Cognitive diversity: the delusion of command and control

Here is another opinion piece to get your cognitive juices flowing: be part of the debate – let us know what you think!

One of EMPAC’s founding principles is to drive innovation, and that means supporting an agile environment where new ideas are able to grow. We have promoted the importance of benefits of being progressive already, but this time we take a look at the notion of cognitive diversity as a vital enabler for innovation.

The relevance for us here is that a research, learning and enterprising environment can only be achieved if we work together with mutual respect, for the overall good. You can have as many good ideas as you want but if they fall on stony ground nothing will change. 

Walter Lippman, twice recipient of Pullitzer prizes and advisor to US President Woodrow Wilson, is credited with the quote “when all think alike, no-one thinks very much”.  The point is well made as it means big(ger) mistakes can be made in a form of collective blindness: essentially group think can turn the advantages of a team approach into a disadvantage. 

Syed (2020) discusses how constructive dissent is not only smart, but essential to survive and thrive. The paradox is the environment where it is most needed is often the place that least desires it.  In a way this is all about ‘power’ in that it takes time, effort, hard work, maybe a bit of luck too, to get anywhere and once you’ve arrived, you no doubt don’t want to give all that up. 

The problem with that power retention strategy is that what got you where you are now may well not keep you there. Reason being the world keeps changing. So taking a defensive attitude towards change might feel for some the best way to ‘protect’ success – to play safe – but the reality is change is constant so you have to keep moving yourself. 

Humility and the learning environment

Coyle (2018) talks about ‘muscular humility’ as the benefit of utilising – rather than hiding – vulnerability to share problems with others and allowing the collective to help progress things. He also makes the point that to empower that humility you have to engender a safe space for reflection, questioning and discussion: in effect a learning environment. That’s in stark contrast to a ‘I know best’ environment. That equally applies in a business context – where you can lose your competitive, creative edge – and in public service context, where you can lose legitimacy.

In an environment like policing, that takes its traditions originally from the military structure, there is a dominant command and control culture. The political rhetoric of Robert Peel, of the ‘police being the people and the people being the police’ never really translated that well into the emergent policing structures. Many early police chiefs were ex-military and the trappings of rank, marching, saluting and command were heavily invested into the foundations of what we now call professional policing. 

Such a structure, with its incumbent culture, as Sunstein and Hastie (2015) and Coyle (2018), can be weak through its apparent strength. What does that riddle mean? Imagine a team that has a very ‘powerful’ leader, who ‘knows best’, says it as it is, and everyone gets on with it. It’s like a team with one thinking head where the other team members are the doers. For command and control this is a dream come true.

But. The point of a team is to pull together – many hands make light work -the proverb goes, right? Physically we get the point that where we all get behind something and push it our combined strength is greater that acting alone. You wouldn’t think the team were much good if one member was doing all the heavy lifting and the rest were sat about watching would you?

The power of ideas

So how come, when it comes to thinking, we miss the point so often that two heads are better than one? Declaring you are not sure about something and getting everyone’s else’s opinion is sort of a sign of weakness in the machismo of policing. Having two heads but only using one of them is missing the point. And it makes it all a really dangerous environment for all concerned.  

Why dangerous you ask – after all the set up was all about being safe, by having a strong leader who  we all fall in line behind? Here’s the reason: the pyramid approach of leadership where the guy at the tops knows all and best is frankly delusional. It means, as Sunstein and Hastie (2015) point out, that errors can get amplified rather than called out, where the dominant power currency is status in the hierarchy. If a ‘subordinate’ comes up with a good idea, rather than that being great for progress, it can be perversely seen as a threat. How illogical is that? 

Power can often be about emotion rather than logic, and a hierarchical structure is often more concerned about who we are rather than what is said. For that same reason, there is little to no benefit in having people appear to be involved as a form of tokenism: it’s the contribution people make (or are allowed to make) that can make the difference.  

It’s interesting too that in the mix and make-up of a team, where the hierarchical head picks the members we end up with ‘clonism’, where many things are in a Biblical ‘thine own image’. It feeds the ego wonderfully – but it’s bad for business.  

The implications here exacerbate the problem of who is speaking (rather than what is being said) as the team membership in the first place may well be a by-product of implicit bias. You might find lots of “happy talk” as Sunstein and Hastie (2015) call it, where it’s all lovely and nice for everyone to agree (maybe via tacit silence) with the populist trend. You can end up with the perfect marriage of an institutionalised membership who agree with the leader and only the leader tends to ‘know and tell’ anyway.

Remember Peel?

Back in the nineteenth century, the idea of having a ‘Police’ was not a popular one as there was a fear in society of an invading militarised structure (Storch, 1975; Emsley, 1996).  The trade-off involved a number of features in the architecture of the police to persuade the public that the police were part of them and not an invading force. That’s where the unarmed tenet for example, comes from, for example. There were several very nasty riots and disorderly protests against the new police initially, resulting in the murder of officers. Police Constable Robert Culley for example, was murdered in a riot in 1833 (and his colleagues Sergeant John Brooks and Constable John Redwood were stabbed but survived) and the feeling of the time was such that the jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide! (Storch, 1975).

Having that single head of a police agency, unelected, running a command and control approach, made up of other similar thinking folk is a recipe for disaster when judged against the Peelian principles that sought to navigate public consent in the first place.  

Policing by dissent

Cognitive diversity means a team that is itself authentically diverse and representative of the mix in society, both physically (who maybe look different to each other) and cognitively (who maybe think differently to each other). Crucially, it matters not just being there but being heard – where everyone is encouraged to speak up, and their voice, even when, particularly when, is different,  is valued. And the reason they are heard is that it’s, of course, acknowledged that it’s actually better for the police and for the community they police. It means the team is actually a team, not a one-headed organism with lots of arms. 

Where Sunstein and Hastie (2015) refer to group blindness, they refer to a collective failure to call the other out, in the best interests of the team. It can happen where the command and control culture has got too big for its own boots and perhaps lost sight why and how the police were established. (Of course we should acknowledge that there are mixed views about the formation of the police as an arm of the State to protect property  and so forth, but we’re not wanting to explore all that here – simply to discuss  team dynamics.)

Group think blindness can mean no-one calls out what needs calling out because it’s not popular or maybe it’s perceived as a threat to control. Either way, command and control alone is a blunt tool that can actually undermine teamwork because of the one-way power dynamic. The real power is in diversity; and that includes cognitive diversity.  Constructive dissent is not a problem – it’s a solution. Lasting real power requires public legitimacy, without which it appears to have a temporary force whilst in reality it is open to legitimate challenge.

Cognitive diversity offers a powerful way of creating a policing team that has conjoint potential, because of how it thinks. Such a team is less likely to fail and err because the honesty through the collective acts as a vital conscience and influence.

This has only taken you around 8 minutes and 46 seconds to read. Now is as good a time as ever for us all to think – together – about policing. 



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