that they are collections of lists of behaviours. These behaviours have been found to hold value when researched in particular contexts, but we don’t actually know if it was the context that made them successful, or the behaviours themselves…
Let me give you an example.
An organisation calls the researchers in because the staff survey says that working in that company at that time is pretty awful. They may like the work, but they don’t like the leaders, and they certainly don’t like the environment and culture. Unsurprisingly, a particular set of behaviours is absent, and the workplace needs them to begin to function in a balanced way. So… a really heavy command and control culture, is likely to need empowerment and far more communication up and down. The company needs them, because there has been a culture in place for some time, and that culture has self propagated behaviours in order to function in a particular way.
This happened with policing during the performance era. Performance became the by-word for success, and if you delivered performance you were held to be a ‘good’ leader. Those leaders then entered into positions where they got to select other future leaders, and as performance had always been important to them, it became important to other aspiring leaders too. When this begins to happen, you see a distillation of behaviour. It becomes palpably strong, almost themic.
The trouble is, the police is a pretty diverse organisation in terms of function. You really shouldn’t have command and control permeating through every department in the police, it’s damaging. You need different leadership styles in neighbourhood policing, CID, community cohesion etc.. As Command and Control remained the dominant leadership style, so it did grow into an unstoppable force, and it still remains immensely important in policing to this day.
Command and Control is a controversial subject. Some leaders will swear by it. They call it by all sorts of names and usually attach ‘Operationally Credible’ to its use. The demand stats show that the kind of work that needs it is actually really, really rare, yet it’s sticking around with a vengeance up and down the country. There are good reasons for this, as if the Command had been better at high profile incidents where there has been loss of life, the outcome may have been very different. If you screw up when you need it, the outcomes can be pretty atrocious.
So, what have we got so far? We have the need for Command and Control in fairly rare incidents, but it is of very high importance. Do we need it everywhere? Clearly not. Yet, as with many things in policing, the broad brush is applied, and usually all candidates will have to prove their ability in Command and Control during promotion processes etc.. This results in a very specific set of behaviours being applied as a filter through to areas of leadership.
And, I need to add some comment in here about measuring Command and Control (or investigation, or road traffic incidents etc. – whatever you choose to measure as a filter). If you are being measured on whether you reach the same decisions, as those that designed the exercises, then you are only being measured for whether you think like them. This is designed in group-think. Decisions have to be able to be made that are different to the ‘accepted solutions,’ whilst you measure how candidates got there, instead of where they ended up (this is a whole other blog!). This is Diversity of Thought, and you can allow for it in measuring candidates.
Want to be a leader in the police? Best be able to use Command and Control – and that’s OK, because we need it (in places).
Now, some people are not good at Command and Control. They have a different skill set, and may instead prefer leadership styles such as Collective Leadership.
What happens if someone who prefers Collective Leadership gets put through the Command and Control Assessment? Well, they won’t perform nearly as well as those who are naturally really good at Command and Control. In fact, they may be filtered out here, and all because their strengths in leadership lie elsewhere. It’s kind of like a control mechanism for a particular kind of leadership. It also significantly disadvantages leaders from departments who need a different leadership style – such as people with skills in forming partnerships and collaborations.
It establishes a behavioural hierarchy, and it attaches status to particular behaviours. If you don’t see assessments during promotion that look at problem solving, you won’t attach value to the behaviours that go along with good problem solving. It’s strange that you will see lots and lots of examples on application forms that detail dealing with public disorder or match command, but you rarely see them discussing forming strong links with local charities…
Back to measurement.
Hopefully the example discussed above sets a scene. If you have a strong kind of leadership in place, that leadership will often set the bar for selecting other leadership, and unless they are enlightened enough to look for challenge in their future leaders, they will select people that they are comfortable with. There’s loads of research on this, but here is a very quick run down on how good unstructured interviews in isolation are for selecting future leaders (varies depending on the study, but by and large, they are rubbish). Add to this the other Police favourite of the application form, and you have a combination that looks like this:
- Exercises that create behavioural bias in selection (such as command and control scenarios as a filtering method).
- Use of application forms (pretty awful in terms of reliability and validity).
- Unstructured interviews (again, fairly awful in terms of reliability and validity due to the fact that they are so subject to bias).
The resulting picture basically shows (and if you want a run down on how good particular exercises are for selecting good leaders, have a look here) that the traditional methods for leadership selection within constabularies up and down the country, are riven with bias, unreliable, and often invalid. These are technical assessment/selection terms for being poor quality.
A quick example of the hierarchy of exercises:
So, I hear you asking, if the current methods are pretty awful, what can you replace them with? Well, actually there’s all sorts of things that we could do better, but as an ex senior officer pointed out on Twitter last week, Assessment Centres were stopped in many constabularies because the senior leaders didn’t like the outcome of them. This stands to reason, because assessment centers often look at the whole of the candidate, and single exercise filters are forgone for several exercises that measure the a much wider picture. This means that some Command and Control heavy senior leaders, will be presented with successful candidates that do not have anywhere near as much of a Command and Control outlook as they do – thus putting them out of favour, or making it very difficult for them to succeed.
In short, solid assessment centers with a wide array of exercises, are more likely (certainly not certain) to measure wider communication skills, the ability to process information, and the ability to display empathy/values. They are more likely to select good leaders.
We can go even further into the building blocks of leadership, and look instead at things such as intelligence, emotional intelligence (how we interact with other’s and our own emotions) and cognitive load (how much info you can take in and process). This is relatively simple stuff, but it removes the behavioural bias that is built into many of our internal selection processes now. Serving cops often don’t like discussing measuring intelligence, they also dislike written tests, and they hate psychometric tests (I have direct experience of the use of all of these methods). All of these are far more valid and reliable than current methods though. How do we know? Huge amounts of research tells us, and it tells us convincingly too.
So what gets in the way of better selection and measurement? Well, the truth lies in something that is called ‘face validity.’ This is fancy wordage for how the culture sees the exercises. If the candidates do not feel that the test measures ‘being a good cop,’ then the outcome of the results will often not be trusted or given any value. This makes improving selection fraught with leadership challenges. If you introduce psychometrics as a leg of your assessment center, there will likely be a backlash by candidates who will tell you that they mean nothing and are a total waste of time. The research tells us different, but the people’s perceptions of doing the tests are clearly immensely important.
So, how do we navigate such a complicated landscape? The answer? With great difficulty and lots of iterative work – this means that things will fail, you learn from them, try it again with tweaks, and then learn from the second application, and so on. Eventually you end up with a product that the culture has begun to accept, that does a far more improved job of unbiased selection.
If you made it through to here, then you are doing well, because that was quite dry. What are the take-homes from the above?
- The current way we select people internally is hugely prone to bias and unreliability.
- There are many better ways to select out there that have been researched and tested repeatedly.
- These methods may be really counter-culture, so implementing them may be very difficult.
So, finally, what about the ‘Holy Grail?’ Well, nothing is perfect, you could search for the ‘right’ kind of selection exercises for a millennia. Will we ever find them? I don’t think so. I don’t think that searching for the perfect set of selection exercises is actually a worthwhile exercise. Why? Because it is all contextual. It depends on your environment, on your people, and on your culture. What is true however, is that better selection is not only important in order to find future leaders, it’s also immensely important to find different leaders. We will never find the hallowed ‘diversity of thought’ without doing a full reset of how we select our future leaders. Behavioural filters are used almost everywhere, and quite simply, they institutionalise behavioural bias. They’ve got to go, or become part of a suite of exercises that sees far more of the candidate. This means going from a past-the-post system (where each exercise is an opportunity to filter candidates) to a holistic system where a selection of exercises are used to see a wider picture of the candidate as a whole.
Dilbert (as usual) captures the bias that needs to disappear very nicely:
Nothing like a good challenge 🙂
Above all, there’s a duty to the people that work in the police, and to the public, to use the best methods that we can with the resources we have. That way, the likelihood of selecting the best leaders for the future will improve, despite the heavy cultural challenges that we may face. And just to finish… the above methods that have been discussed, don’t bring in the Values that put those candidates in the chairs in the first place, and if you don’t measure for that, it just may be possible that you don’t get the leaders that you would like holding the leadership positions… there’s work to do here, let’s get on with it 🙂
This is a personal reflection on research that I conducted whilst a part of the Paul McKeever Scholarship. I am aware that the contents of it are quite controversial, and I am also aware of the fact that the police need much, much greater diversity in their ranks. The results are not presented in a way that seeks to undermine the objective of achieving just that, they are instead there to question the methods that are used to reach them.
My research journey began in a lecture theatre at Warwick Business School. We were receiving a lecture from Simon Guilfoyle on the use of targets in police performance measurement systems. It totally changed my view on the way that police conduct their daily activities. I highly recommend Simon’s book (Intelligent Policing), where he discussed the use of daily, weekly and monthly targets and whether they actually represent a valid way to measure police performance. I will summarise for you: they don’t.
He also illuminated for me a whole host of ‘unintended consequences’ that come from the targets and how they are realised. This was validated shortly after by the PASC report into Police Crime Recording standards and how they just couldn’t be seen as reliable at all. This report took its casualties, and there has been a slow and (hopefully) inexorable move away from performance management systems that often do the total opposite of what they were meant to achieve.
Whilst this was ongoing, I could see that targets fell away in several areas of police performance, but that they stuck around in others… They were – and still are – used in diversity recruitment, hate crime monitoring, in complaint management, and in sickness (and other HR policies). I found this to be really strange, as we had a lot of research that indicated that targets were pretty awful, yet they were being ignored in areas of business that weren’t directly related to crime reporting. What were the unintended consequences that were taking place around these areas? How were they manifesting themselves and what were their effects?
So, this led to me deciding to research the unintended consequences of the use of targets in BME (Black, Minority and Ethnic) recruitment and selection. I’ve always been passionate about diversity, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to look deeper into how we are trying to improve it. I interviewed over twenty frontline cops in several Constabularies, transcribed seventeen of the interviews, and then coded (sorted and gathered themes together) in order to form a picture of how they were perceived. I was hoping to uncover the unseen picture of what the targets really did on the frontline.
The map above shows the themes and how I grouped them. I then began to dig into how the themes came about, and where they came up in the conversation. There were several significant findings.
Almost every single interviewee stressed the fact that they believed increased representation was really important. They were all sold on having more recruits from diverse parts of the community and could see the wider benefits of it. Interviewees often repeated this assertion throughout the interviews.
Questions, Questions, Questions: Interviewees repeatedly questioned the need for targets within the process, and for justification behind positive action (this is activity designed for BME candidates that improves their chances of successful recruitment or selection). It was really clear that positive action was largely misunderstood, with perceptions that it created a positive bias within the process abound. In short, positive action was conflated with positive discrimination. This damages the legitimacy of the process and results in what is called poor ‘procedural justice.’ Those people subject to the processes, do not believe that the processes are fair, and this really affects the outcome of them. Officers weren’t applying for some roles, as they believed that the processes were ‘rigged’ in minority’s favour, with some just refusing to engage at all and mistrusting the people who were recruited/promoted as a result of them.
Competence: The questions and lack of understanding above, then leads to other questions, such as, ‘Why are they not selecting for competence?’ This question worried me, because it implied that the officers did not believe that the processes were selecting for how good people were at the job, and instead selections were based on the targets that were in place. This is the first real indication that the targets were involved in causing harm. They were providing a framework for officers to challenge the validity of the process. There was a perceived uneven playing field, and at no point was there any interaction from management in an effort to explain why positive action made the process more ‘even’, instead of doing the exact opposite.
The result: A combination of a lack of information, no communication from management, and the suspicious and cynical culture (we are paid to be suspicious and cynical in many cases!) then led to the most worrying outcome. This was that officers then questioned the competence of BME candidates that were promoted or recruited, because the use of targets allowed for:
‘Has this person been promoted/recruited to fulfil a target supported by systems that I don’t understand and no-one’s explained, or are they the best person for the job?’
This is a really damaging finding, as it undermines the purpose of increasing representation in the first place. If distrust and cynicism follows BME officers because targets also follow them, they then have a higher mountain to climb upon recruitment or promotion than any other candidate, and this removes a huge amount of any procedural justice that they believe resides within the system. The BME candidates that I interviewed confirmed this tangibly, and it sits with anecdotal evidence from colleagues I know personally too.
What needs to be done?
- Targets need removing, they rob the subject of the target of their competence.
- Officers need to be able to understand why positive action is being used in the workplace and how it works (how this is done is an L&D issue up for debate). Ideally, processes that do disadvantage BME candidates simply need fully re-designing, nullifying the need for positive action in the first place. This requires an in-depth knowledge of bias in assessment and recruitment policies (very developed in the College of Policing, not so much in internal constabularies).
- When managers make decisions that affect the perceptions of those subject to an internal/external process, the rationale must be communicated fully and a space for questions and debate should be created. Without this space, the prevailing culture will fill the gap with speed and ferocity.
The above research highlighted some issues that need addressing, but what did they do for me? As an operational officer, what did I get from conducting it? These are incredibly important questions that address a wider discussion around what educating officers may achieve in the long run.
- Our internal understanding of the term ‘representation’ is under-developed and dangerously simple. It rests on the premise that if a certain percentage of diverse individuals are recruited, the representation problem is ‘solved.’ This is a fallacy and incredibly dangerous as it circumvents what representation is actually about (and I believe it to be about legitimacy and trust).
- This has illustrated to me that engagement as a manager is essential. It’s often seen as a fluffy add-on, but as a manager, if you leave information gaps, you are also responsible for the rumours that fill them. If police managers are making decisions, the communication of the rationale for those decisions is more important than the decisions themselves – and it is almost totally absent in many constabularies.
- Speaking with frontline officers at length, with whom I had to break the taboo of speaking about BME issues (yes there’s a taboo, and it’s stifling) has shown me that many care passionately about recruitment from diverse populations. They have real concern about ‘how’ that recruitment is conducted, because they care about the quality of service that they can provide and the safety of colleagues and the public. If the targets weren’t there and the perceived playing field more understood, it would go a long way to bridging a trust divide between BME officers and non-BME officers following recruitment/promotion processes.
- One interviewee spoke at length about the ‘hierarchy of diversity,’ and oh my goodness was she on the money. When you apply a target to a particular demographic, you consciously illustrate that they are more important within that process. She raised LGBT officers, Jewish Officers, Eastern European Officers and disabled officers as subjects that are unconsciously ‘lowered’ in their status of importance. What about thought diversity? What does this hierarchy tell us? It tells us that ‘valuing difference’ as a whole is actually a bit of a fib. If you value difference, you value everyone’s differences, and not just those for whom you have a political obligation. This is a great example of cognitive dissonance, and it reveals some hypocrisy that really needs addressing. It’s necessary to prioritise areas of severe need, but accompanying that with statements that deny prioritisation causes issues with understanding.
- And off the back of this, reducing people to a label as simple as BME also reduces the issue at hand to three letters that can realistically be ‘achieved.’ The changing demography of London as it stands, mixed with the particular tenure of police officers, makes numerical representation a far flung target that will be forever chased. If the target is unreachable, and we don’t know what ‘achieving it’ actually does, maybe it’s time to revisit the issues identified as causal factors in community trust breakdown instead?
- Finally, they led me to question, question, and question. It’s made me more of a pain in the backside (I imagine), but I will never accept simple solutions for complex social issues ever again.
To finish, a couple of things. Until we address what ‘Representation’ actually is for a UK police force, we are aiming at fog. When a force reaches 8% BME to match its 8% BME population, can we shelve representation as a ‘job well done?’ I would say that the answer is a very clear ‘no.’ The Scarman and Macpherson reports indicate that persistent problems with community relations and a complete breakdown of trust were significant causal factors of representation breakdown – one could argue that numbers alone won’t address either of these issues (and a systematic review that is about to land shortly will do the same). So why do they seem to be the sole focus in many forces? If behaviour of police officers has a part to play in gaining trust and legitimacy (and research says it does), why does this play second fiddle to numbers without an evidence base?
Culture change and wellbeing development, together with a developed understanding of procedural justice (internally and externally) may be partial answers to these problems. But, change in these areas is painful and complicated (and I know as I’m working on them). It is simpler to hold onto targets, because they are tangibly achievable and fit comfortably with an ingrained behavioural legacy of numerical performance management.
The police need to recognise the complexity of the issue of representation, as the targets are currently acting as a scapegoat for far more difficult conversations about broken relationships and a lack of community trust. Diversity strategies should not be about numbers, they should be about forging relationships and creating sophisticated ‘listening’ functions where forces can judge their respective trust by community and tailor their interactions to address bespoke identified issues. Broad brush solutions do not address nuance and legacy. Without addressing this complexity, we will continue to aim at numbers that don’t mean a great deal, or actually achieve a great deal either.
Numbers and percentages do not solve issues with societal/state relationships. Representation is a wicked problem, let’s start viewing it as such, scrap the targets, and acknowledge that a complex set of behavioural solutions is the only way to realistically address it.