The “Ladder Principle” in Police Management: Shakedown Style, Pragmatic Bureaucrat, and the Real Manager


with Dr. Anthony Normore

Policing is a social function based on looking after the interests of others. Equally so, it is based on the ability, often necessity, of exercising power over others.  We can see how the typical police ‘manager’, Machiavellian, or bureaucrat acquires position and functions within the police organization.  Unfortunately, holding a self-serving ‘how do I get ahead’ ethic is incongruent with the equally present need to request/expect, and manage, and lead the work of subordinates that is by design, altruistic (Brown, 1988; Paoline, 2003).

Through an interdisciplinary look at police supervisory and management practices we describe police officers in terms of their outlook on the policing function in society, and what place those individuals think they occupy within the policing function. We use the term supervisor at times because it implies only the rank position occupied by an individual vs. manager which implies effective and efficient directing of other people’s time and skills.

The four seminal typologies identified by Shearing (1981) and reflected in other studies are, ‘the wise officer’ who balances performing social service and crime-fighting job functions with public appearance; ‘the real officer’ who is the cultural hero that focuses on action and a crusade against crime (the criminal); ‘the good officer’ who is a career minded professional that views policing in a social service context; and ‘the cautious officer’ who is the cynical or disinterested avoider.

Positions at the bottom of the organization, where calls for service are responded to and investigations are performed, tends to be occupied by individuals with a proclivity toward the ‘cautious’ or the ‘real’; whereas, the higher status administration position tends to be occupied by individuals with a proclivity toward the ‘good’ or the ‘wise’.


“The ladder principle” is a phrase coined by the principle author to describe a recognizable issue in promotion and management style that is often visible in large police agencies.  The concepts discussed in this article grew out of career advice given to a young recruit by a retired ranking officer in a large metropolitan police service, seasoned in several high profile positions. The advice:

When you’re thinking about your police career and promotion keep your eye on those above you on the ladder and stay in line. Remember, anyone who is above you can step on your fingers and slow down your career, maybe even end it. You don’t need to concern yourself with those below you on the ladder. They are below you. They can’t do you any harm.

At the time, the advice was not embraced by the recruit, for somehow it seemed inappropriate. However, through a series of events over 30 years of experience in the policing and observing the actions of superiors, peers, and peers hoping to be superiors, the ladder principle began to make sense.  Within the police organization one can see the climbers who are easily recognized as potentially treacherous.  They stand out as individuals with a primary goal of promotion to a higher rank who will do what is necessary to get recognized for that promotion (Kelling, 1999).  Fortunately, we also see some individuals make it through promotional processes who are simply competent, who genuinely care, and best of all, those who are combinations of the latter two. Three distinctive managerial styles became clear to the officer during his tenure in the policing environment; the shakedown style, the pragmatic bureaucrat, and the ‘real’ manager.  Each is described below.

Machiavellian: The Shakedown Style

The shakedown style seems a natural consequence of promotion within any bureaucratic organization built on the exercise of power over others.  In large police agencies front-line police work often consists of speaking to ‘regular’ people who wish to claim a wrong has occurred and those who are potentially involved in criminal activity.  The truth of what has occurred is often somewhere within the claims/statements, but often it comes with some degree of variation due to perspective. Therein competent officers learn to listen with cynicism when others, reportee or suspect, make claims/statements.  Where suspects are concerned, the potential offender typically denies involvement (Webster & Jonason, 2013).  Sometimes, however overt or subtle, the officer makes use of positional authority to continue the investigation (Weisburd, Greenspan, Hamilton, Bryant, & Williams, 2001).

How often does this same street ‘shakedown’ style continue on into a management style, for those officers that become promoted?  From the first moment of entry into a police agency or training program, one learns that policing the public is entrenched in authoritarian decision-making.  One also learns quickly that inside the organization it is a disciplined place. Competent officers learn to use it.

Through promotion the individual moves from engaging in social interactions (dealing) with the public, to dealing with social interactions with subordinates.  The authoritarian style remains intact.  It simply shifts from a subjected public to subjected subordinates. The subordinates, who hold a lower place on the ladder, are routinely subjected to use of authority, necessary and unnecessary when that authority is simply used as the supervisors’ chosen method of getting what the supervisor wants.  This was once called ‘the carrot and the stick’.  It is in direct contrast with an intersubjective human approach used by the ‘real’ manager that current management theory contemplates (Dessler, Chhinzer, & Cole, 2014).

Each level of supervisor is busy doing her/his own job tasks, concerned for further promotion and those above.  They rarely have the time to get to know the people that work for them, unless they make the time.  Individually, speaking out comes with the inherent risk that the Machiavellian ‘manager’ will get even with anyone that may cause waves, thus interfering with his/her career plan (Webster & Jonason, 2013).  Unfortunately the next level supervisor rarely hears about the disaffection caused by the Machiavellian personality type and the disrupted ‘esprit de corps’ that translates into a lesser degree of good public service. Imagine the organizational confusion that may result in a para-military style hierarchical organization from exposing the autocratic, Machiavellian supervisors/at all levels of the organization. The personality profile may well help to understand the activities.

It is recognized in psychology texts as the individual who sees others as resources in a strategic plan (Neumann & Hare, 2010). As an extension the dark triad in psychology is a continuum that incorporates narcissistic, Machiavellian and psychopathic tendencies (Rauthmann & Kolar, 2013). Others are recognized for their potential use, toward a particular gain.  People are simply a means to an end, rather than an end, in and of itself.  In policing that desired gain often manifests as recognition that will go toward promotion.

For some, the promotional process is believed to exist as an opportunity to show one’s competence at a current organizational level and potential to function well at a higher level of authority within the organization.  For the Machiavellian personality the promotional process is not necessarily about proving oneself competent.  It may simply be an issue of impression management.  The Machiavellian individual attempts to assess what individual performance is required, consistent with the organizational performance, in order to be recognized by those in higher ranking positions and ‘drafted’ by those others into a position of higher authority.  Although the individual’s presentation front may be contrived, if it is accepted as sincere, the performance works and the individual becomes a ‘successful candidate’ in the promotional process.

Beyond the issue with those on the lowest rung of an organization, wishing to be recognized for promotion, there exists the superior positions where the power is exercised, and decisions are made.  It is not uncommon for the driven person to succeed in the working world. According to Babiak and associates (2010), psychopathy in executives (and perhaps the want-to-be executive) was shown in the propensity toward personality traits of charisma/presentation style (i.e. creativity, good strategic thinking and communication skills) in contrast to a lower propensity toward responsibility/performance (i.e. being a team player, management skills, and overall accomplishments).  Given this research, the logical implication is that we may see a greater propensity towards the psychopathic personality traits in police managers than we might see elsewhere.

The Pragmatic Bureaucrat

The pragmatic manager is a much softer version. Consciously or unconsciously, this manager still thinks of him/herself first, often working toward finding a way to connect the “right” jobs to their administrative skills.  The ladder still applies – pay homage to those above.  Show concern for those below only as necessary, to deal with a specific issue that crosses the desk. A double standard manifests in an organizational ethic – ‘look after yourself’. Interestingly, the ‘looking after yourself’ is typically linked to a promotional track fraught with patterns of deference. If trampling on the concerns (and perhaps the careers) of subordinates is a consequence of the activity it is rarely seen or dealt with by superior officers.

A simple example: Higher level managers are judged by the way they handle their budget. Cash payout for overtime cannot be budgeted. It is an unknown amount that occurs as a result of ‘on the street’ incidents that cannot be anticipated (Brown, 1988). Minimizing the amounts actually spent on overtime is a place where senior managers can prove themselves. The middle manager attempts to exercise control over this fluctuating budget by establishing informal policy that deters front-line officers (hourly rate employee) from making claims for compensation that they are entitled to make as part of their contract, (i.e.,  do not claim the first hour of overtime, or a paid lunch hour that was not taken). At the same time, that manager (salaried employee) makes full use of all of the compensation for extra hours of work that he/she is entitled to as part of their contract i.e. use all of the 120 hours of  lieu time (Senior Officer Days) credited for unpaid overtime hours, regardless of whether those hours were actually worked or not.  The middle manager does not have to seek permission or report the use of those hours to superiors. There is no process of informal subjection between the individual and the next level supervisor.

The Real Manager

We cannot miss the value of the managers amongst us who work their way into leadership and managerial positions, balancing care for subordinates with efficient public service, fiscal responsibility, and maintenance of public trust. Through their credibility, morality, and authenticity they simply understand human nature, perhaps innately, perhaps through life experience.

Given the power associated with recognizing these particular polar management styles, police agencies may be better prepared to consider issues in promotion that have been missed for years. We conclude by offering the following recommendation in response to “My turn to be the boss”. Conduct translates into effective human resource management that recognizes: (a) conduct of superiors is best seen from a subordinate position, (b) how the conduct of superiors is seen by subordinates, (c) that there is a radiating effect to the conduct of superiors, (d) the extent to which that conduct within the police organization impacts the conduct of subordinates, and perhaps most importantly, (e) how that radiating effect contributes to high quality or poor public service.

To learn more:

Babiak, P., Neumann, C. S.,&  Hare, R. D. (2010), Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behavioural Sciences and the Law, 28, 174–193.

Body, C. R,. (2011). Corporate psychopaths, bullying and unfair supervision in the workplace. Journal of Business Ethics, 100 (3), 367-379

Brown, M. K. (1988). Working the street: Police discretion and the dilemmas of reform (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation

Dessler, G., Chhinzer, N., & Cole, N. D. (2014). Human resources management in Canada. Ontario, Canada: Pearson Education.

Kelling, G. L. (1999).“Broken windows” and police discretion. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

Paoline, E. A. (2003). Taking stock: Toward a richer understanding of police culture. Journal of Criminal Justice, 31(3), 199-214

Rauthmann, J. F., & Kolar, G. P. (2013). The perceived attractiveness and traits of the dark triad: Narcissists are perceived as hot, Machiavellians and psychopaths not. Personality and Individual Differences, 54 (5), 582-586

Shearing, C. (1981). Organizational police deviance: Its structure and control, Burlington, MA: Butterworth.

Webster, G. D., & Jonason, P. K. (2013). Putting the ‘irt’ in ‘dirty’: Item response theory analyses of the dark triad dirty dozen—an efficient measure of narcissism, psychopathy, and machiavellianism. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(2), 302-306.

Weisburd, D., Greenspan, R., Hamilton, E.E., Bryant,K. A., & Williams, H. (2001).  The  abuse of  police authority: A national study of police officers’ attitudes. Washington, DC: Police Foundations.

John Irwin, B.A., M.A. is a professor at the University of Guelph Humber in the Department of Justice Studies. He holds a Master of Arts (MA) in Interdisciplinary Studies from York University where he concluded an extensive analysis of police undercover work. His research interests focus on the social and political dynamics of power and human interaction, particularly within policing organizations. Prior to entering the education field John spent 31 years in policing with the Toronto Police Service working in a variety of front-line uniform, investigative, covert and managerial functions.

Anthony H. Normore, Ph.D. is department chair of special needs services, and professor of leadership at California State University Dominguez Hills.  With 30+ years as an educator, his teaching and research focuses on leadership growth and development in the context of ethics and social justice. He has authored numerous books, articles and book chapters. Tony has instructed inmates at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and currently collaborates with International Academy of Public Safety & Los Angeles Police Department on “credible leadership” training for police officers. Some of his work appears in Police Chief (IACP), Peace Officers Research Association of California, and Law Enforcement Today. Follow him on Twitter at @AHNormore 

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