An introduction to public leadership
An introduction to public leadership

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An introduction to public leadership

3.2.1 Dealing with complexity in teams

In public services, two very specific sources of complexity in how teams are constructed and led are:

  • the need to work across organisational boundaries on issues of strategic importance to the service as a whole
  • the need to work closely with other public service agencies – such as health, fire and rescue and social services – to tackle complex social and community problems.

In the following video, Professor Jean Hartley outlines some aspects of these complexities, using the example of developing and implementing policy to tackle drug abuse. Meanwhile, a number of our police leaders explain some of the complexities they work with in their respective teams.

Download this video clip.Video player: ou_futurelearn_police_vid_1046.mp4
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There is a lot of academic interest at the moment in complexity and a recognition that a number of the problems that leaders try to deal with are complex and interconnected.
For example, in Lambeth, there is a piece of work that I have been involved in that I am really proud of, actually. And it's known as the LEAP programme. So it's the Lambeth Early Action Programme. And it was a programme that brought together community stakeholders in a borough that is highly diverse, highly complex. Crime issues but highly complex community and social challenges.
And what happened is we came together as a partnership and were able to - profile our communities. We profiled four particular wards where we identified that growing up as a child, for example, in that area, would mean that you were more vulnerable or susceptible to a life where, actually, you would inevitably come to the attention of the police. You would inevitably be criminalized. That actually, your attainment and education would be low.
So thinking about how you lead in a complex issue like drugs for example. It's multi-faceted, lots of different angles on it. So as a police leader, you might want to be working with schools to do education around drugs. You might want to be working with parents. You probably want to be working with the Health Service over mental health issues, for example, and substance abuse.
You probably want to be working with mental health charities and addiction charities. You might want to be working with the international development department for thinking about how to create alternative sources of economic activity for those countries that produce drugs currently. And all that before you actually get to the police service and what it does to both educate and inform and also enforce drugs policy.
I'm one of 43, at least, chief constables for 43 home office forces within England and Wales. And so although I have responsibility, accountability and leadership within the Thames Valley area, clearly I don't operate on my own in many respects because we operate nationally as well.
And part of it is about how I work with my peers, who I don't have control over and I have to influence. There are many areas where I lead nationally, and it's about how I garner support in terms of the issues that I'm dealing with and to try to encourage things to move forward. And I think a lot of that is about people have to trust you.
Dealing with conflict and complexity as a public leader, you might say, well, let's just pack up and go home, this is too complicated. But actually, there's a number of things that as a public leader you can learn to do. The first is to really analyse and think about the situation that you're in.
I would argue that that requires thinking about political astuteness. It requires thinking about the environment, the different people involved, the different interconnections going on. And then part of the job of a leader is not just to solve the problem on your own, but to mobilise other people to get involved in that situation and to start trying to contribute to resolving that situation.
End transcript
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Activity 2

If you work in or with the public services (as they were broadly defined in the early part of this course), it is very likely you will have experience of cross-boundary teams or multi-agency teams, either as a member or as a stakeholder in their work. You will probably be aware of some of the tensions inherent in such working arrangements.

Think about all the teams and groups that you are a member of, and identify whether they are concerned with task or with belonging. Some groups will be both.

  • What issues does this analysis highlight?
  • Where are the strongest relationships?
  • Which relationships between you and a group do you feel need to be strengthened?
  • Are there some conflicting relationships?
  • How can these be managed?
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Before moving on, answer these quick multiple-choice questions about leading teams.

Activity 3

According to Richard Hackman’s (2002) view of team-working, which of the following is an element of an effective team?


Well-being of the members is nurtured by the team.


Clear deadlines for delivery.


Well-defined team roles.

The correct answer is a.


They appreciate, respect and help each other, or motivate each other. The other two ingredients of effective teams are, in Hackman’s view, that the team produces high quality outputs and that the team as a whole are able to reflect on and learn from successes and failure.

According to West’s (2004) description, which one of the following is not one of the four types of team?


High performing team.


Dysfunctional team.


Cosy team.

The correct answer is a.


West (2004) preferred the phrase ‘full functioning team’ to describe a team with high levels of task reflexivity, enabling it to be focused on learning and improvement and highly adaptable, and with high levels of social reflexivity, enabling it to be very cohesive and resilient. While a team may be high performing, if it doesn’t also have reflexivity than it may not be adaptable for future challenges.

Which one of the following is identified as a source of complexity for public service teams?


Complexity of the problems associated with public service provision.


Members of the public with differing views of the priorities for public service provision.


Public service professionals required to work in several teams simultaneously.

The correct answers are a, b and c.


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