Garda culture must change – but it can only do so if all layers of force are onboard
IN THE aftermath of Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan’s retirement, it’s important for An Garda Síochána to pay attention to the Garda culture if it is to retrieve its reputation in the coming years.
Some believe recruiting someone from overseas who is not embedded in Garda culture will quickly solve the problem. As the song goes,
“it ain’t necessarily so…” Fixing a flawed culture requires much more than the removal of the figure at the top. What is needed is to involve as many layers within an organisation as possible in the change mission.
In my recent book, ‘Leading Cultural Change’, I told the story of a disastrous ice storm at New York’s JFK International Airport. That storm challenged many airlines, but JetBlue’s operational infrastructure broke down, leaving passengers stranded on the runway for hours. Getting back to normal took three days and left JetBlue’s reputation severely damaged.
How JetBlue fixed the problem was much more than a single fix. It reinforced the unique high-involvement culture that had fuelled its rapid growth in the first place. It didn’t take a top-down approach. Instead, it brought together a broad, crossfunctional coalition of frontline crew members. This team, with full support from the top, developed the JetBlue strategy for recovering from an interruption in service and solved the problem so that it would never happen again. And it hasn’t.
That’s what An Garda Síochána – and also Ryanair – needs right now. A broad, cross-functional coalition of their frontline people. All looking at the future, not the past.
Kathleen O’Toole, in her management of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, has given an admirable lead in this. She has indicated a reluctance to spend time looking for people to blame for the various scandals emerging in the past few years. Instead, the commission plans to lay out ways to genuinely make the force into what Ms O’Sullivan suggested it should be: “a beacon of 21st century policing.”
The never-ending cycle of Garda revelations is a signal the organisation is badly off track and has been for a long time. It’s going to take a lot to turn it around. The Garda system functions as it does because the dysfunction runs very deep. It is like a bad tooth that has a thousand roots. Corporate culture is both “the way we do things around here” and “what we do when we think no one is looking”. Culture is the core logic, the software of the mind that organises the behaviour of the people, and exemplifies the lessons we have learned that are important enough to pass on to the next generation.
Every organisation should be wary of assuming an initially strong and virtuous corporate culture will travel intact through generations of people working within that organisation. That’s a dangerous assumption, because, over time, practices tend to become detached from their original rationale.
Observation of armies, for example, has shown that rituals associated with the days when horses were important in the frontline tended to survive – and waste time – long after horses disappeared from modern armies.
We all try to use yesterday’s solutions to solve tomorrow’s problems until it just doesn’t work anymore. Nobody would believe a generation of doctors can be trained, graduated – and left to their own devices for the following 30-plus years. Instead, whether it’s the NHS or the HSE, health authorities insist on regular annual training programmes which not only inculcate new knowledge, but help to eradicate the development of bad clinical habits.
The selection of the new Garda commissioner, therefore, should be influenced by a concern that the individual is capable of setting out a clear vision of a future state, committed to the involvement of all layers within the organisation in the realisation of that vision, and resolute about ongoing training to ensure rotten habits – like the falsification of breath tests – never again take hold right across An Garda Síochána.
Involvement at all levels will not be easy, since good people have probably been looking the other
way for a long time. They have had to come up with ‘work-arounds’ to survive and that has also delayed systemic reform (the system kind of works and that’s kept it functioning this long).
THE new management needs to want to hear the truth about what’s going on. And why it is going on. They need to be resolute about focusing their attention on how the organisation should work in the future and not become consumed by the blame game. They need to welcome the whistleblowers in the Garda, even though they can create huge tensions and distractions in the organisation.
Changing the culture of an organisation is slow, timeconsuming work. It involves a lot of leadership at all levels of the organisation and they should always spend more time supporting the people who are doing outstanding work than they are playing the blame game.
Daniel Denison is professor of management and organisation at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD)
Gardaí Cillian Fitzmaurice, Jonathon Burke, Gary Farren, Colm O’Cuiv, and Brendan MacArtain were among 188 gardaí to graduate this week from the University of Limerick’s first Bachelor of Arts in Applied Policing programme.