The good and bad cop routine, we all know it from the movies. The good cop says “trust me”. He or she connects, supports, understands. The bad cop says “Quit playing games”. He or she uses force and threatens. We also see it in leadership practice. The well-known ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Or the dilemma between warmth and strength. Between psychological and structural empowerment. Between pulling and pushing.

There is no easy solution or blend of the dynamic of “power over” and “power with” people. Some leaders switch between being tough and being warm. One moment they bully, the next moment they are friendly and caring. Another option is to split the roles, e.g. teams being co-led by a coach and by a process manager, controlling output and quality. Or a CFO always “saying no, there’s no money” and a CEO always saying “yes, good idea, do it”.

Installing good and bad cop dynamics in an organization results in confusion and uncertainty.  People need coherent behavior to trust someone. Being confronted with “yes” and “no” at the same time drives people crazy. That’s exactly what good & bad cop duo’s in police movies try to attain. They want to destabilize suspects during interrogations. They are not interested in building a long term relation. So, unless you want to subvert your employees, good and bad cop behavior should be avoided in collaborative effort.

This doesn’t mean you don’t need both in organizations to make things happen. During one of our projects, we witnessed how the president of the board was friendly, cautious and value driven while the CEO was ambitious and directive. The combination worked well: they steered the velocity of the organizational change and managed to strike the desired balance between caring and directing. How did they achieve this? By integrating each other’s concerns and writing a clear change strategy that allowed them to communicate a single message in a confident way. Two cops doing the good thing.

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