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 (glassdoor.com.au 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.

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