Building the Right Culture for the Organization
By Mike Masterson
The final report of the President’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing broadly outlines seven areas of the best and most promising practices for building trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.1 The report refers to the term culture throughout, but provides no specific guidance regarding what it is or how to build it. However, the importance of culture apparently is understood.
In police work, the vast majority of an officer’s job is done independently without the immediate presence of a supervisor. But, consistent enforcement of rules that conflict with a military-style culture, where obedience to the chain of command is the norm, proves nearly impossible. Behavior more likely conforms to culture than rules.2
Group norms for behavior and the underlying shared values that help maintain those standards comprise culture. People often identify an inaccurate definition. Culture comprises more the walk of behavior than the talk of a few key words on letterhead. Actions must stand congruently with words. Therefore, culture equates to behavior ≤ values. Rules remain absent from the equation.3
Why do law enforcement agencies still create rule-driven policy manuals for every situation, rather than establish values-based policy statements to guide the organization? Why do leaders attempt to impose culture through power instead of influence?
If leaders enter an organization where the culture differs significantly from their principles and goals, they quickly take drastic measures to run things with power instead of authority For example, in college athletics there is a short amount of time to get things done. If attempting to do everything with authority, the coach ends up trying to massage people into changing their bad habits, and that takes too long. With power the coach can force people to do what needs to be done to change the culture or risk losing it because time runs out.4
Leaders often take steps to protect their agencies from stagnation. For any organization to be successful, its leaders must be wary of the inherent dichotomy between understanding the need for strong organizational culture and correctly implementing it. Choosing the right people to do the right things creates a pervasive culture—for example, seeking team members who possess personal core values similar to the team’s instead of pursuing individuals merely for their raw abilities. It proves easier to see an individual’s strength or speed than to examine their intangibles, such as teamwork, personal accountability, and integrity. However, it can be accomplished, and it can be done right.5
One former college football coach found that by taking the traditional notion of recruiting the most gifted individuals for specific positions and forgoing that concept in favor of intangible characteristics ensured that the athletes who came to play for the team embodied the beliefs inherent to perpetuating the culture.6
The lesson for leaders is to focus less on shooting scores and technical skills of those seeking to join policing and examine more closely the underlying values they would bring to the organization.
Mr. Masterson retired as chief of the Boise, Idaho, Police Department.
Law enforcement leaders change the culture in fundamental ways. Chiefs usually experience a short window of opportunity to shape the organization because of their brief tenure at the top and their bosses’ potential impatience for change. Perhaps this explains why coercive power sometimes alters police culture. This manner achieves compliance, but does not win the hearts and minds of others and proves unsustainable.7
Active leadership and use of authority to create best practices also are employed. Leaders create culture by working with others to establish a coalition of support for institutionalizing important values, attitudes, and practices. Cultures created this way endure. When leaders determine that existing ways of doing business no longer work, they create a vision, practice new behaviors, and enlist the support of staff to act differently.8 They must be forward-looking and question why things are done the way they always have been.
Recruitment efforts provide an appropriate example. Many recruiting brochures prominently display organizational values, show workforce diversity, and provide information on the agency and why people should join. Others may include something like a photograph of an officer standing next to a young man fishing. Some of the best pamphlets indicate what the community has to offer away from the job.
Agencies not only seek qualified police candidates but try to attract family members by depicting the quality of life offered through schools, parks, arts, sports, and recreational opportunities in the community. Organizations should assess the appearance of their recruitment materials and the conversations recruiters have with people who express an interest in joining.
This suggests less reliance on hiring for tactical skills and more on principles. Culture from a hiring perspective begins by recruiting people who reflect the organization’s core values, such as integrity, compassion, service, respect, fairness, and courage. The focus then shifts more to personal values and maturity. Therefore, instead of asking technical scenario-based questions, leaders should inquire about life events, such as the most courageous decision the candidate ever made.
Most leaders have been conditioned to expect responses reflecting physical courage; however, many will be surprised to hear how aspiring candidates answer questions from a moral perspective. In these responses, leaders hear a person’s character and values.
Such questions help identify latent intangibles that reflect organizational values and culture supervisors seek in new police officers. Leaders who hire for values seldom go wrong. They should select employees who align with core values first, then focus on aptitudes. This requires changing the questions asked of applicants. Agencies always can teach skills, but not values.
In addition to improving the hiring process, leaders can gently influence new officers to perpetually internalize the values important in their policing careers. The Madison, Wisconsin, police chief, a former FBI agent with a law degree, instructs recruits in constitutional law and civil rights. The chief believes the necessity to retain optimism and the capacity to do the right things without limiting themselves to safe and predictable resolutions can be indelibly impressed upon new officers.
A captive audience with impressionable minds can grasp that “cop culture” does not need to be the self-fulfilling prophecy portrayed in the direst circumstances on television and social media. Law enforcement agencies must not fall prey to militaristic images of policing that generate sensational, tabloid-style headlines portraying ill-behaving officers.
“Group norms for behavior and the underlying shared values that help maintain those standards comprise culture.”
Recruits often are asked to reflect upon the oath they recited in record speed owing to the pageantry and excitement of the day, surrounded by their families and hosted by luminaries as they began their lengthy training. They talk about that pledge and the meaning of being fully committed to adhering to it. The Madison, Wisconsin, police chief often shares a personal mission statement that incorporates the oath and some additional meaningful prompts, which was crafted years ago and still hangs inside the locker at work. It is the first thing read when arriving and the last thing seen when ending the day. More important, the statement is displayed for others to see.
For homework, recruits receive a copy to use in creating their own personal mission statements. These should reflect the future officers’ ideals today and will serve as beacons decades from now reminding them why they chose this challenging profession. A week later when the chief collects the assignment, the mission statements get laminated and filed until the officers graduate.
On graduation night, they are asked what person would most likely be their rock or moral compass and would not deter from rebuking them when they make mistakes or go astray. Each graduating officer invites someone special (e.g., parent, sibling, friend, or partner) to the graduation podium and presents the individual with a laminated copy of the personal mission statement with a special endorsement: “_____ has chosen you to be the bearer of this important values statement. It serves as a reminder of the reasons that drew _____ to the profession and _____ wants you to hold him or her to these ideals. In so doing, you are helping _____ to remain true to the oath and to him/herself when it is time to leave or retire.” Graduates also receive copies for themselves to hopefully display in conspicuous places to serve as a reminder.
This exercise may appear trivial to some; however, continually reinforcing the values and mission statement of the organization and reminding employees who they were when they arrived and how they want to leave the agency proves worthy of all efforts, all the time!9 Of course, there are other ways to welcome new employees and familiarize them with the culture.
Leaders can arrange visits to a courthouse, state capitol, or civil rights memorial and provide a heart-to-heart discussion to empower officers to have the courage to do what is right for others.10 It proves important to remind them that the courage they will need in their careers is not only physical—risking their lives for other people—but also takes the form of exercising restraint, protecting others, and upholding constitutional rights.
During daily briefings law enforcement leaders should share stories about how employees are living their values—e.g., the officer who bought pizza for a hungry family (compassion), a detective who followed up on a suspect’s story to prove the person’s innocence (justice and fairness), or how a call-center operator handled a particularly difficult call (service). In every organization there are dozens, if not hundreds, of these stories that need to be told.
“Leaders often take steps to protect their agencies from stagnation.”
One way to gather this information would be to install a performance recognition shortcut on every department computer, and encourage employees to recognize others’ quality work. For example, a civilian employee handled a phone call from a citizen who wanted to compliment officers. The individual had called personnel and left a voice mail requesting a return phone call from the police chief. The employee contacted the person, who then praised the department for being more transparent than other local government agencies.
The citizen stated that the officers earned respect and trust because of how they interacted with the public over the years. Each of the officers received a personal note from the chief commending them for outstanding customer service and communication skills. Also in the note, the chief indicated how special it was that this citizen mentioned each officer by name when recognizing them for outstanding work and congratulated each officer for this recognition.
A way to solicit input on the effectiveness of leaders in representing the agency’s values would be to ask officers during promotional interviews. Chiefs could request names of leaders, regardless of rank, who are held in high esteem. Officers would describe the values these individuals possess that they would like to emulate in their own personal leadership styles.
For example, one officer indicated that the captain had empathy for people, saw them in human perspective, did not assume blame, and looked for the best in people. Another person stated that the sergeant always tried to improve personally and encouraged subordinates to do the same. The sergeant put aside personal differences with others and always acted professionally. One other example indicated that a particular supervisor displayed a strong work ethic, cared about the needs of people both on and off duty, and responded promptly to the team’s requests.
Organizational values translate into effective leadership, which sustains standards. Police chiefs and supervisors should seize the opportunity to share feedback with employees and congratulate them on their behaviors and values. Personnel ought to be thanked privately by placing a copy of any compliments in their files and publicly for being consummate professionals and exemplary role models. Leaders need to encourage repeat performances.
When leaders make a habit of looking for the positives in people, rather than seeking out the bad, they will find that quality performances tend to multiply. People do not get better by having their faults pointed out; they improve by having their strong points noted and appreciated.11
Leaders of law enforcement agencies must ensure that the proper culture exists so that “lurking subcultures” are not able to hide, let alone flourish. The organizational culture needs to cultivate the trust and confidence of employees and the community. Culture is manifested in many ways, but it always starts at the top and requires leaders’ constant attention.
Mr. Masterson may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Choosing the right people to do the right things creates a pervasive culture....”