What Makes Your Agency Tick? 3 Factors for Understanding Organizational Behavior

by | November 30, 2021

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series, Finding the Leader in You, which addresses key concepts in public safety leadership.

In previous articles, we’ve spent a great deal of time focusing on what makes people tick. Attitudes, personality differences and managing conflict are all important factors to consider when dealing with humans, but what about our organizations? Are there complexities associated with life within the walls of our respective agencies? As a leader, it’s not only important to understand people, but also how your agency manages things such as motivation, formal organizational structures, and even facilitation of change.

As the original brainchild behind the Visa brand, Dee Hock is renowned for his understanding of organizational behavior. He notes that “n organization, no matter how well designed, is only as good as the people who live and work in it.” In public safety, we are fortunate to work with dedicated professionals who regularly live outside of their own self-interests. Supporting these dedicated professionals is the fundamental purpose behind the organization itself. This month, we’ll focus on important factors of organizational behavior.

Individuals, groups, and structure all have an impact on behavior within organizations; understanding this impact is critical for improving organizational effectiveness and individual well-being. For leaders, an understanding of organizational behavior is extremely important for achieving employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and organizational success. Synergy within an organization doesn’t just happen. It occurs when all resources are synchronized efficiently and effectively. We could spend days discussing the ins and outs to organizational behavior (I’ve spent entire semesters teaching it), but for the purpose of this article, we will focus on three primary aspects—employee motivation, organizational structure, and managing change.

Employee Motivation

Motivation is the result of an interaction between individuals and a given situation. It’s a process that accounts for an individual’s intensity, direction, and effort toward a specific goal. Leaders typically have a variety of opportunities to motivate employees by virtue of how they treat them. It’s no secret that motivated individuals tend to be better employees. Jobs can be designed in such a manner that makes them interesting to the people who perform them. When it comes to human performance within the organization, consider the following:

  • Accurate employee performance appraisals are a must. Your employees should know where they stand and what’s expected of them.
  • Employee satisfaction and the relationship with customer service is important. Since your employees represent the agency, how they are treated and their level of motivation has a direct impact on how they will likely interact with the public and other key stakeholders.
  • Teamwork is critical. In public safety, no one person can accomplish what’s expected.
  • Supervisor and subordinate relationships can make or break an organization. Effective leadership is a must.
  • Treatment of employees has a direct impact on service. In public safety, the organization exists to support employee efforts toward service and protection. If employees are treated poorly, their level of motivation is reduced, and the quality of service will be adversely impacted.

Motivation also relies on three key elements. First, there must be some level of intensity, which is concerned with how hard a person expends effort. This is the element most of us focus on when we talk about motivation; however, high levels of intensity are unlikely to lead to favorable job performance outcomes unless the effect is channeled in a direction that benefits the organization. Secondly, employees need direction, which is consistent with the organization’s goals and objectives. This element also focuses on supervisory control and our ability to direct employee focus within the agency. Finally, persistence measures how long a person can maintain effort, remaining on task long enough to achieve desired goals and objectives.

The Structure of Organizations

Organizational structure is the framework by which an organization communicates, develops goals, and then works on achieving those goals. Within the framework of organizational structure are the principles by which that structure operates. These principles are how the organization maintains its structure, and the processes it uses to keep the structure efficient. The structure helps define the roles and responsibilities of all employees. Although there are many different types of organizational structures, for the purpose of this discussion we’ll just focus on two—tall and flat.

Shortly after I assumed command of a new division, we changed our very hierarchical operational structure due the specialized nature of our work and the advanced knowledge, skills, and abilities of our personnel.

Public safety agencies are typically aligned under tall or vertical organizational structures. Tall structures are hierarchical in nature and are characterized by few personnel at the top with increasing numbers of people in middle management and lower-level positions. In other words, a few employees make policy and decisions, while many others at the lower levels of the agency carry them out. Government agencies often lean toward this type of structure because it creates very defined job tasks and responsibilities—each person has a clear role to play.

organizational behavior in public safety agencies - tall organizational structure

Figure 1 – Tall Organizational Structure

A tall structure can be viewed as the classic bureaucracy, with origins from the military. Although effective in managing large groups of people or when subdividing the diverse levels of service inherent in public safety, the tall organizational structure isn’t without challenges. Rishipal points out how traditional management structures “were devised in an era, characterized by ‘closed equilibrium system’ thinking … when businesses were stable, competitors few, customers loyal, and financial results predictable.” Even though this is more of a reference toward private corporations, it speaks to the sometimes antiquated and archaic structure found in many public service agencies. We’ve all experienced the frustrations inherent in these formalized structures. Typical constraints include:

  • Inflexibility – Typically, these organizations are very slow to react or adapt to change.
  • Slow decision-making – Think of the chain of command and the complexities associated with moving information to or from the agency CEO.
  • Resistance to creativity – This typically occurs due to a top-down approach to decision-making, which tends to stifle creativity and innovation.

By comparison, flat organizational structures are set up just as the name implies—they feature one layer of management, with the remainder of the organization accommodating a wider span of control. While unrealistic for large organizations, it is possible to establish a less-bureaucratic structure within subdivisions of a larger agency. Common characteristics of flatter structures include:

  • Decentralized management approach –More direct lines of communication to senior management.
  • Few levels of management – Less bureaucracy and easier communication with agency leadership.
  • Horizontal career paths and cross-utilization – This can sometimes result in reduced opportunities for advancement but does allow for increased skill development as employees are utilized in multiple, non-compartmentalized roles.
  • Broadly defined jobs and general job descriptions– Offers a more utilitarian approach and utilization of human capital.
  • Emphasis on teams – Offers more creativity and empowerment among employees who ultimately provide enhanced levels of customer service.
  • Strong focus on the customer – Content and empowered employees who believe they have equal stake in the organization typically produce at a higher rate than their counterparts.
organizational behavior in public safety agencies - flat organizational structure

Figure 2 – Flat Organizational Structure

Shortly after I assumed command of a new division, we changed our very hierarchical operational structure due the specialized nature of our work and the advanced knowledge, skills, and abilities of our personnel. We ended up with a flatter organizational structure that had immediate results, including better communication and a higher level of empowerment among employees in the division. Even though most public safety agencies require a more formalized structure, there are ways to mitigate the structural adversities inherent in specialized units within the organization.

Managing Change

The dynamic and changing environment that public safety organizations regularly face necessitates adaptation and, depending on the organization, sometimes change is the most difficult struggle faced by leadership. Humans spend a great deal of time and energy pursuing individual needs. Change can often bring about a level of discomfort that employees often try to avoid at all costs. It’s important to understand the many forces for change that are largely out of our control:

  • Nature of the work itself – This is especially true in public safety since the job requires 24/7 service in often challenging operational environments.
  • Technology – Although technology can assist efforts in our line of work, it can also bring about significant changes and an agency-wide learning curve.
  • Economic trends – There are frequent financial setbacks that adversely impact public safety organizations. Changes in funding, inadequate public support, and limited grant opportunities all create challenges that facilitate change.
  • Competition – All public safety organizations are not created equal; funding for governmental entities is spread across a wide spectrum.
  • Social trends – Whether brought on by legislative action or changes in public support, social trends have influenced how public safety organization operate for decades.
  • Politics – Similar to social trends, political factors can directly influence how your agency operates.

Most people abhor change; however, organizational leadership plays a big role in mitigating the frustrations associated with this natural part of life. Education and communication are essential. Don’t let your employees get surprised by some big change that’s coming. Seek their input and answer questions. It’s also important to let your employees be part of the discussion when it comes to seeking solutions or soliciting feedback on changes that impact their work. Build support and gain a commitment from your employees as changes come about. Open communication early in the process is a must. Make sure you implement the changes fairly and ensure certain employees are not adversely affected, which can create division.

For leaders, an understanding of organizational behavior is extremely important for achieving employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and organizational success.

Over the years, extensive research has been conducted on managing change. I’m partial to Kotter’s eight-step method and used this process with any large-scale changes our division was involved in, including the development of our agency’s strategic plan. It’s a systematic approach that puts a lot of responsibility on agency leadership; however, it’s important not to skip any of the steps. The eight steps include:

  1. Create a sense of urgency by identifying and highlighting potential threats and examining opportunities that can emerge.
  2. Build a guiding coalition with enough power to lead the change and include those from throughout the organization who bring innovation to the table.
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives to direct the change and focus on appropriate strategies designed to achieve the vision.
  4. Enlist a volunteer army to carry the message and engage other employees in the need for change.
  5. Enable action by removing barriers and encourage risk taking through creative problem solving.
  6. Generate short-term wins that move the organization toward the new vision and set achievable benchmarks for accomplishing desired tasks.
  7. Sustain acceleration as desired objectives are achieved.
  8. Institute change by demonstrating the relationship between new behaviors and organizational success.


Organizational behavior encompasses the way the agency is structured, how it motivates employees, and how it facilitates changes in the workplace. There are many complexities associated with all these factors; however, most of the responsibilities fall on organizational leadership. Now more than ever, employees look up to leaders to guide them through these challenging times. Staffing challenges, political and social factors, and emerging technologies will consistently tax your resources. It’s important to be conceptual in your planning approach so your agency can continue the level of service and protection the public expects. In the words of Darren Hardy, “the organization will always mirror the behavior, habits, attitude, mindset and pace of the leader.”


  1. Rishipal. (2014). Analytical Comparison of Flat and Vertical Organizational Structures. European Journal of Business and Management. 36(6). Accessed 11/11/21 from: https://www.iiste.org/Journals/index.php/EJBM/article/viewFile/17351/17948.
  2. Kotter. (2021). The 8-Step Process for Leading Change. Accessed 11/11/21 from: https://www.kotterinc.com/8-steps-process-for-leading-change/.

CAPTAIN REX M. SCISM (Ret.) is a 32-year law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. He also had a successful military career, retiring from the Missouri Army National Guard after 20 years of service. Mr. Scism served as a public safety and private sector consultant and instructor for over 20 years. He formerly served as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice for both Columbia College and the University of Central Missouri, and is a frequent contributor to multiple sources about various public safety topics. Mr. Scism is a graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 249th Session and currently serves as a content developer for Lexipol.

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