Culture: Building it, Changing it, Finding it and Losing it

May 16, 2023
You’d need to have recently arrived from Mars to think things were going well in UK public services. Strikes; pay and pension disputes; daily stories of criminality, bullying and unethical behaviour; faltering service provision; arguments over recruitment paths – the list goes on.
Positive change is long overdue and desperately needed.
So how did we get to a place where many of the very people that should be the torchbearers for that change are in fact the ones using that torch to light a path into different industry altogether?
With a nod to the Casey report (but realising this is a national and international issue), a cross-reference with some core Change principles, and the anecdotal evidence bank of my overflowing inbox of discontent, I look at some of the issues facing a healthy culture change. Where could policing and public services go next? What to keep? What to lose?
This should be the easy part for policing and public services. Uniforms, hats and titles may differ, but it’s hard to disagree with the purpose of policing, fire and rescue, education or healthcare. The clue is in the name each time.
It’s rare that I ever speak to someone who joined the police or became a teacher for the money. Many have their own personal stories, motivators and sparks behind their dedication, but the common theme is service and sense of helping others.
Interestingly, psychologists (such as Martin Seligman in the book Flourish) suggest that acts of kindness or serving others is proven to raise wellbeing levels in the person “giving” – so this should already be a compound benefit of building an engaged and happy employee base. However, I often hear from police officers who want to leave safeguarding teams in order “to help people”. As understandable and laudable as that is, it shows that something is fundamentally wrong.
Any Change programme is fundamentally people-based. No matter how good the system or the method, it needs the right people in the right roles at the right time. In the 2023 McKinsey “State of Organisations” report, the following global challenge was identified: “New rules of attraction, retention, and attrition. People are revising their attitudes both to work and at work. Organizations can respond by tailoring employee value propositions to individualized preferences in ways that can help close the gap between what today’s workers want and what companies need.”
In policing, we’ve seen the “Uplift” programme trumpeted as a success for bringing in 20,000 “new” officers, but at best that’s added a shiny new tap above the same leaky bucket. (You can read my thoughts on Uplift on previous blogs).
Meanwhile, voluntary resignations from policing are rising rapidly; posts remain unfilled across healthcare and the Government is at loggerheads with almost every Trade Union or Federation on pay and conditions.
The employee value proposition for being a public servant or crown servant in 2023 feels pretty thin - as the rate of evolution in what people want from work races ever further away from what these organisations can (or are willing to?) offer their people.
If we dust off the Change Management manual, we see instantly that it’s crucial to involve those impacted from the beginning. In this context, we’d have frontline staff vocal and visible in the design and implementation of the desired culture. What (at least externally) we see in the Met police, for example, is the most senior leaders assuring the public that they are the right leaders for change – despite also being the same senior leaders who have gradually risen the command chain over the past 25 years. Some of that is a systemic issue: time-served promotion systems naturally create leaders who are distant from the “shop floor”, remove alignment between role and personality or specialism and stifle innovation.
A wider point is motivation to be part of the change. Key here is the breakdown of the two-way street that would be fundamental to balance between employee and employer (much as those terms don’t really fit this sector). First responders are overworked and underappreciated.
Goodwill can only paper over the cracks for so long. Which, in Change terms, means people are often treading water in these organisations – trying desperately to keep the wheels on rather than having any spare capacity for transformative efforts. It’s an uncomfortable truth of transformation that either you add a significant amount of extra resource and capacity, or you accept that day-to-day performance will suffer in the short term, in favour of longer-term efficiencies and improvements. In a hospital, a prison, a school or a 999/911 police service, that disruption is not an option. In the UK at least, we’re over a decade into consistent reductions in budget. So is it any surprise that what we see first is burnout and poor mind health amongst first responders – who then feel they have no choice but to leave?
Baroness Casey’s report into the Metropolitan Police pulls no punches here:
"Leadership is not taken seriously and people are not promoted according to their talents. If they are, it is despite, not because of, the promotion process."
Let’s break this in two:
existing leaders as vocal, authentic and visible role models of positive culture and change
identifying, developing, and equipping the next generation of leaders
I don’t doubt that there are some fantastic existing leaders in these fields. I know plenty of them personally. However, it’s also obvious that there are also plenty who couldn’t lead their way out of a wet paper bag – and that’s just the inept, not to mention the actively toxic, bullying or corrupt. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t be in this mess. That’s the unpleasant reality.
On the second point, becoming a leader in the emergency services is often a bizarre and convoluted process. Many choose to do so because it’s the only way to increase their salary. Some because it’s a route to a specific team or niche. Some to drive change from the inside. Whatever the motivator, there’s a consistently odd premise: if you’re a good teacher/police officer, you’ll make a good leader of teachers or police officers. Without any meaningful training to do so. By passing an exam that also has nothing to do with leadership. It feels like not only selecting at random, but also setting people up to fail. No-one is winning in that scenario. Another consequence I see regularly in working with mid-career professionals brings two sides of the same coin: - Mid-senior leaders (say a police Superintendent level) often look upwards and say “it’s not worth it”, or that their values don’t align to the organisation. At this point the force loses a potentially great Chief Constable, and the force’s options for that promotion are narrowed further.
- Narrowed, because the idea of bringing leaders in from elsewhere hasn’t got off the ground. Bringing innovators and experts in only works if there’s an attractive environment for them to enter which rewards them appropriately and gives them the freedom to change things.
McKinsey’s report also says: “The highest performers are 800% more productive than average performers in the same role”.
Does it seem so ridiculous to put a little more effort and consistency into matching the right people to the right role? By looking at who they are, why they want to lead and how they intend to do so, allied with high-quality learning and development, we can replace the current leadership lottery with a consistent conveyor belt of the leaders needed.
When working with people looking to transition out of the emergency services or education, a sizeable chunk of our time and effort is spent on identifying, defining and aligning personal values. Essentially detaching “who you are” from “what you do” and investigating the health of the relationship between the two.
I am often the first person (30 years after they first stood in front of a class or donned a uniform) to ask about their values. Not only does that make the transition harder than it needs to be, because we’re working from a standing start, it underlines the issue that these are inherently values-driven, service-driven people with a sense of duty that has been ignored or taken advantage of.
A great test of an organisational culture is what happens when things go wrong. Does the organisation as a whole truly care – and is that care visible and authentic?
If not, good people simply won’t join – or won’t stay. Word gets around. When they come to leave, they may well do so with many additional challenges to unravel that we are only now beginning to define: moral injury, embitterment, burnout. Serious issues that the employer can’t just brush off with the traditional “well, you signed up to it”.
How much do those with the power to invest in change care to do so?

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