Kudos Column: Faye Barth-Farkas
As a PhD candidate at the German Police University in Münster, I combine ideas taken from social and organizational psychology with public management concerns. In trying to understand power dynamics and interpersonal factors influencing leader - follower relationships, the police as an organization offers a unique setting, marked by strict hierarchies and a strong organizational culture.
Traditionally, the police force has been viewed as a para-military organization, characterized by a bureaucratic line of conduct and a reluctance to accept or implement change (Coleman, 2008). The particularity of public organizations in general, and unique institutions like the police specifically, has led to some hesitation in directly applying leadership theories derived from research in the private sector (e.g., Currie & Lockett, 2007). Seeing how rank and status are crucial to the organizational culture of the police, effective and accepted leadership may very well differ from that recommended in the private sector. In my research within the police organization, I want to highlight how the support and trust afforded to a superior can be shaped by an individual’s self-perceived power and leadership style, irrespective of organizational traditions at work.
Transformational leadership, as a leadership style not limited to use of reward and punishment but also conveying a shared vision and calling on employees’ intrinsic motivation (Bass, 1990), was originally introduced as the most efficient way of leading a company and has also been positively endorsed in the public sector (Wright, & Pandey, 2010). Extending on the existing literature, I was interested in how perceived power alters the way in which police leaders treat their staff. We found that lower levels of self-perceived power led to more transformational leadership attitudes, whereas police officers primed with high power, reported being less transformational (Barth-Farkas & Vera, 2014). Despite the general support for transformational leadership, it is not a characteristic of the prototypical police leader and thus less enthusiastically promoted within the police organization (Alvarez, Lila, Toma, & Castillo, 2014).
Guided by this line of research on the relation between power and leadership, we wanted to examine, which attributes best describe a prototypical leader in the police force. By combining what we know from the literature with feedback from top-level police leaders in Germany, we generated descriptions of what we believed to be prototypical police leaders. Prototypical leaders were seen as male, truthful, cooperative, strong and conscientious, whereas atypical leaders were seen as female, sensitive, critical, charismatic and creative. In a subsequent study we administered vignettes of fictional police leaders, who differed on their prototypicality and powerfulness. Leaders who showed little display of power were described as democratic in nature, with employees who enjoyed a lot of freedom and right to speak openly. Conversely, high power leaders were labeled as authoritarian who gave clear instructions and guidelines to employees. In line with previous research (Giessner, van Knippenberg, & Sleebos, 2009) we found that officers were more likely to endorse and trust a prototypical leader than a non-prototypical leader.
Additionally, leaders described as asserting less power were preferred, irrespective of whether or not the leader was prototypical. The positive endorsement of low power leaders was somewhat surprising in the hierarchical context of the police. It may, however, point towards a shift in today’s expectations regarding leadership figures. If there is a link between lower levels of power in leaders and transformational leadership, perhaps the endorsement of low power leaders also supports the contemporary demand for communicative, perspective-taking leaders in the police sector.
Even though our research suggests today’s officers’ preference for democratic and modern leadership, the description of a prototypical police leader still follows a traditional view. In our attempt to gather adjectives most descriptive of a prototypical leader, by far the most frequently selected was “male”. In our sample, the prototypical (and therefore male) fictional leader was endorsed and trusted significantly more than the non-prototypical, female leader, pointing towards the additional challenges that still exist for female leaders within the police force today (Poteyeva & Sun, 2009). However, only our male participants showed this bias towards the male leader, our female participants’ ratings of the leaders did not significantly differ. These results are both promising and concerning for women’s career trajectories within the police force; Female police officers’ endorsement of the leader was not influenced by gender, indicating emancipation and lack of self-discrimination. Our male participants, however, were biased. And seeing as the vast majority of top-level police management in Germany is still predominantly male, men will be the ones having to endorse future female leaders. Our research suggests that this endorsement is unlikely until women are also seen as prototypical of the police organization.
Alvarez, O., Lila, M., Toma, I., & Castillo, I. (2014). Transformational leadership in the local police in Spain: A leader-follower distance approach. Spanish Journal of Psychology, 17, 1-9. doi: 10.1017/sjp.2014.44
Barth-Farkas, F. & Vera, A. (2014). Power and transformational leadership in public organizations. International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, 10, 217 – 232. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/IJLPS-07-2014-0011
Bass, B. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, 18 (3), 19-31. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0090-2616(90)90061-S
Coleman, T. (2008). Managing strategic knowledge in policing: do police leaders have sufficient knowledge about organisational performance to make informed strategic decisions?, Police Practice and Research: An International Journal, 9, 307 – 322. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15614260802354593
Currie, G. & Lockett, A. (2007). A critique of transformational leadership: Moral, professional and contingent dimensions of leadership within public services organizations. Human Relations, 60, 341 – 370. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15614260802354593
Giessner, S. R., van Knippenberg, D., & Sleebos, E. (2009). License to fail? How leader group prototypically moderates the effects of leader performance on perceptions of leadership effectiveness. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 434 – 451. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2009.03.012
Poteyeva, M. & Sun, I. Y. (2009). Gender differences in police officers' attitudes: Assessing current empirical evidence, Journal of Criminal Justice, 37, 512 – 522. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2009.07.011
Wright, B. E. & Pandey, S. K. (2010). Transformational leadership in the public sector: Does structure matter? Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory Advance, 20, 75 – 89. https://doi.org/10.1093/jopart/mup003