5 reasons why morale is bad at your agency
When police leaders identify the causes of poor morale, they can then implement solutions
By Barbara Cohen-Pavlo, PsyD, and Ronald Jay Cohen, PhD, ABPP
“How is morale at this agency?” is a question on the mind of most command-level personnel.
The answer to that question: “It stinks!”
We know that because Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former Army general, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces and 34th President of the United States, reflected, “The best morale exists when you never hear the word mentioned. When you hear a lot of talk about it, it’s usually lousy.”
If you sense morale at your agency is not what it should be, your instincts may be spot-on. You are probably aware of the many hazards of low morale, ranging from discipline problems to personal adjustment problems to serious performance issues.
Two questions naturally arise:
- What accounts for the poor morale at your agency?
- What can be done to lift or maintain morale?
To find the answer to these questions, consider the following five factors:
1. Contemporary culture
The election of Donald Trump, a pro-law-enforcement president, paradoxically sparked an anti-law-enforcement backlash. The backlash was evident in everything from the enactment of “sanctuary” legislation, calls for open borders and the abolishment of ICE, and the media’s favorable coverage of anti-law-enforcement messaging from groups such as Antifa. To varying degrees, such contemporary cultural forces can be demoralizing to law enforcement personnel.
2. Organizational culture
The best-kept secret at most any law enforcement agency is that beneath the veneer of what appears to the public as a homogeneous, singularly motivated, blue machine, lies the ever-present potential for conflict between this entity’s many moving parts. Police departments are much more politicized than they have been in the past, and this “politicization” has spawned the creation of different factions within the organization – each with its own goals and agendas. The potential for morale-disrupting, intra-departmental conflict between such groups has never been higher.
Cops are no strangers to the issue of accountability; a large part of what they do every day is to hold people accountable for their actions. Accountability-related problems arise, however, and can negatively affect organizational morale, when police personnel are themselves not perceived by the press or the public as being held accountable for their actions.
Organizational morale may be tested in the wake of a highly publicized incident involving the use of lethal force – especially when it seems patently apparent to any reasonable observer that lethal force was neither required nor consistent with departmental performance guidelines.
Another source of morale-related problems arises when it seems that command staff determinations regarding the accountability of rank-and-file personnel were made through a process viewed as less than fair. If command staff determinations are perceived as biased, preferential, unfair, or based on nepotism, organizational morale is dealt a crushing blow.
Trust, or perhaps more appropriately, distrust, is an occupational tool of the law enforcement profession. It permeates almost every aspect of work in this profession, beginning with the donning of a bullet-resistant vest, through to daily activities such as shouting the command, “Show me your hands!” Problems arise, however, when, for whatever reason, the object of distrust becomes fellow personnel.
There is no shortage of politicians and community activists charging that certain police officers from certain backgrounds are not to be trusted in their dealings with certain citizens. Although there is not a shred of evidence to support these outlandish and potentially demoralizing assertions, such charges are regularly aired in the mainstream media. Police officers must feel confident in the ability, motivation and/or dedication of every fellow police officer. Doubt cast on the ability of one group of police officers regarding their ability or their motivation to perform responsibly is divisive and decidedly detrimental to organizational morale.
5. Job satisfaction
Organizational morale is dependent to a large degree on how satisfied personnel are with their jobs. Job satisfaction in law enforcement is measured in many respects by the same criteria as other careers (including, for example, satisfaction with pay, benefits and commute time to work).
One key element of job satisfaction for cops has to do with the compatibility between one’s expectations regarding the job at the time of hiring, and the actual nature of the work. In recent years, the discrepancy between such visions has become extreme, especially regarding certain specialty areas in law enforcement. Few border patrol agents signed on with expectations of being deployed to spend their workday preparing infant formula, maintaining makeshift hospitality structures, or acting as lifeguards on the nation’s waterways. New York City Police Department officers probably didn't envision themselves being greeted with jeers, or worse, by community members who are disrespectful, unappreciative and even hostile.
How to restore and maintain morale
In our book, "The Blue Morale Project: A Program to Cultivate High Morale Among Law Enforcement Officers," we present a program for building morale through the application of department-wide discussion groups designed to enhance understanding and consensus concerning several key morale-related issues. Through a professionally moderated process of education, opinion expression, group debate and consensus-building, organizational esprit-de-corps can be achieved.
About the authors
Barbara Cohen-Pavlo, PsyD, is a police psychologist on the staff of the Behavioral Science Services division of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). In addition to her full-time duties there, Dr. Cohen-Pavlo is a guest speaker and frequent presenter on varied topics related to police psychology. The Blue Morale Project was conceived by Dr. Cohen-Pavlo as an antidote to the many varied pernicious consequences of low morale at a law enforcement agency.
Ronald Jay Cohen, PhD, ABPP, is a dual-board certified, clinical psychologist who is licensed in New York and Florida. In addition to his international consulting practice, Dr. Cohen is a prolific writer who has written several influential books and articles. His latest work, The Blue Morale Project was extremely fulfilling because of the opportunity it presented to "give back" to the nation's treasured first responders.