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The challenge of change

Change upsets the status quo so be prepared to develop a thick skin and get ready to answer tough questions

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When you are in a leadership position, a hundred different things compete for your favor and attention.


I’m very quickly approaching the decade mark of my tenure as a police chief. During that time, I’ve had the honor of leading three departments. As I reflect on my time at each, I see that they each presented different challenges for me.

The first department was in a small, midwestern town in the middle of nowhere. Looking back, I recall the challenge of being isolated and the need to become self-reliant. My time at the department after that was marked by a bitter battle when I found it necessary to blow the whistle about some ethically questionable things the city was doing. My memory of that town will always center on the fiery passion of the midwestern folk who rose up to confront a questionable government.

The city I work in now is in East Tennessee. It’s a town of about 14,000 whose population doubles during every business day as those from the neighboring area come in to work and shop. I’ve been here nearly three years. Someday, when I look back, the theme I’ll associate with this place is “change.”

During my time, the police department’s case clearance rate has gone from around 33% to nearly 53%. The statistics seem to say that we’ve come a long way in a short time. Anecdotally, the assessment appears to be the same.

Citizens approach me routinely to brag about what a great job the officers are doing. I’m fortunate to work with a great team that has accomplished incredible things, and I attribute that drastic improvement to their skill and hard work. My goal has been to remove obstacles and get them the resources they need to do what they do best. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, but it hasn’t come without cost. Never before have I been so aware of hurt feelings from the local bureaucracy.

At every department I’ve worked at, there have been things that everyone seems to know are a problem, but have somehow persisted for years. It may be an unnecessary form that’s required, or an ongoing problem with another organization. Sometimes it’s a specific person; an employee who obviously needs to go, but is still around. Upon investigation, I’ve often discovered these problems haven’t been dealt with because of relational or self-preservation reasons (not because of a legitimate practical reason). I’ve come to understand why these things often are ignored: Change is hard.

Change, by its very nature, is disruptive. Human beings are creatures of habit who tend to do things out of self-interest. In such an environment, members of an organization will eventually settle into a situation that provides the least amount of struggle or resistance for everyone involved (or at least for those in positions of power). When someone tries to alter the pattern or address issues, it upsets the organization’s order and causes inconvenience to other parties.

If you’re going to change things in an organization, it will be difficult at best. Here are five things I’ve learned about change.

1. You can’t make everyone happy

This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning. All too often, leaders refuse to implement change because of a vocal few who will be upset. Remember, status quo has often been created as a way for those in positions of authority to be comfortable and serve their own self-interest. Your change may make things better, but it’s going to make someone’s life more complicated.

Assume that your police department has been filling out paperwork that another department should really be doing. Do you honestly think that department’s supervisor will simply say “You got me, at least I had a good run!” when you refuse to do this anymore? They probably won’t care that your officers can put the time to better use catching criminals. When you change stuff, someone usually loses out. They’ll probably be mad (and very vocal) about it. Knowing this going in can make it easier to deal with.

2. Prepare to be villainized

This dovetails with my first point. When you change something and make someone unhappy, don’t be surprised if they can’t respectfully disagree or engage in a logical debate. You’ll likely come across people who can’t handle change in a professional, detached manner. They may respond by attacking your character.

Don’t expect people to simply say they respectfully disagree. Don’t assume that they’ll try to judge the situation based on the merits of your arguments. People don’t like change, especially when they benefit from the status quo. They may not even care if lives are at stake. You’ll very likely be attacked personally. Change is messy.

3. You can have friends, or you can have success

We all have peer groups at work. The burglary division supervisor probably hangs out with the supervisors of the other divisions. The police chiefs’ peer group usually consists of the heads of other departments. It’s easy to let these friendships convince you to do things that aren’t rational and aren’t in the best interest of the group you supervise.

One of the first decisions I made upon becoming chief was to limit access to the police portion of city hall to those who actually needed it. Our space was far too small for our needs, so officers have to use every available bit of space to do their work. It’s not uncommon to see an officer interviewing a victim in the squad room or to see a group of tactically dressed detectives briefing for a search warrant at the open “sergeants’ desk” area.

An earlier practice at city hall had been to grant key card access freely to other department heads who might have nothing to do with police operations. I realized it was necessary to revoke these access cards. While the right thing to do, it didn’t make me very popular with some of my peers.

The police department I lead isn’t mine to do with as I please. I’m a steward responsible for guiding the department to perform its mission the very best it can. I’m one cog in a big machine that includes a lot of officers who count on me to do the right thing for the organization. Therefore, it’s not okay for me to use it to do a solid for someone in my coworker peer group. If you’re a supervisor, you need to do your job. Not favors for your friends.

4. You’re playing a role

While attending Harvard University’s Executive Education Program years ago, I heard Harvard Professor Marty Linsky speak. What he said stuck with me. In essence, he argued that people usually aren’t really attacking you when they criticize. They’re attacking the role you’re filling. As human beings, we’re wired to take things personally. When someone attacks the new program our department started, we react as if they’re attacking us: the person (not the chief, sheriff, director, or whatever role we are filling).

If you weren’t in your leadership position, you wouldn’t find it necessary to make the change that elicits hard feelings and pushback. That knowledge doesn’t diminish the need for courage and a thick skin, but it can ease the pain you’ll feel when you feel attacked for encouraging change.

5. Remember the big picture

When you are in a leadership position, a hundred different things compete for your favor and attention. Those above you in the chain of command may want you to use your influence to benefit them personally. Your peers will want you to use it to benefit their own groups. People outside the organization will want you use that influence to benefit any number of causes, organizations, or special interests. Even if you make pleasing them a goal, you won’t make them all happy.

As you strive to sort through competing demands, you have to remember the big picture. Who do you really work for? What’s your organization’s mission? Why are you here? The answers to these questions serve as an anchor as you try to sort through conflicting demands and decide the right thing to do.

Effecting change is never easy. For those of us who work in government, it’s incredibly difficult. It’s messy and painful. But it is absolutely essential to building an organization that can respond to the needs of those we’re supposed to serve. In any organization, there is always room for improvement. That means we should always be changing, no matter the personal cost.

NEXT: 5 steps to transformational change in your agency

Cliff Couch is a police chief in East Tennessee. He’s also led two departments in Kansas and served as a deputy with the Leon County (Tallahassee) Sheriff’s Office in Florida. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminology and psychology, and a master’s degree in public administration from Florida State University. He’s also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Follow him on Twitter at CliftonDCouch or on his blog,