Does police officer morale have an impact on public perceptions of police legitimacy?

In this blog, Paul McKeever scholar Elena Collins discusses issues relating to police morale and asks police officers to get involved in her research. 

I have just put down the phone after speaking to a friend.  Our conversation has left me wondering if the timing of this very first blog was predetermined somehow, and by some kind of higher power.  I had previously been unsure of how to begin and was gazing at a blank Word document on my screen when the phone rang.  However, as I tried to give encouraging words of advice to my troubled friend I began to realise that the issues she is facing are exactly the type of issues that I should be writing about here.  So here goes…

My friend (let’s call her Lucy) is in a situation that has sadly become far too commonplace.  Lucy works for an employer that she believes doesn’t appreciate her and treats her badly.  She feels overworked, under-supported and even bullied.  Her morale is low which has affected her self-confidence and her ability to perform at her best.  She feels exploited, unable to cope, unable to leave, unable to challenge an increasingly unfulfilled aspect of her life that consumes the majority of her waking hours. Lucy appears to be trapped in an impossible cycle of expectations placed upon her to perform well in an environment which is stacked up against her.

It’s not for me to say whether Lucy is actually being bullied and exploited.  She may be out of her depth, she may be subject to a series of unfortunate yet random circumstances.  Perhaps her manager is incompetent or her employer’s policies and processes dysfunctional.  There is also the possibility of environmental or political factors at play which are having a negative, albeit indirect, effect on Lucy’s job.  It may even be all of the above.

The result is a catch-22 scenario for Lucy.  Her job places performance and customer service expectations upon her, which she wants to satisfy but feels prevented from doing so.  Her attempts to highlight the situation have seemingly gone unnoticed, and her avenues for escalation are limited.

Lucy is at a juncture.  She is suffering from very low morale and has 3 options to choose from:

  1. She can continue to try and work successfully in the current situation.
  2. She can challenge the situation in the hopes of activating improvements.
  3. She can adapt herself so that the situation works for her.

You may have noticed that I didn’t include ‘quitting her job’ as a fourth option.  This is because any of the above could lead to resignation.  Leaving a job, particularly a job that you consider to be a life choice (which Lucy does) and which you and your family have built your world around (which Lucy and her family have done), is not as simple as it sounds and could create its own issues.

Let’s also be honest about this.  If everyone who experienced low morale at some point in their career simply quit their job without trying one of the above first, most of us would be unemployed for most of the time.

Each of the above 3 options places the onus on Lucy to resolve her own morale issues, even though the situation is likely to be out of her control.  Option 1 prolongs the situation indefinitely, or until something snaps.  Option 2 requires Lucy, who is already feeling frail, to go out on a limb in an environment that doesn’t support her.

Option 3 is an interesting one.  It appears on the surface to be the ’emotionally intelligent’ option, but in reality it requires Lucy to pursue an avenue of subversion.  Laziness, absenteeism, bypassing established policy and process, cutting corners, lack of transparency, cronyism, discrimination, bullying, theft and corruption are all ways of making the most of an impaired job situation so that it works for you.

If Lucy were to choose Option 3 she may learn to thrive in the very same situation that she currently finds crippling.  However, she would no longer be working to the collective benefit of her employer.  She would be working to her own benefit which undermines the principles of good employee behaviour.

In a healthy organisational culture Lucy’s subversiveness would be identified and either rehabilitated or eliminated.  In an organisation where the percentage of subversion is already reasonably high, it is less likely that she will be identified as subversive.  Her ability to cope in a dysfunctional working environment may even hold her in high esteem.  This is where an organisational runs the risk of developing a workplace culture that breeds subversion.

In a policing organisation, could low morale such as that which Lucy is experiencing, lead to police officer coping mechanisms that ultimately erode public confidence and perceptions of police legitimacy?

Which, if any, aspects of policing run the risk of having a counterproductive impact on police morale and public confidence in this way?

Are there aspects of policing that act as countermeasures to improve morale, and in turn improve public confidence?

My interest in workplace morale and organisational culture long precedes my 8 years of working in policing.  It is something that has always fascinated me.  When I saw an advertisement for the Paul McKeever Scholarship opportunity, and in particular the chance to focus my research on the topic of morale, I made a commitment to myself to do something constructive with the opportunity, which could be built upon to provide real benefits to policing.

Studies of other types of workforces have been conducted which conclude that worker morale influences customer handling behaviours that in turn influence customer perceptions, and that morale boosting mechanisms exist which can also improve customer handling via national or organisational policy, or other workplace changes.  However, further research in this area is needed to better understand how it may apply to policing.

If you are a UK police officer and would like to be participate in this study, please email me at e.collins409@canterbury.ac.uk for further information and an opportunity to get involved.

You can also keep up to date on the progress of my research by following me on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/elenacollins1

Or Twitter at @wotshewrote

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