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Emotional capacity in the public sector – an Australian review

Charmaine Belfanti (Sydney Business School, Sydney, Australia)

International Journal of Public Sector Management

ISSN: 0951-3558

Article publication date: 10 July 2017




This paper presents a review examining an Australian public sector competency framework through the lens of emotional intelligence (EQ) to answer the question “To what extent is the concept of EQ used to facilitate NSW public sector reform?” The purpose of this paper is to accentuate the importance of emotional capacity as an important capability to achieve reform goals, recognising the public sector’s deep organisational history and accepting that change is an emotional event, and that people achieve change.


A literature review drawing relationships between culture, change and emotion is applied to a capability framework for the public sector in the State of NSW. This review serves two purposes. First, it examines interacting factors that define the public sector context – a culture developed over generations, identity, the impact of culture on change and the relationship between change and emotions. The second examines a concept for its ability to transform this culture in a comparatively short time compared to its evolutionary history. Emotional capacity is framed by the EQ literature and is explored as a competency with particular focus in the NSW public sector. A ProQuest search using keywords Emotional intelligence and Public Sector or Civil Service; and Emotional intelligence and Public Administration located 22 studies across 14 countries looking at EQ in the public sector. These are supplemented by additional studies on EQ. The capability framework is examined against the elements of the only recognised standardised test for EQ (Fiori and Antonakis, 2011), the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test.


The examination concludes that emotional capacity is implicit, if not overlooked within the framework, with continued emphasis on technical and managerial competencies, evident of public sector management still encased in traditional paradigms. The discussion positions the development of emotional capacity as a high-order competency in a challenging reform environment.

Research limitations/implications

The literature review may suffer from publication bias in both the literature cited in this review as well as those studies that have been published, particularly given the small amount of studies available within the public sector environment. The theoretical nature of the matching assessment is subjective and allows potential for variation in interpretation in both the meaning of the competencies and the matching to the four branches of EQ.

Practical implications

Empirical research in EQ is limited in the public sector domain. The public sector has an embedded culture weighed with assumptions steeped in history. A public sector organisation is valuable for longitudinal studies as many employees stay for considerable years if not their whole career. Further empirical research within this sector in examining the impact of emotional capacity on cultural reform would enhance the knowledge in this field.


The paper contributes to the limited literature examining the optimal competencies in particular emotional capacity for reform in the public sector.



Belfanti, C. (2017), "Emotional capacity in the public sector – an Australian review", International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 30 No. 5, pp. 429-446.



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