Public sector management insights from PNG

Tuesday, April 19, 2016 - 18:11

By AIM Senior Research Fellow Dr Samantha Johnson

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words. - Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Last week I worked with a group of very senior public servants from the Government of Papua New Guinea.  Working in Port Moresby at the PNG Institute of Public Administration, we spent the week discussing some of the greatest challenges that senior public servants face every day.

Although many of the challenges would be familiar to senior public servants here, there were some issues raised that offer reflections on how we manage and lead here at home.  I thought I’d share them with you, since we all know that reflection is one of the most important skills of a successful and effective senior manager.

Gender Equality

This is a significant issue in PNG as women continue to seek a shift in culture towards gender equality.  The outdated tendency to see women as inferior to men sat awkwardly as I observed a group of intelligent, articulate, successful people – men and women – who are leading significant change in the PNG public sector. There was no evidence to support inequality.  Yet it appears to remain a cultural assumption, for some. 

On my return to Canberra, I am reminded of where this issue sits in our public sector.  Culturally we are in a very different place to PNG.  So where pockets of inequality exist, why is this so?  What are the assumptions that influence our attitudes towards men and women?  What discussions are our public sector leaders having at home and at work, to influence this?  More importantly, what discussion are you having and how are you influencing attitudes towards equality?

Judging Others Unfairly

For the group I worked with last week, the concept of self-awareness was quite new.  Understanding self and others and respecting difference generated discussion showing unexpected insights.  People were hungry for more information to build their knowledge of difference and more sophisticated team management skills. It was a significant moment for many when they realised they judged those who operate differently harshly and unfairly.

Back home I know that we are pretty good at accepting difference.  Any management development program worth attending has content aimed at enhancing self-awareness and improving interpersonal skills.  We know the theory well.  How are we going at doing it?  That’s the big question.  When a concept is new, passion can be fuelled by novelty.  How are you fuelling your passion for actively respecting difference?

Managing at home as well as at work

I found it fascinating to hear how senior managers in PNG described themselves at home and at work and how significant the differences were. There appeared a mindset that one’s behaviour at work and at home did not overlap.  Discussing effective behaviours that are appropriate at both home and work, in both our cultures, was another significant insight for these Papua New Guineans. Most were keen to make positive shifts on the home front.

We might work harder on ourselves and our behaviours at work than we do at home.  New insights can trigger new challenges, but if we’ve heard the messages before we can lose the momentum.  Self-management rules can be helpful. Your reflection: what are you doing to manage your relationships at home?

Being Mindful of Cultural Influences

In Papua New Guinea, the cultural influences are as strong as they are clear.  They are diverse too, the blending of cultures in Port Moresby is well known as a contributor to social problems.  In the workplace they make interpersonal skills even more complex.  And yet, the senior public servants I worked with last week saw through the myriad of cultures they deal with and rose above them to ensure that they adopted positive behaviours.  They were aware of different cultures and the many influences and how to work with or around these every day.

Are we doing the same?  Most of us know that there are some cultural challenges that we could manage better.  Are we aware of them? Do we accept them as problematic? Are we brave enough to override them with more effective and sophisticated behaviours?  Or do we use them as an excuse to maintain old habits?  The cultural tendency I’m thinking of?  The ‘tall poppy’ syndrome.  Not one of our most inspiring tendencies.

In my position as a management consultant, I work with hundreds of people every year in Australia and overseas.  I am reminded every day, to reflect on my own behaviours.  I’ve learnt to observe, question and seek new perspectives and I am grateful for what this has taught me. Last week, my work in Papua New Guinea gave me the opportunity to so do this once again. 

Sharing these reflections and encouraging you to reflect yourself, is my way of bringing this experience back home.  Don’t be too quick to dismiss the reflections I offer. They may not be mind-blowing on the surface, but the depth of thought they can generate and the commitment to improved management and human relations can be.