Sergeants / leadership and research. Some thoughts from the sun bed!

Ever since the @wecops debate on the role of sergeants I have been thinking about the vital role this rank plays in a range of different police contexts. My thoughts range from the critical supervisory role with the rank of constable (where arguably the use of street level discretion plays out the most), the identification of good and conversely bad practice, the recognition of training needs and the importance of all of these aspects of police work within organisational change and progression of the service.

Over the last few days I have finally had a chance to read some ‘stuff’ that I have had in the ‘must read’ pile for ages. Firstly, Jenny Fleming’s edited collection ‘Police Leadership: Rising to the Top’ which presents academic work on a variety of areas of leadership alongside the practitioners voice on the same subject matter. Several issues in the book really appealed to me in the context of thinking about sergeants as leaders and they resonated with some of the conversation arising in the sergeant discussion on wecops.
So let’s start with that. What were the most important messages arising from that chat for me, as an observer and a ‘non cop’, but as someone who has a huge interest in the role of policing and police officers in society.

1: That sergeants must have a clear understanding of the well being of their staff and of human resource issues.
2: Understanding the style of and skills of leadership at the rank of sergeant is vital.
3:The attributes assigned to a ‘good’ sergeant essentially align themselves with the characteristics associated with a teacher, a mentor and a participatory leader.
4: The most important part of the sergeant role for their teams is their people skills, both in relation to the management of well being and the recognition of continuous professional development needs.
5: Sergeants do recognise their role in empowering staff but generally the feeling was that they are not promoted as a result of their ability to articulate leadership skills.

When reading through Jenny’s great collection on leadership I had so many thoughts about the academic understanding of this concept. Many of these centred on the lack of recent research in the UK on sergeants. Arguably this is an area of policing which is central to the rank and file, perhaps currently an unknown catalyst in the success of organisational change. Just an aside from the main points of this blog I think this research, should it be undertaken, (which I hope it will) needs to focus on understanding the practitioner experience and their narratives when it comes to police leadership. This area really rang true with me in Jenny’s book (as most of you who read my blogs know the voice of the research respondent is central to my research ethos). The opening chapter really heralded how the Mcdonaldisation of policing in relation to leadership styles cannot be right. Not to undermine the role of the ‘what works’ paradigm but when it comes to something as diverse as leadership style ‘the reflection and the sense making that lies behind the narratives has much value’. Without this type of qualitative methodology being applied to the research in this area we assume that there is a measurable and objective definition of what we mean by ‘good’ leadership. In reality actually asking those in the role to reflect and describe what they have done in different situations allows for a much more nuanced approach to understanding how leaders adapt, reflect on their decisions and learn from them. We need therefore a realist methodological approach to research in this field.

This notion and the importance of listening was also highlighted to me in Grint and Thornton’s chapter in the same collection. I have always liked Grint’s discussion of wicked problems in the context of policing and the need for officers to recognise that some police tasks may be considered as more routine / tame and more easily dealt with via a certain procedure that is relatively standard to apply. However when it comes to more complex problems that do not have an easily applied scientific solution a more collaborative and thoughtful approach is required. When considering dealing with these wicked problems Grint articulates that leadership and decision making is present across all ranks. If this collaborative style was applied to society with the presence of wicked problems it is of course paramount to engage with the public and others in order for them to take responsibility for helping solve their own problems ( hence building on. social capital). However this is also highly relevant in the context of supervisors and their relations with their staff (staff capital). Supervisors and leaders further up the organisation may need to be more strategic in their approach to dealing with such complex problems BUT it is the information from those on the ground that must feed that strategic plan. At this point a command and control style of leadership cannot work effectively as there is no agreed solution which can be pulled out of a back pocket. This results in the anxiety of ‘not making a decision’ but the need to reflect on what might be done to deal with the issue in the longer term.

What I particularly like about this chapter is the mention of how promotion at this level needs to move beyond an ability to manage and command. Joined up approaches to wicked problems are dependant on collective conversations, team work and perhaps an ability to try new creative approaches which allow for learning from mistakes over blame cultures and finger pointing. This is about being comfortable with not jumping to a solution. Policing is ambiguous and uncertain and perhaps now more so than ever. Leadership in these contexts often cannot be ‘right’ but has to be inclusive, democratic, collaborative and without blame.

This is why I think the strength and possibility of the sergeants as a vital and active agent in change agendas and reform is so so vital. And yet we know very little at the moment about this.
In my other reading list l had some fairly old literature on sergeants which was kindly sent on to me from a friend at the College of Policing. Whilst some of this was based in the U.S the skim read I have done of it highlights the limited amount of time sergeants have to actually observe their teams behaviour and the focus becomes more about WHAT gets done over how it is delivered. Hence the focus of the role is about management via a range of quantitative measures over staff support. The irony of this is that at a time when the police are being pushed to act in line with a code of ethics and according to the principals of procedural justice, making sergeants managers can leave this unchecked. Additionally any chances of changing unacceptable practice or recognising the training and development needs of officers are limited and the opportunity to display the characteristics associated with a leader and identified as important by officers themselves is reduced. Certainly off line conversations I have had with sergeant students and friends of mine mirror these frustrations. Other research conducted in the 80s suggests that selection procedures favour administrative inclined officers over leadership qualities. Staff productivity therefore becomes based on official productivity measures such as sick days / arrests and calls answered.
I have written this year with Dr Dominic Wood (chapter on way) about reflective learning and the current debate on ethical decision making processes in policing. However without effective leadership at this level in the service any understanding of what constitutes ethical decision making and behaviour goes unchecked, learning and reflection is lost and arguably behaviour remains as was as performance is reviewed on what not how. In my eyes a huge lost opportunity for driving changes at this level.
If we consider all of this in the context of what Grint describes and the changing social landscape within which police find themselves operating in there is a huge argument here for more research on sergeants. To explore issues such as what teams think of their supervisors, what constitutes ‘considered’ good leadership at this level, how this rank manages up and the challenges to using this crucial rank to drive change in the police is not simply desirable but also perhaps crucial for the future of the police as a more reflective and supportive organisation.

Emma Williams

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