Leaders determine culture: The troubling case of UK policing.

A senior police officer of the Hamburg police ...

A senior police officer of the Hamburg police on assignment at Hamburg city hall, Germany. Français : Capitaine de la police de Hambourg en faction devant l’hôtel de ville de Hambourg, en Allemagne. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

UK College of Policing published a report on police leadership culture.[1] The report found that the top officer culture is problematic as it encourages bullying, sexual harassment, and a sense of entitlement to legal and illegal perks. The report describes specific problems and opportunities. I am interested in the report because of what it suggests about corporate culture. In particular, I am interested in the way that culture influences how the employees deliver their services. In this case, how the police behave.

A fish rots from the head, and the barrel creates the rotten apple.

In a previous post, I looked at the idea that an organisation, like a fish, rots from the head down. I concluded that an organisation rots from the inside, as the corporate culture turns toxic.[2] In a related post, I explored the idea that rotten barrels create the rotten apples.[3] I found that employees will have local or team specific cultures yet follow the dominant culture within their organisation. If the organisation tolerates or encourages certain behaviours, the staff will adopt them or adapt to them. In these blogs, culture is expressed in the saying that “it is how we do things around here.”

Do staff follow the leader in the culture journey?

What I want to explore in this post is the way that a leader’s culture is emulated by staff. In particular, I will argue that the oft-repeated claims of rotten apples or rogue officers reflect the leadership styles at the top. I do not mean that the top officer are rogue so much as their behaviour encourages or creates a culture in which rogue officers can develop. If they fail to lead ethically, then their behaviour influences the rest of the organisation even if it is only indirectly. I suggest that what is done at the micro level (top) is emulated and exaggerated at the macro level (front line). If the top act unethically then the frontline staff will pick up these clues. The middle managers, though, are critical as they transmit this culture. The middle managers in this case, the font line supervisors translate the culture to the frontline. They encourage the junior officers behaviour that they belief will please the senior officers and match what they expect.

The leader embodies their organisation for better or worse

As a hierarchical organisation, the police encourage deference to authority based on seniority. As the organisation is designed around and supports the leader, their behaviour is less likely to be challenged and carry a greater influence. The leaders set the tone within the company. http://www.smartbiz.com/article/articleview/228/2/3/.  How they approach their role and the organisation will influence the overall culture. If they encourage the hierarchy and the sense of entitlement, junior officers will be initiated into that culture. They understand the system and conform to succeed. As a result, they are habituated to accept it as the “the way we do things around here”.

The hierarchy benefits senior officers who want to retain the culture that enables their behaviour as it discourages junior officers from engaging in reforms. The report suggests that leaders encourage junior officers to communicate upwards. However, this reform is less likely where there is a residual autocratic culture. The previous culture is what middle managers will know. They benefit from it and the reforms threaten those advantages. When middle managers retain the previous autocratic culture, senior officer reforms will be less likely to succeed. The middle managers will resist reforms that undermine their advantages. The previous culture gave them benefits as their authority was respected as it was based on the hierarchy. The autocratic culture reinforced their status. By contrast, the transformational culture removes that advantage. Even though the report says that a senior police officer who encourage bottom up communication will engage and develop junior officers, they will not succeed without middle managers. Yet, the report overlooks the middle manager’s role. They create the tension between the proposed and the current culture. The senior officer who exploits the structure for perks is less likely to be challenged. The structure cloaks or explains their behaviour. By contrast, similar behaviour by a front line officer would draw attention. A senior officer who drives an expensive car is less noticeable than a frontline officer who drives the same car.[4] However, the two behaviours are linked by the culture that created them.

A rogue office reflects a rogue culture

When an organisation explains the behaviour of a junior officer as “rogue”, it reflects more on the organisation that creates or enables the officer. If the culture of the hierarchy encourages senior officers to act rogue then it will habituate junior officers to accept that culture. The junior officers will be encouraged to belief that the position comes with privileges. What we see in the report is a problem that affects all organisations although it is more problematic for the police. The senior officers appear to undermine the control systems that would limit that corruption.[5] In this, the report and recent scandals suggest a larger problem not just for the police but also for many organisations.

Organisational Corruption when an organisation no longer serves its purpose

The senior officer culture can corrupt the institution. When this happens, the institution begins to serves senior officers. The culture encourages senior officers to see the organisation as something that serves their interests. For example, arrests and policing are made to make top officer look good. The institution moves away from its purpose to something else.[6] The senior officers will consider the organisation’s reputation and increase efforts to protect and promote that reputation. The more the organisation serves their interests, the more they will want to manage its reputation. The reputation becomes more important than the organisation’s purpose. In effect, its reputation becomes its purpose as the senior officers benefit from that reputation not the organisation.

How senior officers corrupts the institution with reputation management.

When reputation management becomes more important than its purpose, then institutional corruption occurs. When the Metropolitan Police worked closely with the News of the World, through the Fake Sheik, they were interested in reputation management. The senior officers were seduced by the promise of good press and publicity. The police appeared more eager to accommodate News International than meet the police objective. The senior officers never broke the law even though their behaviour limited the organisation’s ability to deliver on its purpose. Institutional corruption also occurs when a senior officer manages the arrest of a powerful person to protect the organisation.[7] The institutional purpose is not being served as it does not uphold the law. A frontline version of these events can be seen in the problems associated with Plebgate as seen in Operation Alice. There, the frontline officers engage the press to manage the incident. They behaved like the senior officers as they used the organisation to subvert the organisational purpose. In effect, the police appeared busy in the effort to manage the press and the politics instead of uphold the law?

Transparency and accountability can restrain a leader but do they exist?

If the structure challenges the senior officer behaviour, it can contain it. The challenge will come from transparency that encourages accountability. The corporate governance is supposed to create the accountability. However, the report shows the police are weak at scrutinizing senior officer behaviour. In large part, this weakness comes from the organisational culture and hierarchy. They combine to discourage challenge and scrutiny. The hierarchy encourages deference and the culture remains infused with the autocratic past. The autocratic past also encourages the deference.

External scrutiny is needed but is that compromised?

Greater external scrutiny would help to improve the internal governance. Yet, like the Rotherham scandal, scrutiny is missing.[8] The local authorities and the police commissioners seem unable or unwilling to hold the police leadership to account. If they are not reviewing the practice and behaviour of senior officers, their partners, who is? If the scrutiny panels have not reviewed these issues at some point or on a regular basis, we have a problem. It would appear that scrutiny becomes an elaborate governance kabuki where local authorities look the other way in return for an easy life. We all just get along without anyone airing their dirty laundry. Instead of resisting toxicity and insularity, the system encourages it because partners become silent co-conspirators. They reduce or avoid scrutiny and accountability becomes superficial as the focus turns to less institutionally contentious issues. There are always other priorities and that excuse the cultural continuity. Instead of understanding that the organisations have to hold themselves to account and hold each other to account, if the public are to trust them, they turn outward. They never get their own house in order as no one wants to rock the boat.

What can be done to hold the leadership to account?

The report recommends that the police develop their internal communications to allow bottom up accountability. The new organisational culture has to reject the autocratic past and become democratic. A more democratic culture will help to develop the idea that senior officers justify their work to the organisation. The future will require them to convince and not command. Although this may take time for the police who have a historical autocratic culture, it is what other organisation do to develop their culture. When employees are engaged by the organisation, they see the proposed behaviour modelled by the senior manager. An engaged employee is more likely to contribute to the overall culture. An engaged employee will have a stake in the organisation’s purpose and work to resist changes to it by leaders who wish to subvert its purpose for their own ends. The challenge will be to created accountability mechanisms, like public hearings, or staff surveys that explain and measure the corporate culture. The senior officers will need to need to justify the culture they create and nurture. It is not enough to say, “We are hitting targets” if those targets serve the police leadership and not the public.


What the UK police leadership reveals is that its influence on culture endures and is stronger than in other industries. The challenge is whether the leadership can change itself and in changing itself whether it will change the overall culture. The report suggests that it might be beginning to succeed. However, the residual autocratic culture remains embedded within officers and organisation. Perhaps we need to look at the middle managers as the guardians of the old culture who need to change. They are the leaders that determine the police culture and any organisation’s culture. Perhaps this is a topic for future research.


[2] https://thoughtmanagement.org/2011/11/21/does-the-fish-rot-from-the-head-down-when-organisations-go-toxic/

[3] https://thoughtmanagement.org/2012/01/07/the-myth-of-the-rogue-employee-rotten-barrels-create-rotten-apples/

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-30710852

[5] The Dark Side of Authority: Antecedents, Mechanisms, and Outcomes of Organizational

Corruption   Ruth V. Aguilera and Abhijeet K. Vadera Journal of Business Ethics,

Vol. 77, No. 4 (Feb., 2008), pp. 431-449 Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25075575

[6] Denis F. Thompson proposed a model of institutional corruption in which he looks at institutional corruption as occurring when an organisation, in his research Congress, deviates systematically from its proper purpose. See Denis F. Thompson Ethics In Congress: From Individual to Institutional Corruption (1995). See also Institutional Corruption: a Fiduciary Theory M. E. Newhouse Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy vol 23 553-594 and Dennis F. Thompson Two Concepts of Corruption Edmon J Safra Working Papers No. 16 August 2013. There he describes institutional corruption as occurring “when an institution or its officials receive a benefit that is directly useful to performing an institutional purpose, and systematically provides a service to the benefactor under conditions that tend to undermine procedures that support the primary purposes of the institution.” (p.3)

[7] Fleet Street routinely nurtures a crop of untold stories about powerful abusers who have evaded justice. One such is Peter Morrison, formerly the MP for Chester and the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. Ten years ago, Chris House, the veteran crime reporter for the Sunday Mirror, twice received tip-offs from police officers who said that Morrison had been caught cottaging in public toilets with underaged boys and had been released with a caution. A less powerful man, the officers complained, would have been charged with gross indecency or an offence against children.

At the time, Chris House confronted Morrison, who used libel laws to block publication of the story. Now, Morrison is dead and cannot sue. Police last week confirmed that he had been picked up twice and never brought to trial. They added that there appeared to be no trace of either incident in any of the official records


[8] Rotherham grooming scandal showed the scrutiny to be limited and ineffective. It became a captive of the status quo and failed to challenge the organisation. Officers appeared to feed the Members a steady diet of good news and the Members did not want to look for problems. Instead of providing accountability and challenge, even if informally, it failed in that duty as it became a servant of the political leadership. http://www.cfps.org.uk/domains/cfps.org.uk/local/media/downloads/06_09_17_Rotherham_report_1.pdf

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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1 Response to Leaders determine culture: The troubling case of UK policing.

  1. l8in says:

    Reblogged this on L8in.


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