Emergency services car with sirens on

Law enforcement and emergency services need to listen to the sirens on performance

Our Thinking | insight



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We have long known that working in law enforcement and emergency services can be physically and psychologically demanding. From frequent exposure to traumatic events to recurring encounters with vulnerable people, the daily work of people on the front line can be challenging, even for the most resilient personalities. And now the full impact of this work environment is viscerally felt with a series of recent suicides among law enforcement and emergency services workers.

Staff struggling under high physical and psychological demands do not always demonstrate the behaviours needed to contribute their best and deliver high performance. Addressing this issue requires a holistic approach because no single initiative can address the problem.

Many organisations could benefit from this holistic approach, ranging from state and territory police services to federal law enforcement agencies and emergency services providers.

To help their people navigate the complexities of their environment, law enforcement and emergency services need to think about a range of factors that shape their workplace – including culture, inclusion and diversity, management practices, job design and service design.

Nous has worked extensively with first responders, using our expertise in service design, organisational design, workforce management practice and culture.

From this work we have identified nine actions that can foster high performance by confronting challenges in culture, diversity and systems.

Leaders need to embody the culture

The culture of a law enforcement or emergency services organisation shapes how its people act with each other and with external stakeholders in a wide range of contexts.

Live the culture. Leaders are the creators and keepers of organisational culture, especially in hierarchical command-and-control organisations such as law enforcement and emergency services. So these leaders need to demonstrate the culture they wish to see from those they lead, not just in their words or actions, but also in what they recognise, what they prioritise and what they are held accountable for. Inclusive leadership is a core leadership competency required by leaders in developing a respectful, inclusive culture. For example, an emergency services organisation brought together its top three levels of leaders to design its cultural ambition, identify the enablers and barriers, clearly define its expectations of leaders and reflect on their own leadership shadow.

Break down internal barriers. Barriers between uniformed and non-uniformed staff in police and emergency services are rarely helpful. So organisations should encourage their staff to focus on their shared objectives. With at least a third of the workforce non-uniformed, professional staff need to understand the business of law enforcement or emergency services and how they support the work of the uniformed officers. And uniformed officers need to respect the job-enabling assistance they receive from their professional colleagues. Both groups are vital in providing greater diversity of thought as law enforcement and emergency services confront major challenges that could benefit from a variety of new approaches. For example, some law enforcement and emergency services organisations hold decision-making forums with combined frontline and professional staff where business attire is requested for all. The underlying message is that the uniform’s sole purpose is to signal to the community and colleagues your role for operational matters – nothing more.

Visit the front line. Often those on the front line of law enforcement and emergency services perceive that their managers do not understand their work. Whether this lack of understanding is true of managers is beside the point – the very perception of a lack of understanding is damaging. To manage this risk, leaders should connect with frontline officers, to actively listen to staff and share compelling stories of the future ambition. For example, one law enforcement agency has developed a program of multi-day cross-divisional site visits each month for leaders to engage with officers outside of their line management.

Fostering diversity requires active measures

Law enforcement and emergency services should represent the diversity of the communities they serve, without which they will miss out on community connections and innovation.

Confront bullying and harassment. People cannot be fully productive if they do not feel safe, supported or respected. This includes experiencing bullying and harassment from their colleagues, even in forms that may appear innocuous to the perpetrator. Sometimes tackling the bullying and harassment will mean confronting traditions that perpetuate a toxic culture. And with many emergency service workers facing bullying behaviour from the public, they need to be vigilant to not replicate that bullying in their team. To be effective, anti-bullying measures need to interrogate key indicators – for example, turnover, absenteeism, exit information, complaint data, climate survey data and access to developmental opportunities – and take action.

Share opportunities equitably. When opportunities for professional advancement arise, it can be tempting to channel them to people who may superficially appear best suited – say, certain roles matching women or younger people or able-bodied team members. But this can result in some employees gaining multiple opportunities for training and promotion, while others are regularly overlooked. Managers have an obligation to ensure development opportunities are shared equitably so people can access them without limitations due to stereotyping, unconscious bias and patronage. People cannot perform at their best when they do not have the appropriate training and development. For example, one law enforcement agency tracks staff development outcomes across key diversity issues, not just aggregate results.

Recruit diversely at all ranks. Many organisations have made great strides in recruiting for diversity at entry-level positions, but they have given less thought to bringing in diversity at more senior ranks. This is essential to tap into the full pool of available talent, and to change the diversity of the organisation more quickly than waiting for entry-level recruits to work their way up. For example, one law enforcement agency actively searched for senior women candidates, resulting in equal representation across the top two levels of leaders – a significant cultural shift.

People systems should enable performance excellence

Performance excellence relies on formal structures, so that all aspects of an organisation’s processes support its achievement.

Articulate performance expectations. Different people in an organisation may have different ideas about high performance, and some people may not have considered it at all. Clear expectations for high performance need to be well understood. These expectations include not just the performance of functions, but also the mindsets and behaviours to deliver those functions. For example, a law enforcement agency codesigned with its workforce the values and behaviours that would deliver its new strategic direction. Toolkits were developed to support leaders to discuss the values and behaviours with their teams, to translate them into practical examples for each officer and their team and to explain how they will hold themselves and each other accountable.

Manage performance proactively. High performers should be rewarded not just through promotional systems but also through internal recognition systems, so their behaviour can be celebrated and modelled. For poor performers, people management practices should be used to address the underlying problems and chart a pathway to improvement. It is vital that leaders understand the difference between disciplinary action for breach of policy or procedures on one hand and performance management to address underperformance and strengthen high performance on the other. Confidence and knowledge to encourage staff to access the appropriate health and wellbeing support services early and often is critical.

Use rosters to support engagement. Many law enforcement and emergency services organisations have an internal divide between those people performing front-line work and those performing functions behind the scenes. Valorising the former and downplaying the latter is problematic in many contexts, especially when staff accessing health and wellbeing services are pulled off front-line duties. Rostering should give staff quality exposure to both types of roles, and staff accessing support services need not necessarily be shielded from particular roles. For example, West Midland Police in the UK have trialled split rostering to drive prevention strategies, swapping in and out front-line staff so both skills and resilience are developed.

None of these ideas in isolation is likely to deliver high performance but when combined they can have a major impact. For law enforcement and emergency services organisations, as well as the people who work there and the communities that rely on them, that impact is vital.

Get in touch to find out how Nous can help your law enforcement or emergency services organisation achieve high performance.