Stepping up: Collaborative Adaptive Learning (CAL)

Policing is under immense pressure and scrutiny. It’s little wonder that within that pressure there is a noticeable trend towards punitive and authoritarian interventions: in other words systemised blame. Bringing errors to account and punishing them is a natural tendency, but the problem with that blunt instrument is that it invokes fear rather than learning. 

Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, Amy Edmondson, has published much on the benefits of feeling safe to learn, juxtaposed by the dangers of toxic environments that reward lying to please within some optics of so-called performance cultures (2019).

But surely, when things aren’t perfect, something must be done. That’s absolutely right. The solution is to improve, and never stop.

Positive psychology

Dr Tal Ben-Shahar offers us some inspiration on how we might frame such a positive alternative to the blame and punish elixir. Tal is a philosophy and psychology graduate, who has helped inform new ways of thinking about psychology. His intriguing insights earned him accolades in his teaching at Harvard, where students knew they were listening to something special when he expounded upon positive psychology.

In the pursuit of perfection, which many of us share to one extent or another, the self-esteem of learning is key to psychological energy. In other words, ‘trying to get better’ does not mean it has to be perceived as ‘trying to be less bad’.

Learning through Opposites

There is an old saying that one cannot know light without darkness, which is a paradox essentially explaining the importance of perspective. Your perspective of something you are immersed in is accentuated when you step out side of the immersion and can then appreciate the difference.

Adaptive learning might be better perceived if you contrast it to maladaptive learning. Maladaptive learning is driven by the fear of failure and shame, as a form of defensive neuroses. The fear of getting it wrong, or that things aren’t quite perfect (philosophically here leaving aside just what ‘perfection’ might be as a concept), is the negative energy driving amendments and appearances.   

Contrasting maladaptive learning to adaptive learning highlights how the latter is driven by the energy of getting it right and the former is driven by the fear of getting it wrong.

Stepping up

Professor John Coxhead has worked on learning within policing environments in order to improve performance for over 25 years: his doctorate on the topic, examined by Professor Jerry Wellington (University of Sheffield), is dated to 2006.  

New research on adaptive learning in policing (Coxhead, 2023) has been stimulated by field research in Italy, and now offers an application in policing performance management to counter the prevailing maladaptive mindset found so often – too often – in contemporary policing.

Consider climbing a flight of stairs. At the bottom you look upwards and set out to ascend. Halfway up you have not failed (maladaptively); you are on your way (adaptively). There are always more steps to climb. You may occasionally glance back to see how far you have come, but as you are climbing you are going somewhere. Climbing stairs is not an act of failure but an act of purposeful direction.

Getting beyond maladaptiveness

Recognising the maladaptive psychosis epidemic within policing offers a way to rethink and recalibrate performance improvement. Maladaptation is more harmful than helpful, and not only disempowers current performance: it hinders growth for future performance because it hides behind static competence as a form of shield. 

Adaptive learning is about what is going in your head, rather than with your feet, when you climb those metaphorical stairs. But the mindset affects the feet too. Just as in sports psychology, such as the long distance runner who talks about running as a ‘mind game’, whilst the observer might consider it’s about leg work. 

Adaptive learning – illustrated by its maladaptive comparator – is not about not failing, it’s about purpose. In the pursuit of perfection few of us are perfect, but the key thing if you keep trying, not defined by failure, but by aspiration. 

What next for adaptation?

Professor Coxhead explains, “people have been using the term adaptive learning for a long time, but unless you juxtapose it to the maladaptive it may not make much sense in applied practice. It boils down to this: we can choose to be driven by fear or opportunity. Currently, policing is driven by fear in every way. 

The police might not want to climb any new stairs in case they can’t make it. But by standing still they are motivated by the fear of failure and the neurosis of appearing perfect: an Hellerian paradox. 

The psychology of failure is intertwined with Professor Terry O’Connell’s (2019) important work on shame and judgement, but the duality here is that the flip side of the coin offers hope. The neuroses of failure judgement can create an insular and hostile defensiveness, but if policing can appreciate the public want continually improving policing (because the benefit ultimately is to the public) then more co-productive, relational collaboration between the public and police means future growth can be opportunity focused as a shared mission. In other words, policing needs to climb the stairs with the public rather than trying to go it alone and investing in paranoid narratives to try and justify itself.”

Although Charles Darwin in 1859 rather graphically indicated that you either adapt or die, in positive psychology terms we could think more about adaptive learning in policing as growth and opportunity focused. The way to do this, integrating the Peelian principle of ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’, is through Collaborative Adaptive Learning (CAL). 

If you are interested in applying CAL in an operational environment talk to us at EMPAC.



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