By Lisa James, Partner & Gareth Jones, Partner and Occupational Psychologist, Saxton Bampfylde
This is a time of wide-reaching change in the public sector. The sector is grappling with the impact of changes in demand, in technology, and in both commercial and partnership models in public service delivery. The public sector’s traditional partners in both the private and the third sector are themselves contending with changing funding models and changing needs. Delivery increasingly requires new types of partnership models and working. And, finally but significantly, there is a level of political instability which leads to significant medium-term policy uncertainty.
All of this means that we are in a time not only of change, but also of ambiguity. Public-sector leaders are being tasked not only with delivering discrete and definable change programmes, but also with developing and articulating responses to major national or global challenges at a time when both the problems and the tools available to tackle them are unclear and hard to predict.
AN HONEST APPROACH
The demands that groups put on their leaders in times of change and ambiguity are complex and need to be carefully balanced. In the simplest terms, groups who are facing change will tend to look to their leaders for protection. But, crucially, this does not mean that the task of the leader is to defend the status quo at all costs.
The best leaders will introduce what clarity they can, but are also honest and up-front about what cannot be predicted or guaranteed. They take seriously their role in protecting the team from some of the adverse consequences of change (particularly from pressure from above), but must also resist the urge to be paternalistic – engaging their teams in the design and ownership of the change process rather than allowing them to be passive recipients of it.
This is particularly important during periods of ambiguity. Ambiguity can be paralytic, and very often leaders will have no more information about, or control over, medium-term outcomes than their teams do. In this context, clarity about the end goal and the team’s ultimate raison d’etre is all the more important. At the same time, leaders can help their teams to focus on the things that they do have power on, and be clear on the contribution that their day-to-day work is still making.
There will always be some members of a team who embrace change whole-heartedly: who see and are excited by the opportunities, and who have low enough needs for security and stability that ambiguity or personal risk do not faze them. For many, though, any truly radical change will be a challenge to a long-established professional identity, and will force them to restructure their view of themselves.
And, of course, in any time of wide-reaching change, there will still be large numbers of people who are engaged in business as usual activities. These people are often neglected in thinking about change, but their work remains as important as ever, and it is easy for their engagement to fall.
This means that emotional intelligence is at a premium during periods of change. Pressure will often make people increasingly task-focussed rather than people-focussed – and leaders who are delivering change are often under immense pressure, whether from time pressure, resource constraints, scrutiny, weight of expectation, or all of the above. It is vital that leaders recognise this tendency in themselves and take steps to mitigate it. Equally valid, though, they might choose to bring in other senior members of the team whose strengths lie in their people focus, or identify people within the team who can help them to take its temperature at key points.
LOOKING INWARD AND OUTWARD
Change, therefore, places great demands on leaders. It requires them to balance the protection and the empowerment of their team, and to balance a clear-eyed focus on what needs to be done with empathy for those affected.
This takes real self-awareness, and resilience under great pressure. The final responsibility, then, that leaders have is to themselves. The uncertainty and personal risk which affect teams often affect their leaders no less. All leaders are conscious that they cannot pass the pressure they feel down to their teams too much: but equally, simply internalising it is not sustainable. If leaders are to have the emotional resource to support others, they also need to finds ways to sustain themselves effectively.
Much has been written in recent years about the role that mindfulness and similar techniques can play in reducing stress. These are undoubtedly helpful as a way to help manage the personal impacts of stress and to maintain perspective. However, these internally-focussed methods should be seen as just one element in a wider tool-kit.
There are some core leadership skills, like prioritisation and delegation, which are essential if leaders are to make their roles sustainable. However, leaders also need to build effective support networks for themselves, to ensure that they can access the advice and support they need outside the immediate team or organisational environment.
External mentors, whether formal or informal, can play an immensely valuable role as sounding-boards and sources of support. Good coaching can help leaders to identify and focus on the personal goals that they want to set for themselves, and to make sure that they gain focussed personal development from a period of change, as well as delivering for their organisations.
Finally, there is an important role that the public sector can play in establishing cross-cutting support and learning groups. These should, ideally, be focussed not on individual policy areas but on challenges or tasks – whether dealing with policy uncertainty, setting up new organisations or closing existing ones down, or implementing major operational change – to help leaders share best practice and support one another.