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?

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