Is paradoxical leadership the competency we need now, more than ever?

Two of the authors of the paper on paradoxical leadership: Dr Esme Franken (left) and Professor Sanna Malinen (right).

The third author of the paradoxical leadership paper, Dr Geoff Plimmer.

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.

What is paradoxical leadership?

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

What are the facets of paradoxical leadership?

Research suggests that paradoxical leadership behaviours have five facets.

  • The first facet is uniformity and individualisation. Yan 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).

What did the researchers test?

The researchers tested two hypotheses, that:

  1. Paradoxical leadership will directly and positively relate to employee resilience.
  2. The relationship between the facets of paradoxical leadership and employee resilience will be mediated by perceived organisational support. To put this another way, perceived organisational support might be the pathway through which paradoxical leaders help employees be resilient.

How did they test their TWO hypotheses?

The researchers invited 250 employees and 250 managers — from six different functional departments, selected at random by the large public organisation — to participate in an anonymous online survey. It covered job families such as administration, inspection, regulation, professional, scientist and technician which were reflective of public sector jobs.

Gender and management responsibilities were controlled for as part of the survey design.

The survey response rate was 47% (80.2% employees and 19.8% managers).

What did they find?

The first hypothesis — that paradoxical leadership will be directly and positively related to employee resilience — was largely unsupported.

Most of the facets did not relate directly to employee resilience — with the exception of the control and autonomy facet which had a significant direct relationship to resilience. This may reflect the largely controlled work environments in public services that also require autonomy and discretion for real effectiveness in uncertain environments. This facet is uniquely concerned with the activity of work and getting the job done.

The second hypothesis — that the relationship between paradoxical leadership facets and employee resilience will be mediated by perceived organisational support — was strongly supported.

The facets of uniformity and individualisation, self- and other-centredness, distance and closeness, and work requirements and flexibility were more about the psychological of social systems of public administration agencies. These worked through a more psychological mechanism or ‘perceived organisational support’, and to many staff their boss represents the organisation to them.

The researchers suggest that the facets of paradoxical leadership are primarily a means of motivation through the social exchange that comes with the feeling that the organisation is supportive. The study was not longitudinal, but this pathway is also supported by qualitative research done as part of Dr Franken’s PhD research.

Practical implications

The researchers argue that the ability to manage paradoxes is a valuable competency for organisational leaders, and a competency to include in the HR management of public sector leaders. This could include the selection and development of managers for instance, and accountability and rewards.

Key lessons

The uncertain and dynamic nature of today’s public administration environment — even more so with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic — requires resilience from employees.

Coronavirus will arguably require managers to pay particular attention to the way they manage paradoxes: to be understanding but still get work done, to be flexible but also follow rules for instance. Managers working remotely will probably have to put more effort than before into dealing with paradoxes, as unspoken cues and signals will be harder to read. Resilience of course, will be tested in this time.

The research highlights how public organisations can foster resilience in their workplaces. It also highlights the key role of public sector managers and the ways in which their actions can affect resilience, particularly through paradoxical forms of leadership that facilitate perceptions of organisational support.

Accessing the research paper

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.


Since the paper was submitted for publication, Dr Esme Franken has completed her PhD in Human Resources and Industrial Relations from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She is now a lecturer in the School of Business and Law at the Edith Cowan University in Western Australia.