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Building people up: Growth-oriented leadership in the public sector

15 November 2021



Image of a man giving a presentation with graph showing growth

In an environment of unprecedented events and heightened uncertainty, public managers not only need to bounce back but also grow and develop. A paper in the Australian Journal of Public Administration presents a growth-oriented leadership framework to support staff to adapt and flourish at work.

What is growth-oriented leadership?

The paper defines growth-oriented leadership (GOL) as:

  • behaviours by line managers to actively build employee capability to better adapt to changes and pressures in public institutions.

Rather than promote specific job-related competencies or pro-organisational behaviours such as organisational citizenship, GOL aims to develop people’s capabilities that help their own growth and adaptation.

About the research

Data was collected in three phases. This was to allow for:

  • the iterative development of themes and other findings
  • participant experiences to inform later research stages
  • previous findings to be validated.

Phase 1 sought to identify managers’ and employees’ perceptions of behaviours seen as supporting employee growth and development. Phase 2 then sought to verify these perceptions of behaviours and identify how they were perceived to influence employee experiences and outcomes. Phases 1 and 2 involved 10 interviews in each phase from one large public sector organisation.

Phase 3 sought to further validate findings with public servants employed across various public service organisations. This phase included six one-on-one discussions and two focus groups.

The dimensions of growth-oriented leadership

The research identified five dimensions of GOL including leadership behaviours and processes. These were:

  1. Managing the whole team
  2. Enabling self-management
  3. Recognising individual needs and contributions
  4. Supporting both career and personal growth
  5. Managing safe failures.

Managing the whole team

Managing the whole team relates to leadership that enabled communication, collaboration and cohesion in a team. This helped team members draw on shared skills and competencies to deal with challenges and day to day work, as well as avoid inconsistencies and frustrations.

A leader/manager who ‘manages the whole team’ was understood by both leaders and followers as someone who sets collective tasks and makes collaboration a behavioural norm within the team. Setting collective tasks entailed encouragement of working with others, being open to employees’ seeking out their own co-collaborators, and matching a collective set of skills to a particular task.

Making collaboration a behavioural norm meant creating a shared assumption that collaboration is a common and necessary activity within the team. A leader involving themselves in collaboration can model this shared norm.

The range of impacts related to leadership that fosters collaboration includes:

  • enhanced interpersonal resources and networks
  • increased feelings of connection
  • feeling more enabled to engage in necessary work tasks.

Enabling self-management

A leader who enables self-management focuses more on aims and outcomes rather than process. This entails an element of trust in employees to achieve these aims and outcomes ‘their way’. Perceived outcomes of leaders enabling self-management include greater autonomy, work related motivation, improved confidence and trust, higher quality work, and greater freedom.

Recognising individual needs and contributions

Recognising individuals’ needs, as well as their contributions, were identified as key leadership behaviours for employee resilience. This recognition of needs was often described as something needed in addition to more general, collective recognition so individuals feel valued for their contributions.

Recognising individual needs and contributions was acknowledged through feedback that is tailored to the individual and their contribution. Meaningful recognition of individual employee contributions improved intrinsic motivation and employees’ confidence about their own performance.

Supporting both career and personal growth

Research participants felt supported both personally and professionally by their managers when they were encouraged to seek out opportunities themselves and had open conversations about the future career possibilities.

Outcomes of leader facilitation of career opportunities are higher commitment and improved confidence. Feeling supported as an individual also made participants want to contribute extra time or effort to their work and/or the organisation, reflective of social exchange.

Managing safe failures

Providing room for individuals to learn, grow, and push boundaries created psychological safety where mistakes were treated as opportunities to learn, rather than as sources for blame. Part of this is the managers’ learning orientation and the way they deal with mistakes made within the team. Having a leader who is keen on fostering an environment for learning can result in outcomes such as improved confidence and better teamwork.

The bottom line

This study identified leader behaviours that are clear, specific, and doable. A GOL approach allows managers to effectively help staff transfer their work experiences into growth and resilience. It also encourages learning and collaboration-oriented behaviours which help employees confront and overcome challenges.

Without a supportive, growth-oriented system, leaders will lack the resources, incentives, and motivations to engage with GOL. In many ways, GOL is an informal system of leadership. To be implemented at scale it would need systemic capability within an organisation. Leaders need ongoing support and reinforcement to engage in GOL. It also needs to be supported, advocated for, and even practiced by senior members in the organisation.

Want to read more?

Building people up: Growth-oriented leadership in the public sector – Esme Franken, Geoff Plimmer, Sanna K. Malinen, Jane Bryson and Evan M. Berman, Australian Journal of Public Administration, December 2020

The original article is available via individual subscription to the journal or institutional access through a library service such as a university library, state library or government library.

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Published Date: 15 November 2021