The role of leadership in promoting ethical police behaviour: The findings of qualitative case study research

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Porter, Louise
Webb, Sarah
Prenzler, Tim
Gill, Martin
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This study focuses on issues of leadership and organisational ethics. It is based on 41 indepth interviews – three with chief officers and at least five with frontline officers in each of five case study forces from England and Wales. The aim of the research was to explore the impact that senior leadership was perceived to have on ethical police behaviour, particularly that of those officers and staff in frontline roles. Its key findings were as follows:

  • Overall, the large majority of interviewees felt there had been a positive shift in the style of police leadership in recent years. There was a general sense leaders had moved away from an autocratic style to a more inclusive and open approach. Most current leaders in the five study forces were seen as consultative and good communicators.
  • Interviewees found it difficult to disentangle the factors that constituted effective leadership in general from those that specifically promoted ethical behaviour. The belief that ethical behaviour was a ‘natural consequence’ of effective leadership was common.
  • A range of opinions about leadership styles were evident in all study forces, though the importance of honesty, integrity, visibility, transparency, and consistent and clear messages were emphasised, and reportedly had a clear impact on morale.
  • Evidence suggested that leaders were seen as both figureheads and role models for conduct. Setting values and standards, and communicating and enforcing those standards fairly, were also key themes raised in all interviews.
  • With the exception of autocratic leadership (which was mainly used to describe former chief officers), most interviewees felt that different styles could promote ethical behaviour.
  • Demonstration of transformational and participative leadership styles was seen as important, particularly by senior leaders. Visibility and communication were seen as key dimensions of leadership that offered opportunities to encourage organisational commitment, as a result of it increasing the credibility of leaders among staff and a belief in shared values and goals.
  • Elements of transactional leadership were also thought important for staff behaviour and morale, particularly in terms of encouraging appropriate standards through the consistent and fair application of reward and sanction within the organisation.
  • For many, successful leadership in fostering ethical behaviour was seen to come through flexibility and balance in leadership style. The nature of policing – with its high levels of discretion and specific vulnerabilities towards misconduct (e.g. contact with criminals) – reportedly meant leadership needed to be both transformational and transactional.
  • Comments from the majority of chief officers and frontline staff supported the idea that a more open and democratic style of leadership secured a better commitment to organisational values and promoted ethical behaviour.
  • While leadership was seen as important at all levels, first line supervisors were thought to have more of an influence than chief officers as they were the day-to-day role models for behaviour for most people. The provision of support to, and the empowerment of, frontline supervisors was, therefore, seen as particularly crucial.
  • The research highlighted the need for senior leaders and supervisors to be more aware of, and self-reflective about, leadership styles and processes and the impact these can have on the ethical behaviour of staff. Notably, while performance expectations need to be set and aligned with wider force priority and integrity frameworks, there was a widespread view that a narrow performance focus could have negative consequences.
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Police administration, procedures and practice

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Porter, L; Webb, S; Prenzler, T; Gill, M, The role of leadership in promoting ethical police behaviour: The findings of qualitative case study research, 2015