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How Effective Team Leadership Can Boost Public Sector Performance?

Leading a team in the public sector is not necessarily the same as in the private sector. A major difference in the public sector, in particular at the international level is the ambiguity and inherent complexity of goals. There are legitimate political reasons why this ambiguity exists - how often would the 193 Member States of the United Nations agree if they had to specify goals of collective action into minute detail? Or how often would the myriad of international governmental and non-governmental organizations and host countries in complex emergencies agree if they had to spell out each specific action needed for an intervention? Yet, management research has shown time and again that individuals and teams perform better when goals are clear, and that team performance tends to be weaker when goals are ambiguous.

a black and white photo of rowing team in a boat in open water

That does not mean, however, that strong team performance is impossible in the public

sector. One of the first studies to measure how goal clarity can affect team performance in the public sector actually points to some concrete actions that leaders of teams and units in can take to strengthen team performance in complex contexts. A study of 105 teams in the Dutch public sector, ranging from local to regional and central government offices as well as non-governmental public organizations, showed that teams with a higher level of goal clarity performed better compared to teams with lower levels of goal clarity. It also illustrated that even when goals are not completely clear, the teams that had a greater ability to decide on how those goals should be achieved, what actions needed to be taken and how they needed to organize their own work also performed better - even when goals were ambiguous.

For team leaders in international organizations looking to improve the performance of their teams, addressing the issue of goal clarity is key. Breaking down high level or complex goals, working to prioritize which areas to focus on in the short, medium and long term, or defining how success will be measured are key roles you can play to help gain greater goal clarity. Your leadership role should be one of facilitating clarity on how ambiguous or complex goals can be operationalized by your team.

You cannot and should not do this alone - you need to involve stakeholders, and more importantly you also need to involve your team, in particular on questions related to how they will get the work done. This includes sequencing, timing, and how you will organize your team's resources in pursuit of the goals. As much as you want to create clarity around the goals, you want your team to be empowered to work with you in determining what is and isn't feasible within particular timeframes. Imposing a plan of work on them will undermine any achievements you make in clarifying goals with your managers or stakeholders.

In short, if you want to lead a high performing public sector team, you need to use your leadership role to operationalize higher level organizational goals and provide your team with as much clarity as possible, while empowering them to organize themselves in how they get the work done.

For more information, please read:

Van der Hoek, Marieke, Sandra Groeneveld and Ben Kuipers. "Goal Setting in Teams: Goal Clarity and Team Performance in the Public Sector." Review of Public Personnel Administration 38, no. 4 (2018) pp. 472-493 DOI 10.1177/0734371X16682815


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