Policing, Leadership, and Compassion
“Policing needs to adopt the compassion process as well as compassionate leadership.”
Dr Fiona Meechan, Course Director for the Police Strategic Command Course at The College of Policing in 2021 and 2022, shares research and key findings from her recently-completed PhD: “Intelligence Led? Policing, people leadership and compassion – and the need for speed in culture improvement: A qualitative study of senior police leaders, guided by Intelligent Compassion”.
Having worked in and around policing for over 30 years, including in a range of partner organisations, I’ve had an enduring curiosity around the quality of leadership in our public sector organisations, and particularly in policing. It appeared to me that many people in senior leadership roles in all organisations could, and should, be dealing with the people that they lead and manage in a much more effective, and frankly much more humane, way. Given that many of us spend a large proportion of our life in work, and life is short, I have always considered that poor leadership, which can have such a damaging impact on individuals and organisations, is fundamentally an ethical problem; and of course when people are damaged, they are unable to give their best, and so it is also a productivity problem.
“My assumption is human beings are fundamentally compassionate”
So, completing in-depth research for my PhD gave me a great opportunity to explore this further. The research was situated within the theoretical framework of compassion at work. This is because my ontological assumption is that human beings are fundamentally compassionate (disclaimer: I do class myself as a naïve optimist!). I was therefore curious as to why some people (clearly not all people) behave so patently badly towards others in work, and particularly towards those that they have organisational power over.
My research therefore sought to understand how police leaders develop their people leadership craft; how they apply it in practice; and how it can be improved. The study was guided by the research philosophy of Intelligent Compassion, which focuses on suspending judgement and gaining a deep understanding of the experiences of participants, and giving attention to providing solutions which can be applied in practice, which was especially important to me.
I approached the Police Superintendents’ Association (PSA) for England and Wales to ask for participants, and they were extremely supportive of my research topic and approach; they receive a great number of requests to fill in quantitative questionnaires and liked the fact that, instead, I was going to ask people to tell me their stories. In total, I carried out 34 in-depth interviews and 2 focus groups with Police Superintendents and Chief Superintendents who volunteered for the research, and the interviews generated a large amount of data to provide a rich picture of some of the people leadership landscape in policing in England and Wales.
Recommendation: Interventions to adopt compassionate leadership and the compassionate approach to policing.
It is of course difficult to summarise a full thesis in a short blog, but my PhD was written in the ‘alternative format’, which hopefully means it is relatively accessible and can be read in bite-sized chunks, should you wish to see more. A full-text pdf is available at researchgate.net.
The first full paper in the thesis sets the scene for why compassion at work is so important – because it generates improvements for individuals, organisations, and the public – and the other 3 papers address the key findings of the research, which I’ve summarised below.
The main recommendation, which cuts across all 3 findings papers, is that compassionate leadership and adopting the compassionate process in policing can provide an antidote to damaging practices and can generate improvements, by accelerating the slow cultural improvements which are emerging. However, that is unlikely to happen without intervention and needs to be done with clear intention.
The findings showed that there are compassionate senior leaders in policing, who describe working in compassionate ways, which are aligned with the compassion process of noticing, empathising and taking positive action to improve circumstances. However, their approaches are constrained by the persistent dominant culture which has enduring features of machismo, conservatism, cynicism and prejudice. There are signs that the culture is improving, but it is happening extremely slowly. The research reinforces the need to clarify leadership expectations in policing and show that compassionate leadership can contribute to the culture change needed to tackle unacceptable behaviour, support people, improve performance and therefore strengthen legitimacy.
Compassion and Inclusion
Although I had a semi-structured interview schedule to follow, I asked very open questions and allowed the interviews to largely follow the topics that participants were passionate about, and there were some very clear recurring themes. The strongest of those themes was exclusion. The data showed that most participants had been excluded in some way due to their diverse individual characteristics differing from the policing ‘norm’. A major concern for participants was how promotion processes allow favouritism to thrive in a number of places. This favouritism perpetuates homogeneity and suppresses diversity and inclusion, and that is extremely harmful to individuals and organisations.
“Promotion processes allow favouritism to thrive”
The research found that compassion and inclusion are intrinsically linked, and are also linked to ethical practice. The discrimination and favouritism described by participants demonstrates a dearth of compassion, and improvements in representation will never be realised unless this is addressed.
Learning the Craft
The findings of my research show that police leadership development in England and Wales has been patchy and inconsistent, giving no guarantee that leaders will adopt positive people leadership approaches. It is not intentional and co-ordinated enough to consistently generate the kinds of leaders needed, and the leaders in my study had largely sought out their own leadership development opportunities.
“The compassion process…includes truly valuing all of the great people in policing”
In order to speed up improvements, policing needs to be bold about defining and adopting the compassionate leadership qualities required of leaders, and be intentional about consistently developing leaders using evidence-based approaches, such as learning from experience, reflection, coaching, mentoring and role modelling, as well as leadership courses. This needs to be delivered in a co-ordinated way across policing from the point of entry into the organisation, and throughout all the ranks. And the compassion process needs to be applied in practice; in particular this includes truly valuing all of the great people in policing, delivering fairness and procedural justice, harnessing and promoting the positive elements of police culture such as professionalism, inclusivity and compassion, and relentlessly challenging poor practice to remove those who harm others and threaten legitimacy.
A wise saying (widely attributed to Albert Einstein) holds that the definition of madness is continually doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. Police leadership and police leadership development have been considered to be critical issues since well before this century, and yet we now have some of the lowest levels of morale and wellbeing being reported by officers, and we know that leaders at all levels have a major impact on these matters. We also know that, despite many crucial reports, over many years, calling for improvements in workforce representation and inclusion, this has still not been achieved.
“Police organisations often fail to apply their own problem-solving tools…to organisational issues”
My biggest personal concern is that those who are charged with driving improved leadership and inclusion in policing simply don’t ‘get it’ in the way they need to. As with so many organisations, there are lots of great words and documents, but not so much by the way of tangible action leading to improved sustainable outcomes. Policing is known for being task focused, which can of course be a great strength in some circumstances, but not all. Police organisations often fail to apply their own tools, such as problem-solving models, to organisational issues, and so can jump straight to ‘solutions’ without first really understanding the nature of the problem. Changes are often rushed through, with minimal engagement with the people most greatly affected, and when this happens, it’s inevitable that approaches and products will not be as well thought through or developed as they should be, and this carries huge risk.
“Now is the time for policing to fundamentally change their approach.”
Now is the time for policing to fundamentally change their approach. Policing needs to adopt the compassion process as well as compassionate leadership. That entails being open to seeing and hearing the true nature of the current problems in the system, having a deep understanding of the evidence base, and delivering the work in a competent and ethical way, whilst modelling compassionate leadership practices themselves, for the benefit of individuals, the organisations and the public.
If not now, when?
About the Author
Dr Fiona Meechan was the Course Director for the Police Strategic Command Course at The College of Policing in 2021 and 2022. She is an Executive Education Associate with The University of Manchester. Fiona has recently completed a PhD entitled “Intelligence Led? Policing, people leadership and compassion – and the need for speed in culture improvement: A qualitative study of senior police leaders, guided by Intelligent Compassion”. A full-text pdf of her thesis is available at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Fiona-Meechan.