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Successful Administrators Require Even Higher-Performing Organizations and Teams

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

By Matt Selker

Public administrators nationwide face daunting complexities, as well as increasingly insurmountable consequences, as they attempt to achieve prosperity for their communities. Thoughtful public administrators are rethinking the roles their employees play in solving complex issues—employees at every level of the organization. They are learning that to tap this remarkable wealth of knowledge within each employee, their efforts must be strategic, inclusive and shared with other levels of management.

In the October 2005 issue of the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, research published by Gene Brewer suggests that ‘management matters’, both front-line supervisory management and upper-level management. In their research of federal agencies and front-line managers, they found that high-performing agencies not only possess skillful upper-level managers, they have strong organizational cultures that appreciate and value employees, enabling employees to engage each other in meaningful work. High-performing agencies create space that fosters high-performing teams and an environment that sustains them. 

Attune v. Align Team Members

Selker augustSuccessful public leaders share the awesome responsibility of creating an environment where talent is ‘attuned’, achieving performance goals and sustaining some type of competitive advantage while displaying a high degree of engagement. My use of ‘attuned’ as opposed to traditional ‘alignment’ is strategic. By attuning talent, leaders create shared buy-in to organizational mission, vision and values. They create an authentic, palpable synergy, a positive energy of sort, around shared common interest and goals.

Having worked with both public and private sector leaders in many industries and levels of governments, this concept, while exciting to consider, is often daunting to achieve. Daunting because it often requires a shift in the leader’s mental models. Many public administrators have focused for decades on aligning their employees to their purpose and goals. The emerging workforce demands more than a simple ‘tell me what to do.’ It demands the capacity to accomplish, a feeling of shared experience and a lasting desire to collaborate with their peers. They require involvement in a high-performing team.

Five Characteristics of High Performing Teams

The million dollar question remains: How do you create a high-performing team that is attuned to the organization’s mission, vision and values rather than simply aligned to task performance? By perfecting the following five characteristics, you can create high-performing teams within your administrative jurisdiction, at all organizational levels, in a way that is attuned, sustainable and capable of producing remarkable results:

  1. An abundance of trust: This is first because it is the most important of the five characteristics and arguably the most challenging. Creating a culture of trust requires a commitment from leadership. It requires behaviors that exhibit high trust that resonate throughout the organization in a way that is authentic. This requires lots of listening, transparency, appreciation and honesty. Be proactive and create the opportunity to be genuinely open with your team. 
  1. Master constructive conflict: Create the culture where problems, not people, are attacked with fervor. A culture where team members can engage each other in a structured and passionate debate about ideas and thoughts. Create a culture where your team realizes that not everyone will get along all the time and that disagreement is appreciated when done in a positive, beneficial way. Have your team collaborate and create rules of engagement they can agree upon (shared interest) and ensure that one of the rules encompasses the process of communicating with constructive criticism using the ‘affirm, correct, affirm’ framework. Remember, research suggests that high-performing teams communicate with six positive statements for every one negative statement. What is your positive to negative statement ratio? 
  1. Show your commitment: Allow your team the opportunity for real buy-in; real commitment that is shared amongst all team members. Make it past the superficial ‘meeting buy-in’ to the place where team members can honestly commit to decisions and take ownership in them and the process that led to their creation. 
  1. Practice accountability: Without true, authentic commitment, there cannot be accountability. Even the most engaged members of your team will resist holding their collaborative partners accountable when they experience unacceptable behaviors or actions that detract from the betterment of the team. Shared interest, buy-in and commitment lead to accountability by all. 
  1. Keep focused on results: Engaged team members have a tendency to support one another by putting team needs ahead of themselves and show real interest in achieving results. Affirm and appreciate team members that focus on desired results and support others doing the same. When results are achieved, regardless of how small or seemingly insignificant, celebrate achievements and together plan future accomplishments. Everything points toward the direction of the goal when high-performing teams take flight. 

To summarize, it takes much practice of many, both celebrated successes and mourned failures, to become a high-performing team. The key is for the leader to be inclusive, grow in the direction of shared teams collective strengths and encourage space for thoughtful, constructive conflict to occur. Remember, the leader sets the pace and demonstrates by example. Anything short of an authentic effort pales by comparison. Your investment to become a high-performing organization by forming high-performing teams will pay exponential benefits.



Author: Matt Selker is a management consultant. His firm, located near Cleveland Ohio, is hired by public and private organizations striving for improved performance through their human capital. Mr. Selker holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Edinboro University of PA, master’s degree in Public Administration from Cleveland State University-Levine College of Public Affairs and gained his education in organizational development and change from Case Western Reserve University-Weatherhead School of Management. He can be reached via email 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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