Leadership and Disability

PLEASE NOTE: This is a long piece – 15 pages


The welfare of staff with disability rests in large degree on the immediate line manager, and their supervising executive. These are the people who have the power to facilitate workplace adjustments or address acts of discrimination or exclusion. They are also the people who have the responsibility and power to influence organisational procedures and policies, where they fail to address the needs of staff with disability.

There are multiple state and federal acts that impose upon an agency and its leaders the duty to act to ensure that staff with disability are not subjected to discrimination or abuse. Aside from them there are fundamental obligations arising from the simple proposition of compassion and respect for human dignity.

So why do staff with disability continue to report they are subject to behaviour by their immediate line managers that can only be called cruel and injurious? This is not widespread; but that’s not the point. That it is happening at all is the point. It means that some managers think their conduct is okay and their managers do not have a problem with it. When this happens, the manager and their manager often develop a narrative that centres blame on the staff member with disability.

I know about this because I spent 3 years and 4 months as Chair of a Disability Employee Network in a substantial NSW public sector agency. I advocated on behalf of members who were the victims of repeated acts of bullying that expressed as either overtly cruel acts or subtle continuing efforts to corrode their confidence and maybe force resignation. I have retained connections with those people, and we have ongoing conversations about what they experience. Some of it is great news. Not always, however.

The Need to Acknowledge What is Going On

The challenge I put to an agency is for it to acknowledge what level of abuse of power and dereliction of duty it demonstrably tolerates. While it may sincerely espouse a zero tolerance, the agency should ask itself “What do we actually tolerate?” and “How urgently do we need to eliminate abuse of power and dereliction of duty?”

I have no interest in assigning blame here. But I am committed to accountability in these ways:

  • Ensuring those responsible for causing harm are aware of the consequences of their action (or inaction), and that they are assisted to develop the insight and skills to perform their roles in an appropriate manner. This means no more than ensuring that mangers meet the capabilities of the role, and the agency’s conduct standards.
  • Understanding that there are some people in management/leadership roles who lack the emotional intelligence to meet the capabilities of the manger role. They may possess outstanding operational attributes, but they are not, and cannot become, people leaders. They should respectfully re-assigned to roles that do not require critical ‘people skills’.
  • Supporting an agency’s senior leadership to understand it must have a psychologically informed and mature ability to evaluate executive leaders’ capacity to support subordinate leaders in implementing a zero tolerance of abuse culture. 
  • The creation of a capacity within the agency to hear a staff member with disability who is unable to get the response and support they are entitled to. That capacity must include: 
    • a means of addressing the staff member’s needs promptly;
    • a way of ensuring that the managers who have failed to act appropriately are made aware of their failure and are provided with the means and imperative to address the reasons for that failure. This could involve setting up an ongoing mentoring relationship and periodic monitoring.

This document distils over ten essays on this theme into one comprehensive discussion. Its focus is on the NSW public sector; because this is what I know intimately. The principles will be applicable to any agency.

Internationally it is acknowledged that the issues and conduct described here are significantly more prevalent in public agencies than private sector organisations.

Management v leadership

Not all managers are good leaders and not all leaders are good managers. They are two distinct skill sets that might be usefully described as:

  • Management = operational and organisational competencies
  • Leadership = personal and interpersonal competencies that inspire others to meet goals and standards together.

The ideal is a balance of high competence in both. We use the terms interchangeably, sometimes to simply clarify role statuses – for example a team leader may be organisationally subordinate to a manager.

We do not place a premium on leadership. We are still in transition from time when command and control was the only way to do things. Evolving social and cultural values make leadership skills more and more important. In fact, workplaces with high leadership competence are more productive, stable and happier – and this is the trend.

While workplace cultures are evolving, some aspects will be more resistant to change, and may require more focused effort to stimulate movement. Getting the management/leadership balance right is one such area.

I am going to focus on the terms manager and management here because these are the terms that are formally used. Ideas about leadership are, therefore, implicit. Hence a ‘failure of management’ should be read to include a ‘failure of leadership’. The term ‘manager’ includes the role of ‘team leader’ and ‘line manager’.

The damage done

Staff with disability consistently report enduring consequences arising from their experience of being subjected to bullying. I use the term ‘bullying’ here to denote the misuse of power and actions detrimental to the welfare of the staff member persisting over time. Bullying is always an abuse of power and an abdication of responsibility. Bullying can be lateral, downward, and, now and then, upward. Here the focus is on ‘downward bullying’ – manager/executive to subordinate staff member.

A common scenario is that a workplace adjustment is sought, but the request is ignored or refused. An attempt to follow up leads to a deterioration in the relationship between the staff member with disability and their line manager. From this point several things can happen:

  • Deflection: The staff member is blamed for causing ‘a problem’ and their performance is placed under critical assessment. Workplace adjustments are sought to assist achievement or maintenance of acceptable levels of performance (at least). By expressing a need the staff member with disability has revealed a vulnerability related to their performance, and them personally. This becomes the focus, rather than the sought for adjustment.
  • Removal: They may be subjected to an insidious campaign to encourage them to leave their role – change jobs or resign. The term ‘managing out’ covers not only entirely proper processes for severing employment relations with a staff member, but intentional strategies to dive a staff member to resignation – as a euphemism.
  • Medical Retirement: Further removal efforts to have them medically retired may be initiated. Medical retirement can be the go-to solution, rather than exploring adjustments and accommodation. Medical retirement may be the most appropriate recourse, but in some workplaces, it is a feared weapon of control.

These adverse reactions accompanied by overt assurances that the management team is concerned for the staff member’s welfare and is being supported. This is called ‘gaslighting’ elsewhere and it is the most insidious form of bullying.

Commonly reported impacts on staff with disability are:

  • Ongoing physical or psychological pain and stress because their adjustment need has not been addressed – leading to reduced performance – and then, sometimes, a performance review. There is an added burden of anxiety and powerlessness.
  • Feeling they are not valued or respected – or treated with dignity or respect. This is despite repeated assertions that they are valued and supported (gaslighting?).
  • Depression and anxiety. This is especially the case where the issue persists over months, and in some cases years.
  • Emotional exhaustion accompanied by a sense of powerlessness and futility. Repeated efforts and repeated rebuffs take their toll.
  • Workers Compensation leave for psychological injury caused by the bullying – not infrequently having to return to the same abusive environment. It is not uncommon for the return-to-work process to be unsympathetic to the nature of the injury – and for the process to be stressful or retraumatising from the outset.
  • Traumatic memories and reactions associated with a workplace setting or senior staff seen as ‘perpetrators’ of abuse. In some cases it can be hard to return to team members who did nothing and were unsupportive too.
  • Having a reputation for being a ‘troublemaker’. This is a common fear because it is seen to contaminate a staff member’s reputation and impact their promotion and developmental opportunities. It is not unusual for the staff member be increasingly reputed to be incompetent, despite no objective evidence. It is a reputational slur that progressively causes injury.
  • Fear of being ‘managed out’ – and often a belief that it is happening. Reports of persistent but subtle abuse are common. They can include acts that are otherwise incomprehensibly inept or irrational – suggestive of negligence or malice. ‘Managing out’ is a tried and tested method.
  • Resignation in despair and desperation. Quitting finally becomes the best self-protective action.

The Problem with Management

Management methods have been evolving for decades as new insights into human behaviour and new values have developed. Anybody familiar with contemporary writing on management practice will have seen a decided change toward a requirement for higher levels of emotional intelligence – certainly over the past few decades. Demands for operational competence haven’t diminished, but they have been challenged for dominance by an increasing expectation of good levels of emotional intelligence.

There are two reasons for this. Better management of teams delivers better results. This means being psychologically adept in an emotionally healthy way is becoming a primary skill. The second consideration is that effective management of teams also reduces adverse conduct, absences and instances of people quitting in discontent. It is better all round to deliver effective responsive management of teams.

These reasons are big in the private sector; where they impact the bottom line. In a knowledge economy keeping people with knowledge (and knowledge of your business) make sense. Staff want to work in environments that are not toxic, and skilled staff will seek out those environments.

Public sector agencies tend not to have the same level of concern for their bottom line. This may be because it simply isn’t as measurable to the same critical degree. And neither is the idea of a ‘bottom line’ accepted by most public servants. A much softer notion of service is preferred. So even the best efforts to engender a greater level of concern for staff welfare will not have uniform impact – if values and imperatives are not shared. 

There is a profound difference between a pragmatic concern for staff welfare, and a genuine human concern – and when the two go together the product is usually honest expressions of mutual accountability.

The public sector agencies are also blighted by a reality – concerns about treatment of staff seem to be more concentrated in areas where there is direct engagement with the community – and more so where that interaction is problematic in any manner. Here advancement to manager grade has tended to lack a strong sense of professionalism and has a greater focus on operational priorities.

My theory is that the tougher the relationship between staff and community members the more this is managed among staff through negative internal dialogue – and this colours the workplace culture in a destructive way. That theory is based on over a decade in front line roles. Staff must process their experience of members of the public thought to be behaving badly, and that can lead developing negative stereotypes that do not excite a compassionate response.

‘Othering’ can be an effective strategy for managing personal reactions to ‘bad behaviour’ – and this can become a group culture as well. It is far easier to exclude than to include when confronted with radical difference. This is especially so when that difference causes offence or fear.

The term ‘othering’ is defined acting in a way that views or treats individuals or group as intrinsically different from, and alien to, oneself. It is used in war to ‘dehumanise’ the enemy and eradicate any sense of empathy. It is a natural human impulse under certain conditions – but those conditions cannot ever properly concern a professional role in relation to staff or community members.

The internal workplace dialogue reflects relationships internally and externally. Staff who mutually process negative experiences because of their engagement with members of the public are not inclined to have a different standard for engaging with in colleagues who may express radical difference. Couple this with a lack of professional management and you have a self-perpetuating and self-justifying culture driven by negative and un-empathic assessments of others – inside and outside the group. This is fertile ground for abuse to become acceptable.

The Us/Them Problem

Executives and managers can see themselves as a class apart from their ‘workers’. Executives and managers must discuss the performances of their team members, but both have an imperative to form a good relationship – and a way to form that is to see team members as ‘the other’. Sometimes this can be overt, and other times it can be subtle. It is always a risk. A manager with ambition may want to be seen as ‘management material’, and that may mean creating a distinction between them and their team, favouring a relationship with their manager. An easy way of doing that is to focus on negative perceptions of a team member or two.

I have held manager/team leader roles, and I have tended to side with my staff, because of my activist tendencies. The invitation to objectify (or other) a team member has been made often. By asking what can be done to support the team member the focus is put on managers’ performance – rather than on a dialogue of self-justification for why the team member is not okay. Blaming others can make you feel good and justified. 

The us/them problem is a natural thing. In a healthy culture it isn’t a problem to any large degree (but there is always some risk). In a toxic culture it can be very damaging to staff wellbeing and morale. It is so much more to a person who is othered by virtue of disability or some other attribute.

This division is implicit in even formal and approved language. Non-manager grades are commonly referred to as ‘staff’ or ‘workers’, with the implication that managers and executives are neither staff nor workers. This distinction may not be real for the majority of cases, but it is a crack to be opened.

A hierarchy based on power and status is not the same thing as one based on responsibility or skill. It’s a difficult thing to rethink this in this age of egalitarian living – there is no explicit social distinction between roles and grades. The language we use has not caught up.

Management is a Tough Problem

Management is hard. It is hard when people who are otherwise your equals are situationally and temporarily your organisational inferiors. It is hard when those people are also very different, largely unknown, and who may be smarter or more accomplished than you. They maybe also be people against whom you would discriminate outside of work.

Management is hard because operational demands do not stop, and your team expresses a variety of human needs. If you have KPIs to meet, and meeting them conflicts with addressing a human need – is being compassionate a KPI?

Management is hard if you have achieved a promotion because you have operational skills – and suddenly you are expected to be sensitive and caring toward the same people you could ignore only a few days ago.  And you have had no training and no support to be ‘nicer’. In your personal life your own struggle to keep an emotional even keel has made you tough, a bit angry and wary of opening up. Now you have to rise above that – or not.

Management is hard because burden of the ‘do more with less’ mantra falls on your shoulders, and you don’t have time to keep up with new policies and expectations, let alone get some professional development done. Supervision is about operational imperatives and not an opportunity for mentoring.

Management is becoming harder and harder. It is more demanding. Greater self-awareness has not only been added; it has become a dominant requirement. And where is the help?

We must change how we manage and how we make managers. Indeed, how we think about management.

Deeply Problematic Managers are Rare

The worst instances of abuse are perpetrated, or enabled, by a minority of managers and executives. This is the good news. 

The bad news is that this minority is adept at not being held to account because they know how to conceal their conduct from those who might act to address that conduct.

The us/them thinking is used to craft narratives that make a team member the ‘problem’ – but that does not lead to a transparent and well-intentioned effort to address the alleged ‘problems’. Rather, the situation is allowed (and sometimes assisted) to deteriorate to the extent that the staff member starts to behave in a way that is problematic – out of frustration and despair (victims of abuse understand this -victim blaming is common). Once branded as a problem, or ‘difficult’, their removal is then seen as a virtuous act.

Development of professional management skills is still a challenge for an agency, and this is especially so in front line services. This means that the ‘wrong kind’ of manager can still be found.

In roles with a high focus on operational competence (as with front line roles) it is the lack of more subtle and empathic interpersonal skills that is the source of problems. In roles where a higher value is placed on team management, unempathic personalities can mask their lack of empathy because they give desired and rehearsed responses. Effective psychometric testing can address this issue.

There are ample reflections on psychopaths and narcissists in the workplace. But mostly, we expect not to encounter them – and for good reason. They are few. But they can also to be people skilled at concealing their real nature. A person highly motivated to conceal will generally succeed in company with people not motivated to look more closely.

Individuals who have experienced trauma are another class of potential, but unintentional, abusers. Management can be seen as a goal to confer safety, acceptance, opportunity to redress power imbalances or bring relief to repressed pain and anger. The result is a person with not only little capacity for self-reflection, but a motive to avoid situations where self-reflection maybe be required.

There is a remarkable consistency in reporting that managers who are perceived by staff to be unself-reflective and unempathic will reliably contrive to be absent from events which promote self-reflection and empathy. Such avoidant behaviour surely reflects a psychological state that is at odds with the demands of contemporary management practice.

There are, therefore, people who become leaders who are not psychologically suited to the role in relation to their impact on team members. They may possess high operational skills, but their impact on team morale can be deleterious – and catastrophic upon people seen as weak, vulnerable or unacceptably different. Staff with disability can fall into this category of victims.

The situation is made worse when several managers/executives with shared inclinations come together. It happens rarely, but it does happen.

Such managers may or may not be prepared to address their developmental needs with enthusiasm. They may comply with requirements if they have no choice, but that does not mean that any changes will stick and be reflected in performance. The result may be that the abuse becomes more camouflaged. 

How that challenge is addressed by an agency will reflect its appetite for tolerating abusive conduct.

A Failure to Fully Understand How Much Times Have Changed

In 2019 the NSW Public Service Commission launched its Age of Inclusion campaign. To be frank, while it was well-intentioned, it was not well-designed and not well-executed.

The campaign included a Manifesto, which included the following aspirational sentiment:

Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy

Teams have the flexibility to work differently,

equipped with more training and tools than ever before

And we all show greater understanding for disability in everything we do

For this is a culture proud to ask: “what works for you?”

My immediate response was “Sure, but how are you going to get there?” The need to get there is undoubted. But the manifesto is not a magic spell – just saying it does not make it happen. Laying out a goal without a commitment to the steps to achieve it is easy to do. It lacks sincerity. 

I argue that 18 of the 20 capabilities in the NSW PSC Capability Framework 2:2020 (hyperlink at Appendix A at end of article) require the exercising of Emotional Intelligence, and yet we are not selecting for it, and we are not training in it to anywhere near the extent we must. Also, there is little evidence that once appointed to a manger role, a successful candidate is held accountable for continuing to meet the capabilities. This situation is made more problematic by the fact that very few people are into self-directed professional development – and if they were, there is no place to go to find resources best suited to meet their needs. There are courses that must be paid for, but paying for one’s own ongoing professional development is not popular. There’s no guidance to the extraordinary amount of free resources now available.

In an age of constant and rapid change, the idea that public sector managers and leaders are not supported to engage in self-directed professional development – or are required to do so – seems at odds with the goal to create a world class public service.

This puts the burden of fixing the problem on people not resourced to address it. At least this would be the case if the ‘problem’ was recognised. There are insufficient people with the skills and knowledge needed, and they have insufficient time. Further, there seems to be no coherent strategy to use the available (including fee) resources to best impact.

This is because the ‘problem’ has not been identified and the solution set as a priority. This is why abuse of staff is tolerated within an agency’s culture. The act of toleration is not intentional. It is an avoidable consequence of how things are.

Short, and Long, Term Solutions

There is a lot that can be done to get the ball rolling. Prevention is part of a long-term solution. Remediation is a short-term fix. It requires compassion, clarity and courage.

Short Term Fixes

My favoured response is to create at least one Disability Ombudsman role who:

  • has the authority to receive expressions of concern from a staff member with disability and then assure the matter is impartially resolved and
  • ensure accountability for ‘management shortfalls’ leads to an effective developmental response.

The formal complaints procedure does not recognise that a line manager has a duty to work with a team member with disability to address issues of concern, and a failure to act on that duty is a developmental issue, not a contestation that assigns blame.

The presumption is one of compassion and responsibility. A person in a power position must act to address a concern and communicate effectively. A management role is a responsibility position first and a power position second. It is a role that can resolve or exacerbate a matter causing distress or concern. The obligation of a manager is always to resolve.

A Disability Ombudsman role would monitor progress of any developmental action. Doing nothing is not an option. A symbolic developmental activity to satisfy requirements without generating actual change is not an option.

The issue of fitness to remain in a management role must always be considered; and may involve a psychometric assessment if there is evidence of particularly egregious conduct. Another option is a 360 assessment.

Re-assignment of the ‘victim’ must be considered if there are reasonable grounds to believe the relationship between the team member and the manager is not likely to be repaired – or that the abusive conduct will continue. Where re-assignment does not occur, the situation should be monitored for 12 months – monthly at least.

This approach is non-punitive. A requirement for accountability should not be problematic under any circumstances, and especially when an action has caused an injury. It is an approach that is prompt and firm. It places the onus of responsibility upon the person with the duty and the power to ensure the most appropriate outcome.

The Disability Employee Network (DEN) should also be involved to support the staff member with disability. There may be an opportunity to assist the person to reflect on their conduct; and explore alternative ways of responding to such a situation – a supportive debriefing. This does not imply any responsibility for the issue arising, but how it might be responded to in the most effective way to ensure future psychological safety.

But what if the staff member with disability had behaved badly and had exacerbated the situation? How would that excuse a line manager from prompt, compassionate and respectful response?

Long Term Solutions

Contemporary recruitment methods will reduce the risk of people with an inappropriate psychological make up entering the public sector in NSW.

Improved selection processes can reduce the risk of unsuitable applicants for manager roles being successful. There are two risks, however, that remain inadequately addressed.

The first is the bias exerted by mangers or executives who may not meet the criteria being laid out here, and who lead recruitment exercises. We tend to favour people who are like us. It is easy to assess an apparent weakness positively if the applicant shows signs of being compatible with our way of doing things. Who would hire a direct report who might challenge their conduct if it is thought inappropriate? It would be nice to say we all would. But that’s not true.

The second consideration is how the capabilities for manager roles are determined. Getting the balance of operational and leadership/people skills is important. The Capability Framework is a reason to argue that self-awareness and emotional intelligence are foundational attributes, not optional extras.

Appendix B (at end of the article) lays out an argument that focus capabilities for Manager roles should place a far higher emphasis upon personal attributes than is currently the case. This is still no assurance that deceptive responses will not be accepted. However, more astute recruitment managers with a good panel can use the focus capabilities to good effect.

There may be an argument for a specialist member on panels recruiting managers and executives. There is certainly a good argument for mandatory psychometric testing for all leadership roles – including acting roles that are more than a short-term fill in.

In essence, an agency should develop a recruitment approach for manager roles that has a protective element. A poor choice of manager can have dire consequences for a team and its members – and especially staff with disability.

Concluding Remarks

It is important to appreciate that poor performance by a manager is generally concealed, and rarely addressed unless their own manager takes exception to their conduct. This is something that may surprise some managers and executive reading this. But staff not in manager roles or above have very clear pictures of who is or is not a good manager. 

A few years ago, when I nominated to participate in substantial management training, candidates were required to participate in a 360 review. A team leader who was also a candidate received such a scathing assessment from his direct reports, he pulled out. He was also required to leave his role. It was no secret he was not well-regarded as a team leader. However, he seemed unaware, as were the business unit’s managers. But were they? And if they were, why?

Managers, who are the key figures in the psychological injury to staff with disability, are not seen by staff members who are fully aware of their conduct to be held accountable by senior management. I know of no instance of a manger being held to account – and that is a concern. Either it has not happened, or the fact that it has was kept from the victim and their supporters. The fallout of the abuse is never secret or private, even if the actions are.

If conduct is not held accountable the signal is clear – that it is okay. That is a destructive message for an agency to send. The reality of workplace bullying and its psychological abuse is not lost on team members. They witness the decline in mood of a team member. They may also witness abusive conduct itself. It has a corrosive impact on team culture. There is no point in speaking up; because the signs the conduct is condoned are clear – and who wants to risk their good standing on a lost cause? There is always the risk of being added to the ‘troublemaker list’.

Research on teams argues that engagement and high performance is determined by the team culture – and, in particular, by the quality of the leader. Good leaders generate loyalty and commitment. The harm done by psychological abuse impacts the whole team, not just the target of the abuse. Team leadership may be the most critical element in operational performance and keeping high performing staff. It is something worth investing in.

There is a pertinent saying – people don’t leave bad jobs – they leave bad bosses. Similarly research shows that loyalty is to a team, rather than an organisation. In essence the quality of management/leadership is at the heart of successful work teams – an a successful organisation.

Senior leaders have sincerely expressed concern about what has happened to a staff member with disability in their division or directorate. When an issue has been brought to their attention it has often been resolved quickly and effectively. But this is not always the case. So much depends on how much responsibility is delegated.

Delegation of responsibility is an understandable and appropriate response. You must be able to trust your leadership team. But weaknesses start from the top and are magnified as they go down the chain of responsibility. If a weak Director is not recognised as such by an Executive Director, that weak Director may be pandering to an abusive manager. What flows back up to the responsive senior leader starts off as intentional deception and ends up as inadvertent misinformation.

Somewhere in the chain of responsibility there is a failure that is perpetuated through repetition. The fallout is that people get hurt. Psychological injury is serious. If it is not effectively checked and addressed, it can contaminate an individual’s life for many years and injure their ability to work, and their relationships. Its impact on the agency’s culture is no less toxic.

A work environment which allows psychological injury and trauma to arise violates legal responsibilities and the fundamental expectations of a right to work without exposure to abuse because of one’s disability.

Appendix A


Appendix B

Selection Principles – Capabilities to suit the need

The NSW Public Sector Capability Framework provides a tool to help an agency recruit staff who possess the attributes needed to deliver the outputs, outcomes and culture required. We can use this tool to stretch our expectations of our organisation’s performance.

There are 20 foundational capabilities – 5 Capability Groups [Personal Attributes, Relationships, Results, Business Enablers and People Management] each with 4 sub-sets. Each capability has 4 levels of competence – Foundational, Intermediate, Adept, Advanced & Highly Advanced.

It is interesting to note that of the 5 groups, 3 are distinctly person-centred – Personal Attributes, Relationships and People Management.

The recruitment process provides an opportunity to identify focus capabilities, and their competency level.

A Generalist Manager 11/12 role in Strategy Policy and Commissioning identifies the following focus capability (in addition to another 8).

Personal Attributes

  • Display Resilience and Courage – Adept
  • Act with Integrity – Advanced
  • Manage Self – Adept
  • Value Diversity – Advanced

The Manager role is critical in DCJ – as a leader of work teams. Staff with disability commonly report concerns with team leaders and managers. In so doing the most common concern relates to unempathic and unsupportive conduct.

DCJ can identify focus capabilities. In this instance it has chosen Value Diversity as the focus capability from the range of capabilities under Personal Attributes.

The Value Diversity capability at Advanced level requires:

  • Encourage and include diverse perspectives in the development of policies and strategies 
  • Leverage diverse views and perspectives to develop new approaches to delivery of outcomes 
  • Build and monitor a workplace culture that values fair and inclusive practices and diversity principles 
  • Implement methods and systems to ensure that individuals can participate to their fullest ability 
  • Recognise the value of individual differences to support broader organisational strategies 

The purpose of this brief paper is to stimulate discussion about what capabilities might best serve the needs of staff with disability [and perhaps other diversity groups]. The focus will be solely on the Personal Attributes capabilities.

There are several questions:

  1. Which capability is relevant to addressing the concerns raised by staff with disability? Can a single Personal Attributes capability do the job of identifying the right person for the role?
  2. What competency level would be most desirable?

In this example of a Generalist Manager 11/12 the obvious question is whether Value Diversity at Advanced level is sufficient alone as a focus capability for the role. 

The role of Manager has been evolving for several decades – moving away from an almost exclusive focus on outputs and related processes to greater responsibility for the work-related welfare of direct reports. The Manager role is increasingly acknowledged as requiring higher levels of Emotional Intelligence than previously allowed.

This is strongly evident in the fact that 3 of the 5 capability sets are person-centred.

The NSW PSC’s Age of Inclusion campaign’s manifesto envisions that “Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy.” This is an opportunity to interrogate the Capability Framework to see what capabilities might match this aspiration.

Valuing Diversity is important. But is it sufficient, standing alone? Would including other Personal Attributes capabilities move the recruit and select process in the direction of favouring self-aware and empathic managers?

Below are two capabilities from the Personal Attributes set which could be added as focus capabilities and strengthen a requirement for greater self-awareness and empathy. Key behavioural indicators are in red.

Act with Integrity at an Advanced level:

  • Model the highest standards of ethical behaviour and reinforce them in others. 
  • Represent the organisation in an honest, ethical and professional way and set an example for others to follow.
  • Ensure that others have a working understanding of the legislation and policy framework within which they operate. 
  • Promote a culture of integrity and professionalism within the organisation and in dealings external to government. 
  • Monitor ethical practices, standards and systems and reinforce their use. 
  • Act on reported breaches of rules, policies and guidelines. 

The Manage Self capability is at Adept level in the Generalist Manager 11/12 Role Description. However, the Advanced level behaviours would be a stronger reflection of the aspiration for self-awareness and empathy.

Manage Self at an Adept level:

  • Look for and take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills and develop strengths. 
  • Show commitment to achieving challenging goals.
  • Examine and reflect on own performance. 
  • Seek and respond positively to constructive feedback and guidance. 
  • Demonstrate a high level of personal motivation. 

Manage Self at an Advanced level:

  • Act as a professional role model for colleagues, set high personal goals and take pride in their achievement.
  • Actively seek, reflect and act on feedback on own performance. 
  • Translate negative feedback into an opportunity to improve. 
  • Maintain a high level of personal motivation. 
  • Take the initiative and act in a decisive way. 


A reflection on how the role of Manager is evolving is an opportunity to revisit the type of focus capabilities in Role Descriptions to place a stronger emphasis on Personal Attributes.

No set of capabilities neatly identify the attributes of self-awareness and empathy. By placing a greater emphasis on Personal Attributes by expanding the focus capabilities, it is possible to fine tune organisational expectations of leadership roles.

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