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The public sector is attracting a different type of leader; are they future ready?

Research has found that today’s Public Sector leaders are likely to be more resilient and demonstrate higher creativity than ten years ago. Mark Powell, Partner – Leadership and Talent Consulting at GatenbySanderson, and Gillian Hyde, Chief Psychologist and Managing Director at Psychological Consultancy Ltd. explore.

Recent research has found that today’s Public Sector leaders are likely to be more resilient and demonstrate higher creativity than ten years ago.

Data from nearly 5,000 senior leaders, collected during recruitment processes for Public Sector roles between 2017 and 2020, highlights an increase in these resilient and creative characteristics. A stark comparison to similar data collected between 1999 and 2009, which then found Public Sector employees to be more at risk of emotional reactivity (40% compared to 20% of the 2020 sample) and to be less likely to generate multiple, novel ideas and business solutions (with only 1.4% of this sample showing more extreme creative traits in comparison to 16.5% of the 2020 sample).

Drawing from data collected from completions of the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), GatenbySanderson and Psychological Consultancy Ltd. analysed the samples to assess whether events of the past decade have had an impact on leadership. With significant experience within Public Sector recruitment, Mark Powell comments “the context for Public Sector leaders is tough, budgets are shrinking whilst demand for public services continues to grow with the expectation of maintaining (at the least) service quality as well as generating efficiencies. Interestingly, the results we found are supported by a 2019 study from Deloitte, which states ‘in this age of budget restraint, public sector bodies often need to ‘make do and mend’, finding new and creative ways to deliver results…leading in the public sector has become more challenging and relentless than ever, and as a result, personal resilience has become a ‘must have.’”

Hyde remarks, “when selecting and developing leaders, the HDS tool allows for possible derailers to be identified, ensuring that the personalities of those being recruited align with overall business requirements. These dark-side personality dispositions may be considered desirable attributes up to a point – but could switch into counterproductive mode if not managed well, or within times of increased stress. With this in mind, it’s intriguing to see that, COVID-19 aside, the results from this study demonstrate a notable increase in the recruitment of a resilient and creative personality type within these Public Sector roles. Whether Public Sector job descriptions have changed to attract these personality types, or there is a change in personality type of those attracted to apply for the roles, this could be attributed to constant pressures to perform in this period of ever-evolving political and economic landscapes. With the inevitable threat of further constraints in the aftermath of the pandemic, these insights are of considerable value during the selection and development process.”

Powell adds, “the real positive, from this research, is that Public Sector leaders today are significantly less prone to show unwanted emotional reactions to stressful situations that would otherwise risk the derailment of their own performance and also that of those around them.  In addition, the strength in the population for original thought is really interesting to consider in relation to the continued focus on diversity within the Public Sector, and from GatenbySanderson, with the attraction and engagement of individuals who think and operate differently contributing to this benchstrength.  This should however be tempered with caution as under pressure this strength may manifest itself in disruptive and impractical ideas.”

So how can HR support leaders in the context of the continuing pandemic? “To leaders and their teams banking on a fresh start for 2021, the third lockdown brought a combination of pressure and pessimism to those already feeling the strain. This creates a perfect storm from which the dark sides of personality might thrive if left unchecked.  Whilst our research suggests the likelihood for leaders in 2021 to display derailing behaviours under pressure is reduced, individual circumstances differ greatly and co-ordinated provision of support from HR to help individuals maintain resilience and manage their emotions is strongly recommended at a group or individual level.”

Powell concludes, “HR should also aim to cultivate the creativity of leaders, treading a fine line between allowing creative license to shape service review and redesign at a time when diversity of thought has never been more important, whilst ensuring ideas are rigorously evaluated at proof of concept stage to guard against potentially impractical ideas that may put the public purse at risk and detract leadership from more urgent priorities.  Key foundational steps are to build an inclusive culture where all ideas are heard, along with establishing behavioural expectations for leaders which are then socialised without delay, both will support ‘controlled innovation’.   These can’t be built overnight but with focus and agility, as we have seen from the scientific community who accelerated the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, the principles of these specific enabling factors can be quickly established.”

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