The Conversation is Not as Hard as You Think

A Reflection on why something that should be easy isn’t


There are few public sector senior leaders for whom I have developed great respect over the years I have worked in government agencies – Commonwealth and NSW. I was fortunate that in my last department I needed two hands to count them.

One thing that distinguishes them all is what I call compassionate clarity. They have no tolerance for unkindness. They are not criticisers or punishers in response to conduct they consider unbecoming of a staff member, especially a leader. They act swiftly and firmly, and with clarity to address the matter. They do it in a kind way too.

Here’s a quote from a recent email from one such senior leader:

We have come some of the way, in terms of achieving a culture where reasonable adjustment is no big deal, but there are still a lot of gaps. It is the manager’s job to ask the questions about adjustment. It shouldn’t always be up to the employee with disability or illness … and as I have said 1000 times, the conversation is not as hard as people think, once the manager has the courage/decency get it started.

So, What’s The Problem?

Why is it that some managers can’t find “the courage/decency” to talk to staff member with disability?

Sometimes it is no more complex than the fact that they do not know what to say, or how to say it. This is because they have had zero exposure to disability – at an intimate level.

It can be daunting to start from a position of utter ignorance. And often the person with disability is no help either. They may have no confidence they will be heard, understood, or treated well. So, even with 2 people with the best of intentions there can still be a struggle.

What is also true is that some managers are incurious and lack the interpersonal skills and feeling to act in a compassionate and respectful manner. They are great on the task stuff, but lousy on the human stuff. I have met many over the years.

They are not unpleasant people. They are not uncaring. They just don’t do empathy outside their personal intimate circles of family and friends. However, while what they do on a personal level is fine, as a manager/leader in a contemporary public sector agency or major business empathy is pretty much a job requirement.

They should know that, and they should be self-motivated enough to adapt. Hence it is fair to say that what they need is “the courage/decency” to act. It’s part of their job. It’s not the optional extra many think it is.

How to Help

One thing that became evident to me over the past 5 years was that the leaders I admired were selected, supervised, or influenced by leaders I admired. Now and then they seemed to be in isolation, but mostly not. There was often a culture of quality leadership.

But even in that culture the incurious and unempathic leader could exist and survive. It’s not hard to make the right sounds and appear to be curious and empathic.

Quality leaders are self-examining, self-aware individuals who model those attributes. These are noticed and emulated by others who aspire to be quality leaders. And this is where things start to break down. They are noticed and mimicked, but not adopted, by those who do not aspire – and this is either not noticed or not considered to be a problem.

The uncurious and unempathic are not challenged sufficiently to motivate them to act. And this is a serious problem.

Demands on managers have changed over recent decades as staff are acknowledged to have entitlements to safety and wellbeing under legal and policy force. But the insights and skills needed to respond to these new obligations have not been emphasised to the same degree. Rather they are still considered to be second to operational requirements – and hence optional and non-critical.

A brief historical perspective is necessary here. At the beginning of the industrial age workers were considered disposable fragile components of a process. If they wore out or broke, they were replaced. 

The industrial scale conflict of World War 1 frequently involved committing thousands of troops in a single action with little care for the number killed. They were disposable. It is claimed that in the 4 years and 3 months or so of WW1 9 million troops died – 6,000 a day.

The idea that staff are disposable has been changing slowly over the past century. Now we have reached the point where staff are valued for their humanity, and not solely their utility. The commitment to disability employment is a powerful expression of this new value.

In the language of popular economic thought, we are in a service and knowledge economy. Bu our technology has not yet advanced to the stage where AI and robotics can take over the roles played by humans.

In the public sector, human employees are the critical tools, without which the services necessary to our collective wellbeing could not be delivered. There’s a clue in the new language being used. We are moving from ‘workforce’ to ‘human capital’.

In days gone by a manager would have been sacked if the plant and machinery they were responsible for broke down or had to be replaced for lack of maintenance and repair. If workers were injured or killed that was less important.

Now the staff are vital components – the ‘tools’ of a knowledge and service system. It will be this way until AI and robots evolve way more.

I am labouring this point because it seems to be poorly understood. Agencies are understanding that looking after staff wellbeing and welfare is critical. The obligations are as much about preserving the ‘talent’ acquired through recruitment as they are moral. We can assume that using the term ‘talent’ is just another instance of the HR industry’s inflation of its importance – or we can assume it is a genuine case of seeking talented people with the knowledge and skills needed. And they must be cared for when they are found and hired.

Essentially, these days, if you are not a ‘people person’ you shouldn’t be in management/leadership roles. But we know there are people who are not ‘people people’in these roles.

We need to help them become people people – or find something else to do. If we can do this, we can help them, and the staff they can’t help.

What Next?

This is the hard bit. In a perfect and theoretical world, the management and leadership hierarchy would be actively engaging in upgrading skills that generate greater self-awareness and empathy; encouraging managers and executives to devote some of their own time to self-directed professional development; and identifying current non-people people in management and leadership roles for priority support to make them progressively less and less dangerous to the staff for whose welfare they have responsibility.

In the real world that’s not likely to happen any time soon without a concerted effort. It’s not that the problem isn’t known, rather that it’s not known sufficiently widely.

For example, in NSW, the Public Service Commission created the Age of Inclusion Campaign in 2020 aimed at promoting disability employment. And yet the biggest problem impacting retention of staff with disability (incurious and unempathic managers) – and what to do about it – was not mentioned at all. It was if the problem did not exist to the people who conceived, designed, and approved the campaign. This is not going to get the state to its laudable goal of having a “world class public service” any time soon

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