Are We Asking Too Little of NSW Public Sector Managers?


This is a follow on from In Search of an Answer.

The 2021 State of the NSW Public Sector Report is a sobering reminder that staff with disability report a higher instance of bullying than any group within the workforce.

Reports for 2016, 2017, and 2018 had a separate category for staff with Mental Health Conditions who reported bullying rates around 5%age points higher. The absence of that category from 2019 suggests that the actual number, from 2019 on, may be somewhat higher than reported – given the drop to a consistent circa 24%. But this may also be an artefact of reporting. Still, the comparisons are interesting over the 6-year span.

Mental Health Cond. 37.1%35%34%n/an/an/a

The other point of interest in the 2021 report, under the heading Our Workplaces, is the following (the bold is mine):

Our workplaces should be where our people thrive. The public sector will continue to evolve our workplaces to exemplify our values and create safe, healthy and flexible places where all employees can bring their best to work and serve the people of NSW. Bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment and racism should not* be toleratedThe harmful consequences of negative workplace behaviours at the individual and organisational levels are well established, and they undermine efforts to create positive and productive workplaces. 

* Notice the language here – not must or will (imperatives), but the softer ‘should’, thus making compliance seemingly optional. See the blog post Is it Just a Matter of Language.

In this context, the source of bullying – for everyone, not just staff with disability – is of considerable interest. The observation that bullying “should not be tolerated” carries a certain irony when managers/supervisors and senior managers are reported as the singular sources of bullying. It does appear that COVID may play a role in the higher level of reported incidents in 2020 and 2021 – but that’s not excusing the behaviour.

Senior Manager23%22%21%21%27.7%25.7%

I am focusing on managers, supervisors, and senior managers only because this essay is about them, and not bullying in general.

A Review of Past State of the Sector Reports.

Below is a sample of comments in past reports (my bold):

2017 – Of the respondents who answered ‘yes’ to being subjected to bullying, 22% submitted a formal complaint. However, 60% of these employees indicated that the complaint was not resolved to their satisfaction. 39% said they took sick leave as a result of the bullying and 4% made a worker’s compensation claim

In 2014 and 2016, immediate manager/supervisors were the most frequently cited source of bullying, followed by fellow workers at the same level, then senior managers. In 2017, ‘fellow worker’ at your level was the most commonly cited source

2018 – Of those who reported bullying, 20% made a formal complaint to their agency (compared to 22% last year). Only 21% of those who formally complained felt their case had been resolved satisfactorily, and 50% indicated that it had not.

2020 – Every workplace in the sector should be positive and healthy. As the Public Service Commissioner, bullying continues to concern meBullying is not just a problem for leaders to solve – it’s a problem for everyone to solve. We need to work together to make everyone feel safe and welcome at their workplace, wherever that may be. While most of our workforce is made up of wonderful people doing amazing work, everyone is responsible for creating and maintaining positive workplace cultures with zero negative behaviours. 

A sector that is mentally healthy and building on new hybrid and fexible ways of working is best placed to support an even more diverse workforce. A diverse workforce leads to stronger business outcomes and allows us to better serve an increasingly diverse community. This then creates a cycle in which an increasingly diverse community chooses to bring its talent to the sector. Ensuring that our hiring practices are world class will help us achieve this goal.

2021 – This year, the People Matter survey expanded its focus on wellbeing by asking employees about their experiences of discrimination and racism in the workplace. As with other negative workplace behaviours, the numbers are low. However, any level of discrimination and racism is unacceptable, and we need to work together to ensure that everyone has a positive experience at work.

I want to highlight the Commissioner’s comment from 2020 – “Bullying is not just a problem for leaders to solve – it’s a problem for everyone to solve.” This is true, but when leaders are the leading source of bullying, expecting change without leaders addressing their own failings is unrealistic.

As advocates who have sought to address bullying discover, there is a remarkable lack of will among leaders to hold their peers to account, and without that level of accountability, “working together” is not going to work.

What’s the Problem With Leaders?

This is a question for sound research in organisational psychology. That’s not my field. I am going to offer my own observations about what may be part of the problem – we are not asking enough of leaders, and we are not selecting for the needed attributes.

I have been reading management and leadership texts since the mid 1980s and I have seen a steady evolution in thought. As attitudes toward staff have changed, so have the demands on managers/leaders. There was a time when manager and leader were synonymous. Indeed, the word “leader” was hardly used outside a military context. 

Since Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ was published in 1995 there has been a steady growth in awareness of the importance of leadership as a psychologically informed art – requiring leaders to be far more self-aware.

This is apparent in the titles of some of the leading books on leadership in business:

  • The Fearless OrganisationCreating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, Amy C. Edmondson, 2018. Edmondson is Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. 
  • Fearless Leadership: How to Overcome Behavioral Blindspots and Transform Your Organization, Loretta Malandro, 2009. Malandro has been a Professor at Florida State and Arizona State Universities teaching at colleges of Communications and Law
  • Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, Brene Brown, 2018. Brown has PhD in Social Work
  • Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence, 2015.

The themes of fearlessness and daring, combined with a greater emphasis on emotional intelligence signal a very different approach to leading organisations and their staffs.

The Value of the Capability Framework, and What It Tells Us

I have written about this elsewhere (In Search of an Answer), and I want to revisit it because its limited application to mostly the recruitment phase of acquiring talent tells us something of what is valued in the newly acquired talent – and what is not.

It is evident, for anybody keeping abreast of trends in leadership in the private sector, that contemporary standards for leadership are far higher than they used to be. This trend has been tracking for quite some time – several decades.

The NSW Capability Framework reflects this trend. The PSC website says:

The Capability Framework was introduced in 2013. It was updated in 2020 to reflect changes in public sector work and service delivery models, and to improve the capability descriptors and behavioural indicators based on agency feedback. 

The website also says: Behavioural indicators illustrate the degree of knowledge, skill and ability required for effective performance at each level. These indicators are not an exhaustive list, nor is every indicator necessarily relevant to every role.

As we can see from any Position Description, the behavioural indicators are determined for roles and identified as Focus Capabilities.

The PSC guide – Role Description Development Guidelines (a downloadable PDF) has some illuminating remarks in advising how a Position Description is developed (I have bolded the most pertinent bits):

The following principles apply to determining focus capabilities for a role: 

  1. A minimum of three and a maximum of 10 focus capabilities should apply to a roleIf the role contains people management capabilities, a minimum of four focus capabilities should apply
  2. At least one focus capability from each of the personal attributes, relationships and results capability groups should be included 
  3. Focus capabilities may be selected from the business enablers group, but this is not a requirement 
  4. Where a role manages people, at least one focus capability should be included from the people management group
  5. More than one focus capability can be selected from each group 
  6. Occupation-specific capabilities can be selected as focus capabilities and are included as part of the total number of focus capabilities for a role 
  7. The focus capability from each capability group does not need to be the capability at the highest level. 

It is evident that there is an opportunity to select multiple capabilities from the personal attributes set. It is also stated that a people management role need not have more than one personal attribute capability – and only one from the people management group as well.

I find the last item particularly disappointing. While no doubt rationally true, it also infers no capability has to be at the highest, or, at a high level. Who assesses how many personal attribute capabilities per role and at what level? This is an important question.

Who Decides?

I have been around the public sector a long time – 4 Commonwealth and 4 NSW departments. Plus, I have worked for/with 2 NGOs and one local government. I have also monitored, or contract managed, over 160 businesses, local governments, and NGOs. I have engaged with a lot of managers over the years. Two things are lacking in the overwhelming majority – knowledge of, or training in, contemporary management methodology and a working knowledge of human psychology.

So, it is a fair bet that the people who decide how many personal attributes, and at what level, are suited to people management roles are in that overwhelming majority – and that they are making guesses (albeit well-intentioned) based on their personal opinions and philosophy, and maybe some level of training. It would be fair to argue that this is hardly a professional approach.

There is a disappointing lack of guidance in the PSC material on the use of the Capability Framework as a tool for stretching expectations to get the best out of new talent and existing staff. What is available is very rational, but it gives permission for anyone using the guides to select the least demanding options.

Generally speaking, we are not a strongly self-reflective bunch. Neither are we highly motivated to respond to the increasingly forlorn aspirations to a ‘life-long learning’ culture. Some readers will quickly note they haven’t heard that term uttered by the Learning and Development community for a very long time.

As a consequence, it does seem as though the people setting the demands on people leaders are reflecting that lack of enthusiasm for stretching themselves. Quite apart from this doing no service to the aspiration for a ‘world-class public service’ in NSW, it also means there is a risk of recruiting leaders with little motive to uphold the sector’s claimed aversion to bullying. The PSC’s Behaving Ethically Guide boldly asserts: “Bullying is not tolerated in NSW government sector workplaces.” This is plainly not true. It is tolerated, but it should not be.

If the sector is not recruiting leaders with the personal attributes and people management skills to do their jobs at the required standard and uphold the required behavioural and ethical standards, it can’t claim to be aspiring to a ‘world-class’ standard – unless it has discerned there is a global low bar to get over. That may in fact be the case. I have read nothing on comparisons of public sectors. That would be an interesting line of inquiry.

The simple reality seems to be that staff with disability can’t be assured of a better future by the anticipation of new leaders with enhanced skills and personal attributes that render them more apt not to bully, or to counter those who do.

The Importance of Personal Attributes

I have elsewhere observed that most of the 20 capabilities require emotional intelligence. In addition, contemporary workplaces place a higher value on supporting individual staff members and teams. In essence, contemporary management plus leadership demands much more of the person – a higher level of emotional maturity and a capacity for self-awareness and self-reflection not previously valued amongst the manager class.

These same attributes are expected of staff not in leadership roles too. It’s a reflection of how things have changed in the workplace – and how we have changed as individuals. We demand a higher level of autonomy and respect – as befits our sense of personal agency and dignity. These days people in leadership role simply have to be able to demonstrate an ability to work with subordinate staff who may be more experienced, higher skilled at specific tasks, and better educated than they are.

In reviewing the personal attributes below, it is difficult to imagine what you’d safely leave out as attributes you’d not want in people leader.

Display Resilience and Courage: Be open and honest, prepared to express your views, and willing to accept and commit to change

Act with IntegrityBe ethical and professional, and adhere to the Public Sector Values 

Manage Self:  Show drive and motivation, a measured approach and a commitment to learning

Value DiversityShow respect for diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives 

And why not at the highest, or 2nd highest, level? People in the NSW public sector in leadership roles are very well paid. It is reasonable to expect that they possess skills and personal attributes commensurate with their pay. And yet what we see are position descriptions that seem light on in key areas of personal attributes – and hence character.

The PSC does not help in its guidelines for developing position descriptions. I found the statement that “Where a role manages people, at least one focus capability should be included from the people management group” concerning.

Again, we have the problem of what to leave out in such a role, for if we pick only one, we must consciously exclude 3 of the following.

Manage and Develop PeopleEngage and motivate staff and develop capability and potential in others

Inspire Direction and Purpose: Communicate goals, priorities and vision and recognise achievements

Optimise Business OutcomesManage resources effectively and apply sound workforce planning principles 

Manage Reform and ChangeSupport, promote and champion change, and assist others to engage with change

It is apparent that the PSC has not valued management or people leadership as a skill and attribute set apart from other ‘operational’ capabilities. In effect, this means that the quality of the person has to compete with what are otherwise considered functional skills.

This isn’t working. The sustained incidence of bullying – and staff with disability being disproportionately the most vulnerable – makes this clear.


Requirements for contemporary management are inseparable from leadership requirements, but, historically, management and leadership have been separate, and distinct, functions that are often fused disastrously. Being a ‘leader’ has been very different from being a ‘manager’. The transition to an integrated management/leadership role is incomplete. Otherwise, we’d see equal weight applied to personal and functional capabilities.

If the ethical standards of the NSW public sector are to be met, quite apart from any other operational requirement, people in leadership roles must demonstrate the personal attributes and the people management skills fit for purpose. I do note that the capability is Manage and Develop People. The word ‘lead’ is absent. Of course, developing people is important – but how do we make, and value, the distinction between managing and leading? How do we develop a mature hybrid conception? It is evident that what is required in a contemporary world-class public sector is very different from what was considered good in the past. Should the capability be re-named as Lead and Develop People?

What makes an effective leader who can deliver on the ethical and operational demands of a role? That’s an unasked question. And yet it should seem to be a crucial one.

Answering it may go a long way to telling us why current managers/leaders seem unable or unwilling to address the problem of bullying that persists, despite fine words and good ink assuring us that it “is not tolerated”.

Maybe aspirants to manager/leader roles could prequalify against more demanding leadership criteria that are assessed independently of the operational capabilities of a role? At present I am not sure what solution is – I am sure only that one is needed sometime very soon.

There’s a lot of ‘we must try harder and do better” sentiment rolled out annually, almost ritualistically, while admitting nothing has changed in the past 12 months. Change must be intentional, purposive, managed and accountably assessed. Where is that happening? Who is driving it? Who is holding the sector to account – for tolerating what it says it will not countenance – and for not doing what it says it must do?

Reflections on the 2021 NSW PSC State of the NSW Public Sector Report


Each year the NSW Public Service Commission produces a report on the state of the NSW public sector, drawn from the annual People Matter Employee Survey (PMES).

Sad to say, each year there is scant progress for staff with disability in recruitment and retention.

Overall Recruitment and Retention Levels for Staff with Disability

The NSW Premier’s Priority target for employment of staff with disability is 5.6% by 2025.

Here’s a quote from the 2020 report:

People with disability also remain under-represented in the workforce, at only 2.4% representation in 2020 (a slight reduction from 2.5% in 2019). Based on the latest projections, we are still likely to fall short of our goal of 5.6% employment of people with disability by 2025. However, it is worth noting that when given the opportunity to report their disability status anonymously, such as through the People Matter survey, the sector produces a higher rate of disability representation (4.3% in 2020). 

Much remains to be done to attract, reward and retain people with disability, and to make them feel they can safely identify as a person with disability. The latest People Matter survey data reveals that people with disability report lower levels of engagement compared to the sector (63.8% versus 67.5%). 

And here’s a quote from the 2021 report:

There was a slight increase to 2.5% in the number of people recording in our human resources (HR) systems who say they have a disability, turning around a downward trend over the past few years. There was also an increase to 4.6% in the number of people disclosing a disability through the People Matter survey. The sector is working to develop initiatives that will encourage individuals to share their disability at work. These increases are encouraging, but a large amount of work is needed to reach the Premier’s Priority target of 5.6% of the workforce identifying as having a disability by 2025. 

While there is apparent improvement in the reported number of staff with disability, we need not to be overly enthusiastic about this, because this is an averaged number. The 2021 PMES reported high levels of staff with disability in small agencies (Legal Aid reported 10% for instance) and low numbers of staff with disability in larger agencies (2% in Fire and Rescue and 3% in Treasury for example).

What must be avoided is grasping at the average score as sufficient to fulfil the target – rather than 5.6% for each agency. I do admit, however, that even an average of 5.6% would be a vast improvement. But let’s not forget that this may be because smaller agencies are doing all the heavy lifting and the larger agencies are riding on their success. A shared target will eventually address issues raised below – if there is commitment to attaining it.

Whatever level of representation of staff with disability is asserted at any given time, it will be a blend of 3 primary factors:

  1. The creation of workplace cultures in which staff with disability are able to confidently seek adjustments and accommodations as needed – and hence say they have a disability without fear of discrimination.
  2. Recruitment processes that are not biased against applicants with disability.
  3. The rate of exit of staff with disability from the sector.

Progress is being made on the first 2 fronts, but not in any manner that indicates a determined and focused approach. By that I mean progress is haphazard and lacks any sense of urgency. As the 2021 reports says, there is “a large amount of work” to be done.

Let’s go back to a quote from the 2020 report:

Much remains to be done to attract, reward and retain people with disability, and to make them feel they can safely identify as a person with disability. The latest People Matter survey data reveals that people with disability report lower levels of engagement compared to the sector (63.8% versus 67.5%).

So “much remains to be done” to make a staff member feel they can “safely identify as a person with disability.” We still need to use language like that? 

The fact that we do should be alarming. What is the ‘much that remains to be done’, and why is it still in want of being done?

Bullying is a Major Concern

This is from the 2020 report:

Worryingly, 24.2% of people with disability reported being bullied at work in the previous 12 months, almost double the rate of bullying experienced by NSW public sector employees overall (13.9%). The situation was even worse for people with disability working in regional areas, with 28.0% reporting being bullied at work. Although this represents a minor improvement from 2019, the higher rates of bullying for those with disability continue to be an area of concern. The harmful consequences of bullying at both the individual and organisational level are well established and undermine our efforts to create a positive workplace culture.

The situation has deteriorated in the 2021 report, which is not so forthright. The report uses a graphic, which takes away precision, but the number is marginally worse across the board. The best we can say is that there no improvement at all. I don’t want to split percentage point hairs. But I do want to ask what was the response to the 2020 report’s “much remains to be done” such that there has been no meaningful improvement in the figures between 2019 and 2021.

When we are talking nearly a quarter of staff with disability reporting that they have been bullied we must see this figure as alarming, especially in the fact that there has been no improvement.

Allied to this is the persistently low level of satisfaction in how complaints are addressed and resolved. In 2021 that’s still at only 46%, one up from 2020. In fact, let’s look more closely at the 2021 PMES results. There are, for the sector as a whole, 3 sub 50% scores. For staff with disability, there is a link between all 3. As well as Grievance Handling, there are Employment/Recruitment (48%) and Action on Survey Results (47%). To be blunt, there is inequity at recruitment, a failure of grievance processes and no meaningful action taken to address the discrimination revealed in the PMES.

I read the PMES results carefully, and I try to make allowances for the fact that a survey is not reality, and some instances of bullying can be misperceived, and a case of over-reaction. But even the most generous interpretations cannot mask the depth of the problem. Those qualifications must be applied across the spectrum of reports – and staff with disability still come out far worse off than others. FYI, around 20% of Aboriginal staff report bullying, and they are the next worse off group. 

When you have figures that high you can be assured that there will be truly egregious instances of bullying that cannot be anything less than serious abuse. Here I am talking about conduct that so bad the perpetrators should be subjected to severe sanctions – if complaints were taken seriously and processed competently – and the misconduct of the bullies acted upon.

The Persistent Problems

The fact that data seem to be consistent over multiple years should tell us something important. If around 25% of staff with disability consistently report being bullied, and around 46% of staff report grievances are not handled well, there’s a pretty good chance that a substantial number of staff with disability who report being bullied are unable to find resolution through a complaints handling process. 

Why is that? Who is not seeing this as a problem? If executive leaders across the sector are wondering why the confidence on action being taken on the PMES survey is so low here’s one reason why. There are quite a few things that have been improved as a result of the PMES. But you don’t get brownie points for picking the low hanging fruit while leaving the high level of discriminatory and abusive conduct unchecked. 

In a way this is a form of additional discrimination. Despite the high levels of bullying reported, and the deep discontent with the grievance process other areas of improvement are given priority. This is despite the harm acknowledged at all levels – to victims, and the organisation.

Retention Rates May Even Disguise the Problem

Retention rates for staff with disability continue to remain low for a number of reasons. Instances of disability increase with age and with retirement a disability stat can be lost. Staff aged 55+ make up 18% of the sector’s workforce. That’s around 3,600 people with disability if the rate is 5%. I don’t know the aged-based disability stats for the sector. With the so—called COVID induced ‘great resignation’ there could be an even higher level of staff with disability retiring in the coming year.

When around 25% of staff with disability report bullying you can be assured that this is also a reason for leaving – because of psychological exhaustion or illness. As noted earlier that high volume of bullying will include particularly egregious cases that leave victims emotionally drained, injured and at higher risk of stress-related physical disorders. Resignation may be a necessary option. But, worse than this is the reality that many can’t afford to quit. Some must endure bullying and abuse for financial reasons.

I don’t have figures to back up this observation – just the stories I have been told directly and reported to me. How many is okay? I don’t think anybody should be in that situation.

This is an area for more focused research – if there is an appetite for that level of curiosity.


I appreciate the fact that these annual state of the sector reports are provided, and are available to stimulate conversation. But they are poorly used as a tool, in my view. Data that should cause alarm doesn’t seem to do that. I use the term ‘alarm’ intentionally, because we should be alarmed that staff with disability are experiencing the highest level of bullying of any group in the sector.

I have no doubt of the general good intent across the sector. I do believe sector leaders want to make their workplaces better and safer for staff with disability. Regular readers will know that I am constantly pushing the theme of apparent inaction and a seeming appetite for abusive conduct.

The report, I believe, vindicates my position. Bullying can be stopped by an effective process of accountability and a commitment to implementing it. It’s not a mystery – and neither, sadly, is why it doesn’t happen.

Time for action.

Here’s a quote from an article in the online Coast Community News from local state MP, Liesl Tesch, posted on 24 January 2022. Tesch is a wheelchair user.

“Every year I make submissions to Parliament’s Disability Inclusion Plan. 

This year I was asked for my input, but I found myself writing the same suggestions that I have been making for four years- with little confidence that the fundamental changes we desperately need will be taken seriously and acted upon.”

It’s nice to know the NSW Parliament has a Disability Inclusion Plan. It’s a pity that it seems not to be a model for the state – in terms of commitment to clear and decisive action. Its certainly not modelling behaviour for the sector – and this may be part of the problem. 

A Systems Approach to Disability Inclusion


I have been having a refresh on systems thinking. I did a unit on Chaos and Complexity theories over 20 years ago, and that profoundly influenced how I thought about making things happen.

In some of my drafts for the blog I have been writing about why progress on Disability Inclusion is as slow as it is. Can it go faster and end the distress that staff with disability still report, midst a general spirit of good will, and genuine willingness to change?

The Joke

I have translated my learning on Chaos and Complexity as ‘strategic’ thinking, but I have realised that maybe that’s not as helpful as it could be. I want to paraphrase a story I encountered ages ago. Like any apocryphal story, the details don’t matter, so long as they honour the ‘moral’. It goes like this:

A business was experiencing a persistent problem in its headquarters. Periodically a long high-pitched sound would permeate the building, driving staff to distraction. The source of the sound was eventually tracked down – pipes in the plumbing system. High-end plumbing companies and engineering firms could not solve the problem.

A staff member spoke up about his uncle, an old plumber with a legendary reputation. He had retired. In desperation the company agreed he could visit. It held out no hope this now very old man could fix the problem, but it needed to keep staff in a good mood.

So, on a Monday morning the old plumber turns up, listens to the story of the awful noise, and what remedies have been tried. He asks questions that seem obscure and nonsensical. The company is exasperated. He is an old fool who has lost his marbles. But out of civility it accedes to his request to inspect the basement.

In the basement the sound fills the air. The old plumber walks around muttering to himself as he examines the exposed pipes. Finally, he stops, lets out an exclamation, drops the bag he has been carrying, takes out a small heavy hammer, and delivers a mighty blow to a section of pipe. The awful sound stops instantly; and does not return.

Two weeks later the company gets a bill for $5,300. That’s outrageous! The old guy was there for only 2 hours! Though grateful the sound has gone, the accounts manager approached the staff member who is the old plumber’s nephew and asked him to call for an explanation for the high charge.

The old plumber laughs when his nephew calls and says: “That’s a $300 call out fee, and $5,000 for knowing where to use my hammer.”

This is a systems joke, but that ‘old plumber’ became my hero. One of the ideas from the Chaos and Complexity unit that has stayed with me, because of its indelible simplicity, was ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’. How you set something up determines how it will develop. It’s the reverse of the old plumber story. But in either case the moral is the same – and this has been epitomised in the so called ‘butterfly effect’ – a small act, in the right context, can have a system-wide impact.

Is it Possible to Think Like an Old Plumber?

That kind of insight does not come without a lot of experience – and a well-developed feel for systems. So, it’s an aspiration. We can get there if we put in the work needed.

After talking to a senior executive a few weeks back, I followed up on their mention of the fact that they had studied organisational psychology by checking available audiobooks. I hadn’t read a book on that subject for decades, so I was disappointed that there were none available on audible – at least specifically with the words organisational psychology in the title. I checked on Amazon for available titles on that theme and was happy to see that I had already listened to two of the listed books – The Fearless Organisation and How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. I also discovered Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. I bought that as an audiobook; and listened to it. 


Aside from that, there were books with prices pitched at academic libraries. It does seem that since I first read on organisational psychology the field has evolved into myriad specialities. Getting a useful overview that acts as a primer seems far harder to find. On YouTube there is a selection of content searchable under organisational psychology and organisational behaviour. Some of it looks okay.


Then I realised I had listened to maybe 12 audiobooks dealing with some aspect of organisational psychology.  I looked closer at my reading list and started to better appreciate that the books I had categorised under ‘Professional Development’ included specialist sub-sets of organisational psychology. The field had evolved from being just a subset of psychology to being the parent of multiple knowledge and skill areas such as management and leadership, change management, organisational culture, internal consulting and emotional intelligence. But along the way the ability to see an organisation as a system, or, in fact, a being, has been lost. Specialisation does this. We focus on the parts and lose sight of the whole.


The challenge is to see an organisation as a complex system so that action intended to advance Disability Inclusion can be initiated in the right place, in the right way, and with the right energy to make lasting change. Knowing where to use the hammer, and how hard to hit is not easy, but putting in the effort to figure it out will be rewarding.


As I write this the NSW government has announced a reshuffle. I don’t know how that will pan out at this stage. But these things happen routinely. In my 19.5 years with various permutations that became the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ), there were 3 definite reshapings that fused separate agencies together. Each time separate cultures were brought together in what were ‘shotgun weddings’, and there was a period of adapting – before the new culture settled.


DCJ is a very complex organisation. It brings together 4 major service systems (Corrective Services, Courts, Child Protection and Housing) as well as an array of other important services. It has outlets distributed around the state, as well as vital ‘head office’ functions. The organisation was created in 2019 and still retains distinct cultures among the 4 main service areas.


The division within DCJ with a key role to develop an oversight of the whole is Corporate Services. The only exception to that is the Board. The DEN is an outlier here. It must also develop an overview, as well as intimate knowledge – but it’s not a formal business area. When I was DEN Chair, the Board, the Inclusion and Diversity team (which sits within Corporate Services), and the DEN created an alliance to drive Disability Inclusion. 


Thus the 3-way alliance was the minimal foundation of a systemic approach to driving Disability Inclusion. Not only did this provide an organisational overview; it also brought specific knowledge to key parts of the organisation. In particular, in February 2019 7 DEN members spoke with the Board about personal experiences of bullying and discrimination. These ‘Roundtables’ have been repeated with executive leaders and business areas across the Department.


Since March 2020, the current DEN chair, and her leadership team, have evolved DEN meetings and events into high value focal activities with a level of professionalism and sophistication beyond anything I had imagined. 


That 3-way alliance means that all 3 members have a systemic impact in distinct ways.


Working With Complexity

Envisioning a large complex organisation as a coherent system is not easy, and it is not a solitary activity. In DCJ’s case the Board committed to funding the DEN Chair role as fulltime for 4 years. This was a critical decision because it creates an opportunity for the agency to be seen, as a whole, from an activist Disability Inclusion perspective far more quickly than might otherwise be possible.


When I joined the DEN in July 2010 as a founding member it developed a conventional approach to engaging staff – 4 formal meetings a year and not a lot happening in between. Change was slow, under these circumstances. This reflected the current thinking available to us. We did what we could with what we thought. 


Things changed courtesy of the Australian Network on Disability Annual National Conference in May 2018. Kate Nash from PurpleSpace was the keynote speaker and gave a coherent and sophisticated message of what she called Networkology. Sharing my experience (as DEN Chair) was Kerry Lowe, the Manager Inclusion and Diversity, and Anne Skewes, a Deputy Secretary and Executive DEN Champion, as well as an array of DEN members. We had a shared experience of the possibility of changing how we did things. That was vital.


You can’t bring real change to what you don’t know, and you can’t get to know anything without engaging with it. An organisation’s culture is something that that must be intentionally looked at internally, as a whole – and especially from an activist perspective of driving change.


I should point out that I use the term ‘activist’ in a deliberate way. Internal activism is sanctioned implicitly in a wide range of policies and strategies delivered through formal – and business-as-usual – channels. The goal is to create behavioural and cultural change. The DEN, as an employee resource group, must still function within a formal (professional) framework, but it has a degree of autonomy that fosters a higher level of innovation – if managed effectively.


In DCJ the natural partner with the DEN was the Inclusion and Diversity Team. It has to have a global view of the organisation. But even so, responding to the marriage of two previously distinct entities demanded considerable effort and time before a new global view could be had. A team whose core business was working across the organisation was being challenged to develop the perspective it needed. It was even more challenging for a part-time and voluntary staff resource group with existential skin in the game.


Accelerating the rate of change toward Disability Inclusion is something staff with disability want to see. The decision to make the DEN Chair role fulltime was inspired for two reasons. First it signalled a firm intent to back change toward greater inclusion. Second it created a wildcard plumber role of learning where to use the hammer, and how hard to employ it.


DCJ developed a Disability Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP) that used a project-based approach. This meant that a formal project could be developed at any time in response to a newly identified need or opportunity. DIAPs are mandated under the NSW Disability Inclusion Act for all NSW government agencies and local government. They have a 4-year life cycle and tend to start off with a shopping list of things to do. That doesn’t suit complex cultures and environments subject to ongoing change. A DIAP project can become a hammer because it can be targeted to a precise spot with a precise objective, and with precise action.


DCJ has also been committed to the Access and Inclusion Index (the A&I Index) developed by the Australian Network on Disability. The A&I Index is a self-assessment tool using 10 key areas to help organisations identify how they are performing in relation to staff, and customers/service users with disability. An independent evaluation of the assessment is an optional, but vital, component.


These 3 elements (the fulltime DEN Chair, the DIAP and the A&I Index) create a synergy that allows the emergence of individual actions to address ‘pain points’ impeding progress toward genuine disability inclusion. There not just one spot to apply the hammer, but many. As these various tools are applied and promote Disability Inclusion, wielding the hammer can become a local matter – as part of a motivated network.


The response to complexity has been to create a responsive ‘wildcard’ process. The noise (the experience of exclusion of staff with disability) can be stopped only when there are enough ‘plumbers’ with their ‘hammers’ applying the right energy in the right place. 


A building’s plumbing system is an inspiring metaphor, but it does not translate to the complex cultures across a large department. Even though all staff are linked, interconnected, the ‘pipes’ are relationships – via the management hierarchy, skill/experience hierarchies, peer-to-peer interactions, and degrees of self-awareness and psychological health. There are theoretical connections in an ideal world that provide the model for how some imagine a work culture operates. But, in a ‘real world’ setting, the ‘pipes’ may be too wide, too narrow, blocked, leaking, misdirected or going nowhere – as well as normal and ‘just right’.  In fact, relationships are often the key impediments in ensuring Disability Inclusion objectives are realised.


Root Cause Analysis

I came across the idea of Root Cause Analysis (RCA) in the context of health care. It’s also referred to as the 5, or 7, whys. Ask “Why?” of a situation and then ask the same of each answer 5-7 times.


It’s a fabulous idea in theory, but it is rarely employed in practice. I think that’s because it gets very telling very quickly; if one is being honest – and that’s the only way this approach has any value. We are not good at looking closely when the somebody in the relationship chain responsible for something happening/not happening may be us. When it comes down to life and death and serious liability, it would be comforting that RCA might be applied to address failings in medical procedures. But bruised egos and confessions of screwing up are not popular.


Staff with disability on the receiving end of discriminatory and bullying behaviour would also welcome a reflection on the reasons why they suffer, despite assurances there is no tolerance for the conduct they experience.


How Can We Better Understand?

Complex organisations are staffed by people with vastly varying attributes. Some are genuinely committed to the organisation’s service mission. Others will pretend they are, but they are there because that’s where fate put them. It’s a job, and keeping it is important to them. Some are compassionate and caring. Others not so much – for a variety of reasons – from the burden of psychological injury to psychopathy.

There are formal systems in organisations through which flows a strong moral code, commitment to laws and justice, and policy to back them up. Now and then those ‘pipes’ fail to work as intended, and things need to be ‘hammered’ out.

But overlaying them is a relational system based entirely on how individuals fit together according to their psychological make up. Generally speaking, there is a close (but never perfect) fit between the system and the people who are part of it. Now and then the two diverge to the point where there is non-conformity that threatens the margins of tolerance between the ideal and the acceptable.

As organisations seek to reflect and embody principles and standards that ensure equity of engagement across a diverse community, that non-conformity can become a danger area that must be confronted and managed. This is what is not being done as well as it could be.

The Disability Inclusion strategies that work well must eventually come to the non-conformity problem and start asking “Why?”

Re-imagining the Challenge

In any large organization multiple strands weave together to create a coherent whole. Those strands are, themselves, complex. They can be named in many different ways – and grouped or subdivided in even more. Here’s four I quickly thought of, and I have no doubt that I would come up with a different four in a month.

  • Physical
  • Law, policy, and process 
  • Authority and cooperation
  • Relational

Because all these intertwine, picking out one, other than for a purely relative exercise, will not be helpful. It is not possible to be rationally holistic here. To develop a sense of the whole, imagination and intuition must be employed to assist. Over time, and with collaboration with others, it can be possible to get a good sense of how one’s organization operates as a coherent whole. 


When I took over as DEN Chair in late 2016, the DEN had made little impact across some of the major business areas of the Department, post the most recent restructure. I had to rebuild the membership, and that meant learning about a whole new department. In 2019, when DCJ was formed, I knew we had to quickly reach out to our Justice colleagues. That was difficult for a whole range of reasons. It simply takes time to get known, to be trusted and to understand the cultures. This was also certainly true of Corporate Services, which underwent an immediate and difficult transformation to merge key functions. I had ongoing conversations with the Manager Inclusion and Diversity about how to be most effective. Her insights were invaluable.

Promoting Disability Inclusion in a large complex and dispersed organization is difficult. No one strategy can work across all areas. Lots of local nodes of compassionate insight must be developed.

A systemic approach to driving Disability Inclusion is not easy. But it has two compelling advantages. First it is the best chance of delivering desired change efficiently and effectively. That is critical for a volunteer employee resource group and its members. Second, an organization can meet its commitments to Disability Inclusion in a way that not only gives the best value for effort, but improves the level of trust in senior managers, and internal processes.

The 2021 People Matter Employee Survey (PMES) has some telling results. In key topic areas, across the sector, some figures for favourable assessments look bad – Grievance handling is at 46%. Inclusion and Diversity is 74% and Health and Safety is 73%, and Wellbeing is 69%. These 3 figures look fairly good – until you consider that if 26% of your staff are not happy with the actualization of inclusion and diversity practice, that’s not good at all. That’s better than 1 in 4 employees. Likewise, if 27% are not happy with health and safety, that’s not good either. And 41% not happy with their wellbeing? You can check out the 2021 PMES results.

There might be a temptation to argue that staff with disability are a minority, and I am asking for a disproportionate effort to address their concerns. This is my response. 

Inclusion is a universal concern. Disability is a lens that brings a deeper and more concrete focus on a class of employees who we know have experienced persistent and severe discrimination. If action to address known and specific needs is taken others will benefit – because the change will be seen and will flow on to others. When I stepped down from being DEN Chair, I was given a t-shirt which had, on the front, the unofficial motto of the DEN – Solve for One, Extend to Many. We had borrowed this from the philosophy of Inclusive Design.

In DCJ, the DEN’s success has informed how the LGBTQI and Aboriginal staff resource groups operate. The Inclusion and Diversity team has a model in the DEN that it can tap – for how to do things well – and how to do things better.

Staff with disability may also be members of the LGBTQI and Aboriginal groups. The DEN’s success is permeating the organisation’s culture and precipitating positive change beyond disability.

Disability is a lens on, a gateway into, the wider concerns about Inclusion as a universal theme. It is not an extra effort of focus and effort. A commitment to Disability Inclusion is a commitment to Universal Inclusion. By fixing Disability Inclusion issues, other inclusion concerns will be addressed. There are 2 reasons for this:

  1. Those who discriminate against, and bully, staff with disability are highly likely to behave in a similar way toward other diversity groups.
  2. Other staff who are members of minority groups, and subject to discrimination, will be inspired and guided by evidence of success demonstrated by staff with disability.

My concern about DENs and their efforts is based on the fact that I am one on only 2 founding members of the ADHC DEN founded in July 2010 who survived the various transformations into the DCJ DEN to May 2021. When I became DEN Chair in November 2016, I was committed to moving the DEN from a part-time and amateur Employee Resource Group to a near fulltime, and professional, quasi business unit. That commitment led to the DEN Chair role being made fulltime.  

My view was that if we wanted to put an end to the ongoing experience of discrimination, bullying, and abuse experienced by staff with disability a low key, part-time and amateur approach was not going to be enough.

There is ongoing, and gratifying, positive change in favour of Disability Inclusion. It must be continued with added energy simply because the dynamics of positive change toward inclusion require constant commitment and support. But as this energy is applied it reveals nodes of resistance that are woven into leadership and work cultures. Unless there is an organisational commitment to identifying and addressing those node of resistance, all the efforts to initiate and drive positive change risk being undermined and delayed.

Organisations, as cultures and systems, will be measured by what actually happens internally, not by PR. Good news stories are important to signal commitment and intent. Stories of real experiences circulate; and tell the truth. The ideal is to have good news and experience stories match. Aspiring to attain that ideal requires a system vision and a system strategy.

In Search of an Answer


As regular readers know, I have been banging on about why staff with disability still experience flagrant bullying and abuse. This is despite genuine commitments by executive leaders to Disability Inclusion, and the very significant progress made across the NSW public sector.

In this essay I want to look 3 themes:

  • The Code of Conduct
  • The value placed on Personal Attributes capabilities
  • Insights from moral psychology

The Big Question is why, despite the commitments and the protections in place, the sector seems resistant to deliver on its promises. The answer seems to lie in moral psychology. Here I am relying on Johnathan Haidt’s The Righteous MindWhy Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. I want to add to that – and by Management Practices. Haidt is probably the leading exponent of moral psychology – and it is interest that he is now a professor in the Stern School of Business at New York University. I had hoped to have a conversation with him, but he is in a self-imposed quarantine to finish writing a commitment for an indefinite time – so he’s not answering emails.

The Code of Conduct

I discuss the NSW Public Sector Code of Conduct in detail elsewhere (Is It Just a Matter of Language?), so I won’t repeat myself. I want here to observe that the Code of Conduct imposes required standards of conduct, to which all public sector employees must adhere. I argue that it is selectively policed – and abuse of staff with disability, although a breach of the Code of Conduct, seems not to be included among the policed behaviours.

The Value Placed on Personal Attributes Capabilities

The NSW Public Service Commission developed a capability framework that lays out the behaviours required of NSW Public Sector employees. It is little used as an operational tool and appears to have little application beyond recruitment – and even then in an uneven and idiosyncratic way.

The Framework has 20 capabilities, each with one of 5 possible levels – giving 100 behaviours to apply to roles. The levels are:

  • Foundational 
  • Intermediate 
  • Adept 
  • Advanced 
  • Highly Advanced

The capabilities are broken into 5 groups, and each group has 4 sub-sets:

  • Personal Attributes
    • Display Resilience and Courage
    • Act with Integrity
    • Manage Self
    • Value Diversity
  • Relationships, 
    • Communicate Effectively
    • Commit to Customer Service
    • Work Collaboratively
    • Influence and Negotiate
  • Results
    • Deliver Results
    • Plan and Prioritise
    • Think and Solve Problems
    • Demonstrate Accountability 
  • Business Enablers
    • Finance
    • Technology
    • Procurement and Contract Management
    • Project Management
  • People Management
    • Manage and Develop People
    • Inspire Direction and Purpose
    • Optimise Business Outcomes
    • Manage Reform and Change

This is a perfectly rational system that has the potential to be of great value in determining what standards of behaviour and performance are required for each role –  monitoring whether they are delivered, and guiding action to identify and address developmental needs.

Standard Position Descriptions include reference to Focus Capabilities, which are: “the capabilities considered the most important for effective performance of the role. These capabilities will be assessed at recruitment.”

Position Descriptions also say: Complementary capabilities are also identified from the Capability Framework and relevant occupation-specific capability sets. They are important to identifying performance required for the role and development opportunities.

Note: capabilities listed as ‘not essential’ for this role are not relevant for recruitment purposes however may be relevant for future career development.

For the purpose of this essay I want to look only at the Personal Attributes capabilities. You will see why shortly. 

Before you go on, I’d like you to do a quick exercise. Imagine the roles of Manager, Director and Executive Director. Go back and look at the Personal Attributes capabilities and the levels, and have a guess at what capabilities you’d expect to be a focus capability, and at what level you’d expect, for each of the 3 roles.

The Personal Attributes capability, Act with Integrity, is the one that deals with breaches of the Code of Conduct in the clearest way.

The Adept level has this behaviour: 

  • Act to prevent and report misconduct, illegal and inappropriate behaviour

The Advanced level has these behaviours: 

  • 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 Highly Advanced level has these behaviours:

  • Champion and act as an advocate for the highest standards of ethical and professional behaviour 
  • Drive a culture of integrity and professionalism across the organisation, and in dealings cross-government, cross-jurisdiction and outside of government 
  • Define, communicate and evaluate ethical practices, standards and systems and reinforce their use 
  • Create and promote a climate in which staff feel able to report apparent breaches of rules, policies and guidelines and act promptly and visibly in response to such reports 

I sampled 6 current Position Descriptions to see what Personal Attributes capabilities made it as focus capabilities – and hence assessed in the recruitment process. Here are the results.

From the PSC – library of PDs:

  • Deputy Secretary
    • Display Courage and Resilience – Highly Advanced
  • Executive Director 
    • Act with Integrity – Highly Advanced
  • Director 1 
    • Act with Integrity – Advanced
  • Director 2 
    • Act with Integrity – Adept

From I Work for NSW:

  • Manager 1 
    • Act with Integrity – Adept
    • Manage Self – Adept
  • Manager 2
    • Display Courage and Resilience – Adept
  • Manager 3
    • Display Courage and Resilience – Advanced
    • Act with Integrity – Adept
    • Manage Self – Adept


The value of personal qualities seems to be uneven and without any evident rationale.

None of the executive roles had more than one of the Personal Attributes as a focus capability.

Only 2 of the 7 roles had multiple Personal Attributes capabilities – 2 and 3 – and both were Grade 11/12 manager roles.

Sixty percent of the listed capabilities were at the mid-range Adept level. This included a Director position on the PSC website. Given all the roles are leadership roles the lack of demand on personal attributes should, I believe, give reason for concern.

The lack of demand on executives is a worry.

Personal Attributes and Emotional Intelligence

All 4 Relationships capabilities, 2 of the Results, and 3 of the Manage People capabilities require a significant level of Emotional Intelligence. One would expect that Emotional Intelligence is at the foundation of the Personal Attributes capabilities, so that suggests that 13 of the 20 capabilities assuredly require Emotional Intelligence, and I’d argue that a case could be made for at least 4 of the remaining 7.

Effective leadership, as opposed to just management, requires high levels of competence in the Personal Attributes. The mid-range Adept is not, in my view, sufficient for people in leadership roles. This is not to say that leaders across the sector do not possess the personal wherewithal to perform well in their roles, regardless of whether those qualities are assessed at recruitment. Some, no doubt, do. But others definitely do not. 

The Act with Integrity capability at the Highly Advanced level requires unambiguous delivery of work that assures that staff are safe when they report misconduct and know it will be acted upon. A reminder: Create and promote a climate in which staff feel able to report apparent breaches of rules, policies and guidelines and act promptly and visibly in response to such reports.

Of those looked at above there is only the Executive Director PD that has this capability – and this was the only focus capability from the Personal Attributes subset. It is not balanced by any supporting requirements, such as Manage Self – Advanced: Act as a professional role model for colleagues, set high personal goals and take pride in their achievement. 

It is easy to see that there is no intentional recruitment of leaders who possess the personal attributes to ensure that abusive conduct is not tolerated, and those who perpetrate it are held to account.

No Illusion of Rational Use

I am under no illusion that anybody applies the Capability Framework in a methodical and purposeful manner. What the PDs reveal is that there is no focused or well-reasoned approach to determining what capabilities are set as focus capabilities, and at what level. 

What I am concerned about is that brief stage when rational intent is applied – at the point of designing the PD and making a choice about what capability, and what level to set as focus capabilities for leaders.

It seems there is a fairly relaxed and comfortable approach to setting demands on leaders – in terms of their personal qualities.

The Value of Moral Psychology

There are two things that are powerful takeaways from my reading in moral psychology.

The first is that things don’t happen unless there are consequences for not complying. In essence, there must be assured accountability. This is missing in almost every instance of reported bullying and abuse by staff with disability.

The second is that enforcing accountability is not a popular thing to do for many, because it seems like punishment or revenge. In our personal lives we can choose to let outrageous behaviour be when addressing it might ruin an atmosphere. And maybe inept handling of poor behaviour in our personal lives leaves us feeling unconfident about dealing with it at work.

In a professional setting it seems that the more “Left” one is, the less there is a will to undertake what can seem like a punitive course of action. The more “Right” one is, the less that’s an issue. A more authoritarian work culture is more likely to take disciplinary action than a more ‘relaxed’ or egalitarian one. 

But taking action against a peer, as opposed to a subordinate, is harder still. It seems to me that offences against a person, unless it is physical assault, are harder to address, in terms of holding peers to account. The ‘wrongness’ of an action isn’t essy to see if the ‘injury’ is internal. 

Here’s an insight from the Neurological Leadership Institue – acts of exclusion activate threat responses in the brain. A victim of strong exclusion (like bullying and abuse) will have their brain’s distress and pain response processes activated. Inner states of staff are not visible to managers – unless, of course, the reaction is strong enough to register clearly on the face.

There is a danger in a work culture that prefers a more egalitarian approach. Staff will not have confidence to be open about being psychologically injured if they do not see that what they do say triggers a response to ensure accountability. In an authoritarian work culture, psychological abuse can often be seen as part of the accountability culture – and hence serious actual abuse is diminished in importance.

An authoritarian leader in an egalitarian work culture could think psychological abuse okay in a culture that is unresponsive to revelations of such abuse. For a leader on the psychopathic spectrum this might be an ideal environment in which to function.

The policies and the processes are there to prevent and address psychological abuse. They are just not used when they are needed. This is not out of ignorance, but reluctance – and that can be bewildering to victims of such abuse.


As I say repeatedly, there is not an epidemic of abuse of staff with disability in the NSW public sector, but there is an epidemic of failing to hold to account those leaders who are abusive.

This reality is particularly problematic when staff with disability find themselves being subject to performance reviews, threats of medical retirement and other forms of ‘being held to account’ for the grievous offence of asking for an adjustment; and complaining when it is refused.

The absence of an appetite to hold peers to account translates into a perception of an organisation’s cultural appetite for abuse. This is what becomes the foundation of fear and mistrust. It is the single most problematic impediment to ensuring that genuine Disability Inclusion is introduced across the sector.

If the sector is not recruiting for the right qualities in leaders, it will not get leaders who understand they have a duty to hold their peers to account when the rights and dignities of staff with disability are violated.

The psychological aversion to assuring that accountability (a key sector value) is applied universally, and not selectively, must be understood, and addressed. For this to happen, much more must be asked of leaders – in terms of the personal attributes they must exhibit in a contemporary public sector organisation. 

When a Formal Complaint Goes Wrong


When a staff member with disability gets to the point where they feel it is necessary to seek an intervention, they may be advised to lodge a formal grievance or a respectful workplace complaint. But such an action can go horribly wrong. 

There are really only 3 scenarios here:

  1. The complainant is justified
  2. The complainant is experiencing psychological distress and has invented or exaggerated complaints – perhaps as a consequence of that distress. 
  3. The complainant has a personality disorder and has intentionally fabricated allegations to cause harm. 

Often, such action is taken to address the alleged conduct of a manager or colleague. 

The normal course of action is to approach one’s manager, in the case of a colleague being the person of concern, or the manager’s manager if the manager’s conduct is alleged to be the problem. These are the people whose duty it is to ensure appropriate conduct of their staff. 

This is where things go wrong in my view. Once alleged misconduct has been reported to a manager or executive, it is their duty to address the concern. This is especially the case if the alleged misconduct is a breach of the Code of Conduct. There is nothing in the code that requires anything beyond talking to a manager/executive. It is not clear where the other formal complaint mechanisms sit in relation to Code of Conduct violations. 

Complaints procedures are certainly useful for matters not related to the conduct of staff. Respectful Workplace complaints seem to be unnecessary – unless it is a formalization of an alleged breach of the Code of Conduct. In any case I hear frequent comments that Respectful Workplace complaints are ignored.

In fact here’s a quote from an email sent to me recently: “For me I have never had a Respectful Workplace Complaint where procedures have been correctly followed. Nearly all of them were ignored. I am not sure that I would waste my time writing a Respectful Workplace Complaint now because that it would not help and maybe make things worse for me.”

My point is that all NSW employees other than executives on contract sign the Code of Conduct. Executives no doubt do something similar. I just don’t know what that is. That is an enforceable contract. 

Consequently, where grievences and respectful workplace complaints fit into the picture is not at all clear. Clarifying advice for a staff member in need of triggering some kind of intervention is not given. This may explain why Grievance Handling has the lowest satisfaction rating – at 46% – of the 22 survey topics of the 2021 People Matter Employee Survey (PMES). In 2020 that rate was 45%, in 2019 it was 41%, and in 2018 40%. Even though there’s some improvement, that’s a high failure rate.

The Root of Failure

The responsible leader has 3 options open:

  1. Ignore or refuse to act on the request to intervene
  2. Intervene competently 
  3. Intervene incompetently

The first option is not justifiable under any circumstances. And yet it is commonly reported. 

The third option seems sadly more common than is desirable – and can end in catastrophic outcomes. 

I have participated in several of the second options, and I can confirm that competent intervention can sometimes require considerable tact and subtlety – and courage. But that’s another story. Successful interventions are not the point here.

The point here is the question: “Exactly how and why the person seeking the intervention should become responsible for initiating any formal complaint against the person whose conduct is causing distress?” Surely, having sought an intervention from a leader whose responsibility it is to ensure respectful conduct of their staff, the focus of any complaint should be about the inaction or incompetence of the person asked to intervene – not the person who is the victim of the alleged misconduct. 

The complaints process deflects attention from the real failure and now the complainant has two problems- the original one and now a new one – inaction or incompetence. 

This tends to be only the beginning of a disastrous process that so often ends with the staff member with disability being blamed for the whole mess. 


I was recently provided astonishing detail of a scenario in which a staff member, needing to address the conduct of their Manager, approached their Director, seeking their intervention. The Director’s response was to help the staff member draft a formal complaint concerning the Manager in relation to whom they had a direct supervisory role. 

It is pertinent to ask why this course of action was taken. I believe that the Director was aware the concern was justified but was either unwilling or unable to address the problem. 

In this case a Respectful Workplace complaint was lodged separately, and it did not go well. The staff member with disability, who had, in my judgement, a legitimate ground for seeking an intervention became a scapegoat for multiple failures of responsibility.

Is the System Designed to Harm?

Of course not. Until I had become aware of the issues that can arise from lodging a formal complaint, I assumed, like everyone else, this was the proper way of doing things. But the reality is that processes like complaints handling have never been designed with the complainant in mind. They are modelled vaguely on our legal conventions, which have been designed to protect ‘the system’ rather than the individual. This seems to be part of our culture. This is most evident in the fact that criminal offences are ‘against the crown’, and personal redress must be sought through civil action. Victim impact statements and restorative justice are relatively recent innovations. So, a person who is beaten up is not the focus of concern. Rather, the beating offends the crown, and it for this offence the perpetrator is punished.

Systems that are designed to be ‘objective’ can hurt the individual who is the victim. People are not objects. In my view ‘objective’ processes have no place in a human-centred environment such as a contemporary public sector workplace. Well, at least not as a first recourse – and unless there are grounds for taking formal action of some kind, where clear legal obligations come into play – such as if disciplinary action is considered necessary.

The situation described above caused harm to the staff member with disability who sought an intervention, not because there was an intent to do so, but because their welfare was not considered as a primary concern. The complainant was alleging harm being done to their welfare, and they wanted an end to that harm.

That’s a human concern. In fact, it is a safety concern – but it is not seen as that.

Here’s an excerpt from an email of a former colleague who read the draft of this essay.

For myself, and countless others, placing a complaint against management is a last resort. It is an extremely difficult decision- usually made at the point where one can no longer tolerate the abuse, or the emotional injury has become so significant that one can barely function. This type of injury is not limited to business hours. It is an injury that is ever present and effects the family and social relationships of the abused person.  

What’s the Difference Between a Complaint About a Manager’s Conduct and a Work Health Safety Issue?

Substantively, nothing. It’s a matter of categories only. Organizations can choose what box they place an issue in.

In this case, imaging if the staff member with disability had gone to their Director to complain that their manager had refused to address a faulty electrical device that was a risk of causing serious injury. It would be most likely that the Director would have acted promptly, spoken to the manager, and assured the faulty device was repaired or decommissioned.

It is when the hazard is human conduct that confusion arises. So often inaction or ineptitude ensues. There is no mystery why this is. Having the ‘hard conversation’ is never easy for people with normal emotions. The need to discuss a staff member’s performance is never welcomed. Exactly why, in this situation, did the Director not simply have a conversation with the manager, require an outcome, and monitor its delivery?

The situation is worse when the person in question is not expected to take the conversation well. Handling these situations takes skills few possess without coaching and support. And, in the unhappy anticipation of the ‘hard conversation’ being difficult and unpleasant, the worst preparation will be had.  And the risk of an awful experience is magnified.

The matter is made worse when, in those mercifully few instances, the subject of the conversation is known to be reactive and resistant. It does mean that some executives might prefer that a complaint, or complainant, goes away. It is remarkable how often I heard of requests for intervention being ignored – and the person in question was a manager with a reputation for being a bully or persistently discriminatory. You could get the impression that a calculation was made, and the complainant was assessed as ‘dispensable’.

What Really is the Issue?

In my experience, in the majority of cases, when a staff member with disability seeks an intervention because of a failure to address a workplace adjustment request, or seek relief from bullying, the cause is valid. I have been involved in only one case when a complaint was not justified. The staff member was experiencing psychological distress unrelated to their work. They elected to seek employment elsewhere and were successful in securing a role they were happily still in 2 years later. That could have been catastrophic, but it wasn’t. The intervention helped key players understand that the staff member needed compassion and sensitivity, not cold processing. Still, it was a difficult process,

Responding to a request for an intervention is a clear responsibility of a leader. Inaction, or inept handling, is not okay. Putting the responsibility back onto the complainant is most certainly not the right thing to do. Getting to the point of having to complain usually means a significant amount of emotional distress has been experienced – and many things have failed along the way. 

When a staff member with disability gets to the point where they need to seek an intervention, something has gone wrong with how a work environment is managed. There is a failure of management that must be addressed. A request for an intervention is an opportunity to address a performance deficit in a developmental way – and if that does not work, there are other steps available.

But, instead, so often the complainant is ‘punished’ for complaining. The stress that leads to the need to complain is then added to by backlash responses. In the case that stimulated this essay, the matter was ‘investigated’ by an ‘independent investigator’. A very detailed complaint was provided. The ‘independent investigator’ dismissed every single issue raised after interviewing the manager who was the subject of the complaint – and, apparently, no one else. This was even after at least one of the peers spoken to confirmed that the manager’s conduct was deeply problematic. I know this because I know that person and confirmed what they said.

Somehow the request for help placed the complainant in the spotlight. They were made to look unreasonable – an unjust accuser.

So, imagine. You have been subjected to bullying by your manager for nearly 2 years. You talk to your Director, who helps you draft a formal complaint, rather than talking with the manager, who they supervise. The Director is responsible for engaging an outside investigator who does not talk with you at any length. A report dismissing your complaint is prepared, based entirely on an interview with your manager. Everything you allege is dismissed. Then you are encouraged to participate in a mediated discussion with the manager.

How do you feel? If you haven’t been through an experience like this, let me help you. I have spoken with a few survivors of the misfortune of having their concerns dismissed – and being subjected to retribution for daring to raise them.

You feel emotionally exhausted. You feel bewildered. You feel traumatized and betrayed. The odd thing may be that feeling belittled or feeling angry is rarely confessed. I think it may be there in the background. The people I speak to are strong. They are injured, but they are strong. They know their case is just. How many are broken and never tell their story?

To emphasis this point, here’s another except from the email sent by the former colleague who read the draft of this essay.

For the many who do have the courage to place a complaint and then have the capacity to endure the aggressive nature of HR and line management umbrage, pales in number compared to those that are unable to cope with the arrogance of those who are supposed to be fair minded, or the obtuse nature of the complaints process. So many I have seen, and know, leave completely humiliated, emotionally exhausted and in many cases with long term emotional injury. 


Formal complaints processes about the conduct of peers or managers seem to make sense – until you stop to think about it. Responsibility for managing an employee’s conduct rests with managers and executives. Their job is to intervene in situations where conduct is inappropriate, and in breach of the Code of Conduct. If a formal complaint must be submitted it should be initiated by leaders who have failed to address the issue and need formal backup. They are the people who need the support of a formal process.

Staff with disability are vulnerable to bullying, discrimination and abuse by staff and managers whose conduct is a clear violation of the Code of Conduct. They should not be expected to initiate any formal process to address their concerns. Their obligations end at informing a responsible leader of perceived misconduct – and seeking their help to end it. 

The current approach in the NSW public sector distances responsible leaders from their duties to ensure good conduct of staff who report to them. It puts the complainant in the firing line. It ignores the psychological stresses that are present before a complaint is submitted, and the failures of responsible leaders who manage to miss or ignore the conduct that led to the complaint.

In a well-managed workplaces, there should never be a need to submit a formal complaint about the conduct of a peer or manager. If such a need arises, it is because of the failure of leadership. But that failure is almost never acknowledged. Instead, the complainant becomes the scapegoat.

The frequency with which complaints or requests for intervention are ignored completely is not something that has been measured. What is more common is a decision to not do anything because there is no confidence that complaining, or asking for an intervention, will not lead to failure, and retribution. That’s not just a lack of faith in ‘the system’. It’s a repudiation of the characters of the leaders. How did that come about?

In 1989 Ernst F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered was published. It transformed a lot of people’s thinking. In 2022 we need something similar on Management as if People Mattered.

Why Job Interviews Can Be Disastrous for Staff With Disability


A former colleague came out of a job interview yesterday very unhappy with his performance. On paper few would argue he was not the ideal candidate. There may be somebody with a better background, but the chances are low.

I spent around 5 years in recruitment quite some time ago, and since then I have been in a good number of selection exercises as a panel member. Most recently I have been the independent with disability.

My former colleague (let’s call him AB – nothing to do with his name) lives with a residual anxiety from an earlier significant event. When he stresses, he talks fast, and his otherwise calm communication goes nuts.

As a panel member, and a friend to many colleagues who have blown interviews (and quite apart from my own experience as a failed candidate), I know that some people just do not interview well. What AB has helped me see is that a job interview can be unintentionally discriminatory.

The Right People to Pick the Right People for the Job

I worked in the Commonwealth Employment Service. Our ‘motto’ was ‘The right person for the job’. It was one we did not live up to. Recruitment is actually a hard job that requires real skills. It is a professional level skill, and only some people who are not professionals can do a good job. Mind you, some alleged professionals are not so hot.

This is not to suggest that most recruitment decisions are disastrous. But some are. Most produce a serviceable, even good, selection. Some are inspired.

In most NSW public sector organisations recruitment is a DIY affair. The intent is good, but the execution is sometimes awful. There are many public servants who have been culled, or failed at interview, only to find the successful candidate is singularly unimpressive. They were the best person for the job? No way! 

A Terrible Experience

Job interviews are stressful experiences for most of us. The worst is often the preview of the questions. Some, for a multiplicity of reasons I will discuss later, either freeze or go into overload mode and scribble frantically. I was a frantic scribbler, and worse, I had awful handwriting, so my scribbles were illegible.

Some candidates have told me that they didn’t understand some of the questions. It wasn’t because they lacked the intellectual wherewithal. In fact, it’s often the smarter ones who confess this. They see too much in the question, try to guess what the author intended, and struggle to craft a response to what seems like a really daft thing to ask.

AB asked me a vitally important question. Actually, he asked it in general and I just happened to be the person who heard it. It was “Why do they only give us 10 minutes to preview the questions just before the interview?” Yeah. Why?

He showed me the questions. There were 5. So that’s 2 minutes a question. AB then asked another really good question: “In what other part of our work are expected to read, analyse and develop a response to 5 questions in 10 minutes?

The obvious question to ask here is: “What is being tested here?” The obvious answer is “Nothing.” Being on an interview panel is hard work. The usual practice is to schedule multiple interviews, one after the other – maybe 6 in a day. That means forcing a candidate to rush through a preview of questions is really for the convenience of the panel.

So, having an awful experience with a frantic rush through the question preview, and then a frazzled interview is not about the needs of the candidate. Sure, you can ask for an adjustment these days. But how many are bold enough to dare to ask to have the questions the day before. In any case, getting frazzled by the interview process is not considered a disability (even though it really is).

The Madness of Pointless Secrecy

There is a stern warning given with interview questions. You can’t copy them, and you can’t share them. The first is pointless in the age of Teams and Zoom where they must be emailed to a candidate. The practice of creating an entirely arbitrary time pressure has created a need for secrecy. Everybody has to be under the same pressure, regardless of how well they respond to an entirely artificial situation that will never be replicated outside a job interview.

Consider this. I have a manual dexterity disability that impedes my ability to hold a pen and write. In terms of writing speed equity, I would need twice the time others get. The same applies to keyboard use. If something has to be done flat out – as with a 10-minute time limit to make notes on 5 questions I simply cannot do it.

If I am given the fair 20 minutes time to make the same volume of notes, I still have an extra 10 minutes thinking time. My requested adjustment provides equity in one respect and gives me an advantage in another. Similar dilemmas will apply for a variety of disabilities.

The only fair scenario is to give everybody the questions the day before and have no time limit.

But what about the secrecy?  Candidates will be able to research and craft their responses – so how will we know their answers are genuine?

Silly Question

In the NSW Public Sector, a key part of recruitment is the capabilities identified as required for a role. There is a capability framework every public sector employee should be aware of, but, of course, many are not.

The Capability Framework is a very good idea. It’s called The NSW Public Sector Capability Framework, and it can be downloaded from the NSW Public Service Commission website. There are identified capabilities for every role, and each capability have a level, of which there are 5, ranging from Foundational to Highly Advanced. It is my personal opinion that the levels assigned to most roles are far too low, and that some key capabilities are absent. The system is good, but not ideal. That’s a different conversation, to be had later.

Position Descriptions provided for every advertised NSW Public Sector vacancy helpfully provide the capabilities ascribed to the role, and the level required. They further provide a table that specifies the capability and the level and then lists Behavioural indicators.

For example, under the group of Personal Attribute capabilities there is the capability Act with integrity. At adept level (which is mid-range) there are 5 dot points describing the conduct required.

The point of having these generic capabilities is that they are base line requirements for the role, regardless of any knowledge of, or experience in, the field or role. This is further specified in the designation of Focus Capabilities. Here’s a quote from a Position Description about them: “The focus capabilities for the role are the capabilities in which occupants must demonstrate immediate competence.” 

I have reviewed a selection of interview questions. They include some capabilities that are not focus capabilities and references to role specific activities. Non-focus capabilities are allowed, this is a bit like the old required and desired selection criteria – but with none of the clarity. The role-related elements in questions can be confusing because they tend to suggest that the answer must be framed accordingly – and that may not be the best opportunity to demonstrate that one meets the capability requirement.

One set of interview questions was an illustration of a cause for concern.

There were 5 questions with a focus on capabilities:

Question 1

  • Act with Integrity – adept – 5 behavioural indicators
  • Communicate effectively – adept – 6 behavioural indicators – but not on the Position Description. I had to go to the PSC website.

Question 2

  • Commitment to customer service – adept – 6 behavioural indicators
  • Work collaboratively – adept – 4 behavioural indicators

Question 3

  • Deliver results – advanced – 6 behavioural indicators
  • Think and solve problems – adept – 4 behavioural indicators, not on the Position Description

Question 4

  • Project management – adept – 6 behavioural indicators

Question 5

  • Value diversity – adept – 3 behavioural indicators

In sum, 5 questions with 40 behavioural indicators, and 3 questions with 10 or 11 each. It is not clear how an assessment based on behavioural indicators could successfully evaluate a candidate’s performance at an interview. It might be argued that across all the assessment elements (CV, written response to the usual 2 questions, the interview questions, any at interview presentation, and the psychometric assessment) there is enough. But, how many panels use a template based on behavioural indicators, and how many candidates review all the elements of their application to ensure they cover all behavioural indicators. Recruitment is just not that clinical or disciplined.

Unless a Position Description specifies role specific requirements – an entirely legitimate thing for some roles – interview questions should be confined primarily to the focus capabilities.

A capability-based assessment must sensible, reasonable, and fair. There should be no need to go beyond focus capabilities, and certainly no justification for blending focus and non-focus capabilities into the one question.

There is virtually no reason to go beyond a standard generic question form:

Capability A at X level is a requirement for this role. Please discuss how you meet this capability at the required level; and give examples (which do not have to be work related).

Here’s an interview question from 2019. The capability being assessed was Act with Integrity:

In this role you will be working with a variety of stakeholders including colleagues, managers and business partners. Please describe an instance which demonstrates your personal skills in handling sensitive or challenging situations. What was your approach and what did you do to address the situation?

In my opinion this question shoehorns the response into a frame determined by the panel and does not give sufficient latitude for the candidate to provide their best response.

The Act with Integrity Behavioural Indicators for Adept level are:

  • Represent the organisation in an honest, ethical and professional way and encourage others to do so 
  • Demonstrate professionalism to support a culture of integrity within the team/unit 
  • Set an example for others to follow and identify and explain ethical issues 
  • Ensure that others understand the legislation and policy framework within which they operate 
  • Act to prevent and report misconduct, illegal and inappropriate behaviour 

It seems hardly necessary to overlay official behavioural indicators with additional context requirements. A diligent applicant might wish to match the behavioural indicators against the question in order to develop a response. That would be a right. It cannot be exercised at 5 questions in 10 minutes.

It is not uncommon to see questions that have multiple role specific parts to them. One element alone would be challenging to make notes on, let alone 2 or 3. One question I saw recently asked the candidate to give some background a project about a new or improved process, describe their role, discuss what they did to ensure the project’s success and then talk about what they had learned. They had about 2 minutes to make notes and probably between 4 and 5 minutes to talk about it the interview.

If you know not very much, this might be easy. But for an experienced officer with a nuanced insight into a project this could excite a flood of thoughts. The risk is famine or flood if the experience triggers anxiety.

The Impact of Disability

I do not interview well. That’s got nothing to do with my acquired and current disability. Paradoxically I would do better now; because my disabilities have given me greater confidence (I am officially seen to be ‘different’).

In the past I simply exhibited behaviour that might have been diagnosed as anxiety, among other things. A lot of people would have had a similar diagnosis, had they sought one out. But a lot of diagnosable conditions are considered normal. We all know people who are nervy or anxious when they get badly stressed. But otherwise, they are cool. 

Anxiety and depression are the 2 most frequently diagnoses psychological conditions in Australia. Many more will experience both states at levels which may never necessitate a formal diagnosis, but which will screw up situations, including job interviews with monotonous regularity. 

A truly inclusive recruitment process will accommodate the variety of impediments to allowing a person should what they are capable off – because the normal spectrum of being human includes psychic states that do not respond well to artificially contrived and stressful experiences – such as job interviews. As AB said, “When do you find yourself in this kind of situation in your work – never. So why make it part of a recruitment process?”

Off hand, I can make a short list of people who would be disadvantaged by this kind of interview process – previewing questions and then responding in an interview – those with diagnosed anxiety conditions; blind or visually impaired applicants; people who have difficulty making notes because of motor or nerve-related disabilities; the neuro-atypical; and people with dyslexia. Readers may know of other. This is a short list only.

What are Interviews for, Anyway?

AB submitted a CV (no more than 5 pages), and written responses to 2 questions (a page each). Then he undertook a psych profile assessment. He then had to prepare a presentation as well as respond to the 5 interview questions.

That’s a lot. He’s entitled to expect that all this is done professionally, and that fairness is assured.

There was a time when everything was about getting to the interview, and the interview is where you lived or died. That should not be the case now. In the past 12 months I have been the independent on 3 panels convened by very smart and skilled people. The interview was not the final definitive measure. Some candidates did not interview well, so other elements of their application were considered very carefully to ensure the best person for the job was selected.

In every case I do believe the best candidate was chosen, and in no case was the interview the telling element. In two interviews it was hard to pick the best of an outstanding line up. The interview was indicative, but not confirming.

Interviews are a great opportunity to make critical assessments that help distinguish between people evenly matched on paper. You need to select one person, and sometimes it comes down to hair splitting. It is important to meet the person who may be employed on a human level. We have natural instincts we need to satisfy.

Reliance on the interview as the key determining factor leads to poor and unjust decisions being made. The trouble is that far too few people on panels understand how to play by the new rules.

A Reflection on the PSC’s Guide to Interview Questions

The NSW PSC website provides a guide to how to develop interview questions. There are a lot of good points to reflect on in the context of this essay. Here are a few:

  • Behavioural interview questions should…. be clear, brief and unambiguous.
  • It is important to avoid making questions too specific; asking about situations they may not have encountered or that is unique to your work environment. Your questions should allow all candidates to demonstrate relevant experience that is transferable to the role you are filling.
  • Use the interview to explore the main role requirements. These include the focus capabilities, and knowledge and experience where these requirements are in the role description. Each interview question can be designed to allow candidates to give examples of how their capabilities, knowledge and experience meet the role requirements. Complementary capabilities may also be assessed in the interview to help to distinguish between high performers, for example.

There is a section headed Motivation questions that seems to me to be rarely used; but would give a panel an opportunity to have a useful insight into a candidate’s character – and giving them a chance to open up and relax. It would be a logical first question. Below I have copied the 2 paragraphs:

You can also ask questions about motivation to decide if the candidate’s values, interests and preferences are suited to the role. For example, in asking candidates about their motivation to work in the public sector you are looking for people who want to create a better society more so than those who driven by money or status.

Asking candidates about their motivation can span topics such as having a passion to work in a particular field (e.g. social services), having an interest in supporting and developing team members as part of manager responsibilities, being inspired by using their creativity etc.

Another interesting theme was a quote from The Human Rights Commission:

Asking applicants certain questions in a job interview may disadvantage some people and could amount to discrimination. Employers are required by law to avoid discrimination when recruiting staff.

I should be clear that this refers to clearly discriminatory questions of a personal nature, but it could be fairly argued that a pressure test question preview, and the design of some questions would constitute discrimination – and thus a violation of law.

The issue of Disability Inclusion is not covered by the PSC’s advice on recruitment interviews, which is disappointing.


If you want a diverse workforce of talented people you must cater to the quirky, the nervy and the quiet. If an interview process is effectively a time trial followed up with a quiz, it will give you nothing useful. Indeed, the survivor might be nowhere as good as the candidates an insensitive ‘one heroic size fits all’ process discards.

I can’t hope that recruitment processes will be quickly professionalised, or that panels will have a skilled independent with the authority to prevent the convenor exerting their bias, ignorance, or insensitivity to inclusion needs.

It is not possible to rely on adjustment requests alone. This is because of the fact that (for example) for many people, living with anxiety that expresses only periodically, isn’t considered a disability. Some may not wish to seek an adjustment because they don’t want to be thought of as having a disability. 

The best I can hope for is the adoption of a mandatory capability-based question model that has no role specific elements; and is given to candidates 24 hours in advance. That would just be a courtesy as the questions would be predictable. They could even be in the Position Description. Obviously, where role specific requirements are listed, interview questions related to them can, and should, be asked – and provided in advance also.

I believe a serious conversation on this is necessary to ensure universal equity and accessibility. Further, I do believe a more generic question model would enhance the purpose of asking questions. Some may seek more role related questions elsewhere – such as part of the written response. Where that is warranted, that may be a good solution. 

The logic of the Capability Framework and its associated behavioural indicators merits the right to stand alone as a the genuinely inclusive tool it was meant to be.

Is it Just a Matter of Language?


Maybe it’s a function of age, but language is important me. In recent years ‘need’ has become a rampant replacement for a thesaurus full of words that express requirement. The statement: “You need to (insert action of choice)” has become disconnected from the necessary condition that makes the need an imperative. “If you want to do X, then you ‘need’ to do Y.”

Now ads on television promoting detective shows talk of crimes that “need to be solved.” Obviously, the crime itself has no ‘need’ to be solved, and it would be silly and pedantic to take the ad’s wording literally.

But by watering down language of requirement we can lose the power of meaning and make an obligation or duty sound like an option. Should is already soft word that is being infected by the need virus.

The Oxford Dictionary offers 3 meanings for should:

  1. Used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticising someone’s actions.
  2. Indicating a desirable or expected state.
  3. Used to give or ask advice or suggestions.

It is hard to argue, on the basis of these definitions, that ‘should’ has any place in a statement or conversation about duty or obligation.

Why Does This Matter for Staff with Disability?

In 2015 Prof Peter Shergold, in his Learning from Failure report wrote:

The Standards says that advisers must “acknowledge” they are not authorised to direct public servants and “recognise” that executive decisions are the preserve of ministers and public servants. Comparable policies and guidance in other jurisdictions instead instruct advisers on what they “must not” and “may not” do. Such explicit directions are likely to be more effective as a guide to practice.(p. 61) (my bold)

Prof Shergold had looked in detail at several disastrous Commonwealth government actions. The passage above is just one of many problems he identified. It is “explicit directions” that are “likely to be more effective as a guide to practice.” I want to focus on.

In softer management styles, the avoidance of “must” is intended to be kinder to staff. There is a convention of amiable language that is intended to carry the imperative meaning of ‘must’ in gentler guise. The convention seems to work well is most instances – when staff are disposed to be respectful and responsive, and maybe because they rationally interpret the soft ‘must’.

But, the exceptions matter. Having told a staff member that they “should” or “need” to do a thing, it is difficult to hold them to account if they choose not to do so. Neither word means “must” by itself. The response of “Well, you didn’t tell me I must do it.” is always a defence that is open to them. Doubt is plausible. Maybe they misunderstood?

There is simply no substitute, in imperative requirements, for the words and phrases that convey that meaning in an unambiguous way. Meaning must be explicit, not implied or inferred.

In the NSW Public Service Commissioner Direction, No 1 2015 the language is quite specific:

direct the heads of government sector agencies listed in Schedule 1 to implement The Code of Ethics and Conduct for NSW government sector employees on and from 1 September 2015, and to require employees to complywith the Code. (my bold)

Here the Commissioner directs agencies to require compliance. This is written with no leeway to interpret the words to mean other that ‘must do.’ 

Why does this matter?

The NSW Public Sector Code of Conduct lays out 4 Core Values. I have listed them below. Each value has 4 dot points, making 16 articulated values in all.

2.4 Integrity 

  • Consider people equally without prejudice or favour
  • Act professionally with honesty, consistency and impartiality
  • Take responsibility for situations, showing leadership and courage 
  • Place the public interest over personal interest. 

2.5 Trust 

  • Appreciate difference and welcome learning from others
  • Build relationships based on mutual respect
  • Uphold the law, institutions of government and democratic principles 
  • Communicate intentions clearly and invite teamwork and collaboration 

2.6 Service 

  • Provide services fairly with a focus on customer needs
  • Be flexible, innovative and reliable in service delivery
  • Engage with the not-for-profit and business sectors to develop and implement service solutions 
  • Focus on quality while maximising service delivery. 

2.7 Accountability 

  • Recruit and promote employees on merit
  • Take responsibility for decisions and actions
  • Provide transparency to enable public scrutiny
  • Observe standards for safety
  • Be fiscally responsible and focus on efficient, effective, and prudent use of resources. 

I have placed in italics the values that are most often violated in acts of discrimination and exclusion against staff with disability. That’s 11 in all. That’s 69% of the values.

The Code includes the following (the italics are mine):

4.1 The effect of behaviour that is contrary to the Code 

Behaviour contrary to this Code and to the Ethical framework for the government sector can bring individual employees into disreputeundermine productive working relationships in the workplace, hinder customer service delivery, and damage public trust in the Commission or the broader government sector. 

It is noticeable that the effect of causing injury is not mentioned at all. Injury to reputation is mentioned. And yet it is fully understood that discrimination, bullying and abuse (all violations of the Code of Conduct) cause personal psychological and physical injury (through precipitating illness). Of course, a staff member with disability subjected to such violations also suffers reputational injury as well.

4.2 If you see behaviour contrary to this Code 

If you see someone act in ways that are contrary to this Code, you should in the first instance discuss that person’s behaviour with your immediate supervisor or manager, or report your concerns to any member of the executive.

Notice here that a staff member is not told they ‘must’, but they ‘should’ discuss the conduct with their immediate manager (or next up if their line manager is the person in question) – hence effectively rendering the desired response optional. A lack of trust in the line of management will also weaken any resolve.

For employees in the Public Service, the GSE Act sets out the actions that a Public Service agency head may take where there is a finding of misconduct against an employee. These actions are as follows: 

  • Terminate the employment of the employee (without giving the employee an opportunity to resign) 
  • Terminate the employment of the employee (after giving the employee an opportunity to resign) 
  • Impose a fine on the employee (which may be deducted from the remuneration payable to the employee) 
  • Reduce the remuneration payable to the employee 
  • Reduce the classification or grade of the employee 
  • Assign the employee to a different role 
  • Caution or reprimand the employee. 

What is absent from this list, and what I find disappointing, is imposing a requirement for an employee to undergo a developmental opportunity to address their discriminatory conduct – as part of a caution or reprimand. Just doing either alone is, I think, insufficient.


The most common complaint by staff with disability is a failure or refusal by a manager to treat them in a respectful, inclusive, or fair manner. In short, managers acting in violation of the Code of Conduct.

The expectation that such a violation, when reported, will be taken seriously, is very frequently unfulfilled. The move to making a formal complaint triggers a complex and unequal process that rarely works out well for the complainant. This also tends to precipitate processes that are adversarial, rather than conciliatory, and which support outcomes that are punitive rather than corrective (making the experience a developmental opportunity).

Even senior executive responses to advice of demonstrable violations of the Code of Conduct is often inadequate. Responsibility for action is understandably delegated – but it often appears that such delegation is not followed up with confirmation of effective action.

Here is where the language of a comfortable community takes precedence over the articulation of non-negotiable duties and obligations. Violations of the Code of Conduct against staff with disability are rarely met with a willingness to take unambiguous action that holds the perpetrator to account – resulting in punitive or developmental outcomes.

A staff member with disability who reports that they are subject to discrimination should not be forced to submit a formal complaint. The offense is against the agency if the matter is a violation of the Code of Conduct – since the requirement to abide by the Code of Conduct is made by the agency, not the staff member with disability.

This seems to be rarely understood. It may be a technical matter that a staff member with disability does not allege a breach of the Code of Conduct is a direct and technical way. Another potential source of misunderstanding is that maybe the staff member with disability should ‘work the matter out’ with the other party, or ‘negotiate’ with them. Neither option is incorporated in the Code of Conduct. The matter should be handed on to a senior manager or executive to deal with.

Offences against members of the public, or agency property or assets are far more likely to trigger action. Staff who fail to perform to a required standard will be put on a performance improvement plan far sooner than a manager who is abusive to staff with disability will be held to account for their failure to perform to the required standard.

It is imperative that the language of mandatory compliance is not watered down to become an optional component of a leadership role. Accountability is a core NSW Public Sector value that is so often missing in action – as testified to by staff with disability who suffer in silence, complain, and get no resolution, take ‘stress leave’ under WorkCover, or quit.

It is imperative that action is taken by those in whom is vested the responsibility for ensuring accountability.

Why Does This Happen?


Over the Christmas New Year break I had several conversations with a former colleague with disability who had experienced serial bullying. He asked a question I could not answer easily – Why did staff in a public sector agency committed to serving the welfare of the community abuse another staff member – and why did executives who were aware of that conduct not act to stop it

It’s a good question. It deserves a good answer. The questioner is still hurting. Like other adults subject to abusive and demeaning conduct the effect of the experience is to cause a kind of shame – because an adult with otherwise full agency and dignity is robbed of both when they are at work. The solution to quit is not always open for a variety of reasons. In any case that does not address or excuse the abusive conduct. 

I draw a distinction between a child and an adult experiencing bullying and abuse only because a child knows they are powerless – because they are a child. They still know it’s wrong, but they also know that’s the lot of a powerless person. At least that’s my experience. 

An adult must deal with being disempowered and the cognitive dissonance of being effectively two people – an adult with dignity in their private life and one with none at work. 

This is Our Normal

The public sector is an expression of our community. The principle of inclusion demands that the public sector workforce reflects the make-up of the community. That’s one of the arguments for increasing the size of  proportion of the workforce that is people with disability. 

On this logic we might expect that there will be a fair proportion of bullies, abusers and psychopaths as well. 

Recruitment practices don’t filter them out because they have not been designed to do so. Though now the introduction of psychometric testing goes some way to addressing that lack. There is, however, already an unfiltered population in the sector. 

People whose character and conduct are not ideal also possess desirable attributes that they promote over the less desirable ones. Such people can also be competent at concealing their true nature. 

This is normal. We all do it. We all possess attributes which, if permitted free reign, would be harmful to others. But we keep them under control – well most of us do. And we conceal them too.

The next consideration is the presence or absence of self-critical awareness. A normal psychologically healthy person possesses a fair degree of self-awareness – a conscience. If they offend or harm another person, they are usually aware of having done so – or acknowledge it when informed. They may feel guilty, apologize, and maybe make amends. The less self-aware may employ tactics of self-justification. 

People who are prone to abusive or bullying conduct are not psychologically healthy, and are not disposed to self-critical awareness. The cause of that psychological ill health may be trauma from experiences in their own childhood, youth or adulthood. In my reading on psychopathy, I came across arguments that unempathic behaviour may be down to a brain state and have nothing to do with any traumatic experience. We do know that trauma impacts our brains and can lock in responses that are beyond ready conscious modification. So, whether it’s down to a pre-natal or experiential factor the cause of bullying and abuse is beyond unaided intent to change. It is a disability. 

Not every unsuitable person who aspires to leadership roles is aware they are not suited to them. In fact, sometimes the attributes that make them unsuitable are disguised as desirable attributes. Well, at least that’s how our culture has framed things. You don’t want soldiers to be empathic toward the enemy if the goal is to kill them. The unwillingness of soldiers to shoot to kill has been a well-documented problem in the past. 

There are some roles where ‘too much’ empathy is not desirable – and too little is bad, but not as bad as too much. Getting that balance right, in some public service roles, can be difficult – and this creates space for the dangerously unempathic to remain.

The ‘too much/too little’ empathy problem concerns a perception of morality that is neither well understood nor spoken of sufficiently. The problem is resolved in favour of too little because of a general lack of self-awareness. I came across this problem a few years back when a worker in a non-custodial community-based role in Corrective Services was obliged to undertake a security course designed for prison officers. The very real risk of an overly empathic response to a prison inmate leading to corrupt conduct had to be addressed by limiting, even eliminating, empathy. It was necessary to ensure that custodial officers were aware of this, and could guard against being drawn into corrupt conduct – in themselves, and others.

What was interesting in this instance was that even though the service was a non-custodial and community-based partly Commonwealth funded scheme to help former prison inmates secure housing, the staff and manager (nearly all custodial officers) could not adapt; and responded to the empathic behaviour of staff with no Corrective Services background with hostility. This included accusations of corrupt conduct – which was why the staff member I knew was being forced to attend the security course. Empathy was the desired response in helping a former prison inmate find a place to live. None of the risks of the custodial setting applied.

A similar situation concerned a former Child Protection Caseworker who told me of the trouble he got into with his manager. He had explained to parents the consequences of being non-compliant to requirements concerning their child’s welfare – and they rapidly changed to being compliant and cooperative. When his manager became aware of the family’s changed conduct my friend was asked if he knew why. He explained that the parents did not understand the risk their family was under – that their child may be removed if they did not address the perceived risks to his safety and wellbeing. So, he explained situation to the parents. Once they understood, they promptly addressed those perceived risks.

His manager’s response was to very specifically direct him to never again provide such clarification to a family. My friend understood that the parents did not understand his department’s power, and felt he had a duty to explain it. He thought his manager’s directive was improper; and was part of a culture that saw the removal of a child a moral ‘victory’. The idea that he or any other worker might be empathic toward a family brought to the attention of child protection services was considered a betrayal of that culture. I have heard similar stories from other former caseworkers. Mercifully efforts to reform that culture have been in place for a few years now.

There is a place, in public service roles, for managing empathic responses to avoid being induced into inappropriate leniency or even corrupt conduct. But if such efforts result in empathy being closed down completely, catastrophe can ensue – as the infamous Stanford prison guard experiment demonstrates. 

Empathic and compassionate behaviour can be impeded by biological and experiential factors – and this can be made worse by situational factors. This is part of the spectrum of what is normal in some public sector workplaces.

What Can Be Done?

The obligation of any public servant is to behave at a standard that may not be normal for them. Codes of Conduct require fair and equal treatment toward individuals or groups who might otherwise be disliked, shunned, or considered to be offensive on religious or cultural grounds.

Whatever one’s personal views, if they are not in conformity with the Code of Conduct that is agreed to on commencement of employment, those personal views must be suspended when on duty. But that does not happen for a variety of reasons, some of which are complex.

As discussed above, a lack of empathy may beyond self-control and self-awareness. An aversion, or antipathy, to individuals, classes of persons, or groups may be so ingrained in culture or personal behaviour that surrendering those attitudes is simply not acceptable.

The best any agency can do is: 

  • establish standards of conduct that ensure fair dealing and dignity to all, 
  • create a work culture in which conformity to the required standards of conduct is the normal, 
  • and ensure the more egregious violations are addressed; when they become apparent. 

It cannot demand that the desired conduct is adopted as a personal standard. As a result, some staff will feign compliance to no apparent ill effect. A minority will feign compliance while discriminating against staff and service users against whom they have some form of animosity. Some of such conduct may be unconscious. It is frequently deliberately concealed.

So, for a variety of reasons, conduct that is harmful to the welfare of staff and service users may be present in any workforce despite a strong commitment to ethical conduct in conformity with a Code of Conduct.

A capacity to identify and address non-conforming conduct is essential to ensure conformity to the principles of equity and inclusion. For this to happen, effective leadership is necessary. However, an organisation must ensure that none of its leaders are non-conforming. And here there is the root of the problem.

The Leadership Problem

Last year I read a NSW Public Sector document that referred to managers and workers. It would have to have been reviewed by a manager, a Director, and an Executive Director, at least. They all must have thought that the archaic terminology that should have died out at least 3 decades ago was still okay.

There was a time when ‘managers’ and ‘workers’ came from different classes. In most public sector agencies that’s not so flagrantly the case now. However, the wage differentials between executives on contract and crown employees on award-based pay are real. In NSW Executive Directors start on $300,000 ( of 18/11/2021). A grade 11/12 manager’s salary maxes out at $151,601 (2021 figures). Non-manager grades usually max out round $110,000. So, senior executives are, in a way, a class apart – in the work they do, what they are paid, and the nature of their engagement.

It would be absurd to argue that this does not make a difference. Better pay gives a very different lifestyle; and defines who are your social peers. At work degrees of seniority define who you mix with – and consequently what stories you are exposed to.

I certainly know Directors, Executive Directors, and Deputy Secretaries who remain deeply aware of, and committed to, the welfare of their staff. They respond swiftly and effectively to reports of injurious conduct by managers or executives – or by other staff; if that become necessary.

But I have a list of instances of executives who are not only unresponsive, but obstructive. Add to this a somewhat longer list of managers, and it is possible to make a few observations.

Being in a leadership role, and despite being very well paid for doing so, does not apparently motivate many leaders to engage in much professional development. Leadership has become far more complex over the past few decades, with a greater emphasis upon supporting staff in a psychologically informed way. Leader is not just another word for manager. It’s a skillset of a distinct character. It’s a skillset that has to be developed and refined.

I learned this back in 2011 when I completed an Associate Certificate in Applied Management from the Australian Applied Management Colloquium – a 6-month course paid for by my department (around $10,000 per person as I recall – but cheaper now). It had 11 modules aimed at developing “more confident, adaptive and effective leaders” (according to the current website). I list the modules I experienced to illustrate what a foundational program on effective leadership looked like in 2011.

  • Core Leadership and Management
  • Authenticity, Leadership and Management
  • Team Dynamics
  • Driving Performance
  • Managerial Communication competencies
  • Leadership, Presence, and Influence
  • Innovation and Change
  • Strategic Problem Solving
  • Facilitate Continuous Improvement
  • Developing a Workplace Learning Environment
  • Personal Vision and Brand

Leadership skills are what I see as missing in too many members of what are called Leadership Teams these days. But being called a leader doesn’t make you one.  And if leadership skills are wanting, performance as a manager is much weaker. We have long ago moved from the command and control mindset to one of insight and influence. This is no better illustrated in the following 4 books.

  • Fearless Leadership: How to Overcome Behavioural Blindspots and Transform Your Organization, Loretta Malandro, 2009
  • Managing and Leading People Through Organizational Change, Julia Hodges, 2016
  • Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Brene Brown, 2018
  • How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, R. Kegan and L.L. Lahey, 2000

Leadership is a quality that is not tied to formal roles, but habits of workplace culture can and do force personal attributes and qualities into a distant second against formal status in a management hierarchy. 

A person’s integrity can be judged by their position in the hierarchy, rather than their personal attributes. The hierarchy of responsibility and authority is necessary to ensure an organisation can run well and deliver on its obligations. But the old habit of assuming that personal merit is tied to position is difficult to break.

A contemporary public sector organisation is far more intellectually demanding to run than it was 30 or 40 years ago. This places a higher demand on intellect and character for all in formal management/leadership roles. It’s no place for non-conforming, non-compliant managers.


Malandro’s ‘Behavioural Blindspots’ in the title of her excellent book is, I believe, a critical insight into why, despite well-articulated best intentions, sincerely held, organisations fail to change in critical areas as quickly as they should to.

Management and leadership of contemporary public sector organisations is far more complex because staff are valued in a different way now. I started in the public sector in the mid 1960s. I worked in 4 Commonwealth Departments before transferring to NSW departments at the beginning of the 1990s. I worked in 3 departments before taking time out to go to the UK and then, from December 2001 I worked for the one agency in its various forms to June 2021. 

The emergence of Leadership as a key skill has been progressive, but irresistible. The difference between great managers/leaders in the late 1960s and 2021 is absent in terms of the character and integrity of the individuals, but massive in terms of the skill levels. The difference in the complexity of the organisational culture is vast.

There is not, in my view, a sufficient number of great leaders with the skills and knowledge to ensure that the ‘behavioural blindspots’ which can provide concealment for non-conforming staff (especially managers and executives) can be eliminated. Until this happens the bullying and abuse of staff with disability my former colleague speaks of will not cease.

I hope this answers his question.

Inertia is Normal, But it Doesn’t Mean That’s Its Okay


Things change slowly, but they change more slowly if there is no sense of urgency, and no energy applied to drive the change. What is it about inclusion that prompts the excluded to want it and others to offer it slowly – as if it is an inconvenience and a privilege?

I joined the ADHC Disability Employee Network (DEN) when it started in July 2010. Around 6 years and 4 months later I became Chair. During that time there were quarterly meetings and little else besides. That was normal, and still is. Quarterly meetings are perfectly fine if things are happening in between.

In July 2010 the one thing I wanted to see happen was the development of a workplace adjustment policy. I had returned to work after an 18-month absence in September 2009 after contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome. I had an acquired disability and there was no guidance on how I should be treated. There was guidance for return to work with a disability caused by a work-related incident, just not otherwise. 

These were days when the idea of a DEN was fairly new, and the organisation was coming to terms with the need to address inclusion and access issues. Nothing was happening quickly. That disappointed many DEN members – who then became passive again. The initial enthusiasm for the DEN waned over the years because there really was no evidence of significant change, and a lot of people were suffering discriminatory conduct and inaccessible tech, processes, and systems.

Even now, addressing many of the inclusion and accessibility concerns does not happen quickly. But consider this. If what is under consideration is a work health and safety matter, how promptly would it be addressed? 

Why are issues of dignity, inclusion and psychological wellbeing not given the same level of urgency? This is what I want to explore here.

Why Is It So?

How long should it take to write a Workplace Adjustment Policy? The 5 years it took the for the first effort? Why not 5 months?

Bureaucratic procedures are drawn out. The business of researching, consulting, drafting, and review prior to submission for approval is necessary. How long this may take is down to a question of priority and resource allocation. In a complex organisation there will be multiple priorities being worked on at the same time. All kinds of unknowns may intrude to delay progress. Some things can go only at a certain pace – slow. Whether this is true may be disputable, but it’s the entrenched wisdom, so fighting it can be a waste of time.

What is missing from this equation is a purely human process using agreements in principle and discretion. The question to be answered is “What should happen while the formal process is working out?” The answer should not be “Nothing.” However, it is often the response. Why is that?

Developing policy is one thing. Responding to a staff member’s needs is another. In relation to workplace adjustments, the most common complaint, even when there is a policy, is that a manager fails or refuses to act. And when there is an effort to address that problem there is often inaction from key parties.

Facilitating a workplace adjustment should be easy for everybody. Sometimes it may be necessary to bring in professional expertise, such as a physiotherapist, but often it is a matter of making a decision; and making it so. When a manager fails, or refuses, to act what happens? Who does the staff member talk to? Who talks to the manager?

This, surprisingly, seems to be a tangled mess of uncertainty. Nobody has confident knowledge. Staff, generally, have no clear idea what to do when their manager acts in a manner not consistent with their assessment of what is necessary for their wellbeing. They often do not have confidence they can go to their next manager up, or higher. 

A reason for that lack of confidence is that often going to the next manager up does not resolve the issue; and it risks a backlash from the unresponsive manager who does not appreciate being by-passed.

In the NSW public sector, staff have policies and processes they can turn to if they need to submit a complaint. But that’s not the best solution first up. If there are no agreed recourses available prior to submitting a complaint, there is often a deterioration in the relationship between team member and their line manager that will lead to a complaint being lodged. Such an action is driven by despair; and can end badly for the complainant.

There is often an absence of proactive leadership that is committed to ensuring that a staff member with disability who requests a workplace adjustment has that need addressed promptly. Instead, there is a muddle of unaccountability that ignores the welfare of the staff member. 

What to Do?

I am conscious of a certain repetition of themes in my writing – leadership quality and speed of response to acknowledged need. I am reminded of an observation that there are only 7 themes in storytelling. Whether a movie is set in ancient Greece, in Victorian times, or 2,000 years in the future the stories told will be some combination of those 7 fundamental themes.

In disability activism there are only 4 themes – who we are, what we need, why we can’t get it, and why it takes so long. There are thousands of stories, and they are told in one of more of those themes. It’s all about overcoming resistance. 

A story that does not have peril is hardly worth telling. Disability confers adversity upon the individual in two ways. The fact of the disability itself, and the exclusion or inaccessibility that arises through interacting with the environment (physical, cultural, work etc). Stories also have morals and outcomes – triumph or defeat.

Few people are unaware of disability rights and the commitment to inclusion and accessibility. Certainly, no manager or executive in the public sector can claim ignorance as a defence. So why are disability stories that have environmental peril and defeat in them still being told?

What is the defence of those who do not act to uphold a person’s rights, and preserve their dignity? How can we remove peril and defeat from the story? In public sector employment there should be no such stories still being told.

Michael Coutts-Trotter, the former Secretary of the NSW Department of Communities and Justice, let staff know they could contact him directly if they had any concerns they could not resolve. That openness is so often taken as just form. It wasn’t. Every senior executive should let it be known they are approachable and responsive to a failure by their leadership team to ensure there are no stories about environmental perils and defeat being lived out in their business area.

Every executive should see that being an active disability champion is a vital part of their job. This is what is missing. It is the human dimension of modelling sound leadership through relationships with staff in their business area. There should be no nook or cranny that can hide managers who neglect their responsibilities to their teams. Senior leaders react with surprise when they hear of a staff member with disability experiencing discrimination or abuse. But it is rarely asked why this has happened, and action taken to ensure such an experience is not repeated. Neither is there an exploration of the cause.

Executive leaders reasonably expect their leadership team to lead responsibly and justly. And they are told this is happening, even when it is not. I recall listening to a podcast in which an organisational leader confessed he worried about whether his managers were lying to him. That’s a rational fear. It does happen, and on critical matters. Lies should be expected.

The solution is to make the welfare of staff a genuine agenda item at all meetings, to communicate a genuine message of openness to issues caused by managers, and to ensure there is real accountability for managers who demonstrate a failure to be responsive. This would eliminate the most egregious behaviours that are the cause of most complaints by staff with disability. It is not difficult.


Very early on with the DEN I argued that responding to the needs of staff with disability should be treated like a Work Health and Safety (WHS) matter. It was not a popular notion. In fact, the idea was resisted, politely, but firmly.

The resistance made it clear to me that even though there was a genuine commitment to disability inclusion and accessibility, it was seen more as a rights and values concern than one of welfare and safety. Staff with disability are, in fact, subjected to serious risks to their wellbeing – physical and psychological – when their need for a workplace adjustment is not addressed. 

Response to such needs is frequently not considered to be urgent, and may be left unmet for months, and even years – with no sense of shame or remorse, even when the outcome of inaction is serious harm. What should also be alarming is that a staff member with disability who advocates for their needs is often targeted for bullying and abuse by the very people who declined to respond to them. Advocacy is seen as an offence against an established order. This is true, even when that established order does not conform to policy or law. Worse, there is often a perception that managers ‘close ranks’ protectively. In effect they are enforcing inaction as a norm.

And still, the inertia is normal. Stories of peril and defeat are still being told.

Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness, and Emotional Well-Being


I am thinking of the people I am most in touch with outside any sense of obligation. Ten is enough. I need a cut off number and that’s a good one for my purpose. There’s a mix. Siblings and other relatives, friends, and former colleagues with whom I have an ongoing interaction. These are people I like and care about. 

Three are not people I’d assess as having any significant emotional health concerns – but 2 have experienced traumatic events that have caused a disruption in their professional performance at least once. 

Of the remaining 7, 3 have had some kind of clinical intervention, including medication for a diagnosed psychological condition. The remaining 4 have struggled with mood and motivation for sustained periods. 

My original list was 15, but I eliminated 5 former colleagues I have come to know because of my involvement in disability inclusion. Of them two have clinical diagnoses for a psychological condition, and the other 3 experienced trauma or stress that has led to struggles with mood and motivation. Three of these people have a disability that is not psychological in nature. 

Of the first 10, half are very creative, and half are on the very high end of the intelligence spectrum – a few are in both groups. This group of 10 I know at a pretty reasonable level of authenticity. 

I have been reading in psychology for many years, though I haven’t studied it formally. Since early December 2018 I have been keeping a list of audiobooks (my disability makes hard copy really difficult to handle). As well as 5 books on psychology or psychotherapy, I listed 27 books under professional development – 10 on some aspect of organizational psychology, and 17 personal or individual psychology.

Way back I spent quite a bit of time encountering severe cognitive and behavioural disorders when I worked in psychiatric hospitals and with licensed boarding houses.

I am laying all this out because I want to talk about a theme that is contentious – the difference between mental and emotional ill health – and, in particular, whether talking about mental illness is a useful idea. I don’t think it is.

What I Am Not Doing

I am not contesting whether there is such a thing as mental illness. Personally, I don’t like the term – but that is on philosophical grounds. I accept the term is in common usage. There are psychological conditions that render an individual dysfunctional and a danger to themselves and others – and for whom strong interventions such as medication or confinement for treatment or control are indicated. But people with such conditions are very rare in workplaces.

The most common diagnoses in our workplaces are affective (mood – like depression) disorders, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and these I want to focus on. I am not excluding anything else for any reason other than I don’t want to be constantly making exceptions. Most of the people I know have been formally diagnosed, or acknowledge they have, one or more of these conditions. There tends to be 3 options for managing these conditions – medication, some form of psychotherapy, or self-management. 

Nothing I say below should be construed to be any more than my non-clinical opinion offered to stimulate conversation.

The Needless Stigma of the Mental Illness Label

Back in 2018 I gave a presentation, as DEN Chair, to a meeting of Young Professionals. Afterwards I was quickly accosted by 3 guys who wanted to know what the DEN would be doing about mental illness. Were they asking on their own account, or on behalf of colleagues? I didn’t ask. I had to confess that I was rebuilding the membership, and this was a complex area I didn’t have the resources to tackle, at the moment.

Things got moving the following year when one of my now former colleagues with a diagnosed condition of clinical depression joined the DEN and went public with their personal story in the department’s electronic newsletter. At the beginning of 2020 she observed that nothing had changed. The stigma still hung over her and others.

The trouble with the term, mental illness, is that it used by people who have had no exposure any information on the subject. As a consequence, they rely on stereotypes drawn from popular culture.

The term suggests an illness of the mind – a mental disorder. This can be interpreted as irrational and impaired thought, and disordered conduct. These are not attributes that are desirable in a team member.

Mental illness is depicted as disturbing and dangerous in popular culture. And this is true of some instances. But here we run afoul of a bad habit we all have – seeing the worst of a general category as representative of the whole. Mind you, we can also do the same thing with the best.

Most people will not, on their own account, research something like mental illness to arrive at an informed and balanced point of view. They will be receptive to information; and may be prepared to shift their personal perspective. But a lot of folk will also think they know enough, and resist changing their opinions.

So, a person who lives with anxiety or depression, who exhibits neither disordered thought nor conduct, is taking a risk if they decided to ‘disclose’ their condition to a manager or colleague. Sometimes they see a need to ask for an accommodation at a time when their anxiety or depression is particularly active. But the risk of being treated badly may be assessed as too great.

A colleague told me of their bruising encounter with a manager. External circumstances had triggered a need to ask for an extension of time to a deadline. Their condition had ramped up and they were struggling to focus. They needed time out.

The manager’s response was blunt – if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. My colleague had been delivering high quality work consistently for several years in this team, and never asked for any accommodation. They were shocked; and hurt. Worse, now their ‘secret’ was out, their manager’s attitude toward them changed. Their judgement was no longer trusted, and their work was suddenly subjected to hyper-critical assessment. 

What happened here was an instance of bullying by a manager who saw a staff member who was vulnerable – and struck. This is not a usual thing. It does appear that 80% of managers would not behave this way. But the few who do can do great harm.

Living with a disability can be hard enough as it is. Anxiety and depression are diagnosable conditions precisely because they can be periodically debilitating, and some kind of intervention to bring relief is sought. But they do not usually lead to disordered thought or conduct. They don’t impair performance – as is demonstrated by the number of people who don’t disclose, and who achieve at high levels – and in senior management roles.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the price of that high achievement is paid through ongoing personal struggle and pain. We all experience periods of anxiety and depression – and then they pass. Relationship breakdowns, hoping for and then not getting that job, the death of someone close – these can bring us low, and then we rebound. But for others the ‘rebound switch’ does not work as well.

So why stigmatise a person whose switch does not work well? This is not only an emotionally cruel thing to do; it adds an additional burden to one already present.

The Needless Burden of Disability

Like all things, disability is on a scale. Being blind or deaf, for example, maybe normal for the individual, but there is a cognitive cost that must be paid just to participate in life with any sense of equity. Discrimination, by accident or intentionally imposed, adds a burden that does not have to be there.

My ankles do not work. Every move I make while upright has to be conscious – if I don’t want to fall over. I can no longer walk with the careless ease that is the hallmark attribute of being human. Now every step must be intentional. My goal has been to get through a year without falling. I haven’t achieved it yet.

When I sit, I am safe, but then my hand disabilities come into play. My grip is impaired by digits that do not work as designed. I could just sit and do nothing of course – but my ears and eyes are just fine.

For me an inaccessible physical world adds a burden of stress and effort – from floors that are slippery to containers I cannot open without tools and effort. Its not fun. Sometimes its frustrating. Despair isn’t an option. This is my reality. I benefit from the social model of disability which is progressively removing barriers with better design and more sensitive conduct from others. 

But even with barriers removed things are not easy. Last weekend I took 4 hours (working virtually non-stop for the last 3) to deliver a curry with spicey rice and 3 side dishes – even with help finishing off the side dishes. That was in my own kitchen, which is fairly well set up. In earlier days that would have been a relaxed 90 mins at the most.

It’s worth being reminded what the social model is:

The social model sees ‘disability’ is the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers. It therefore carries the implication that the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment must change to enable people living with impairments to participate in society on an equal basis with others. (

People with psychological disabilities are not so lucky at times. Their burdens from disability are usually not visible. But they are no less heavy. They can be exhausting emotionally in the same way a physical disability can be physically draining.

There are 4 barriers in the social model: physical, attitudinal, communication and social.Having to encounter and adapt to attitudinal barriers born of ignorance, fear and prejudice is an added burden of emotional stress that is not often recognised, because the disability is not visible – often protectively so. It is only among ‘safe’ people can the guard be let down and the real level of emotional pain revealed.

Who wants to be thought unpredictable, unreliable or incompetent because of something that has nothing to do with work performance? There are times when we are all sub-par because of a physical injury, an illness or an allergy – and we need an accommodation. Our reputations are not injured by it. But if the cause is psychical, rather than physical it can be a very different story.

How Do We Remove Attitudinal Barriers?

While it’s good that we have a social model of disability, its not much use unless we work at dismantling all the barriers. We are doing pretty across all 4 in some areas – but we are nowhere near close to complete removal. However, one area where we are doing very badly is attitudes toward what we call mental illness.

We can see how badly we do this when we stumble over awkward euphemisms like “mental health issues”. Sometimes this is truncated to just “mental health” – as in “He’s got mental health.” This is real. I have heard it half a dozen times.

My inclination is to get well away from ‘mental health’. I favour emotional health or psychological injury. I know there are philosophical arguments that can masquerade as scientific ones here. I am happy to have that argument, but not here.

There are two solutions I see as viable:

  1. Deliver training on what mental illness is really about to break through the stereotypes, the fear, the prejudice.
  2. Develop a program on building emotional awareness and health outside the clinical framework of psychology and psychiatry. If we are more capable of talking about our inner states, without using clinical or scientific language, we may become less fearful of, and less disposed to misunderstand, people who say they need us to back off on demands for a little.

The difference between a ‘normal’ person and person with a diagnosis of depression or anxiety may only be that their ‘normal’ is other people’s bad day. Rather than freaking out about the fact they have a diagnosed psychological condition, we should be impressed that somebody whose life is like our bad days non-stop seems no different to us most of the time. They need time out? Hell yeah!

I use the term ‘burden’ here intentionally. The emotional pressure of being as ‘normal’ as possible can be challenging, and now and then a person gets close to breaking point. This applies to working parents with young children, those who care for ageing parents or a child with disability – as well as others. A friend is looking after his ageing parents and doing a PhD as well as working fulltime. There are times he exhausted – physically and emotionally. Oh, and he’s been renovating his house as well.

It just happens that with some people, their background burden is a busted switch. If we owned who we are as humans – with inner lives that can turn to **** for a short time, a longer time or a long time, we might be kinder, and more gentle, when responding to an expressed need for accommodation.

By and large staff tend to be pretty good with their workmates. Its managers who cause much more grief. An unempathic manager might be just one person, but they impact a whole team, or a whole business area.

The Global Leadership Foundation has a vision of helping to build emotionally healthy organisations with emotionally healthy leaders. I love that idea. They are not the only people with that objective, just the one that helped me see it as a simple articulation of a vitally important goal.


It has been abundantly evident that, over the past few years, the emotional wellbeing of staff has become a major concern for employers. Various strategies have been put in place to encourage self-care; and identify early signs of potential crisis. These are welcome, because a diverse array of responses is needed for a diverse workforce.

However, I have seen no mental health ‘myth-busting’ sessions for managers and leaders. The stigma of ‘mental illness’ remains. There’s a reason that leaders are called leaders. Encouraging staff to participate in the available programs and strategies is not leadership. Leaders must model empathy, and if that does not come naturally, they must put the effort in to address that lack. Contemporary leadership requires competence in empathy, as well as operating beyond fear and ignorance.

On the wider frame we must come to understand that the difference between the ups and downs that colour all our lives and those whose lives are mostly ups or downs is a faulty switch that may be caused by trauma or a cerebral malfunction. If we are to be truly inclusive, we must accept that such is just part of the spectrum of being human. It’s not a flaw of character or mentality. It’s just a heavier burden than others carry.

We do not make being a parent or a carer the subject of stigma. Though once we did. There was a time, not so long ago, when a woman was not considered suitable for promotion because of the risk of motherhood. Neither was a woman considered as intelligent, or as rational, as a man. Being a woman was a disability. It carried a stigma.

We have sorted out that ignorance and fear, well, almost. Now we must do the same for people with psychological injuries – and with the same determination, passion, and compassion. That means effective leadership and action at all levels. 

Stigmaa mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. (Oxford Dictionary)

There are some things that are rightly a subject of disgrace. A psychological injury is not one. Neither is a mental illness. We are better than that.