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Human-centric leadership: A mainstay of the post-pandemic public sector

October 01, 2021

Human-centric leadership: A mainstay of the post-pandemic public sector

Synopsis
5 Minute Read

Human-centric leadership has been part of the public sector vernacular for years. After the transformational events of 2020, it is now front and centre in the minds of leaders.

National Leader, Organizational Renewal Practice

There was a time when good leadership equated to a strong profile, a list of accomplishments, and excellent data to back it all up. A leader’s performance was evaluated primarily on measurable competencies such as the ability to execute strategy, implement processes, or develop policies.

Other skills, like a person’s ability to develop talent, energize employees, promote diversity and inclusion, or engage in constructive coaching conversations, were harder to measure. These rarely made it onto the performance radar. Then 2020 happened.

Today, this new-but-old idea that people should be the primary focus of public sector organizations — employees and clients rather than the processes and policies — has seized public sector leaders at all levels. The concept of human-centric leadership has unquestionably been part of the public sector vernacular for years, but now it is front and centre in the minds of today’s leaders.

Public sector leaders have learned many lessons in the last couple of years. Simply talking about organizational culture doesn’t help when trying to engage and manage a remote workforce. One-size-fits-all performance management isn’t effective when employees are working in a different environment and under different conditions in the face of a global pandemic. And toothless diversity and inclusion measures don’t reap the innovative benefits of diversity or make employees feel included.

In short: the old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore.

Earlier this year, Mary Larson, a partner in MNP’s Organizational Renewal practice, moderated a panel at the National IPAC Conference. The discussion involved three public-sector leaders who discussed how human-centric leadership is taking a front seat in their organizations and steps they’ve taken to help their organizations become more human-centric.

Here, we touch on three of them.

Turn the mirror inwards

Becoming a human-centric organization requires earnest self-reflection and self-assessment, both on the part of the organization and individual leaders. This often starts with a simple question: What’s important to us as an organization?

To find the answer, some of the IPCC panellists relied on employee surveys, town halls, and even “trust circles” — opportunities for employees to share their thoughts and feelings in a facilitated group setting. In many cases, these strategies revealed less-than-rosy results. Some employees believed mental health and wellness should be more of a priority and didn’t feel they were receiving adequate support. Others uncovered a widespread lack of trust in senior management and deep-rooted discrimination.

While hard to hear, this honest self-assessment was an essential starting point and provided the information these organizations needed to begin the long journey towards human-centrism. 

“Some shifts we're struggling within the City of Edmonton include moving from an organization that affirms its systems to an organization that questions and interrogates the system,” said Susan Coward, Manager, Recover Urban Wellbeing with the City of Edmonton. “From an organization that values work that shows success to one that values insights and learnings from failure. From an organization that controls outputs and outcomes to an organization that engages with people to co-design new practices and changes to our systems.”

This monumental undertaking requires the drive and effort of leaders who are open to honest self-reflection.

“To set up and nurture work conditions for human-centred leadership, a leader needs to be humble enough to know he or she will enhance their chances of success when they maximize the collective talents of the team,” Coward explained. “For example, in my teams, I know there’s always someone smarter and more insightful than me; who sees potential routes to an outcome I don’t see. There’s always someone more practical, more energetic, more relationship-focused — and I could go on.”

Rebuild with humans in mind

Once leaders clearly understand what the organization stands for and can comfortably view its mandate through a human-centric lens, it becomes easier to rebuild existing systems, processes, and policies with human-centric design at their core.

To illustrate this concept, April Howe, Senior Executive Advisor Minister, Ministry of Justice of Nova Scotia, cited how the Province re-evaluated its approach to driver’s licence renewals and vehicle registrations:

“The wait times were so long, it could easily take you an hour and a half to get your license,” she recalled. “Then a new leader came into that department, looked at the existing approach, and applied a human-centered lens to it.”

The leader encouraged employees to walk through the process themselves —they entered the door, picked up a ticket, waited in line, completed the transaction at the kiosk, and exited.

“Instead of just looking at the process, they observed the human experience. And long story short, once the human-centered approach and upgraded processes were applied, wait times were reduced from one-and-a-half hours to 10 minutes.”

While it seems natural, identifying and seizing human-centric design opportunities is not an intuitive skill. That’s why it’s important to provide the necessary tools and training to help employees and leaders adapt to this new way of thinking. 

To do this, some of the panellists invested in empathy coaching to help those less-comfortable with human-centric management strategies make the shift. Others made it a priority to adopt policies and mandates that encouraged leaders to reach their targets in a human-centric way. For instance, if an employee engagement score was lower than anticipated, leaders would be encouraged to own it, identify the root issues, and take action to rectify them by any means necessary. This could involve creating clearer boundaries between work and home, encouraging people to take more time off, etc.

“How you achieve your targets really matters, as it impacts the people around you,” says Howe. “If leaders aren’t showing up in a human-centred way, you really don’t give permission for anyone else to do that.”

Human-centric, not perfect

Lastly, virtually all the panellists agreed that becoming a human-centric leader — and a human-centric organization — isn’t a once-and-done event. It’s an ongoing journey, which means missteps are inevitable along the way.

The key, of course, is to reframe these as invaluable learning experiences. For instance, rather than viewing a performance target as something a leader either hits or misses, a human-centric organization might view them along a continuum.

“You have to look at the trend line — you can’t put a finite time on it,” said Caroline Xavier, Associate Deputy Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. “Too often, we reward those who reach the goal, but we don’t always reward how they reached it. When you’re just looking at targets or numbers, that’s when you achieve a negative human experience, like tokenism. We reward the achievement, but forget the journey is just as important.”

To keep their sights set on the trend line, panellists constantly tried to remind themselves that, while they may be doing some good things, they can always get better. And when things aren’t working — when employee satisfaction numbers are low, for example — they pay careful attention and take steps to get to the root of the issue.

“Many of the challenges we’re dealing with in the human-centred space of leadership aren’t going to be quick fixes. We’ve got to just let it ride as a journey and really celebrate the achievements along the way. In instances where we don’t achieve the things we want, we also must resist the urge to label that as a failure,” says Xavier.

This is a mindset that needs to be adopted by all leaders and at all levels of an organization.

“If we don't reward the how, then no one will value it. So, we need to change our performance evaluation systems, either by adapting them or augmenting them,” says Howe. “Somehow, we need to find a way to infuse ‘how’ someone gets something done and assign value to it in a way that is tailored to the specific person.”

To learn more about how MNP can help your organization make the human-centric transition, contact Mary Larson at 514.228.7905 or [email protected]

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