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Don’t fake it: women see through culture change phonies

EXCLUSIVE: Defence’s culture change progress report reveals women aren’t fooled when male bosses’ public enthusiasm is little more than a script and doesn’t match their actions.

An employee survey at the half way mark of Department of Defence’s five-year program to tackle abuse and other unacceptable behaviour in the workplace reveals there is a still a long way to go. The feedback was drawn from Navy, Army, Air Force and APS employees via an anonymous internal survey.

The Unacceptable Behaviour Surveys Comments Analysis report — unpublished, but shown to The Mandarin — identified trust and ownership as the two key areas that needed more attention for the final phases of the culture change programs.

While many women appreciated the leadership-driven commitment to culture change, others suggested male bosses undermine the efforts by not enforcing the new standard, inconsistency, and even inauthentic body language.

Former chief of Army David Morrison’s celebrated viral video asserting “the standard we walk past is the standard we set” was identified by respondents as one of the authentic demonstrations of leadership with positive impact both inside the department and the wider Australian community.

But the powerful message was easily undone in the eyes of some when words and actions were not aligned. Wrote one female APS employee:

“I was very impressed to hear [then] Chief of Army’s speech last year … it is therefore very disappointing to observe (and hear about) senior leaders including the [redacted] using unacceptable behaviour — including bullying, yelling, verbal abuse. Watching our senior leadership accept this behaviour demonstrates that I would not be in a position to challenge unacceptable [behaviour] against myself.”

Defence’s number two Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, who currently has carriage of the Pathway to Change culture change program, was pulled up for his earlier performance in an interview which had a subtle but lasting impact that was not positive. Another female APS employee wrote:

“[Griggs] said all the right words, however his tone, manner and body language were quite disingenuous and at odds with his words.”

She added it had:

“… seriously detrimental effect on the credibility of his office when promoting … cultural reform programs.”

If not the most polished spokesperson, Griggs was responsible for the most successful of Defence’s culture change interventions, according to the anonymous employee feedback. That intervention, Next Generation Navy, was praised in many of the comments, and far more than equivalent programs New Horizons (Air Force) and Pathway to Change (Defence-wide, with particular urgency for Army).

Managers setting a bad example

Meanwhile, blame was apportioned in many directions, including the old guard who are happy to talk about values but didn’t do much to actually implement them over their careers, and new recruits for bringing in community values that aren’t aligned with Defence values, but perhaps the most frequent target for blame was managers. One female APS employee wrote:

“Managers seem to answer to no one and ANY attempt to confront or request fair treatment makes working life pure hell.”

A male APS employee complained of a lack of contemporary management practices:

“The best that can be said is that it operates on a divide-and-conquer method in dealing with staff.”

Instead of being the agents of change for carrying out the senior leadership’s culture change direction, managers were repeatedly cited as the problem. Another female APS employee:

“There should be no place for yelling at staff in the Australian public service. Instead of blaming others for making them angry, managers who resort to this kind of bullying treatment (regardless of pay grade) should exercise some self-control and behave like functioning adults instead.”

Some commenters attributed the abuse to stress from the responsibility of the positions, others saw intentional blind spots from the very top. A male Army officer wrote:

“There are still clear cases where senior officers indulge in bullying and harassment of staff. Their superiors are often aware of this conduct yet excuse it as ‘just the way he/she is’ or because of the short term results they can achieve via this management style.”

‘What problem?’

Despite the leadership’s sustained effort to confront unfair and inappropriate treatment of women, some respondents, all men, explicitly or implicitly defended Defence’s culture.

“I haven’t seen more bullying in Defence [than] any other workplaces, it seems on par with the rest of the world,” one male APS employee wrote. While, an Army member took the “bad apples” approach, and didn’t put much stock in Morrison’s “standard we walk past” message:

“The behaviour of a minority of Defence members does not reflect the values of Defence as a whole, and in fact the offenders in these cases perform these unwholesome acts on their own terms as individuals.”

Top image: Department of Defence. Australian Army officer Colonel Amanda Fielding, Gender Adviser Joint Operations Command (right), talks with organisers of the Defence Women’s Speaker Series event held at the Australian War Memorial.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.