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Team Work Dynamics in Public Service Workforce

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Roger J. Chin  and Lisa Piergallini

Chin julyThe public service workforce is continuously evolving and adapting to changing work dynamics. The transformation in the work environment has led to an increase in the use of teamwork in many public sector organizations. Nevertheless, even with the increased utilization of teams, there is a lack of consensus on factors that leads to an effective team. This article examines the characteristics and traits that most employees seek in their leaders and team members.

The simplicity of this inquiry belies the reality that each of the concepts discussed are nuanced and contingent. Effective teams require extraordinary intricacy and complexity. As the public sector workforce evolves, especially to remain competitive with the private and nonprofit sectors, teamwork is becoming all the more crucial, ubiquitous and unavoidable.

Evolving Styles of Leadership

The public workforce has traditionally adopted a hierarchical and vertical style of leadership. In the traditional style, there is one central leader governing, directing, guiding, delegating and enforcing control on a group of employees. Public employees perform tasks based on what they are told. There are few collaborations, inputs or partnerships between the leaders and employees. The concept of leaders distributing powers among employees can be onerous because it goes against common norms of the traditional public sector workplace dynamic.

In order to contend with changing work conditions and market environments, there has been a shift to horizontal leadership. Within public sector organizations, there has been a noticeable and progressive shift toward team collaboration. The objectives of this deviation from the rigid hierarchical style of leadership are to increase employee productivity and raise morale. If there are more people working toward the same goals, there is a greater possibility of success.

To better understand the growing use of teams, the authors conducted a content analysis and gathered focus groups. The content analysis included a review of six top public administration academic journals published between 1999 through 2012. The search generated four journals with 11 articles discussing teamwork and leadership. In a brief comparison, during the same period, the field of management had 41 articles and the field of leadership had 28 articles. The goal of the research was to examine the state of the teamwork and its use by the public service workforce. 

The authors also convened two focus groups made up of males and females that have worked or are currently working in a team environment in the public sector. Eight individuals were randomly divided into groups of four to facilitate a more comfortable environment. The focus groups recorded participants’ opinions and perceptions about working in teams. The results and discussions from the focus group were compared to the results found in the content analysis. 

Ideal Member Characteristics

Employees working in teams in the public sector are unique because of the diversity of the members. The constant interaction between employees begs the question what are the desired member characteristics in teams. Ideally, the characteristics, work ethics and traits that encompass the team should be clearly defined to ensure members communicate and operate effectively. An effective group consists of members that are committed to the common purpose, maximizing team success and personal success in the community objective.

Research conducted by the authors found that most members listed interdependence and interpersonal interaction as the most desired characteristics when working in a team. Interdependence is present when the members rely on and cooperate with each other in order to accomplish their tasks and goals. Interpersonal interaction consists of employees in a team genuinely cooperating, communicating and collaborating with each other. Being a contributing member of a team that is successful raises appreciation for the team and its tasks. Organizations that emphasize interdependence and interpersonal interaction foster collaboration and are more likely to produce an effective team.

The least desired member traits were structured relations and individual motivation. Structured relations refer to an environment where interaction of the members is controlled by a set of roles, rules or norms. Structured relations restrict the employees’ ability to interact and cooperate freely with one another. Individual motivation consists of employees pretending to be part of the team in order to achieve personal success and gain something in return for participation. Individuals that are concerned with individual motivations are driven by personal ambitions rather than collective team ambitions.

Common Leadership Styles in Teams

Leadership style serves as one of the crucial determinants of team effectiveness and productivity. There are a plethora of leadership styles that are best suited for team interactions. It is advisable for the leader to cultivate and adapt to a certain style when leading a team. For example, leaders may need to embody a strong role in certain situations, while the function of other leaders may require them to be more of a facilitator or mediator. The most common styles of leadership are laissez faire, supportive, directive, collaborative, inspirational, strategic, achievement-oriented, delegate or participative. Some leaders may also adopt a combination of styles to encourage collaboration.

The analyses found that the majority of organizations prefer leaders who utilize a combined style of leadership, with supportive and participative leadership rising to the top as the two most highly desired styles. Supportive leaders illustrate compassion and consideration toward their employees and display concerns for the employees’ well-being. They also promote a friendly workplace. The participative leader consults with the employees, fosters active participation from every employee and considers their inputs.

Laissez faire and strategic leadership styles were the least desired in teams. The laissez faire leadership style involves the team leader neglecting responsibilities, displaying indifference toward the employees and having a generally passive attitude toward task accomplishments. Strategic leadership, on the other hand, only focuses on organizational matters that gain and retain resources, contribute to organizational alignments, and gain comparative advantages.

Leading teams in the public sector is becoming significant for its academic and practical application. Multiple stakeholders in the public sector depend on the effectiveness of teams. While scholarly research on public sector teamwork has been burgeoning, there is still a paucity of literature on this topic. The purpose of the research was not to establish the necessity of teamwork but to provide a pragmatic evaluation of the state of teamwork and the desired member characteristics for its application in the public service workforce. Admittedly, teamwork may not be ideal or realistic in every situation.

Leaders, however, are more routinely required to determine the feasibility of implementing teamwork in their organizations. The adoption of teams may be difficult to analyze due to the diversity that exists in modern organizations but there have been compelling breakthroughs.



Authors: Roger J. Chin is currently a Ph.D. Student in Political Science at Claremont Graduate University- Claremont Colleges. His concentrations are in public policy and political methodology. Prior to pursuing his Ph.D., he worked in a team environment for many years in the public sector. He can be reached at [email protected] 

Lisa Piergallini is currently a Ph.D. Student in Political Science at Claremont Graduate University-Claremont Colleges. Her concentrations are in political philosophy and comparative politics. She can be reached 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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