A group of New Zealand researchers have examined how paradoxical leadership contributes to public administration employee resilience.

Dr Esme Franken and Dr Geoff Plimmer from the Victoria University of Wellington, and Associate Professor Sanna Malinen from the University of Canterbury, surveyed a cross section of staff at a large public organisation in New Zealand. They chose it because the organisation itself faced many paradoxes — it had a complex mix of policy, regulatory, service and development functions and was frequently engaged in demanding public controversies. In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, public sector employees are required to balance multiple and often contradictory objectives. These objectives can be viewed as paradoxes, where two opposites coexist.

Their research findings were recently published in the March 2020 issue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration.

IPAA members can access the entire back catalogue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration as part of their member benefits.

The paper referenced in this blog — Paradoxical leadership in public sector organisations: Its role in fostering employee resilience — can also be accessed free of charge by the wider public sector community until the 30 April 2020.



‘Paradoxical Leadership’ is defined as the ability to balance competing structural and relational demands over time.


Research suggests that paradoxical leadership behaviours have five facets.

  • The first facet is uniformity and individualisationYan Zhang, David A. Waldman, Yu-lan Han and Xiao-Bei Li, who undertook the Chinese study of paradoxical leadership, described this facet as one of treating followers uniformly whilst also allowing individualisation concerns that enable individuals’ strengths to shine, and at the same time fostering a structure where team members can contribute confidently without being overly competitive or individualistic.
  • The second facet is self- and other-centredness which is all about maintaining a strong sense of self, while also having and showing humility to others (described by David A. Waldman and David E. Bowen).
  • The third facet is decision control/autonomy which relates to leaders controlling subordinate behaviour and decision making while giving employees discretion to act flexibly and autonomously (described by Yan Zhang and his colleagues).
  • The fourth facet concerns striking a balance between distance and closeness. This paradox — between maintaining both status/role difference and interpersonal connections —is likely to help employees perceive their leaders as charismatic and authorised to make difficult decision (described by Boas Shamir).
  • The fifth facet is work requirements and flexibility. It concerns enforcing work requirements yet also allowing flexibility. This sets norms and standards for bounded work environments, which would help ensure fairness and help define role clarity, an antecedent of positive job attitudes and behaviours (described by Jessica Lang, Jeffrey L. Thomas, Paul D Bliese and Amy Adler).

Continue reading this article in full on the IPAA National website

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