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I can't believe I never learned this - it is so helpful and explains so much.


Resistance, Meaning, and Sabotage

Culture has been described as the default setting of an organization, it’s what really goes on, how people really make it. It includes ethics, integrity, standards, and trust. In a sense it provides grounding from which officers and civilian personnel can work. The trick to studying culture is to know that it is the part that’s hidden that is frequently most true…not what we say but what we do.

After spending a year in a sheriff’s department, interviewing, observing, reading memos, minutes, and promotional exams of officers at all levels of the organization, I delved into the police culture (and sub-cultures). I was discovering what the change to Community Oriented Policing (COP) meant to the officers, how it affected their roles and relationships, and what unexpected results were experienced.

Many discoveries were made about the police/sheriff culture during this year, but the three most significant involved meaning, resistance, and sabotage.


One of the striking learnings from the hours of listening and observing was that officers described “real police work” in two ways, “macho, guys who’d give their own mother a ticket,” and those who saw it as “more social work, as a service profession.” The change to Community Oriented Policing wasn’t just a schedule change to going to community meetings and smiling at kids. COP challenged officers to ask some fundamental questions about their identity, how they saw themselves as officers and as people.

Some officers saw COP as a way of validating who they were, they were relieved, because with COP they could do the kind of policing they thought they should be doing all along. Interestingly, patrol officers, more than any other staff member, expressed appreciation for the rest of the department’s wake up to good police work. It became clear that many organizations have underestimated the importance of what a large change (in this case Community Oriented Policing) means, and as a result, given short change to the training and conversations necessary for a change to be embraced. Anticipated resistance did not surface where the experts thought it would.


Resistance is another idea that circles around departments trying to implement a change. We use it to describe people who aren’t doing what we think they should be doing to “get with it.” Because COP is more a philosophy than a program, it is more difficult for people to describe and clearly implement. Many officers were simply trying to figure out what the change meant to how they did their jobs, rather than actually resist. They responded like any people in a new culture, trying to figure out how to eat, use the phone, and if it mattered. Organizations enamored with change respond poorly to those perceived as resisters. Yet it may not be resistance, but confusion.

What is labeled as resistance is also a way to find out if leadership is really serious about a change. Many employees have been involved in more than one initiative that has ultimately either not worked or not been worked out. They assume there is no point in beginning something that won’t be finished.


Some resistance, however, is just that, resistance. When it is resistance with gusto it becomes sabotage. I still recall the silence when I asked a member of the command staff about this unexpected, unintended aspect of implementing COP. Slowly he said, “there’ve been people in the organization that say they support this…I’ve learned later, they have been obstructionist or downright derogatory towards me and the changes…. And sometimes I’ve found little areas where they’ve contaminated quite a few employees…. It’s a real tough one to deal with.” Officers reporting supervisors waiting until a ranking officer was out of ear-shot and telling “how it’s really going to be.” It is natural for people to want to maintain their power base, yet sabotage is very difficult to manage without having an implementation team whose job is to find out what is really going on in a department and address it.

This organizational change went to the core of the meaning of police and police work. It illustrated the importance of checking assumptions and labels, understanding the significance of a change, and addressing sabotage directly. The best way to work wit these issues is to use a well-organized and highly communicative transition team of members from throughout the organization.

© Lunell Haught, PhD, CMC

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