In the media

Selecting for strengths

By Sally Bibb, Richard Davis

Police Professional

26 May 2021

This article was first published in Police Professional

Sally Bibb and Richard Davis examine how ‘trust based’ professions have strengthened their legitimacy and the lessons that policing can apply to recruitment.

Policing is built on our people, states the Policing Vision 2025, and the 20,000 officer uplift will see the biggest injection of people into the service this century. The focus is often on ensuring the right skills in the right culture – sensible and worthy goals – but we need to think more about how we recruit the right people in the first place.

“You can’t teach someone to care,” said journalist John Humphrys in a Radio 4 interview with the, then Chief Nurse of England, Jane Cummings, following the 2013 inquiry into the deaths of patients in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust.

He was right. There are some things people can learn but caring is an innate trait that cannot be picked up via training.

The NHS did not have a rigorous approach when selecting candidates who were naturally suited to the job. Instead, a competency-based approach was used to pinpoint what people ‘can’ do and have done before, but not whether they are the kind of person who thrives in a role. The latter is a differentiator between an ‘okay’ candidate and an ‘excellent’ one.

The same was true in prisons. The Director of Prisons for five UK private prisons was struggling to find people who were good at the job and stayed the course. No matter how much the wording of the job advert was changed or which personality tests were carried out, the same type of candidate was being attracted – those with a ‘bouncer mentality’, instead of those with the strengths needed to be a rehabilitative prison officer.

Both professions knew what ‘good’ looked like, but struggled to translate that into the specific strengths and deeper motivations that lay behind outward behaviour.

In much the same way, having the right police officers is important for public trust. Police legitimacy, or ‘policing by consent’, means that police are implicitly granted the power, by the public, to do their job. The parallel with nursing and prisons is clear. The public need to have trust in these professions. Trust in policing has been thrust into the spotlight during the Covid-19 pandemic – from enforcing ever-changing guidance to policing public protests, the relationships between police and public have been tested.

Do not wait for an inquiry – know what is needed and recruit accordingly now

The Staffordshire inquiry’s recommendations included ‘stronger health care leadership’. The leaders of the ten leading NHS University Trusts already knew that strong health care leadership was key. When they had the right ‘ward leaders’, patient care and outcomes were good. So why were the right people not in place?

The challenge that faced them was that they had no evidence-based insight into what kind of people were the ones who, in addition to their clinical competence, were the right fit, who loved their job, were excellent at it and who instilled trust.

They used a competency framework that listed all the characteristics that were purportedly those needed by ward leaders. But it was not based on any evidence-based insight into real people who excelled at the job. It was easy for candidates to learn how to give a ‘good’ response and assessors found that all the candidates seemed very similar. It was neither an effective nor useful process.

A study was carried out of exemplar ward leaders, which revealed that they shared a number of strengths, including being good at tuning into other people, motivated by making a difference and getting a buzz out of developing others. From neuroscience, we know that these are strengths that cannot be taught.

Neural scientist Dr Harry Chugani used the analogy of roads. He said that a person’s strengths are like a four lane super highway of the brain – the connections that are fast and efficient are those that are used often. The connections (or synapses) that are used less often are like a minor road that is unfamiliar, difficult to navigate and not an enjoyable experience.

We can spend a lot of time learning the ‘behaviours’ that are associated with strengths. But we will never be brilliant at them or be energised by them and of course, when we are stressed, we tend to revert to our natural selves.

The Director of Prisons, just like the chief nurses, also realised they needed to dig deeper to understand the kind of people that made superb prison officers. His hunch was the assumptions they were making were off. He was right. Once they gathered the evidence as to what exemplars were actually like, the light bulbs went on and it became clear exactly why people who they thought would make great hires did not work out and why the ones who did, did.

Having introduced strengths-based selection, one London Trust monitored key metrics and reported a reduction in avoidable harm, improved compliance with care processes, an improvement in key workforce metrics such as vacancy rates and turnover, and nine per cent more nurses from BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds appointed. As important as quantitative metrics, was the matrons’ confidence in the approach and desire to use it. They wanted to go home at night knowing that they need have no concerns about ‘worry wards’.

Lessons for policing

Legitimacy in nursing is impossible if patients and their loved ones do not feel that sense of trust in nurses. Legitimacy in prisons comes from being able to detain people safely and securely. The same is true in policing where legitimacy is based on public trust and the belief that police officers act in the best interest of the public.

In March this year, in his first interview about race since the Black Lives Matter protests, Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said trust and confidence in policing is 20 per cent lower among the black population than the average. He spoke about the UK police style being based on legitimacy, and that legitimacy is based on trust and confidence of all communities. This is an area in which constant vigilance is needed – a March 2021 YouGov poll showed a slight rise from 31 per cent to 34 per cent in the proportion of people who do not have ‘very much confidence’ in the police. In London, the picture is worse with those with ‘not very much confidence’ in the police rising from 26 per cent to 41 per cent.

Trust and confidence in the police is essential as it will not only encourage people to report crimes and work with forces, but could also lead to people from a diversity of backgrounds wanting to become part of the force. Diversity starts with evidence-based insight into what it takes to be good at a job and then communicating that to people who may have previously assumed the job was not for them.

Recruitment of 20,000 additional officers is already underway – although that does not stop strengths-based thinking being adopted. Hospitals and prisons introduced the new approach without interrupting the flow of new recruits being brought in. In other areas of police recruitment, there may be greater scope, especially when looking at police staff (for example, those in control rooms) and the growing need for digital skills in forces.

Employers in high-risk environments are catching on to the strengths-based approach to selection.  It has a potentially terrible impact on patients, prisoners or citizens if those they rely on are not a good fit for the job. It also costs the employer in time, money, angst and erodes trust.

For policing, a good start would be to invest in an evidence-based strengths profile that explicitly highlights the strengths that ‘stand-out’ police officers, and staff that thrive in the role, have in common. These may be very different from the profile of those who are successfully promoted or take on formal leadership roles.

This is the foundation stone from which an effective advertising campaign, selection process and induction process stems.

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