If you ask Joe Schmo what he thinks the most stressful part of being a cop would be, he’d say being shot at, vehicle pursuits, or apprehending felons. If you ask police officers the same question, “The administration” usually tops the list. We love to hate that group of incompetent, paper shuffling, ass kissing, politically ambitious, book-smart-with-no-common-sense, back stabbing grudge holders, who have either forgotten what it’s like to do “real” police work, or never knew in the first place. We save our most potent vitriol for the administration. Researchers have noted for some time that police officers rank the administration as the most stressful aspect of their work. However, there exists a real lack of opinion as to why this is so.
I’ll save you the speech about how bad for your health harboring this venom in our bodies can be, or the organizational development perspective about the deleterious impact spewing it to other employees has on one’s career. Nope, you’re not gettin’ that. All I’m going to do is throw out a hypothesis for why we hate the administration so much.
The preface here is that some administrators are assholes. Just like some high school math teachers, certified public accountants and pastry chefs are assholes. The bona fide A-Hole is a universal and ubiquitous creature indeed. Administrations do, in fact, betray their officers, and too often for anyone’s comfort. If you listen to the stories of traumatized first responders you find a common theme: administrative betrayal. Yet, all the above notwithstanding, there seems to be something else, something more at work here. The vigor with which we bash administrators is so pervasive it’s led me to think more about it.
Here’s the part where you open yourself up to a new idea. Much of the disdain we hold for the administration stems, not from anything administrators do or don’t do, but rather from a psychological defense mechanism called “displacement.”
Displacement, a.k.a the “kick the dog” phenomenon, is a psychological defense mechanism. Psychological defense mechanisms are quick mental maneuvers, usually out of conscious awareness, aimed at protecting our minds from uncomfortable feelings.
Displacement serves the same psychic function as any other defense mechanism. Namely, preserving our emotional equilibrium. Shrinks judge people’s mental health partly by the types of psychological defense mechanisms they employ. We all use defense mechanisms, and they shouldn’t be confused with being “defensive.” They’re totally different. Displacement is a pretty good defense mechanism compared to others, so that’s a good thing. Also, police officers aren’t the only ones that use this defense mechanism, but we’re particularly fond of it.
If we want to THRIVE in our career, we should learn about displacement because, unchecked, it can get us into trouble. Not just with our co-workers and supervisors, but with our spouses and family members as well.
Researchers have missed the boat a little by repeatedly stating cops experience the administration as the most stressful aspect of the work, and leaving it at that. The reality is that dead babies, getting mother fucked all day and going from one stress-laden call to the next are the most stressful parts of the job. Heinous investigations, filling out silly paperwork and going from eating a sandwich one second, to mashing code-3 the next are the most stressful parts.
A typical day in the life of a software designer or carpenter isn’t really emotionally charged. A day in the life of a police officer is a parade of emotionally charged incidents. Patrol officers only see people at their maddest, baddest and saddest. If we put our emotions where they belong, we wouldn’t have a job long. A few weeks into my FTO program I myself would have been terminated for “unprofessional” behavior toward the wife-beater, robber or drunk driver who ploughs into a family.
So, what to do with our grief about the SIDS death or our despair for the teenager trapped inside a family with a crack addict mother and father in prison. We CONVERT these complicated and uncomfortable feelings into a format universally accepted within the law enforcement culture: anger. But where does this anger go? How ‘bout the assholes that nitpick our reports and create stupid policy which makes it more difficult to do our jobs? Yeah, that’ll work.
We also go home, kick the dog, yell at the kids and snap at the wife, thereby creating more problems.
There IS an alternative. That would be (a) recognizing WHEN we’re experiencing strong emotions at work, (b) naming those emotions and (c) consciously deciding to release our fears, frustrations, sadness or whatever that feeling is, in a better place. Go running, hit the bag, do some yoga, journal, go for a hike, do some cooking or baking, talk to a friend about what’s REALLY going on. By the way, don’t knock these suggestions until you’ve tried them...really tried them. The list goes on. By making that conscious decision to channel our toxic emotions in a healthy manner, we don’t need to displace them. Cops that thrash the administration regularly (i.e., displace) aren’t promotable, don’t get special assignments and are generally no fun to hang with.
Understanding how displacement operates within your world is a step toward self-awareness. Those with high self-awareness generally feel more comfortable in their skin. They’re more content, perform better and don’t need to pound a six pack to fall asleep. I’m going to work toward more self-awareness. What about you?