Book excerpt: The Blue Morale Project

Low blue morale can be instrumental in compelling recruits and officers to re-think or abandon a law enforcement career


The following is an excerpt from "The Blue Morale Project: A Program to Cultivate High Morale among Law Enforcement Officers" by police psychologist Barbara Cohen-Pavlo and consulting psychologist Ronald Jay Cohen. The book was written to assist law enforcement agencies in dealing with a nationwide crisis in police (or “blue”) morale. Click here to order.

The Agency’s Best Kept Secret 

There is a longstanding but little-discussed reality of work-life at law enforcement agencies. It is the existence of a problem that everyone who works at one knows about, yet few, if any, will discuss publicly.  The problem is intra-agency conflict.

Intra-agency conflict is a problem that has its roots in the everyday differences that can and do emerge among those rather “macho,” gun-toting, badge-wearing individuals who populate the workplace. They may all look rather homogeneous, especially from a distance when assembled en masse in uniform.  However, close-up, these men and women are very different people. They hail from many varied backgrounds, hold many varied values, have many different needs, and harbor vastly different perspectives about what is right, what is funny, and what are “fighting words.” 

The Blue Morale Project provides a structure for instituting a department-wide, discussion group program that is designed to systematically focus on the key elements and dynamics of blue morale.
The Blue Morale Project provides a structure for instituting a department-wide, discussion group program that is designed to systematically focus on the key elements and dynamics of blue morale.

A problem between individuals on the same team or in the same unit may range in severity and consequence from what amounts to a slight inconvenience to something that serves as a stimulus for quitting. A problem can exist between and among rank-and-file officers, or it can exist between and among supervisors and command staff. It can manifest itself in the form of joking or ribbing, outright quarreling, or physical fighting. It can also manifest itself as an ever-present overlay of stressful, energy-draining tension. Whenever and wherever such internal conflicts compound the everyday challenges of the job, it can make going to work each day anything from “measurably more stressful,” to “a certifiable, living Hell.” 

Traditional workplace wisdom in law enforcement settings has long held that interpersonal conflict is not supposed to exist among the “brotherhood” of officers. After all, the folks who make up a local police department or other law enforcement agency are “family,” aren’t they? At least, isn’t that the way that it’s supposed to be?

The reality is that the answers to questions such as these will vary, not only from agency to agency but from one branch or unit within the agency to another. Some agencies, or specific branches within them, may indeed function very much like families. There, much like with many families, there is the occasional squabble followed by wholehearted reconciliation. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s an entirely different scenario. Here, we speak of agencies, or specific branches or units within them, that are more like dysfunctional families. Owing to factors such as ineffective communication, limited communication, or even no communication, the usual norms and sanctions of police culture do not seem to apply, and these workplaces transform into hotbeds of hostility and misdirected aggression. The sad reality in such agencies is that personnel have become resigned to the fact that interpersonal conflict is just another challenge to overcome in a job that is already filled with challenges. Interpersonal conflict can quickly become that part of the job that adds stress, drains motivation, depletes organizational morale, and, negatively impacts work performance. Where it exists, it steals the joy from going to work each day and can even compromise on-the-job safety.

VARIETIES OF CONFLICT IN THE LAW ENFORCEMENT WORKPLACE 

Many varieties of conflict exist in the typical law enforcement workplace, and there are many varied approaches to categorizing such conflicts. For our purposes, a source-based typology that broadly categorizes workplace conflict as being either intra-agency, inter-agency, or extra-agency in origin seems a good start.

Intra-agency conflict

Any conflict within an agency constitutes intra-agency conflict. Two common causes of intra-agency conflict include (a) individual disputes between and among sworn officers, staff, management, and union representatives, and (b) rank-and-file dissatisfaction with administrative/management decisions, especially those that result in disciplinary action, curtailment of benefits, or other loss to a party to the conflict.

By and large, the existence of intra-agency conflict is slow to be formally acknowledged. More typically, it is denied until it either somehow goes away, or grows to the point where it cannot be ignored. Perhaps such denial persists as the result of a stubborn faith that the law enforcement “brotherhood” is so tight and so mutually supportive, that most any conflict will ultimately be short-lived.

Indeed, when it occurs, serious intra-agency conflict usually takes everyone by surprise and can leave all parties to it, as well as all observers to it, feeling awkward and woefully ill-equipped to deal with it. Every day that the conflict lingers, feelings of frustration, hurt, or anger may mount. Extraordinary effort may be expended by those involved in trying their best to minimize, suppress, contain, or deny the hurtful and negative feelings associated with the conflict’s existence.

Command staff and supervisors, all of whom may well be perceived as part of the problem themselves, typically lack the training, skill, time, and disposition to work through the relevant issues to the satisfaction of all concerned. Moreover, they may be very uncomfortable and unprepared for the role of initiating or conducting the “hard conversations” that will ultimately have to take place before the conflict is genuinely resolved. Sadly, the longer intra-agency conflict rages, the higher the probability that it will fester, becoming a yet more divisive force and affecting yet more personnel – leaving greater, sometimes irreversible repercussions in its wake.

It is not unheard of for agencies to be weakened from within, and hurt from without, as a result of internal disputes. A variety of different types of behavior – none of them professional – can be spawned by personnel disputes. Behaviors like scapegoating, rumormongering, gossiping, and intentional undermining are not uncommon as intra-agency conflict spreads and gets more vicious. Depending upon the specifics of the conflict, certain personnel may feel compelled to rebel against agency authority. Such rebellion can be passive-aggressive in nature as it is, for example, in absenteeism. Another example of a passive-aggressive response to on-the-job conflict is behavior like “just going through the motions” at work. 

The stress and frustration of intra-agency conflict may result in uninhibited displays of aggression including physical contact between warring parties. Alternatively, there may be an uptick in inappropriate and aggressive interactions with citizens – giving rise to a series of incidents that will no doubt be problematic for the agency. For example, such incidents may lead to lawsuits alleging behavioral improprieties and non-adherence to established standards.

Intra-agency conflict can be a near-constant distraction that adversely affects the on-duty performance of the personnel involved. Further, whether on-duty or off-duty, the personnel involved in intra-agency conflict may be plagued by feelings of dread, anxiety, guilt, and emotional pain as each day passes without resolution. Groups of individuals on one side of the dispute may threaten those on the other side with non-support in the event of an emergency. Individual negative consequences can run the gamut from private concern to visible anxiety. At the very least, intra-agency conflict can make going to work every day more stressful and emotionally draining than it should be.

Interpersonal conflict adds a layer of tension to a job that already carries with it a potential for over-the-top stress. To help cope with such negative feeling states, agency members may turn to drugs or alcohol.  Other maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as gambling, overeating, or compulsive sexual activity may also afford a modicum of temporary solace or distraction. 

Conflict within an agency can quickly degenerate into a disruptive distraction to the agency’s mission. It can pit people with specific roles against one another. It can lead to verbal, or even physical disputes between the parties involved, and acts of sabotage against the organization from within. It can precipitate the emergence of factions, or perhaps more accurately, “fiefdoms” within an otherwise united organization.  As the leaders of the various splinter groups call the shots, selected individuals may be declared adversaries and targeted for bullying, social isolation, or other negative sanctions.

Interpersonal conflict can spawn disobedience to legitimate authority in some not-so-subtle ways. Consider in this context a situation wherein a ranking officer issues an order to a line officer who is known to be active in an internal “resistance movement.” Although a “clean” no to the order would never be tolerated, there may be little choice but for the ranking officer to accept and ostensibly tolerate a “dirty” yes.

Living in the digital era, it will not take that long for a workplace-based conflict to spread to the cyber world.  For conclusive proof that the brotherhood of law enforcement officers has ceased to exist, and today is only a matter of historic interest, one need not look any further than social media. The mostly anonymous-authored postings of officers involved in an intra-agency dispute can be unspeakably vicious. The authors of this book have seen their share of such postings in the course of consulting and it really is unbelievable to see how defamatory and deliberately hurtful such online postings can be. And just when it all seems at its worst… it gets worse. The opposing sides in a lingering dispute may establish an underground (read “untraceable” website) for the exchange of anonymously authored comments that are too crude or too threatening to post on more traditional social media outlets.

The net effect of all of the warring parties’ verbal exchanges, non-verbal exchanges, physical exchanges, and online exchanges amounts to a gross waste of time and energy that should have never been allowed to occur. Moreover, without decisive intervention, the conflict is likely to worsen, and leave in its wake a plethora of slow-to-heal emotional wounds. Members of the agency who were not initially involved or affected by the conflict may be drawn into it and enlisted to be allies of friends and colleagues who are embroiled in it. Before long, the conflict becomes agency-wide rendering the organization “a house divided.” Of course, all of this negativity will take a toll on the group’s morale and on the work performance of individual personnel.

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