Analyzing Organizational Performance from the Bottom Up

By W. Michael Phibbs
A graphic of an arrow swooping up a set of ethereal spiral stairs. ©

Officers drive the overall effectiveness of public safety organizations and represent their agencies’ most valuable assets. Employees’ level of engagement forms the foundation for this success. Collectively, personnel make the difference in life-and-death situations by expending energy and effort to protect citizens’ safety every day.

From an agency’s standpoint, high-performance levels impact both its short- and long-term budget by reducing administrative and operational costs. For the community, effective officer performance helps lower crime levels and increase citizens’ trust in the police to improve quality of life. Law enforcement organizations face the challenge of identifying factors that impact engagement and performance, proactively anticipating and rectifying problems that can affect individual and, ultimately, organizational effectiveness.

Study and Findings

In 2010, the author and two other researchers developed an in-depth study to gather specialized data from various public safety agencies. Three organizations from the Richmond, Virginia, area—the Richmond City Police Department, the Richmond City Fire Department, and the Henrico County Division of Fire—participated in the original study. Initially, 49 questions examined the individual agencies and developed a benchmark for further research in public safety. 

The researchers discussed with each organization’s leadership the rationale for the study and provided an opportunity for them to add questions they considered relevant to their respective agencies. The leaders saw a significant gap between desired and actual levels of engagement and performance. They noticed deficiencies in both experienced officers and new hires—particularly those with less than five years in the organization.

This project took a unique bottom-up view—from the employees’ perspective—of the engagement and performance of police and fire professionals, rather than a top-down inquiry of the structural systems operating within the agencies. The study compared how officer responses impacted the department at the organizational, divisional, and operational unit levels. It also examined how differing demographics significantly impacted engagement and performance throughout an officer’s career. 

Sergeant Phibbs serves with the Richmond, Virginia, Police Department and is a consultant with a private firm.
Sergeant Phibbs serves with the Richmond, Virginia, Police Department and is a consultant with a private firm.

The researchers intended to identify not only the point of decline in engagement but its subsequent rate. Further, they looked at factors, such as equipment, training, potential for challenging assignments, and advancement opportunities, that can influence an employee’s perception. Especially important was uncovering how an organization’s response to ideas and needs impacts its officers’ attitude toward engagement and performance. After examining the level of engagement of the individual, the researchers studied the significance of responses at the smallest operational units, the level at which an agency begins to develop and become impacted by its uniqueness.

The survey involved 621 participants, a 38 percent rate of return. While each organization had a unique culture, common trends created a universal baseline. Based on the study, the researchers developed the Pyramid of Performance Factors (PPF) to show how agency systems and employee perspectives are prioritized, thus creating the foundation for engagement and performance. The PPF can identify how even small differences in attitude can impact an employee’s performance, combine to influence smaller operational units, and, eventually, impact the effectiveness and efficiency of the entire organization. The author provides an overview of the study results and an analysis of how employees’ responses impact their level of engagement and, ultimately, organizational effectiveness.

Employee Expectations and Reality

The foundation of the PPF pertains to employees’ expectations before hire. Individuals enter law enforcement service for various reasons. For example, they may strive to serve the community. Perhaps, they want to join the subculture. However, once hired, expectations meet reality, and the aura surrounding officers’ association with a particular agency cannot by itself sustain their career-long commitment.

Employees’ fit within an agency’s operational structure influences its success. When individuals’ desires and expectations are met, these personnel more likely will perform at a high level. Employees probably will expend energy, effort, and enthusiasm when they believe in an agency’s mission, vision, and priorities. For instance, law enforcement organizations may focus on crime fighting, as opposed to prevention, strategies, and each agency will follow a specific style (e.g., sector or zone) of policing.

A diagram developed by W. Mark Phibbs showing a pyramid of performance factors, including individual professional expectations, organizational expectations, organizational realities, internal communication top-down/bottom up, supervisor interactions, perceived organizational responsiveness, and individual effort.

The researchers looked for answers to the following questions: Does knowledge of the profession prior to hire affect success in an individual’s career? What impact does an understanding before employment of a specific organization and its culture have on employee success? When examining the officers’ preemployment familiarity of the profession, of those participating, 27 percent had extensive knowledge before employment, 57 percent reported some familiarity, and 15 percent expressed no knowledge.

Out of necessity, police organizations are highly structured. These agencies’ internal culture creates the environment in which employees work and helps determine overall engagement. Not surprisingly, the researchers identified officers’ autonomy as one factor directly impacting their performance. Further, personnel with advance understanding of their department’s culture have a professional edge over officers who later discover that their agency does not match their expectations. Organizations that proactively provide realistic descriptions about their structure and culture to potential employees have a fiscal advantage over other departments by reducing the financial impact associated with turnover resulting from unsuccessful hires or low performance.

“The researchers intended to identify not only the point of decline in engagement but its subsequent rate.”

To fill vacancies with well-qualified people, agencies often rely on regional or national recruiting efforts. Many individuals looking for a job expect that all police organizations operate the same way and that it does not matter which one they join. Some people simply want to enter the profession and transfer later to a department better suited to their needs. Therefore, agencies must recruit strategically and offer a specific brand of policing to potential officers.

According to the survey, 61 percent of employees expressed some knowledge of their organization and its culture, 30 percent had no such familiarity, and 8 percent claimed extensive knowledge. Thus, 30 percent of individuals accepting employment by a department do not fully understand it and have, at best, a limited understanding of its culture. Further inquiry related the importance of prior organizational knowledge to the success of individual officers and their willingness to stay with an agency until retirement.

Clearly, the level of prior cultural and organizational knowledge affects the individuals’ energy, effort, and enthusiasm to perform. The high numbers of responses indicating no prior knowledge of the organization before hire displays a weakness that agencies can correct by implementing a strategic long-term initiative to develop their reputation and specific brand, thus increasing the likelihood of effective hiring. Successful branding on prehires will result in some individuals becoming more determined to apply to a specific organization and others deciding the agency does not fit their needs. A lack of foresight in investing in a well-thought-out strategy of organizational recruitment can negatively impact new employees and, thereafter, organizational effectiveness.

Communication and Organizational Health

Effective internal communication helps bond personnel to the organization and acts as a link between efficient operation and employees’ willingness to perform. Open internal communication pathways prove essential in maintaining organizational health and moving personnel toward common goals. The subject of communication is in the middle of the PPF. This placement reflects its connection to both individual engagement and organizational structures and highlights the importance of maintaining free-flowing communication, both up and down.

Top-down communication helps guide the organization by emphasizing overall expectations and gives focused direction to officers at the unit level. Bottom-up communication alerts the agency to critical problems and aids in forecasting and preparing for the changing environments of the future. If these communication pathways fail, individuals and units tend to lose focus of both short- and long-term goals and, perhaps, develop their own goals not parallel with those of the department.

“Employees’ fit within an agency’s operational structure influences its success.”

Police personnel become frustrated when they cannot communicate upward with those who can implement change. Subsequently, their frustration may turn to anger, and anger can result in disengagement. The authors examined if officers viewed their agency’s communication pathways as effective and also considered how two-way communication between supervisors and personnel impacted employee performance. The study focused on seven forms of internal communication to gauge from the officers’ perspective effectiveness in transferring information upward to individuals who best could act on it. These methods included participation in a committee, suggestion cards, e-mails, chain of command, labor organizations, open-door policy, and other means.

The officers’ responses indicated that all internal communication pathways needed improvement. The highest-rated means, the submission of ideas through the chain of command, only received a “somewhat effective” rating. As to the use of suggestion cards to facilitate direct communication from the individual to the command level, a troubling “not effective” rating was recorded. An organization’s printed promise of a reply should assure personnel who spend the time to write and take ownership of a suggestion that they will receive a response. A failure to reply suggests that the organization does not care.

Stock image of two co-workers talking in an office environment. ©

Top-Down Interaction and Performance

Accurate feedback to personnel is critical not only for increasing short-term effectiveness but also for facilitating their long-term development. Reliable information on officers’ performance helps them determine their strengths and weaknesses, which increases engagement during their career. Specifically, agencies must recognize the value of positive reinforcement as a morale builder and performance enhancer. When discussing with employees their shortcomings, supervisors should do so only for the purpose of encouraging improvement. Supervisors can work with officers, focusing on their long-term goals, to tailor evaluations that meet the organization’s needs while also helping officers fulfill their individual development goals.

The study evaluated how officers perceived communication with their supervisor. In response to the statement, “Your supervisor accurately communicates to you on your performance,” 20.7 percent of officers answered “extraordinarily so”; 42.7 percent responded “significantly”; 29.2 percent stated “somewhat”; and 7.4 percent indicated “not at all.”

Effective communication can clarify goals and expectations and, in turn, enhance officer effectiveness. When supervisors accurately judge performance and have effective communication skills, they can help improve individual performance and extinguish underperformance. From the team perspective, more members performing at high levels translates into greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Police organizations tend to avoid and, therefore, fail to resolve ongoing performance problems. However, candid, effective two-way communication raises the potential that outstanding performance will be the norm, not the exception. The authors identified effective communication at both the organizational and individual levels as a significant area for study because of its importance to organizational effectiveness.

The nature of public safety requires supervisors to maintain a certain level of command and control to ensure professionalism and accountability. From the direct supervisor’s level, the study noted contradictory results in the effectiveness of internal communication. Supervisors not only must understand the concepts and techniques of effective evaluations but practice these skills in role-play situations to become comfortable in having potentially difficult conversations with personnel regarding performance concerns. A goal is for officers to see feedback as positive, not threatening, and to participate more easily in uncomfortable conversations. Also, discussion must include two-way participation from both the supervisor and the employee. Performance must be viewed from different perspectives, from formal after-action reports to impromptu conversations, with the same goal of identifying what can be learned. For professionals in law enforcement, feedback received today may change behavior and save the life of a citizen or teammate tomorrow.

Also, many supervisors feel that their performance should not be graded from their subordinates’ perspective. However, having subordinates share their views openly in this way creates opportunities to make improvements and increase effectiveness. When supervisors receive feedback on their performance, it allows them to see where they are doing well and where they can improve.

Common wisdom suggests that smaller operations would score higher on bottom-up communication because of the cohesiveness usually found in smaller units and the less restrictive communication styles of these supervisors. Also, field supervisors in larger units, such as patrol operations, seemingly would use a tighter command-and-control leadership style and would not receive performance feedback as willingly. Surprisingly, the authors found the opposite to be the case. The detectives and officers assigned to smaller, more specialized units were less likely to talk with supervisors about performance than personnel assigned to general field operations. Overall, supervisors in all organizations should learn how to solicit and make use of feedback to improve their effectiveness.

Employee Engagement and Organizational Responsiveness

A significant portion of the study focused on examining how organizations respond to the needs and ideas of officers and the resulting impact on employees’ level of performance and engagement. A collateral issue examined how the officers felt the agency’s responsiveness affected their career expectations. Additionally, the authors assessed how individual perceptions of organizational responsiveness combine to impact the smaller units.

Many organizations send their senior-ranking officers to study new management and leadership theories, hoping to increase performance and engagement from the top down. The goal in learning these forward-thinking techniques is to promote continuous motivation, focus on new officers’ performance, and push back the time when the engagement and performance of seasoned officers diminish. Underperformance impacts the fiscal operating budgets of the organizations and, when recognized by the community, subtly impacts the level of trust among citizens.

Discussing with officers the issues of engagement and performance illuminates these subjects from the employees’ perspective. Perception of organizational responsiveness translates to reality at the individual level. Officers emphasized their eagerness and motivation to do their jobs to the fullest. Apparently, a lack of engagement results not from an indifferent attitude but, rather, frustration due to the lack of responsiveness to the employees’ ideas and concerns. They expressed the perception that their organizations were not listening to, acknowledging, or acting upon ideas. When individuals perceive they cannot get information up the chain of command to the policy makers responsible for change, the progression of frustration to anger and then disengagement begins with the employees, expands to the unit level, and, possibly, infects the entire organization.

“...the level of prior cultural and organizational knowledge affects the individuals’ energy, effort, and enthusiasm to perform.”

The study directly addressed these claims of loss of performance and engagement. Organizations were asked if they were responsive to employees’ needs and ideas, while the authors requested individual officers to relate how their agency’s responsiveness affected their level of engagement and performance. The authors combined the individual results to assess the situation at the unit, division, and, finally, organizational level. According to 11.8 percent of officers, their organization mostly responds to their ideas, and they have increased their performance and willingness to suggest new ideas; 2.3 percent said that their agency mostly responds to their ideas, they are satisfied with meeting performance standards, and they do not want to suggest ideas; 51.1 percent related that their organization does not always respond to their ideas but that they will continue to suggest new ones and maintain a high level of performance; 27.4 percent shared that their department does not always respond to their ideas but that they will continue to perform acceptably and suggest some new ideas; and 7.3 percent said that their organization does not always respond to their ideas, they will meet minimum levels of performance, and they will not suggest new ideas.

As the results indicate, most employees are engaged at work but feel their organizations are unresponsive to their needs and ideas. Over time, individual engagement will decline. Agencies face the challenge of staving off this decline as long as possible and ensuring that it never reaches the point of no recovery. Using the study as a long-term strategic tool, departments can tailor short-term tactical action to help move their personnel toward the category of “I am fully engaged/my organization is fully responsive.” Doing this requires organizational commitment to a long-term strategic action plan of slowly increasing employee engagement while building confidence in and responsiveness to employees’ needs and ideas.

In the short term, immediate tactical plans can address the issues and concerns of both the organization and its employees, thereby increasing the perception of agency responsiveness. Failure to act will only increase frustration and drive down performance. Knowing that problems exist and choosing to make a concerted effort to understand and resolve the issues can transform an organization from ordinary to extraordinary, not just as a goal but as an accepted cultural norm.

Initiatives and Improved Employee Performance 

Organizations can use the PPF as a tool to help identify where long-term strategic and short-term tactical improvement can increase overall employee performance and engagement. The most striking aspect of the overall study was the number of officers fully engaged despite their agencies’ unresponsiveness to them; this seems to underscore the commitment and sense of duty of those who undertake a career in policing. Although addressing employee frustration is not complicated, leaders need to stay committed in the short and long term to learning, understanding, and remedying the causes of this problem. Agencies can enjoy the long-term benefits of high employee morale, community engagement, and fiscal return on the investment in employees if leaders take a bottom-up view of the department and observe issues from the perspective of front-line personnel.

All organizations strive to have fully engaged employees whose high performance becomes engrained as an accepted norm in the agency’s culture. Increasing agency effectiveness does not happen overnight, but, over time, systematic changes will begin to reshape the culture. The process starts with leaders instituting action-oriented initiatives with milestones to measure both short- and long-term targeted goals. As organizations make structural changes at the higher levels, they begin to transform their culture at the individual level. The author offers some examples of systematic and cultural changes.

  • Implement organizational policies that offer short-term initiatives to address agency responsiveness to issues and develop strategic long-term policies to increase the fit between agencies and potential employees.
  • Nurture internal communication pathways to ensure that appropriate change managers become aware of issues.
  • Offer educational and training curriculum where supervisors learn skills to cultivate trust and two-way communication with team members.
  • Develop programs where leaders can see from the perspective of front-line personnel the organization from the bottom up and assess where performance issues occur.


Perception is reality in the eyes of front-line personnel in policing. As the author and fellow researchers’ study shows, agencies need to begin conversations examining individual performance and organizational effectiveness from a bottom-up perspective. To best transition into a high-performance culture, employees and leadership should work together to assess their organizations and address their unique problems that undercut performance. For leaders in any police organization, the goal of creating a high-performance culture is worthy of the challenge.

The author thanks Jackson Baynard, fire lieutenant with the Henrico County, Virginia, Division of Fire, and Dr. Michael Wriston, organizational psychologist, for their participation in conducting the study. 

“Effective internal communication helps bond personnel to the organization and acts as a link between efficient operation and employees’ willingness to perform.”