There has been a big push from successive governments to try to modernise the public sector. As much as this relates to the structure, and indeed the measurement of the public sector, attention has been increasingly placed on changing the ‘type’ of person employed by our public services.

From increasing innovation and creativity, to improving customer relations and service, there’s been a focus on learning lessons from other sectors. Equally, it must not be forgotten that the public sector has a lot to offer other sectors or industries.

In a new research study, Made to Measure, Psychological Consultancy Ltd (PCL) wanted to identify whether the stereotypical views that we have of public and private sector employees reflect the reality of the competencies and personalities of the individuals employed. Data was collected from 4,200 public and private sector workers through the psychometric test Profile:Match2.

Our stereotypical view is that public sector workers are less enterprising, less creative, more security conscious and perhaps more soft-hearted than the private sector. Some of these opinions are based on previous research.

For example, we previously published research (Trickey & Hyde, 2009) that showed public sector employees as more likely to consider the opinions of others, and avoid ‘rocking the boat’.

Additional findings also suggest that public sector employees are likely to be motivated by a strong desire to serve public interest (eg Boyne, 2002; Perry, 2000; Perry & Wise, 1990).

Individuals working in the private sector, in contrast, are typified as having more original ideas and an innovative approach to problem solving. They have also been found to be better able to cope with change and ambiguity (Bourantas & Papalexandris, 1999).

PCL’s new research wanted to extend this debate by contrasting the competency scores of public and private sector employees, to find out if they conform to the norm of our stereotypical views.

The results suggest that there are indeed clear differences in the skills and personality traits between the public and private sectors.


Public sector employees

Our research with 854 public sector employees shows that they have higher scores on interpersonal skills, developing others, planning and organising, resilience, results orientation and team orientation.

They place importance on building rapport and maintaining relationships, and are likely to enjoy collaborating with others on the work that they do. They will be considerate of others, probably listening to their opinions and tackling problems as a group.

As found by previous researchers, in the main public sector employees will be concerned about quality of service delivery. They should work in an organised and systematic manner, taking care that work is completed to a high standard and managing projects well in order to achieve results.

One aspect of the research that was contrary to other findings was that public sector employees are more likely to bounce back after setbacks and take an optimistic approach to their work.

However, we must exercise a bit of caution with this finding, as the private sector sample was much larger in comparison and our public sector sample covered a limited range of occupations


Private sector

Our research analysed 3,239 psychometric assessment tests from private sector employees. The private sector has significantly more individuals with high scores on creativity, problem-solving, f lexibility and information management.

These results suggest that those in the private sector prefer variety in their work and should be open to new opportunities and change. They are also more likely than public sector employees to have innovative ideas, find solutions to problems and look towards the bigger picture.


Valuing the differences

While we will look at the differences above, we need to be wary of trying to force employees into a singular mould.

We know that if people are in roles that utilise their strengths to the full, they will perform better.

Just as a made-to-measure suit feels ‘just right’, high performance comes from those whose natural talents are a comfortable fit with their roles, as opposed to struggling with demands and expectations they are unsuited for.

If an individual’s skills are not best deployed in their current role it is likely that they will experience a sense of frustration and disengagement, constantly trying to reshape either themselves or their role so that it becomes a better match for their skills and personality.

The danger of stereotyping individuals is that they present a fixed but oversimplified idea about people.

If an individual doesn’t fit this rigid mould, they will be out of step with their colleagues and peers and , depending on the culture of their organisation, this could be seen as an advantage and a benefit to be seized upon, or as an annoyance and a reason to feel isolated.

We have seen this when private sector employees switch careers into the public sector. They bring with them their creativity and problem solving capabilities. But often, their best intentions can be fruitless as they struggle to make sense of the world around them.

They have a stark choice – to change and adapt themselves, or to try and change a system. And that’s a big ask for an individual.

To end on an analogy, and this works either way in the public and private sectors, moving someone into a new role or system whose personality and skills are so different from those around them, is akin to a foreign body in the blood stream.

To protect itself, the body – or in this case the organisation or system – marshalls its defences and deploys anti-bodies to neutralise and destroy the invader.

If we are to truly bring the learning from one sector to another, surely we first need to identify how to make our organisations hospitable to individuals who might be considered ‘beyond the norm’.

Public private sectors