Culture Connects the Dots for Equitable and Effective Public Safety

The Plymouth, Minnesota Police Department offers an example of embracing the elements

What do the report by the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the debate on “warrior” versus “guardian” mindsets, and discussions about delivering equitable and effective public safety have in common?


Culture is the common thread, according to newly retired Plymouth Police Chief Mike Goldstein and public safety culture consultants Cathy Perme and Amber Peterson. And this was corroborated by data they collected via culture assessment tools from Human Synergistics to determine how Constructive versus Defensive cultures shape the execution of daily work in police departments.

Countering Fear of Police

Consider, for example, the following sequence of events at the Plymouth police department in 2016. After a fatal shooting by police at a routine traffic stop in nearby Falcon Heights, Minnesota – one of a string of incidents in cities across the country – a Plymouth resident wrote Police Chief Mike Goldstein asking for assurances that Plymouth police wouldn’t kill his son in a police encounter.

Goldstein tried writing back. “I explained who we are,” Goldstein said, “what we believe in and how we carry out our mission. Then I said to myself, ‘This is a weighty topic and I don’t feel a letter is enough.’ So, I offered a face-to-face meeting. I’ve been meeting with that resident and others every four to six weeks ever since to talk about race relations.”

The meetings exemplify Goldstein’s proactive approach to communicating with Plymouth residents. Some would call it “guardian” instead of “warrior” policing. Others might say it’s a “community” instead of “cops-know-best” approach. Goldstein calls it “community caretaking.”

Assessing Police Culture in the City

Regardless, it’s emblematic of the different ways – from accentuating mission and core values to improving hiring and training – Goldstein and his command staff have managed the department’s culture over more than 15 years. The culture they created enabled them to properly implement strategy and achieve exemplary results. The list of outcomes is pages long, including improving traffic safety and creating a regional plan to respond to large events (those for which resources need to be pulled from several cities). It’s what law enforcement leaders say has made the Plymouth department a model for effectively delivering law enforcement throughout Minnesota and across the country.

Yet, the culture isn’t perfect. Despite all of Goldstein’s work, there is still a gap between what officers from top to bottom in the department experience versus the ideal to which they aspire. The gap, signaled by a late 2020 culture assessment, came as a surprise. Led by Perme & Peterson Associates, the culture assessment – using the Human Synergistics Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI) and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) – pointed to a disconnect in the middle of the organization.

“I wanted to take a real-life temperature of where the department really was… I think law enforcement leaders need this information.”–Mike Goldstein, Plymouth, MN, Police Chief, retired

Goldstein commissioned the survey in the Fall as he prepared to retire after 17 years as chief and 31 years with the department. He wanted to leave city leaders and the next chief with observations and data they could use to continue bettering the culture and, hence, the department. “I wanted to take a real-life temperature of where the department really was,” Goldstein said. “I think law enforcement leaders need this information.”

Success Means Focusing on People

Since he became chief in 2004 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb, Goldstein has consistently focused on creating a constructive culture. Back then, there was no handy playbook for guidance. So, Goldstein borrowed from initiatives elsewhere where he saw the kind of outcomes he sought from his officers. “When one of my officers leaves from a call,” he said, for example, “We don’t want the citizens involved to decide they won’t ever call us again.”

Goldstein found that, for the initiatives to be successful, he had to focus on people – the young officers he hired, the sergeants he promoted, and the command staff who helped him lead. He made it a point for the department to hire only those who exhibit a servant leadership mentality, are trainable, display a robust work ethic, believe in great customer service, and lead balanced lives. As they continued on the force, officers were expected to grow and develop, technically and personally. “We value education, training, and learning,” Goldstein said.

Law Enforcement and 21st Century Policing

President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued its report in 2015 following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by a 28-year-old police officer in Ferguson, Missouri the year before – a shooting that precipitated days of rioting.1 Goldstein embraced the report and its conclusions “whole-heartedly.” The task force recommendations were the equivalent of a national playbook, confirming what Goldstein had been doing over the years to build a constructive culture and lighting the way for further enhancements.

The Report’s authors pulled together a long list of best practices that would “promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.” Among them: “Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian – rather than warrior – mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.” To do so, the report said, law enforcement should adopt “procedural justice” methods; that is, cops ought to consider the spirit versus the letter of the law with everyone, both inside and outside their departments, regardless of race, religion, gender, or any other difference. Does every minor infraction require a citation? No. The reaction should be apropos to the circumstance.

The report also singled out community policing as another important strategy. It asked police to “engage in multidisciplinary, community team approaches for planning, implementing and responding to crisis situations” with complex causes.

Taken together, the recommendations in the 21st Century Policing report amounted to a manifesto for change. Many departments are already far along implementing various recommendations; others lag well behind. Continued high-profile incidents like the George Floyd death at the hands of police in Minneapolis last summer highlight the urgency for the latter departments to change.

Why No Change?

Why no change? It all comes down to culture, say Perme and Peterson. The 21st Century Policing report warned: “There is an old saying, ‘Organizational culture eats policy for lunch.’ Any law enforcement organization can make great rules and policies that emphasize the guardian role, but if policies conflict with the existing culture, they will not be institutionalized and behavior will not change.”

Unfortunately, the Report did not talk about how to change culture. That’s where Perme and Peterson come in. Both agree with the report’s finding on the importance of culture. So does Chief Goldstein, who explains: “If you want to have success in accomplishing anything in your department, you have to have the culture to support it. By not assessing what you have and where you need to go with culture, you won’t have success. And you’ll have lots of problems.”  

Warriors AND Guardians

It’s here where deeply held views on warrior versus guardian come into play. It’s here where decades of federal gifting of surplus military hardware to local police together with wins by police unions seeking to protect their members have made it difficult for law enforcement leaders to root out unwarranted use of force. Debates continue about these and other factors making it more difficult to forge a different type of police department culture.2

“If the next school shooting comes, responders have to be warriors. It’s not either/or. It’s a spectrum. It’s not if you choose one or the other given the situation, it’s when that switch happens and to what degree.”–Amber Peterson, public safety culture consultant

The back and forth is nuanced. “Sometimes we need warriors,” said Chief Goldstein. Adds consultant Amber Peterson, a former police officer, “If the next school shooting comes, responders have to be warriors. It’s not either/or. It’s a spectrum. It’s not if you choose one or the other given the situation, it’s when that switch happens and to what degree.” Think procedural justice here. Also, think community policing. Officers decide many times a day how to react.

Going guardian or warrior – switching from one to the other – can be done poorly, or it can be done well.

Different Cultures Get Different Results

Building on a growing body of evidence from their culture assessment work using Human Synergistics surveys and qualitative approaches, Perme and Peterson have identified measures for what constitutes “poor” and “well.” In addition, they’ve been able to point to levers for changing culture.

Here’s how Human Synergistics defines cultures as predominately Constructive or Defensive based on over 47 years of research: A Constructive culture encourages members of the organization to interact with people and approach tasks in ways that enable them to meet their higher-order needs. A Defensive culture requires members to interact with others in self-protective ways (Passive) and/or in self-promoting ways (Aggressive) to maintain their position and personal security.

And here’s how Perme and Peterson have found these cultures to shape both guardian and warrior practices in police departments:


  In a Defensive Culture

  In a Constructive Culture

  Guardian Role

  • The department culture may drive officers to be intensely focused on gaining approval from their peers, superiors, or community. In doing so, officers could sacrifice what’s right and realistic within their capabilities.


  • Officers may avoid taking calls where they may be required to use force or could fail to use force when it is warranted (which, in turn, could cost them their jobs).


  • Officers could take on too many responsibilities – consider themselves always on duty, for example – which isn’t sustainable. This could be for fear of being passed over for promotion, which endangers their health and their ability to serve others.


  • The culture drives officers to stay in touch with their core motivation for becoming a police officer.Usually, that’s service and servant leadership.


  • It pushes officers to plan ahead and to talk through scenarios with their sergeants, fellow officers, and community members. This enables them to quickly switch into either warrior or guardian mode at a moment’s notice.


  • It prizes and reinforces officers’ ability to deescalate difficult situations.

  Warrior Role

  • Officers may trap themselves in a status quo mentality and might follow orders from senior officers, without questioning them, even if they know they’re wrong.


  • They may remain constantly at odds with department goals and policies, including those they view as unrealistic, based on their own personal experience on their shift.


  • When difficult incidents occur, lateral communication may break down – leading to officers refusing to work together, freezing, or going rogue.


  • When police unions prevail in defending rogue officers, toxic warrior mentalities become tougher to change.3


  • Even in tense situations, officers keep the welfare of all stakeholders top of mind.


  • In the moment, they cooperate well with others, even with peers with whom they don’t “see eye-to-eye.”


  • They are trusted to make sound “decide-to-shoot” decisions.


  • They treat those they arrest with respect.


  • After an especially difficult incident, debriefings occur where officers learn what went well and what didn’t.


Connecting Culture and 21st Century Policing

To help his officers better work across the warrior versus guardian spectrum and to better understand other aspects of his organization’s culture, Chief Goldstein pointed to his department’s just-completed culture assessment for answers. The OCI and OEI used by Perme and Peterson can map culture and its causes to the 21st Century Policing task force recommendations – not only for Plymouth but for police departments across the country.

For the Plymouth police, the assessment showed that Goldstein and top brass have articulated well the department’s mission, done a good job providing service to citizens, empowered front-line officers, and displayed good communication up and down the chain of command. Officers reported they intended to stay with the department and felt their jobs were secure. Overall, the organization scored well in external adaptability and service quality. As a result, the department enjoys an excellent reputation in the community.

Levers for Change

Nevertheless, Goldstein noted that the assessment “teased out things we need to do.” He said he looks to his sergeants – the day-to-day keepers of his organization’s culture – to be consistent in supervising front-line officers and to reinforce what’s learned in training. Yet some focused more on task than on people. Some coached and developed officers; others didn’t. Sergeants, the equivalent of mid-level managers in other organizations, were not always on the same page with each other or members of the command staff, Goldstein said.

The OCI/OEI identified levers for change—that is, improvements that could be made to further strengthen constructive norms and increase effectiveness. These levers, validated via focus groups and interviews, include: Goal emphasis, regular performance feedback, mentoring, and collaboration to better build internal coordination. Such changes are especially important given the new generation of police officers coming on board.

Reflections: A Case for Culture

At the end of the day, the newly-retired Chief can reflect back and connect his emphasis on developing a constructive culture to the 21st Century Policing report, the debate over guardian versus warrior policing, and the feedback provided by the quantitative tool to measure culture. Goldstein is “thrilled” with what he and his department have accomplished. At the same time, he readily says he would not have learned what he did about his department’s culture, and he would not have been able to articulate next steps for his successor, had it not been for the Perme and Peterson assessment. He is confident his successor will pick up where he left off. “In the pursuit of perfection,” he said, “you might catch excellence.”

90-Day Culture & Performance Quick-Start Program

For Public Safety groups looking to build public trust, community engagement, officer wellness, and more, consider Perme & Peterson Associates’ customized 90-Day Culture Quick-Start Program.

For change agents in Enterprise, SMB, Education, or Government, Human Synergistics will help you engage your organization and its members in designing and implementing a customized 90-day blueprint for accelerated results and success.

Contact us to get started.

Contributor: As a former police officer and now a public safety culture consultant, Amber Peterson focuses on helping public safety groups build a culture inside that creates public trust outside. She contributed to this blog post.


1 Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Washington DC: United States Department of Justice. 2015.

2 Seth Stoughton commentary, Harvard Law Review, April 10, 2015, “Law Enforcement’s “Warrior” Problem,”

3 Kim Barker, Michael H. Keller and Steve Eder, New York Times, Dec. 22, 2020 (updated Jan. 6, 2021), “How Cities Lost Control of Police Discipline,”

There Is a “Right” Culture!

When I started my work with organizational culture, I thought there was no “right” or “wrong” culture for organizations. Rather, the right culture was something an organization chooses depending on its situation. Fast forward to today and I must say I’m solidly in the camp that believes there is a right culture. In fact, it’s entirely possible for an organization and its leaders to uncover it and work to achieve it.

My eureka moment on right versus wrong came at a presentation four years ago during the annual Association for Change Management Professionals (ACMP) conference. And it was further amplified as I did the research for this article.

By right versus wrong, I’m not talking about “current” and “ideal cultures.” Aspirations to achieve the ideal have nearly always been the goal. Instead, I’m focusing here on lenses—the lenses leaders and consultants need to look through to see an organization’s culture.

Realizing there are multiple lenses out there and that leaders can see differently through different lenses was the eureka moment for me. Eureka because I had the sense that the lenses I had been using over the years weren’t quite powerful enough. Eureka because I discovered an alternative lens—the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) from Human Synergistics – that allowed me to get a crystal-clear view into an organization’s culture.

In turn, with the crystal-clear view, I could see how the culture of an organization—any type of organization—could become more Constructive (right and effective) and less Defensive (wrong and ineffective). And I could also see why. In enormous detail.

My Intro to Situational Models of Culture

Before the time of my eureka, my primary go-to lens was based on a survey and framework that specified various types of cultures and proposed that different cultures were appropriate for different kinds of organizations. This basic approach was reiterated and described in some detail in a Harvard Business Review cover story in January/February 2018.1 The authors identified multiple types of cultures for organizations and, though slightly different than those assessed by the framework I had been using, proposed that the “right” culture is situational—a choice leaders can make depending on the circumstances of their organizations.

They contended that each of the cultural styles has advantages and disadvantages, and “no style is inherently better than another.” For example, the culture for Disney is a caring one, the HBR article noted. Whole Foods’ is about purpose. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission seeks order. Zappos emphasizes enjoyment. If leaders put the wrong combination of elements together – results, caring and safety, for example – running the organization would be more difficult and employees would feel things were out of kilter. Instead, the leaders must choose the right combination based on factors such as the industry within which their organizations operate as well as its strategy and design.

My Culture Fascination Begins

My introduction to these situational or contingency frameworks came at a presentation by a culture specialist who had been working with a Fort Worth-based engineering firm.  The firm would go on to win the prestigious Baldridge award, in part because it aggressively managed its culture. As he left the stage, I asked him about his process and tools, and he directed me to a survey they were using.

You could easily plot the results of the survey and see how strong or weak your organization is along the various types or styles measured. I found it fascinating; I was hooked. Here was something quantitative I could use to help leaders create conditions where their people could do their best work. And the company could post better results. I first used the survey with two public agencies. I also took it to Saudi Arabia where I worked with the finance division of a major research institution. I used it in combination with qualitative assessments, both one-on-one interviews and group sessions.

The Situational Approach Falls Short

At one organization where employees were upset, a member I interviewed noted, “Make a mistake and you’re sent to the landfill and never heard from again.” Another said, “If a screw drops into the garbage disposal, there are five or six people in your office trying to beat you with clubs.” I had hoped the survey feedback would provide additional insight. It didn’t.

At another organization, a participant in a group session chose a photo from a magazine to express his frustration. The photo was taken at night and showed a warm, yellow blaze of light emanating from cracks in the doors, walls, and windows of a barn. “Looking at that barn from the outside was what it felt like to be left in the dark,” said the participant. Again, not enough insight from the survey as to what was really going on or what to do about it.

As good as the survey was at measuring culture at a very high level, I concluded that surveys like those proposed by the HBR authors do not provide the language or measurement necessary for change efforts. The one I used oversimplified the cultures I was assessing. It didn’t separate climate (e.g., perceptions of participation, appraisal systems, teamwork) from culture (the way we are expected to do things). Thus, I couldn’t tell where to suggest specific changes to systems like use of rewards and structures like employee involvement to improve the culture. Additionally, many such surveys don’t clearly measure norms for specific behaviors, are too short or superficial or, as noted above, propose that the styles that are most appropriate depend on an array of factors such as industry, strategy, and the preferences of leaders.

These shortcomings and obstacles vanished the first time I used the OEI and OCI tools in 2016. The assessment was for a construction company that specialized in building apartment complexes. I was familiar with the organization, had conducted several interviews, and knew those who held leadership roles. I guessed the OCI/OEI would show the current culture as Defensive.

Surprise! It showed the primary style of the current culture as Achievement where people are expected to pursue a standard of excellence, know the business and think ahead and plan. The secondary style was Humanistic/Encouraging where people are expected to help others to grow and develop, encourage others and resolve conflicts constructively.

There’s Power in the Details

Yet, there was room for change to make the culture even more Constructive. To do so would mean reducing Aggressive/Defensive styles and amping up things like showing concern for people and thinking in unique and independent ways. Consistent with what I saw in interviews was the need to ratchet down punishing people by giving them less desirable tasks to do. It would also mean effecting specific behavioral changes like listening better, being more tactful, openly showing more enthusiasm, and actively communicating ideas.

I was able to help leaders understand some of the actions they could take. At the semi-annual meeting of company leaders, a month after the report, they split themselves into five groups and dug into the Circumplex displaying elements of the current and ideal cultures. Each group took one or two of the circumplex pieces showing Constructive styles and one or two showing Defensive styles.

Interactive Circumplex

They brainstormed a list of actions to move the culture further into constructive territory. Each group shared their findings, then all leaders voted. Some of the items with the most votes were: Keep your word; Consider out-of-the-box ideas; Streamline the message and be sure the content is valuable; Increase person-to-person contact; and Reduce texts and emails.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is… there is a right culture for each organization. The right culture doesn’t depend on factors like industry or strategy.2 The right culture can only be uncovered using the right processes and tools. Do your homework to discover which ones those really are – and that will identify the gaps between current and ideal cultures, propose levers for change and move your leaders, employees and company in a Constructive direction.


Editor’s Note: The cultural styles discussed herein are adapted from R. A. Cooke and J. Clayton Lafferty, Organizational Culture Inventory®, Plymouth MI: Human Synergistics. Some of the behaviors cited describing these styles are survey items from the Organizational Culture Inventory (Copyright 1987) and are used by the author with permission.

1 Groysberg, B., Lee, J., Price, J. & Cheng, J. Y. (2018). The leaders guide to corporate culture. Harvard Business Review, 96, 1, 44-52.

2 It’s not just me saying so; data-based and peer-reviewed research unquestioningly supports the conclusion that the OCI cultural norms are not related to strategy or industry. See, for example: Klein, A. (2011). Corporate Culture: Its value as a resource for competitive advantage. Journal of Business Strategy, 32 (2), 21-28. and Chaudhry, A., Yuan, L., Hu, J., & Cooke, R. A., (2016). What matters more? The impact of industry and organizational factors on organizational culture. Management Decision, 54, 3, 570-588. Also, with respect to ideal cultures, Constructive norms are consistently valued more than are Defensive norms across industries, across age groups, and by both women and men. The same is true across countries, though preferences for Defensive norms vary and are influenced somewhat by societal values. See chapter 1 of: Szumal, J.L. & Cooke, R.A. (2019). Creating Constructive Cultures. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.