Police sector: Workplace culture and leadership style

Author: Virginia Matthews

We look at how workplace culture and leadership style are evolving in a police service facing changing challenges.


Related resources

The complexities of law enforcement have changed beyond all recognition since the Police Act 1964 created the current police forces structure for the sector, over half a century ago.

For senior officers, it is sophisticated cybercrime that is now public enemy number one, demanding both agile thinking and fast-evolving technical skills to stay one step ahead.

Yet as recruitment and retention issues continue to challenge the service's effectiveness, another major issue - the slow transformation from an authoritarian management style to hands-off, inclusive leadership - is cultural.

With the police sector split between 43 territorial forces in England and Wales, each of which is a two-tier service comprised of warranted officers and civilian staff, the push and pull factors in policing are unique, says Ian Hesketh, wellbeing lead and head of organisational development at the College of Policing.

From the vantage point of 30 years' service, including a period in armed response, Hesketh believes that policing's already divided identity is further split between reformers and traditionalists. As with the Brexit debate, he says, opinions on both sides may be hardening.

Command and control

"The force has traditionally been run along military lines and, to this day, the 'command and control' approach to people management continues to find favour with long-term career officers up and down the country," says Hesketh.

"Unfortunately though, this autocratic style is triggering an inevitable clash with the lifeblood of the future, namely the new recruits, many of whom have come from other professions, who find strict hierarchy and lack of personal autonomy utterly alien and unwelcome."

... this autocratic style is triggering an inevitable clash with the lifeblood of the future ...

Ian Hesketh, College of Policing

While he sees evidence that what he terms "21st century thinking" is making an impact in some forces, in others, there is stubborn resistance. "At best, progress remains patchy," he says.

Hesketh argues that responsibility for leading cultural transition rests predominantly with the force's HR leads, most of whom are aligned with the CIPD. However, people managers are relatively thin on the ground.

"Too many HR functionaries and roles were done away with during the 2012 to 2016 police cuts," he says, "and it's proved hard to regain the lost ground ever since."

"When you factor in the fact that every new people management initiative is interpreted locally, according to the leadership style prevalent in each force, you begin to see that nothing is ever rolled out on a like-for-like basis."


Amid the stop-go budget cuts of the past decade, police chiefs are additionally burdened by high attrition rates, particularly among more experienced officers facing increasingly impractical workloads and ever-more violent crime.

According to a recent HM Inspectorate of Constabulary report, most forces have specialist investigator vacancies, leaving less experienced, underqualified staff to plug the gaps. With a shortage of specialist hands to guide them, it invariably falls to old-school desk sergeants to train a generation of recruits who invariably speak a different language when it comes to how they view working life and good leadership.

"In recent times, experience levels among newer officers have been fairly low," says Hesketh. "Quite aside from the problem of diverting precious resources to supervision, we have at times seen marked cultural differences between current and incoming personnel."

While being a 30-year plus career officer was once the norm in the service, today's entrant is far more likely to see policing as a short-term option, he adds.

"Many newer officers, including young, ex-military recruits, want to try out the force for four or five years before they commit to a lifetime of service and this trend is causing headaches further down the line. Once again, these are the very people who are often uncomfortable with the strictly hierarchical approach which in many forces remains the norm."

Police on the box

Although TV drama often portrays the prevailing police culture as one of institutionalised bullying, Steven Chase, director of people at Thames Valley Police, says that the reality is very different.

... day-to-day at the photocopier, we view all ranks as colleagues, just as you would in any other organisation ...

Steven Chase, Thames Valley Police

"All that 'Sir'-ing and 'Maam'-ing you get on TV is becoming less common and day-to-day at the photocopier, we view all ranks as colleagues, just as you would in any other organisation," he says.

"But if there's a public disorder in the centre of Oxford, say, I believe that adopting a strict command-and-control approach to the situation is the only way to deal with it."

New crimes, new victims

While many scriptwriters cling to familiar traditional "police character" stereotypes, they tend to be more on the mark when it comes to plotlines focusing on cybercrime. Although police officers would historically take their lead from victims before attempting to locate likely suspects, this too has changed.

"Sometimes all we have to go on may be a single image on a screen and while we may know that a crime has been committed - anything from child sex abuse to computer hacking - we often have no idea of who the victim is and may not even be sure that the crime has taken place in the UK," says Hesketh.

"On top of other demands such as staff shortages, this also can lead officers to quit the force prematurely."

Rethinking a two-tier service

For many years, the police service has held up the prospect of a more unified workforce as a beacon for the future. But both Hesketh and Chase believe that this is impossible, given both the current career structure and headcount variations. (For example, the Metropolitan Police Service has nearly 42,000 personnel versus Dorset Police's under 3,000.)

While funding cuts have seen an overall fall in the number of warranted officers - servants of the Crown rather than employees - there has been a sharp increase in civilian police staff, who are covered by employment legislation and may be unionised.

"For all HR's operating in our two-tier police service, resource management can be extremely fraught," says Hesketh. "As a 24/7 emergency service, the number of staff on a Monday morning can be radically different to the number at your disposal on a Friday evening once injuries and even hospitalisations are taken into account."

Knocking down doors

In a bid to tackle staff shortages, Thames Valley Police is opening up access to frontline officer roles.

"We are increasingly employing police staff in a whole range of operational roles, such as forensics work, and, in terms of criminal investigations, they can be involved right up to the stage where their warranted colleagues are knocking down doors," he says.

"Staff aren't always cheaper than officers," he adds, "but I would agree that savings have been made overall."

Stop and recruit

Related resources

While a lack of bobbies on the street has proved a thorny political issue for successive Governments, for Chase personally, it is the lack of racial diversity that eclipses it.

"I came to Thames Valley for two years, stayed for 22 and in all that time, the lack of ethnic minority officers has remained my biggest problem," he says. (According to Home Office figures, only 7% of officers in England and Wales were black and minority ethnic (BME) at 31 March 2018, compared to 14% of the population.)

"Despite the wealth of resources that have been devoted to tackling this, I now believe there is something around policing which simply doesn't attract the widest groups in society. In fact, even if every minority ethnic person who shows interest in policing as a career actually joined up, we still wouldn't have sufficient numbers to reflect modern society."


To the outside world, the police may not appear a very sympathetic organisation but to practitioners such as Janine Jury, counselling and wellbeing manager at Kent Police, the force has not failed to take notice of the nation's deepening interest in wellness.

Incorporating a compassionate, empathic leadership style which enables staff to seek help in difficult times can challenge the 'stiff upper lip' approach ...

Janine Jury, Kent Police

Pointing to the launch in April 2019 (following £7.5 million investment) of the National Police Wellbeing Service, which aims to improve mental and physical health support for all frontline personnel, she stresses the importance of compassion at the top.

"Police officers who are routinely exposed to child, adult and domestic abuse for example, can experience a build-up of trauma and general ill-health," she says.

"Incorporating a compassionate, empathic leadership style which enables staff to seek help in difficult times can challenge the 'stiff upper lip' approach and foster the understanding that expressing vulnerability is a strength and an outlet for positive change."

She adds that the Kent force is now exploring the potential role of computer software (to provide access to wellbeing services, for example) in a bid to "reach as many individuals as possible in a 24/7 environment".

Engagement required

While Hesketh says that more understanding of stress and trauma in police work is to be warmly welcomed, he believes it would be foolish to underestimate the "immense challenges" now facing the service to which he has devoted his life.

Yet while the force per se has so far made only modest progress towards loosening the grip of top-down decision-making and stifling micromanagement, he continues to believe that policing is changing.

"Openly engaging with the public and the media can still be an issue for traditionalists, and this is a great shame because there's some good work going on out there."

"Police employers need to be far more willing to share their experiences of how it feels to be a key public service in the midst of an unprecedented level of upheaval."