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Rookie Review: Theory That Lights a Spark

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Emily Paulson
April 7, 2015

When I hear the word “theory,” I automatically think about dull and loftily-worded notions that are irrelevant to real life. As you can imagine, I’ve been encountering a lot of theory in my public administration master’s program. While I do find some of it to be less than riveting, I’ve been surprised at how much of the theory fascinates me. Since, I have come to believe these theories will make me a better public servant, allow me to share a few of my favorites with you.

Critical Social Theory

Edgar Alan Poe once said, “Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” Based on that sentiment, I think he would have felt a kinship to critical social theorists. You see, critical social theory helps us bridge the gap between what is and what might be. It identifies contradictions, thus revealing ways for us to “dream by day” and pursue the “might be” we hope for.

According to Robert Denhardt and Thomas Catlaw, in their book Theories of Public Organization, the main tension creator in this theory is the existence of social conditions. Because critical social theorists focus on human potential, their work is often connected with the pursuit of true individual needs and desires. They critique instrumental reason, study the reduction of the public sphere and work to understand the connection between knowledge, communication and human interests.

Leadership Trait Theory 

Implicit leadership theory tells us that we all have beliefs about the kind of behaviors leaders should exhibit. The mental representation of those behaviors, along with inherent personal traits, is called a leadership prototype. Something that differentiates a leader from a follower, be it a physical or personality characteristic, is simply called a leader trait.

If you hold or are interested in holding a leadership position, trying to cultivate the positive leadership traits that have been found makes sense. One could argue that by committing to public service we’re automatically taking on leadership roles in our community, so maybe these are traits all of us should work on. As noted by Angelo Kinicki and Mel Fugate, in their book Organizational Behavior:  Key Concepts, Skills and Best Practices, some of these traits include problem-solving skills, an ability to communicate, discipline, moral reasoning, self-efficacy and the ability to demonstrate empathy.

The Four-Frame Model

Framing is carrying a particular mental model in your head that helps you navigate and understand the world. Frames are basically the maps you use to find your way and the lenses you use to see. In the four-frame model, each of us gets our organizational understanding from one of four frames and each of those of frames uses a certain type of metaphor for organization. The four frames are:

  1. Structural (organizations are factories or machines).
  2. Human Resource (organizations are families).
  3. Political (organizations are jungles).
  4. Symbolic (organizations are carnivals, temples or theaters). 

Lee Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, in their book Reframing Organizations:  Artistry, Choice and Leadership, note that each frame holds its own version of reality. Each of us is more inclined to agree with one or some than others. By studying all four of the frames and understanding our own, we can increase our organizational awareness. By accepting that there is more than one way to do or see something, we open ourselves up to more creative problem-solving. I highly recommend getting to know these frames, and open yourself  to thinking through each of them before you respond to your next organizational problem.

Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MIs) 

One of these theories belongs to Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Howard Gardner. In his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, he argues that there are eight different types of intelligence (linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist).

Expanding concepts about personality and intelligence that had previously been considered standard, this new theory explains how people could seem so bright then score poorly on an IQ test. Multiple intelligences (MIs)also provide us with insights regarding employee selection and training and show us that all intelligences are not created equal. Which MIs do you have?  What if you were in charge of hiring your position – which MIs would you be looking for?

Hopefully, like me, you find these anything but boring. Whether they made you do some theoretical research, reflect on organizational framing or read some Poe, I hope they lit a spark. As public servants, it should always be our goal to have a fire in our bellies for the communities we serve. I truly believe that thinking through the theories that built our field can help us stoke those flames.


Author: Emily G. Paulson resides in Minnesota, where she is pursuing her MPA at Hamline University and carving out a career in public safety and community outreach. She keeps busy volunteering and working as a content marketing manager and believes in firm handshakes and shameless smiles. Contact her at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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