Command leadership style can hurt subordinates’ mental health

By David Donaldson

Tuesday May 31, 2016

The command and control leadership style has been linked to bullying complaints and psychological injury workers’ compensation claims and should be replaced with “people-focused” leadership, argues a report on employee mental health by Victoria Police.

While exposure to the unpleasant side of policing is a factor in poor mental health risk, organisational factors — particularly leadership style, management practices and workload pressures — as well as personal relationship difficulties, “are also significant contributors”, the review claims.

The report, released Tuesday, argues that “there is a need for fundamental change in Victoria Police leadership culture, with core organisation-wide weaknesses in ‘people-focused’ leadership capability.” Building “supportive, cohesive and engaging team-based processes and practices” can improve mental health outcomes.

It makes 39 recommendations, including the need to increase the awareness and understanding of mental health issues, reduce the stigma and improved support services for people after they have left the force. The review was led by clinical and organisational psychologist Dr Peter Cotton, supported by retired Superintendent Peter Bull, senior health sector executive Nancy Hogan and research assistant Maryanne Lynch. It involved over 450 contacts, via interviews, meetings and written submissions.

People-focused leadership

Thanks to a combination of its roots as an operational agency and a lack of focus on developing good leadership, normal workplace cultures in Victoria Police have been dominated by a highly hierarchical leadership style more suited to operational incidents. An interviewee described what this means on the ground to the review team:

“Someone is behaving badly — like being late, angry or careless with record keeping. The response from the supervisor is to send a blanket email. This is not the way to go. You need to know your people and recognise what is happening and then confront it.”

The result is low levels of morale — at some work sites, 25% of staff could be on long service or maternity leave, secondment, light duties or WorkCover at any one time.

There’s precedent for this problem:

“As an example, in the Commonwealth sector, like most agencies, the Department of Defence experienced a significant upsurge in psychological injury compensation claims in the late 1990s. A significant contributor to this increase was linked with serving personnel returning to take up managerial positions in the civilian workforce. Some of these individuals tended to exhibit a highly black and white cognitive style and overly directive leadership behaviours. As a result, they left a trail of discernible human misery and psychological injury risk in their wake as they moved around the civilian workforce.”

The alternative is people-focused leadership, though the report warns the organisation must remain focused on why it’s implementing the changes:

“People-focused leadership will not be effective unless it is directed towards putting in place the team-based structures and processes that engage staff effectively in open and honest communication about operational issues; build shared values, ownership and clarity of expectations, as well as accountability for results; foster expected behaviours; engage team members in day-to-day decision-making processes; and encourage feedback, debate and learning.”

Middle management has a “marked variability” in people skills, the report notes. One staff member told the review:

“There are three groups: some sergeants who refuse to engage in anything to do with people issues because they don’t see it as part of their job; some sergeants who are willing but ask — ‘what should I do?; and a smaller group of sergeants who are good at the people stuff.”

The strong influence of middle managers on employees mean it is vital they receive leadership development, such as being able to initiate genuine conversations with at-risk employees and support them in the workplace. Noting a lack of empathy among some members, a number of employees suggested those being considered for promotion to management positions be screened for a psychological capacity to deal with other people.

A widespread and entrenched stigma, or “suck it up” culture, was also identified as a problem for the organisation. Early intervention and prevention resources are in short supply.

There is also an “excessive tolerance margin” for bad behaviour, and “individuals are generally not held accountable for behaviours unless transgressing what is effectively a criminal threshold.” The report says that while there are examples of respectful workplace cultures, “this is not the norm.”

Recommendations welcomed by Victoria Police, minister

Victorian chief commissioner Graham Ashton said the leadership team was committed to implementing the changes recommended in the review.

“My hope is that this review will continue to raise the profile of mental health in our organisation,” he said. “I want Victoria Police to have an inclusive culture where everyone feels comfortable to seek the help that they need.”

Police Minister Lisa Neville commended the chief commissioner on his work to deliver a healthier and safer workplace. “This review is a major step forward in strengthening mental health support across the force,” she said.

“We stand side by side with Victoria Police to better support the mental health of staff across the organisation.”

Victoria Police will now develop a comprehensive mental health strategy to address the issues and gaps identified in the review.

The government announced $500,000 in the Victorian Budget to immediately address issues identified in the report by delivering more mental health and wellbeing support for police.

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