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Police Officer Stress & Agency Organizational Structure.
Role Ambiguity and Role Conflict
Organizational Factors Inventory
Personality Research Form
Role Ambiguity and Role Conflict
Role Conflict Model
Suggestions for Future Research
I. POLICE OFFICER STRESS & AGENCY ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE
Although, law enforcement officers deal with stressful situations in the normal course of their duties excessive stress on
individual officers may impair their ability to carry out their responsibilities. In addition to the impact on individuals, excessive
stress on officers means that the law enforcement organization they serve suffers a adiminished capacity to serve the public.
Therefore, in order to keep law enforcement organizations operating at optimal levels, administrators must be able to identify
the causes of dysfunctional stress on individual officers and take effective action to ameliorate its effects.
Much of the contemporary literature on the causes of law enforcement stress focuses on factors personal to the individual
officer. However, other researchers suggest that an officer’s ability to cope with this stress is hindered by the structure and
operation of the organization within which he or she works. In other words, the argument is made that aggregate-level elements
– organizational structure and operation — may contribute in explaining the nature and extent of an individual-level phenomenon
– law enforcement officer stress.
Society can be conceived as a complex arrangement of individual relationships and interdependencies within a framework of
organizations. In one form or another, organizations exist for various lengths of time and perform an immeasurable variety of
tasks (Hage & Aiken, 1970). Organizations are an individual’s way of navigating through contemporary existence. We are
constantly concerned with assessing our roles and positions within organizations. Yet our knowledge of organizations is difficult
Not only are we members of many organizations, but as members of our society, we rely on organizations to provide and
protect our well being. The protection provided by organizations comes in two ways. First, organizations supply our livelihood
and entertainment. A great many of our personal interactions are as representatives of one organization to another. Positive
interactions with organizations can lead to improved self-esteem, job satisfaction and a high quality of life. Secondly,
organizations provide for a division of labor that allows our complex society to exist. An individual does not need to supply all
his own food, clothing and shelter, but is free to purse the activities that provide the means to have other organizations supply
these needs. Among the myriad organizations providing services are governments, and more specifically, law enforcement
organizations. Crime, and the resultant need for law enforcement, are perceived as being fundamentally important in current
society (Webb and Smith, 1980).
As part of that protection system approximately 3,080 county sheriff departments exist in the United States. Of these, 501 have
fifty or more sworn personnel. Sheriffs’ organizations are unique among law enforcement in that they provide a full range of
services such as police patrol, investigations, corrections, court security and civil functions. Like all public agencies, sheriffs are
subject to constant public review, have limited budgets, and are under pressure to operate efficiently. Discovering the means to
allow these organizations to work better is an important public policy goal. Also unique to sheriff’s departments is the
perceptions that the desirability of jobs differs among separate divisions of the agency. For example, the Corrections division
may view its functions as less desirable than work in other divisions.
A brief discussion of police stress and organizational disfunction follows. This research contends that much of what is called
police stress in reality evolves from the creation of role ambiguity and role conflict. The resultant product, police stress,
becomes dysfunctional to the individual officer when the organizational structure exacerbates the effects of the stimuli instead of
I. A. POLICE STRESS
“Police stress” is considered by many analysts to be an important societal problem (Cullen, et al., 1985), and police work is
thought of as stressful (Kelling and Pate, 1975). Law enforcement officers must be aware of the dangers of psychological stress
(Hurrell and Kroes, 1975). Stress is the result of “demands placed on the system” and need not be harmful unless it is
mismanaged or present in large quantities (Stratton, 1978). However, some analysis concludes that occupational and life stress
can cause mental and even physical problems (Rabkin and Stuening, 1976 A, 1976 B; Cassell 1975; Stratton, 1978). For
instance, one study of 2,300 officers in twenty-nine different police departments reported that thirty-six percent of the officers
had serious marital problems, twenty-three percent had serious alcohol problems, twenty percent had serious problems with
their children, and ten percent had drug problems. Yet, police were well below the average in seeking [medical and] mental
treatment (Blackmore, 1978; Richard and Fell, 1975). The “macho” image of a police officer may well inhibit police from
seeking such treatment (Blackmore, 1978). Law enforcement officers have significantly higher rates of health problems,
premature deaths, suicides and general hospital admissions than other occupations (Richard and Fell, 1975).
Law enforcement stress has been clustered into three settings (Stratton, 1978; Stalgaitis et al., 198_; Phelps, 1975; Wallace,
1978). These are: 1) stressors internal to the law enforcement system; 2) stressors inherent in the law enforcement job itself;
and 3) stressors external to law enforcement. Regardless of the origin, either external or internal, the stressors described below
can be attributed to either role ambiguity, role conflict, or the interaction between them.
Many researchers have cited the inadequacy of two-way communications between the administration, supervisors, and line
officers, in law enforcement, as a compelling internal stressor (Duffee, 1974; Jacobs, 1978; Cheek and Miller, 1979 A;
Stalgaitis et al., 198_). In addition, many other stressors are cited in the literature. One is inadequate feedback to influence
decision-making policies (Cheek and Miller, 1979 B; Sheppard, 1975). Second is uncertainty about the officer’s prescribed
roles and duties (May, 1976; Pogrebin, 1978). A third is threats to the officer’s positive self-image (Wallace, 1978). Fourth is
interdepartmental problems caused by internal politics, promotions, and favoritism (Baldwin, 1977; Eisenberg, 1975). A fifth is
low pay (Farlekas, 1975; Menard, 1978). Sixth is low work place morale (Cheek and Miller, 1979 A). Seventh is the officer’s
fear of doing “something wrong” and of being criticized or investigated. Finally, the distress generated by shift changes often
required by law enforcement scheduling causes both emotional and physical problems, (Stratton, 1978). In a study of line
officers and administrators (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, undated) both groups listed “administration”
as the number one stressor. The line officer’s stress seemed to emanate from a “threat to his professionalism.” The administrator
was the man-in-the-middle, balancing the operating demands from below with the commands and pressures from above and
from the environment. Work overload and job ambiguity coupled with public relations were cited as the most specific job
stressors by police administrators.
Stressors internal to the job may be found when police and correctional officers find themselves with conflicting roles
(Eisenberg, 1975). Police spend much of their time in activities not directly related to law enforcement functions, while
correction officers are placed in the dual conflicting role of providing both “custody [and] treatment” (Grusky, 1959; Hosford et
al., 1975; Stalgaitis et al., 198_). Law enforcement officers can develop personal conflicts by being placed in the position of
having to choose between one or more contradictory goals. Such contradictions include the notions of loyalty to fellow officers
and honesty which includes “. . . conflicts arising from temptation, fear, or inabilities to ease human suffering . . . [conflict] in
belief with the law or authorities” (Blum, 1970). In addition to these conflicting roles, officers must cope with the tight controls
of a quasi-military organizational structure combined with the often unstructured working conditions of the individual officer
(Symonds, 1969). The officer is part of a strict chain of command, yet he is often unsupervised in his work.
Another set of stressors directly related to law enforcement work includes the feelings of danger (Cullen, et al., 1985; Brodsky,
1977; Jacobs, 1978, McCall, 1979), violence (May, 1976), problem solving (Johnson, 1977), lack of appreciation of their job
efforts by the administration and public, peer group pressure, role conflict (Hillgren and Bond, undated A); and the threat of law
suits (Jochums, 1978). In research conducted by Cullen et al., danger was an extremely important stressor. Yet, their subjects
worked in relatively crime-free communities. Few, if any, officers knew of co-workers that were physically injured on the job.
Cullen concluded that where the potential for injury exists, this “inherent and ever-present [condition] in their occupational role
. . . may prove difficult for many officers to negotiate and thus may precipitate stressful conditions.” In a study directly related to
actual dangerous and threatening situations, Singleton (1977) found that the occurrence of lethal or near-lethal experiences does
not appear to be correlated with interpersonal stress beyond that of coping with any inquiries caused by the incident. However,
the officer’s body is often called on to be in a state of heightened alertness, and at times he is responsible for another individual’s
life (Stratton, 1978). Yet, law enforcement officers consider themselves to be experts or authorities in dealing with violence
Another cluster of stressors includes those external to actual law enforcement. These encompass job-related stressors such as
the lack of public support for their job (May, 1976; McCall, 1979). Law enforcement officers are often portrayed in the media
in an unfavorable light (Jacobs, 1978; May, 1976; Blum, 1970), and are often embarrassed or hesitant to reveal their
occupations to others (Johnson, 1978). In addition, personal stressors such as marital problems, minority status and other
personal problems that may exist outside the work place can affect job performance (Blackmore, 1978).
The above discussion lends support to the proposition that both the function and structure of law enforcement organizations
are major sources of individual stress. Thus, a greater effort must be made to identify and remove the conditions that lead to this
strain (Baldwin, 1977, Handy, 1988).
I. B. ROLE AMBIGUITY AND ROLE CONFLICT
Much of the research on police stress overemphasizes the psychological level of analysis. This misplaced focus may divert
attention from the importance of the organizational setting (Handy, 1988). Bacharach, et al., (1986) suggest that stress is the
resultant application of many organizational components as opposed to the physiological differences of the individuals. The
effects of stress are exacerbated when people work in either extremely loosely or tightly structured organizations with the
resulting rules and regulations that are imposed. These organizational dysfunctions create an undesirable work environment.
Among those elements considered “dominant” job stressors are: role conflict, role ambiguity, organizational reward inequity,
and lack of participation in decision making (Martin, 1984). Most reactions to role conflict are “dysfunctional for the
organization . . . and self-defeating for the person . . .” (Kahn, et al., 1964, 65). Both role ambiguity and role conflict are
significantly related to most all the factors listed in the police stress section (Bedeian, et al., 1981; Miles, 1976)
Role conflict can arise from three somewhat differing sources. The first two are internal to the organization and the third is
external. The first occurs when successful completion of the assigned job function requires action outside the allowable
procedures, yet established procedures must be followed and not broken. Second, is the conflicting job expectations placed on
an individual by different groups or individuals within the organization. Third is the conflict that arises from expected job
functions and beliefs or memberships in organizations outside the work group (Kahn, et al., 1965).
Role conflict is often manifested in “overload.” Overload occurs when a conflict is perceived between appropriate tasks in
setting priorities. Again, the usual response to role conflict is withdrawal. To the individual, the consequences of role conflict
and ambiguity are similar; “low job satisfaction, low self-confidence, [and] a high sense of futility . . .” (Kahn, et al., 1964, 380).
Conflict can also appear as a result of a clash between public roles and private ideals. This conflict often leads to poor
organizational performance (Bernard & White, 1986). However, Kahn states that role conflict and ambiguity are “independent
sources of stress; either or both of them may be present in any given role” (1964, 89).
Role ambiguity is increased by the lack of availability of a clear, concise, and successful communication of the information
needed for a person to complete the assigned tasks. Examples of the required information include, “rights, duties and
responsibilities of the office.” Along with the knowledge of what actions will discharge the “responsibilities of office and how
these activities can best be performed” (Kahn, et al., 1964, 22). Conflicting information of this sort also increases role
While life itself has much ambiguity, and we cannot predict many outcomes or personal events, role ambiguity has many of the
same emotional results as role conflict. “Ambiguity leads to increased emotional tension and to decreased satisfaction with one’s
job. It also contributes significantly to a sense of futility and to a loss of self-confidence” (Kahn, et al., 1964, 85). Kahn (1964)
points out that contributing to the sense of self-confidence is the esteem with which one is viewed with by his co-workers. Role
ambiguity has varying effects on personal relations. In general, maintaining close relations with co-workers in ambiguous
situations is difficult. Thus, the higher the ambiguity level, the further apart personal distance becomes which makes
communications even harder (Van Sell et al., 1981). In turn, this leads to a spiraling increase in ambiguity.
I. C. ORGANIZATIONAL DYSFUNCTIONS
While it can be dangerous to view an organization as a type instead of a system of variables (Stogdill, 1971; Udy, 1959);
organizational “formalization” is used as a variable representing the amount of reliance placed on rules, regulations and
enforcement to obtain the behavior the organization prefers. Formalization is “the degree of work standardization and the
amount of deviation that is allowed from standards. . . [a] high degree of formalization implies not only a preponderance of rules
defining jobs and specifying what is to be done, but also the enforcement of those rules” (Aiken and Hage, 1966, 499).
Aiken and Hage cite studies reinforcing their ideas that show: 1) a public organization with “an almost obsessive reliance on
routines and procedures” has a great deal of worker dissatisfaction and little employee cohesion; 2) an Air Force tracking
station with “great emphasis on rules” where the employees felt their work was “meaningless;” and 3) a situation where
supervisors’ increased pressure resulted in a decline in morale. The lack of time or autonomy, or just the perceived lack of
control over how one operates and performs the job is a stressor (Hall, 1986). Yet, Bamber, Snowball and Tubbs (1989)
found that senior professionals perceived less stress in structured organizations than those in unstructured organizations. This
supports the work by Podsakoff, Williams and Todor (1986) which holds that formalization of work rules has the ability to
reduce stress in both professional and non-professional workers. They go on to suggest that the more structured or formal the
rules, the higher the level of commitment to the organization.
The discussion to this point suggests that increased levels of individual stress, as measured by role ambiguity and role conflict,
are undesirable and that organizational dysfunction is a contributing factor to both. The concept can be expanded so that the
reduction of stress will encourage productivity by supervision that allows “an adequate degree of freedom for initiative in task
performance” (Stogdill, 1971). But, morale can be thought of as the “freedom from restraint” (Stogdill, 1971). The research
does not make the connection between notions of productivity, cohesiveness, and morale on the one hand and stress on the
other. However, morale is related to the development of stress as defined in the research. Stogdill defines the factors that make
up morale as:
1) the clear definition of roles, which permits each member to know what he is expected to do, and 2) the provision of enough
freedom for initiative so that each member can attack his task with confidence and a feeling of accomplishment (1964, 38).
Stogdill’s definition of morale is the reduction of stress and a proper degree of organizational formalization. A major part of
criminal justice literature deals with the combination of low morale and dissatisfaction in law enforcement officers. Cheek and
Miller (1983) call this the “double-bind” of corrections. As an example, guards who are over-controlled by the administration
react negatively and tend to be austere and inflexible with inmates (Blau, et al., 1986). Yet, if guards tend to be
uncompromising in enforcing regulations, they can lose control of the inmates (Wright, 1977; Clare and Kramer, 1976). The
guards are dependent on the inmates’ cooperation and acquiescence to maintain their control. Formal, highly structured
organizations often tend to have developed “scripts” learned through various organizational socialization, work experience and
symbolic management that can lead to a form of “mindless” behavior. Part of this “mindlessness” is a lack of vigilance in
operations, altered perceptions, hasty conclusions and fallacious learning. None of these factors is positive for either the
individual or the organization. Each serves only to increase role conflict and ambiguity (Ashforth and Fried, 1988).
II. RESEARCH ISSUES
The Sheriff and Undersheriff…, felt they had a problem between the divisions, especially between patrol and corrections, in
work attitude and general command response. These issues were displayed by the apparent dissatisfaction and lack of
enthusiasm for operations in the new state-of-the-art corrections facility. The proposed research examines the proposition that
the issues of law enforcement stressors were not properly connected to the actual tasks confronting the individual officer, and
the root cause of individual stress could be organizationally bound. Could the organization itself, the quasi-military structure
combined with the great individual discretion available to individual officers implemented by an improper level of formalization,
generate these stressor conditions?
Perhaps the constructs of role ambiguity and role conflict could explain the elements of law enforcement stressors discussed
above. The first research question, is: 1) Is law enforcement officer stress, as measured by role ambiguity and role conflict, the
result of organizational dysfunction?
Extended observations of various sheriff’s departments leads to the belief that stress is related to the division where one works.
The corrections division, in non-scientific observation, is perceived by officers to be a less desirable and of lower status than the
other police functions in the department. The question arises 2) Is Stress related to the Current Division where one works?
The different divisions of the department perform separate tasks under widely different working environments. This leads to the
question 3) Does the division affect the perceptions of the department’s needs as measured by the Organizational Factors
Inventory and if the answer is yes then is there a relationship between formalization and the current division? (1.Common
knowledge, would lead one to believe that in any multi-division organization the expectation would be for differences on the
items measured by the Organizational Factors Inventory relating to the needs and functions of the divisions. While the current
division may have an effect of formalization, it is doubtful that formalization will effect division. Unless the argument that form
creates function holds true.)
The purpose of the research is to study the association between the individual’s perceptions of group level attributes and
individual level perceptions of workers traits in the different operating divisions of the… Department. The first aggregate-level
attribute, organizational formalization, is measured by the “Hage and Aiken Formalization Inventory” (Aiken and Hage, 1966;
Hage and Aiken, 1967A; 1967B; 1970). The other aggregate-level attributes, role ambiguity and role conflict, are measured by
the “Index of Job-Related Tensions in Organizations of Robert L. Kahn, et al., (1964).
Incorporated into the study is an instrument developed in cooperation with the Sheriff used to measure organizational concerns
of the administration which were specific to the department, the “Organizational Factors Inventory.” Two other instruments
were also utilized. The first is a brief demographic questionnaire on personal information and professional background. Second,
is the Jackson Personality Research Form.
Robert L. Kahn et al., (1964) developed an “Index of Job-Related Tensions in Organizations.” The Tension Index consists of
two parts: role ambiguity and role conflict.
II. A. ROLE AMBIGUITY
Role ambiguity measures such items as an individual’s uncertainty about his or her responsibilities and what others expect from
him/her on the job actions. It also measures a level of organizational ambiguity. Role ambiguity is measured in an individual by
such questions as: 1) being unclear on just what the scope and responsibilities of your job are; 2) thinking that you will not be
able to satisfy the conflicting demands of various people over you; and 3) not knowing just what other people you work with
expect of you. On the survey used, eight questions composed the role ambiguity scale.
II. B. ROLE CONFLICT
The second aspect of the Tension Index, role conflict reveals another aspect of stress. These conflicts “within the structure of
the work role are major sources of stress” (Kahn, et al., 1964, 59). While these are often “minor or occasional irritants” they
can create personal stress. Kahn constructs role conflict from the concepts of “role overload . . . [and] person-role conflicts”
(59). Within this framework, questions arise such as: 1) feeling that you have too little authority to carry out the responsibilities
assigned to you; 2) feeling that you have too heavy a work load, one that you can’t possibly finish during an ordinary workday;
3) feeling that you have to do things on the job that are against your better judgement; and 4) feeling that you are not fully
qualified to handle your job. Seven questions constitute the role conflict scale. Both scales are scored with Likert type
II. C. FORMALIZATION INVENTORY
The “Hage and Aiken Formalization Inventory” (Aiken and Hage, 1966; Hage and Aiken, 1967 A; 1967 B: 1970) consists of
15 questions. The formalization index is broken down into five different scales: job codification, rule observation, rule manual,
job descriptions and specificity of job descriptions (Miller, 1983; Aiken and Hage, 1966). The job codification scale is made
up of such questions as: 1) I feel that I am my own boss in most matters; or 2) people here are allowed to do almost as they
please. Five questions make up a “job codification” scale.
Hage and Aiken’s “index of rule observation” consists of answers to two questions: 1) the employees are constantly being
investigated for rule violations; and 2) people here feel as though they are constantly watched to see that they obey all the rules.
The rule manual Question is: there is no rule manual. Along the same lines, a question on the employee’s job description asks
whether a complete, written job description exists for his or her job. The last formalization index, “specificity of job
description,” incorporates six questions. These questions are: 1) we are to follow strict operating procedures at all time; and 2)
everyone has a specific job to do. These individual questions are scored with a Likert Scale.
II. D. ORGANIZATIONAL FACTORS INVENTORY
The last of the organizational instruments, the “Organizational Factors Inventory,” is a questionnaire consisting of sixteen items
taken from a “Nominal Group Technique” meeting held with approximately fifteen decision and policy makers of the
department, This consists of seven indexes. The first index consists of two questions, deals with staffing levels, and is designed
to determine whether the officers perceive a lack of staff to fulfill the tasks at hand. The second index concerns equipment and
is made up of two questions such as the amount and quality of the equipment available.
Third is the division differences’ index. The five questions included here are designed to determine the perceptions of the
officers as their division is seen by others in differing divisions and their knowledge of other divisions. Fourth is the pay question
asking “considering what I do, I am fairly paid.” Fifth is three questions dealing with organizational factors, such as the physical
separation of parts of the organization and lack of administrative staff. Sixth is a question on supervision. The last index
concerns public relations and consists of two questions concerning the need for increased public relations efforts. Again the
individual questions are scored with a Likert Scale.
II. E. PERSONALITY RESEARCH FORM
The sixth section, the Jackson Personality Research Form, is also an integral part of this research. McNeil and Rubin defined
personality as “. . . the pattern of characteristic behaviors and thoughts we use to deal with our environment” (1977, 447).
“The Personality Research Form represents an application of developments in the areas of personality theory, personality
assessment, and test theory to personality tests” (Jackson, 1984, 4). The scales are based on “carefully defined theoretical . . .
conceptions of what each scale should measure” (Jackson, 1984, 9). The PRF scale is designed to yield “a set of scores . . .
broadly relevant to the functioning of individuals in a wide variety of situations. It thus focuses primarily upon areas of normal
functioning, rather than upon psychopathology” (Jackson, 1984, 4). It provides a measure of twenty-one personality traits
coupled with an additional validity scale. A complete description of the scales are in the appendix.
III. A. Sample Selection
The population frame for this study was the sworn personnel of
the Erie County, New York, Sheriff’s Department. All sworn
officers, except the Sheriff, Undersheriff and direct members of
the administration were included in the sampling frame. Table 1
includes a summary of some of the demographic characteristics of
The unit of analysis in this study is the individual Deputy Sheriff
regardless of rank, except as noted above, in the… Department.
Two procedures were used to gather the data. The first was a
stratified, by shift, non-probability convenience sample. The
procedure used is as follows:
The rotating schedule of five days on and two days off has one
day where there are more people on duty than the rest of the
week. This is known as a “Wheel Day.” Memos were sent to all
division shift commanders with instructions to send as many
personnel as they could to the training room in the Holding Center.
The memo requested that officers of differing characteristics and
experience be referred. The first session was held at 5:00 A.M. to
catch the 12:00 to 8:00 A.M. shift. At 9:00 A.M. the second
session with the day shift people was held. On the next “wheel
day” at 2:00 P.M., another session with the day shift officers
(more than half the department works the day shift) was
conducted. At 5:00 P.M. a session to include some evening shift
people was held. This resulted in a sample size of sixty-three
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