In 1838, Boston’s nightlife was out of control. The undisciplined volunteer night watch couldn’t manage the chaos, and so the first centralized police force — and the institution of policing — was born. While Boston’s nightlife is still unruly at times (allegedly), much has changed about our communities and our understanding of how law enforcement can best serve them. In turn, our police forces have had to continually adapt the ways in which they work in, with and for communities.
Broadly speaking, law enforcement institutions have — at times — been resistant to change. While this is due in part to the deep roots of nearly two centuries of practice, the hesitation to react and adapt to what can be perceived as passing societal trends is actually biological. Our brains have evolved to be highly sensitive to change, as change can often indicate a threat to our basic survival — which has historically proven an advantage to our species.
With a paradigm shift in the police institution upon us, the failure to change is actually the threat.
The groundswell of public sentiment seeking reform gives us the chance to re-envision what modern policing can and should be. To do so, we need new ways of thinking that enable growth and continual adaptation in the face of change — a new mindset that helps us see change as an opportunity rather than a threat.
The key to unlocking powerful insights and a myriad of benefits to individuals, teams and institutions facing change is in training the brain for growth.
Understanding the brain’s reaction to change
According to a 2005 research study from the California Institute of Technology, our brains have evolved to really crave certainty, which stems from our basic drive to survive. We have evolved to predict and control our circumstances because doing so optimizes our ability to live. Our need for certainty is oftentimes in conflict with the complexities of real life, but we simplify our reality so that we know how to act. Therefore, when confronted with ambiguous changes, we interpret these changes as either a threat or a challenge.
When people perceive change as a threat, there is a tendency to feel that the demands posed by our environment are too taxing, and we are being forced to go beyond our limits or capacity to cope.
However, when we experience change as a challenge — for example, as an interesting opportunity to learn or do something new — we are more likely to be motivated and engaged by the change because the new environmental demands seem within our abilities.
The path to success, therefore, is in developing a mindset in which change becomes a desirable challenge, not a threat; a source of motivation for achievement, not a crippling stress.
Developing the right mindset for change
Mindsets reflect how we see things, and they impact both our beliefs and our behaviors. Interestingly, our behaviors impact our mindsets, too. By practicing specific actions, we can help shift our mindsets to be more agile in the face of change. A lot like muscles, mindsets can actually be trained and strengthened to help us approach difficult changes more productively.
This training is accomplished by adopting a growth mindset — the belief that skills can be improved over time, rather than being fixed. In a law enforcement context, it enables us to seek to improve our tactics so that we aren’t behaving like rookies for the duration of our careers. Growth mindset helps people stay continually adaptive to our ever-changing surroundings, affecting our reaction to change and how we handle obstacles.
Decades of research led by Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University tell us that people with a growth mindset achieve far more in life, school and relationships than people who see their skills as fixed. A shift in mindset can also prime people to more effectively learn from mistakes and adapt to change. In a 2011 study published in Psychological Science, people with a growth mindset processed feedback with more activity in brain regions responsible for error correction and long-term memory encoding. Those individuals also showed a greater ability to thrive through change than those with a fixed mindset. They recovered faster after initial failure and used deeper learning strategies, which means that not only does a growth mindset make us smarter, but it also makes us more resilient!
Helping others develop a growth mindset can give them the adaptability required during periods of flux and uncertainty. Essentially, shifting to a growth mindset can determine whether someone crumbles in the face of change or thrives through it. Growth mindset goes beyond self-care — it’s buddy care, too.
Creating a culture of growth mindset
As leaders and peers, we each have the ability to create cultures of growth mindset within our institutions. A growth mindset culture, as detailed in the NeuroLeadership Institute Master Class, is one that encourages the belief that ability and talent can be developed through effort, informed strategies and high-quality mentoring. Unlike a fixed mindset culture, which is only concerned with how people are performing in a status quo, a growth mindset encourages the development of their abilities regardless of a change in the environment.
Teams that cultivate a growth mindset culture think differently. Rather than using a fixed mindset that sees challenges as threats, these growth mindset cultures see challenges as opportunities to develop. They embrace the chance to tackle a new problem, unafraid of the potential for failure because winning in a growth mindset isn’t to prove you’re better, it’s to prove you can get better. As long as teams can learn from those failures to do better next time, they can consider a failure as a winning step toward success.
Research from Denison and Mishra (1995) has shown that organizations with growth mindset cultures that value collaboration, innovation and integrity are the most successful. Not only do these cultural values predict success, but employees like them too. In fact, a Personality and Social Psychology study (2020) showed these norms result in greater trust in and commitment to the organization.
Leaders, change isn’t a new setting — it’s the default
To be change-agile, leaders must first recognize that change isn’t a new setting — it’s the default. Understanding why it’s hard to face change and labeling the certainty threat when it’s recognized is half the battle. By providing an environment where threats are minimized and demonstrating their own willingness to grow even when it’s uncomfortable, agencies can embrace new challenges as opportunities, not as threats to traditional ways of working.
“In 30 years of law enforcement service, I’ve seen many great opportunities for change met with resistance,” explains Sheriff Jerry Clayton of Washtenaw County, Michigan, a member of the National Council of Police Reform and Race Relations. “Just imagine the potential if we trained our brains for progressive adaptability the way we trained for the rest of our responsibilities.”
As we all lean into a new era of policing and guidelines continue to emerge from national and local sources, change may appear in the form of new policies and new methods of day-to-day operations. It could also appear in the form of new technologies and new forms of training. Regardless of how it unfolds — instead of asking about the case for change, perhaps ask, “What is the case for staying the same?”
Canning, E., Murphy, M., Emerson, K., Chatman, J., Dweck, C., & Kray, L. (2020). Cultures of genius at work: Organizational mindsets predict cultural norms, trust, and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(4), 626-642.
Denison, D. & Mishra, A. (1995). Toward a Theory of Organizational Culture and Effectiveness. Organization Science, 6(4).
Dweck, C. S., & Yeager, D. S. (2019). Mindsets: A View From Two Eras. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(3), 481–496.
Hsu, M., Bhatt, M., Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., & Camerer, C. F. (2005). Neural systems responding to degrees of uncertainty in human decision-making. Science, 310(5754), 1680-1683.
Moser, J., Schroder, H., Heeter, C., Moran, T., & Lee, Y.h. (2011) Mind Your Errors: Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments. Psychological Science. 22(12).