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The Challenge of Change

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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 different departments. As I reflect on the time spent at each, I see that they each held a different theme for me. The first was a very small, midwestern town in the middle of nowhere. Looking back, the challenge of being isolated and the need to become self-reliant come to mind. The one after that was marked by a very bitter battle with a long-term mayor when I found it necessary to blow the proverbial whistle about some ethically questionable things the City was doing. To me, that town will always be the fiery passion of the midwestern town folk that 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 everyday as those from the neighboring area come in to work and shop. I’ve been here nearly three years now. One day, looking back, I suspect the theme that I’ll associate with this place is “change”.  

During my time here, the Department’s case clearance rate has gone from around 33% to nearly 53%. The statistics all seem to say that we’ve come a long way in a short time.  Anecdotally, the assessment seems to be the same.  Citizens approach me routinely to brag about what a great job they think their 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 in, there have been “those” things.  The 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 that obviously needs to go but is still around. Upon investigation, I’ve often found that 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 go undealt with: change is hard. 

Change, by its very nature, is disruptive.  Human beings are creatures of habit.  We tend to do things that are in our own self-interest.  In this 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 that pattern or address issues, it upsets that order and causes inconvenience to other parties.  That’s why change is hard.  

It’s also necessary.  By its very definition, improvement in an organization requires change. If you’re going to change things in an organization, it will be a difficult situation at best.  I propose that the five things I’ve learned about change will be helpful to remember.

1. You Can’t Make Everyone Happy

This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning.  All too often, so-called leaders refuse to implement needed changes because of the vocal few it will upset.  You will make people angry if you change things (even if it truly is for the best).  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?  He probably won’t care that your officers can put the time to better use catching bad guys.  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 #1.  When you change something and make someone unhappy, don’t be surprised if they can’t respectfully disagree or have a logical debate.   You’ll likely come across people who can’t handle it in a professional, detached manner.  They may very well assault your character.  

In a recent presentation to a public group, I discussed the challenges facing our department and the city as a whole.  I went into detail about the problems with our current dispatch arrangement, and discussed ways that the arrangement could be reorganized according to good professional practices.   After the presentation, the coordinator contacted me to share some concerns from one of the participants.  In an evaluation form, they’d passionately discussed how “unethical” and immoral I was for discussing something about another department in public.  

The author of the form, it turns out, worked for dispatch.  Such attacks won’t be limited to those with a vested interest, either.

Don’t expect people to just 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 are benefitting from the status quo.  They may not even care if lives are at stake.  You’ll very likely be attacked personally.  Change is messy.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  It’s also easier if you acknowledge and prepare for this beforehand.

3. You Can Have Friends or You Can Have Success

We all have peer groups at work we hang out with.  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 that actually needed it.  Our space was far too small for our needs, so that 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.  A prior practice at city hall was to grant key card access freely to other department heads that might have nothing to do with police operations.  I realized it was necessary to revoke these access cards.  It was the right thing to do, but it didn’t make me very popular with some of my peers at city hall. 

The police department I lead isn’t mine to do with as I please.  I’m a steward responsible for guiding the Department to do 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 for “favors” to someone in my coworker peer group.  If you’re a supervisor, you need to do your job.  Not favors for your friends.

4. It’s All a “Role” You Play

Years ago, I heard a man named Marty Linsky speak while attending Harvard University’s Executive Education Program.  What he said has stuck with me for years.  In essence, he argued that people usually aren’t really attacking you when they criticize. They’re attacking the role you’re filling. (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002)  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 us: 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 is eliciting all of the hard feelings and pushback.  That knowledge doesn’t diminish the need for courage and thick skin, but it can salve the pain you’ll feel when you’re attacked for encouraging change.

5. Remember the Big Picture

When you are in a position of leadership, there are a hundred different things competing for your favor.  Those above you in the chain of command may want you to use your influence to benefit them personally.  Your peers in the organization 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 all of the 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?  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.

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