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. 

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