When contests go wrong….

Poor behaviour often comes from other smaller acts that starts a sort of descent to oblivion.

Real-world cases of corporate fraud provide evidence of the slippery slope of problematic behaviour. Interviews with financial executives indicted for accounting fraud reveal that their conduct in virtually all cases escalated gradually.

Here’s how one former financial chief described it  “Crime starts small, it progresses very slowly. First you work off the books. Some people say it’s not a crime, OK, we’ll rationalise it and say it’s not a crime.” And once you start down this path, it’s really hard to pull yourself out.

The other day I was sent a newspaper article about yet another story involving a UK based police officer.  The story focused on harmful posts that this officer, a serving Police Inspector felt were OK to share on a WhatsApp group with fellow police officers.

After reading the article I thought about the slippery slope analogy and wondered why, despite the current public scrutiny on Police culture and negative behaviour that this officer firstly thought, the sharing of such posts was OK and secondly, why didn’t any of his colleagues stop the inevitable car crash from happening?

The likely outcome in the current climate is dismissal for the officer.

In my opinion these are two important questions that policing requires to ask itself and address.  If not, these stories will most likely continue, impacting on trust and confidence in the profession of policing.

Just now the focus for many UK policing organisations appears to be on ‘rooting out the bad un’s’.  I see many officers feeling happy to call-out the behaviour once it becomes the story in the media.  Such action is akin to playing the popular fairground game ‘whack a mole’.  We require to ask what does silence say to the some who are causing harm? Quite simply “it says carry on”.

Whilst UK policing is correct to identify and sack some officers, there is a need to stop simply playing ‘whack a mole’ and work to reduce the moles. Let’s face it, at a time when police officers are being stretched to their limits and where low police numbers are of concern to many both in and outside of the organisation, we can’t keep relying on sacking officers as the solution to the current problems.

To answers the questions I ask above, we need to make some people in policing feel uncomfortable. 

I’ve learned that prevention, when done correctly, makes people uncomfortable.  It can touch a nerve and responses can be negative with many pushing back. It’s how we lean into this discomfort that matters.

To really address the current issues, part of the response requires policing to lean into the fact that in most cases the harm doer is male.  Furthermore, in many cases those around the harm doer are also mostly other men.

In 2010 a colleague and now a good friend asked me a question. He simply asked – “As a man what are doing to prevent violence?” Initially I was taken a back. I thought to myself “I’m not violent, whats this got to do with me?”. I was feeling the discomfort I discuss above. Rather than stick to this response I decided to lean into the question and began to see the positive role I could play as a non-violent man.

A study in 2018 by Harvard Business Review (HBR) asked – Why do companies get caught up in illegal behaviour, harassment, and toxic leadership? Their research identified an underlying cause: a “masculinity contest culture.” This kind of culture endorses winner-take-all competition, where winners demonstrate stereotypically masculine traits such as emotional toughness, physical stamina, and ruthlessness. It produces organisational dysfunction, as employees become hyper competitive to win.

The HBR suggested that these norms take root in organisations because behaving in accordance with them is what makes someone a “man.” In many cultures around the world, someone becomes a “man” by behaving in ways that conform with cultural beliefs about what men are like — dominant, tough, risk taking, aggressive, rule breaking.

The recent case of numerous police officers having a ‘petrol bomb’ fight (yes you heard correctly), presents clear evidence of such contest cultures.  Responses by other serving officers to this incident using comments like “legends” also evidences the problems that occur within male dominated cultures.

The competition breeds unspoken anxiety (because admitting anxiety is seen as weak) and defensiveness undermining cooperation, psychological safety, trust in coworkers, and the ability to admit uncertainty or mistakes. Together this creates miserable, counterproductive work environments that increase stress, burnout, and turnover.

Since the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer the defensiveness described by the HBR has been evident in many of the personal social media accounts of serving and retired officers.  The involvement of some anonymous accounts has brought a sinister side to the responses to the public scrutiny of policing.

The presence of such contest cultures presents another challenge to policing one that inhibits the presence of active bystanders.   

In 2020 Derek Chauvin, a serving Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, person who had just been arrested by officer Chauvin and others.  Three of Chauvin’s colleagues, all adult men, were in a position to interrupt their fellow officer’s abusive behaviour and save Floyd’s life. But none did.

Many armchair analysts will debate about why this incident occurred.  Some will simply focus on racial bias.  I would add the gendered dynamic of men in tight-nit groups like sports teams, military, and policing. 

Here in the UK the nicknames assigned to the likes of Wayne Couzins and David Carrick present a reality that many of their problematic behaviours and attitudes were on full display way before they committed their much-publicised crimes. 

The cruel killing of George Floyd by police officers and the ongoing issues within UK policing has rightly focused attention on police practices in communities across the country. But if we want to understand why horrific incidents like this continue to occur whilst in the presence of others, instead of always reacting after the fact, we need to ask why men find it hard to act and how do norms in male-dominated peer cultures like policing operate to keep men silent, even when they know something is wrong? 

A focus on addressing masculinity cultures is something that policing requires to lean into.

To address these contest cultures the HBR research suggested two areas of focus:

Establish a stronger focus on the organisation’s mission – Current trainings backfire, in part, because they focus on compliance and “what not to do,” are often framed as trying to “make things better for the women and minorities” rather than for everyone, and seem unconnected to the organisation’s core mission. Effective interventions require authentic and meaningful connections to core organisational values and goals.

For example, a focus on oil rig disasters costing lives and money, environmental destruction, legal liability, and severe reputational damage, leaders convinced workers that increased safety was central to the mission; and they monitored and rewarded desired behaviour change. Workers were rewarded for voicing doubts or uncertainties about a procedure (rather than “showing no weakness”), for listening to each other (rather than obeying the “strongest” alpha male), for valuing safety and taking breaks (rather than “putting work first”), and for cooperating with and caring for co-workers (rather than “dog eat dog” competition).

The need to prove yourself as a man proved incompatible with the new mission-based rules. Not only were accidents and injuries reduced, but so was bullying, harassment, burnout, and stress.

THE HBR also suggested organisations work better to –

Dispel misconceptions that “everyone endorses the contest.” – People often fail to question masculinity contest norms as they risk being badged as soft. As a result, everyone goes along to get along, publicly reinforcing norms they privately hate — people laugh at a joke they actually think is offensive.

Because people publicly uphold the norms, it appears as though everyone endorses them. Research has shown that people in masculinity contest cultures think their co-workers embrace these norms when in fact they do not.

Leaders can remedy this misperception by publicly rejecting masculinity contest norms and empowering others to voice their previously secret dissent.  A trait of a good leader is to be a role model. Male leaders must role model the behaviours they want to see in others. Do as I do not as I say comes to mind.

When it comes to addressing current issues in policing there is a specific role for men in the profession to act. It’s not enough to simply call out a behaviour after an incident. Its how you behave before harm occurs that presents opportunities. Role modelling respectful behaviour is key. Addressing harmful attitudes is key and will lead to real reductions in the issues that we see far too regularly in our media.

I know men care about the issues I have discussed above. You know what, caring isn’t enough.

Here’s the thing – when bystanders remain silent this signals to others that a behaviour is accepted. The opposite is also true, when one person speaks out and signals disapproval you permit others to do the same.

Action breeds action.

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