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“One Up”

Steve Winegar Ph.D. (Police Chief, Ret)

Immediate Past Chair, IPSLEI


A few months ago, Kevin Brame, the Executive Director of IPSLEI, and I engaged in a exchange of “one up” – an exercise we do every few months. Our exchange starts with one of us sending a news article about public safety ethical misconduct, and the other responds back with a different article of misconduct. Kevin comes from the fire side of public safety, and I come from the police/corrections side of public safety. Unfortunately, it is easy for both of us to come up with examples, and we often go 5 or more “rounds” of the exchanges. We usually end these exchanges with the same thought: This is why we need effective leadership and ethics education like IPSLEI courses. Earlier this week I read an article concerning the Oregon State Police and a failure in ethics and leadership, which led me to this blog post.

My foray into started while I was working at the Public Safety Academy in Oregon (for the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training or DPSST). About 15 years ago as part of my job I was reviewing curriculum and happened to sit in on an ethics class in the Basic Police Academy. As I sat in the classroom, I was struck by the fact that the curriculum was the same as an ethics class I had taken more than twenty years prior – the same content, same examples, and unfortunately, same result. I knew that the number of officers losing their jobs and their police certifications due to ethical misconduct had not gone down over that time frame, but in fact had gone up. Our training was obviously not having the desired impact.

I started doing some research and came to the sad conclusion that the type of training we were doing was shown to have little, if any, impact on the ethical behavior of the students. I suggested to the Academy staff that we take an entirely different approach to ethics classes.

The traditional approach to ethics training has focused on helping people determine what is right and wrong and making good ethical decisions. In my research I found that researchers referred to this approach as “Naïve Psychology” because it reflected a mistaken conception of behavior and mental processes – the belief that people make their (ethical) choices on their own without outside influence. Or as researchers put it:

  • That is, individuals place greater weight on introspective thoughts and beliefs related to their decision to conform than to the behavioral evidence of their conformity. (Nolan et al 2008, p.914).

  • Nolan, J. M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). Normative social influence is under detected. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 34(7), 913-923.

Researching what does work in ethics classes also provided some, but limited information. It has proven to be very difficult to assess the impact of ethics classes because behaviors can and do appear long after the class is over. However, one of the lessons that has been learned is just teaching people to make good ethical decisions will not lead to ethical behavior.

I currently teach a graduate course Ethics in Leadership at a local university. We spend maybe 20% of the class on ethical decision making, and the remainder on topics like the two mental processes that lead to behavior, decision making heuristics, the role of moral character in ethical behavior, the role of organizational culture in ethical behavior, gender and power and ethics, what can be effective in ethical leadership, and creating and supporting moral rebels.

I have seen components of good ethics education actually work. My best example is less than an hour after an ethics class where we discussed the role of fairness and loyalty in being a moral rebel, a student in the class reported significant misconduct by one of their classmates that had been ongoing during the first eight weeks they were in the Academy.

Leadership and ethics are not easy topics, and some of the concepts involved are complex and difficult to grasp. However, that does not mean that we need to reduce the academic rigor in the way we teach these topics.

More on all of this to come in future blog posts.


Reference:

Nolan, J. M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). Normative social influence is under detected. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 34(7), 913-923.

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