The police killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020 sparked global protests and in many ways, will always be haunted by the idea that Floyd would still be with us, if only one of Chauvin’s male colleagues who were present, had intervened to force Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck. But as we know none did.
The recent murder of Sarah Everard by police officer Wayne Couzens has realised every woman’s worst nightmare. In a world where women already order their day to prevent sexual violence we now appear to be adding ‘don’t speak to police officers’ to their list of rules that must be followed to stay safe. Invariably this list doesn’t keep them safe.
In the days after the sentencing of Couzen’s, we have all been shocked by the emerging reality that this officer was hiding in plain sight. Known as the ‘Rapist’ to previous colleagues this officer was known for his ability to make people (women) feel uncomfortable. But it’s clear now that nothing was being said either directly to him or to others.
The contents of what’s app messages also presents us with a reality that this man’s attitude’s, beliefs, and behaviours were on full display. Violence and abuse will continue unless we have interruption. Violence will often escalate without interruption.
Rightly we need to focus on issues of misogyny and racism, as to why this occurred. We need to look at how this officer was allowed to transfer to the Metropolitan police despite his long-held nick names.
To those responses, I would add the need to look at the gendered dynamic of men in cohesive groups like teams, military units, and law enforcement, especially in relation to their roles and responsibilities to themselves and each other.
If we want to understand why horrific incidents like this continue to happen, instead of always reacting after the fact, we need to ask and answer a series of questions that will be uncomfortable and have implications well beyond policing:
- What were the interpersonal and group dynamics at play between and among officers who nick named him in this way as well as those who were part of the what’s app group?
- Was misogyny not only present between the officers and Couzens, but between the officers themselves?
- If any of Couzens’s colleagues were uncomfortable with or didn’t agree with what he was saying/doing, why didn’t they act?
- How do norms in male-dominated peer cultures like police departments operate to keep men silent, even when they know something is wrong?
As someone who has been looking at bystander involvement for many years, these are questions that I seem to be asking more and more just now. Whilst society seems to be focused on accountability either by the individual or the organisation, I find myself focusing more and more on people around both victims and perpetrators.
The factors that inhibit bystander action are quite different depending on whether people know each other or not. Many people do not want to get involved in situations of harassment or violence in which they don’t know the parties involved. This is largely out of fear of putting themselves at physicalrisk. Social psychologists use the term “The bystander effect” to describe the ways in which people avoid intervening. As members of a crowd, they might wait, hoping for someone else to jump in.
Where the bystanders know the people involved, maybe their team, or friendship group, their hesitancy to get involved is typically based on a social fear. They worry that intervening will be awkward and could result in the loss of friendships, social status, or professional standing.
Some men hesitate to intervene when they see a friend, teammate or colleague behaving inappropriately or abusively not because they approve of the behaviour, but because they lack the language, skills and most importantly, the self-confidence to speak up. Also, they lack the reassurance that others will support them if they do say something.
The pressures on men, especially young men to do whatever it takes to be “one of the boys” can be intense. Sometimes remaining silent even when you know you shouldsay something is the cost of membership in the club.
But while staying silent might help you avoid negative responses from colleagues, the Floyd killing and the likely misconduct for the officers in the what’s app group, shows that silence and inaction can also have negative consequences for those involved.
Why do organisations such as the police and military and other male dominated workplaces get caught up in such illegal behaviour and harassment? An article published in 2018 in the Harvard Business review highlighted an underlying cause, a Masculinity Contest Culture. This kind of culture endorses winner-take-all competition, where winners demonstrate masculine traits such as emotional toughness, physical stamina, and ruthlessness.
Surveys of thousands of workers in the U.S. and Canada, from different organisations, revealed four masculine norms that together define masculinity contest culture that are highly linked with organisational dysfunction:
- Show no weakness,
- Strength and stamina,
- Put work first, and
- ‘Dog eat dog’.
These norms, the report highlights, lead people to focus on improving their personal image and status at the expense of others, even their organisations. These results not only communicate what leads to problematic behaviour but also how norms in male-dominated peer cultures like law enforcement operate to keep men silent, even when they know something is wrong?
What all of this means is that masculinity is insecure requiring continual social proof, hard won, and easily lost. The need to repeatedly prove manhood can lead men to behave aggressively, take unwarranted risks, work extreme hours, engage in cut-throat competition, and sexually harass women (or other men), especially when they feel a masculinity threat. Also it leads to men not talking about mental health issues.
Where does this leave women? Like everyone else, women must try to play the game to survive, and the few who succeed may do so by behaving just as badly as the men vying to win.
So how do we address this contest that leads to misconduct as well as damaging public trust. Real change requires shutting down this game.
To accomplish this, organisations need to perform deeper, more committed work to examine their cultures. For instance, people tend to attribute sexual harassment to a “few bad apples,” ignoring how an organisation’s culture unleashed, allowed, and may have even rewarded misconduct. Simply not tolerating bullying and harassment, the bad apples are kept in check and good apples do not go bad.
In many ways going back to basics is a good start. A focus on the organisations mission works. Current trainings backfire, in part, because they focus on telling people “what not to do,” and are often framed as trying to “make things better for women and minorities” rather than for everyone, and seem unconnected to the organisations mission.
In the US, peer intervention was introduced to policing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Trust in the New Orleans police department was failing, and misconduct was on the rise. Academics convinced police leaders to communicate that loyalty in policing was good, but that loyalty included having the difficult conversations when colleagues were behaving in ways that was damaging both to the organisation and could lead to a colleague being fired. Active bystander-ship training has become a welcomed part of police training across the US since the death of George Floyd.
Another powerful tool is to dispel misconceptions that “everyone supports this.” People fail to question masculinity contest norms as they may be tagged as weak, soft, and disloyal. As a result, everyone goes along to get along, publicly reinforcing norms they privately hate — people stay late just to be seen as putting work first or laugh at a joke they think is offensive. When people publicly uphold the norms, it appears as though everyone endorses them.
Research has shown that people in masculinity contest cultures think their colleagues embrace these norms when in fact they do not. This destructive influence of imaginary peers leads to a perfect storm of good men doing nothing and the harm doer thinking their views are supported.
Leaders can help remedy this misperception by publicly rejecting masculinity contest norms and empowering others to voice their previously secret dissent. But they also need to walk the talk by changing reward systems, modelling new behaviour, and punishing the misconduct previously overlooked or rewarded. Leaders also need to ensure that people who speak up are no longer punished or retaliated against for doing so.
The issues being discussed reach far wider than policing. Cultures will be defined by the worst behaviours leaders and those within are willing to accept. A winning culture take effort. Prevention starts in a community, any community. Workplaces are micro communities within society. How we lead and empower these communities will contribute to their success. Staff won’t leave, they will want to join and importantly they will gain trust from those they serve.