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The 5 Thresholds of Changing Culture and Sun Tzu’s Art of War




In order to change a culture at work, home or in the community we must first define what we mean by “culture.” In its simplest terms, culture is defined as what is the expected and accepted way of thinking, talking and acting within a defined group. Culture can have both positive and negative connotations. For example, in a family the culture might be described by the adage, “children are to be seen and not heard.” Or, “do as I say, not as I do.” Or, “love your neighbor as yourself.”


In police work, culture might be described by, “if you want it done right, do it yourself.” Or, “morale sucks!” Or, “it’s Us versus Them. Keep your mouth shut.” Or, “I’m here to protect, serve and help.” In the community, one might describe culture as “I don’t know nothing about nothing.” Or, “I’m not a snitch. You can’t trust the police.” Or, “we are in this together and together we will overcome our differences.” The culture is what is expected and accepted within a group – either formally or informally communicated to its members.

Regardless the culture, there are five basic thresholds that impact changing a culture that is not healthy for you or the group in question.


1. Initial trust: This threshold is the ability to trust or have a positive association with an individual or group of individuals that will serve as a bridge of trust to cross the gap that is preventing moving closer to the culture you want. This bridge is a two-way one. Trust or positive association has to go both ways and is possible through finding common goals, aspirations and values with each other.


2. Emotional curiosity: This threshold is passive and more internal reflection, but more than mere trust. It involves being intrigued by or wanting to know more about the individuals or group that you have initial trust in. This period is best described as being curious but not yet open to personal change.


3. Intellectual openness: Acknowledging to yourself and possibly a select group of individuals of your openness to the possibility of personal and group/organizational change. This is a difficult threshold, because there is not yet a commitment to change, only openness to the possibility of change. In this phase there is the internal struggle with reconciling admitting your openness to change with the overt opposition many of your peers have towards change. Maintaining status quo mindset is the biggest obstacle to bringing about culture change. “This is the way it’s always been” is the kiss of death to many efforts to bring about meaningful changes in an agency and community.


4. Active seeking: Moving from passive to active seeking to know why you are called to personal change and how to bring about group change. This is a more urgent intellectual quest to find an answer to the question, “What is the right thing to do here?” Engaging others who see and value what the change in culture will bring is integral at this stage. This stage is characterized by an attitude of hope for how things could be and ignoring the “it is what it is” mindset.


5. Intentional living: This is the phase where you make the decision to drop one’s excuses/objections and to make a conscious commitment to do the right thing, at the right time, the right way and for the right reasons and reorder one’s thinking, talking and acting accordingly. Once this threshold is achieved is when you can begin actively and confidently communicating the culture you expect and will accept – i.e., the expected and acceptable way of thinking, talking and acting.


Once you have navigated through these thresholds, what’s next? How do you actually embark on bringing about the change you know is the right thing things to do, that this is the right time to do it and for the right reasons? In Sun Tzu’s, “Art of War”, I have found a good bit of advice on this question. Make no mistake, changing culture in an organization is a battle.


Sun Tzu identified five key dimensions to consider before engaging in battle and to help ensure victory.


The Way - The way, or the the path, is what I label as Doing the Right Things. Treating people with benevolence, faithfulness and justice – in good times and bad. In other words, don’t be a jerk. Communicate and actually display your expectations, not “do as I say, not as I do”. Own your mistakes and expect others to own their own. “My bad” goes a lot further than “Not my fault.” It is possible to be stern, yet kind. People would rather walk a smoother path than a rocky ledge. So try to create a path on which they are willing to travel with you.


The Weather – There is a season, or a time, for doing everything. Doing the right thing at the Right Time. And you pick the time out of concern for your people. For example, praise in public and discipline in private. We all have bad days and make mistakes. There is a time to hand someone their butt and a time to sit still, ask questions, listen and be a coach or mentor. Don’t create a crisis where none exists. Disagreements become conflicts, conflicts become war, war becomes destruction. It’s better to win and not do battle, than to battle and have senseless casualties. Have an attitude of gratitude for your folks, even when they make mistakes. You know what happens when a quarterback is always bitching at his line to do a better job of protecting him? They let the quarterback get drilled a few times by the defense until the QB has a change in attitude.


The Terrain – Knowing the lay of the land, selecting the best route to take and seeing the advantages and disadvantages of methods to employ and equipment to use is known as doing things the Right Way. For example, selecting, training and encouraging your Field Training Officers based on their commitment to establishing the culture you want your agency to have. It’s also knowing your people up and down the chain of command. Knowing the politics, the alliances, the grudges and the history within your agency is important. But not more important the culture you are trying to achieve. Knowing is not the same as submitting. Like on the battlefield, scope your routes and know the best methods to utilize to achieve your goals. Be tactical, not paralysis by analysis.


The Leadership – With good leadership comes good discipline among the followers and the people. Selecting, encouraging and promoting leaders with the virtues of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage and sternness is key to ensuring the right things are being done for the right reasons. In other words, you can’t do all of this by yourself. Identify and utilize your folks who have these qualities. Encourage and empower them to to step up and be the leaders you know they are. It’s not about rank, it’s about the ability to influence those around them. There is a fine line between leading by example and doing someone’s job for them. Know the difference.


The Discipline – The Leaders you choose must have the mindset to do all four of the above with maturity, trustworthiness, confidence and consistency. If an immature person is in charge they are not a leader, they are simply a boss. Discipline is what separates the leaders from the bosses.


If morale sucks at your agency, hiring and retention rates are dismal, police-community relations are in the toilet and the mantra among your officers is, “I f’ing hate people”, then you have a culture issue – not a management issue. If things are pretty decent but could be better, there are some folks in your ranks who don’t buy into the culture that you are cultivating. Find them, guide them through the changes you want or be prepared to get rid of them. Misery loves company and there is no place for that, or them, in your agency.

On a police-community level, I know these thresholds to change culture and key dimensions to engage in battle do work. In 2008 the Dayton Police Department (OH) launched a Community Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence. The community was sick and tired of the gang violence and homicides and the police not doing something more to stop it. The cops had the overwhelming attitude that it was just dopers killing dopers, a good thing, right? The culture? It is what it is and there is nothing we can do about it.


Utilizing the above thresholds and principles, a select group of cops, community members, social service folks and faith based leaders embarked on changing the culture and bringing about results that served the police and the community. The results were more than we expected. Within two years we had a 64% reduction in gang related homicides.

The 2017 Community Survey by the City of Dayton indicated community police relations improved to a 57 percent citizen satisfaction rating. Also, the survey revealed a significant increase in the perceived safety of neighborhood residents who were once plagued by gang-related homicides.


The bottom line is that the police and community came together with a unified message and supported one another. Building relationships between the police, social services, faith-based organizations and community members, without sacrificing the law enforcer mission of the police, proved to be the right thing at the right time. The initiative was implemented in the right way for the right reasons—with the right results. The culture changed over time because of a vision for what it could be and the hard work and strategies to make it happen.

Warriors stand up and defend what they believe in. Servants put the wants and needs of others before their own. Leaders influence others to be more, do more and achieve more than they thought possible. Your job in bringing about the change in culture in your agency and community is to be that Warrior, Servant, Leader. If not you, then who?

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