Outstanding evidence for PROSOCIAL in a government agency setting

As director of organizational leadership and performance at ANU Enterprise, the commercial arm of the Australian National University, the CEO of an Australian Federal Government Agency approached me with the question, “Are you able to help develop innovative and strategic approaches to doing business while cultivating a responsive and motivated workforce?” The particular agency was one of the main cultural institutions in Canberra, the capital city of Australia, with approximately 130 staff working across multiple divisions. Together they were responsible for hosting exhibitions and education activities related to the social and political history of Australia through to the preservation and maintenance a heritage collection and building. They were a diverse group of groups. We took a multi-disciplinary approach to helping based on the PROSOCIAL core design principles. This involved combining two empirically validated methods from the disciplines of contextual behavioral science and systems engineering to show significant positive change in organizational performance.


Over twelve months from 2014 to 2015 we took the agency through a series of processes that focused on one, or several, of the core design principles. These included: strategic foresighting and roadmapping to establish a sense of purpose at multiple levels across the organization; the development of norms of trust and reciprocity within and between groups; and, enhancing the psychological flexibility of those involved to augment levels of intrinsic motivation. The whole process was complemented by executive coaching and action learning which supported transfer of learning and the integration of the core principles and practices into the workplace. Results show significant improvements in performance and wellbeing at the personal, interpersonal, workgroup and agency levels. This particular integration of ideas and practices from the disciplines involved potentially represents a new and innovative approach to organizational development.


In this article I outline the key ideas employed from the behavioral sciences and engineering, the design of the intervention, the results we obtained, and suggest some implications for this approach.


Key Ideas from Contextual Behavioral Science and Systems Engineering



Our approach to developing prosociality with our client organization incorporated three core activities complemented by action learning/research. Based on the needs of the organization we targeted strategy and vision; group design; and, personal responsiveness. Each of these is discussed below.


1. Vision and Strategy


Clarity of purpose, Core Design Principle (CDP) #1, is essential to any group or organization and so we began with the organization’s vision and strategy.  This process involved related teams across the organization in a collaborative process that led them to derive answers to three questions: Where are we now? Where do we want to be? How do we get there?


With expert input and helpful frameworks employed and customized from the foresighting and roadmapping traditions [1, 2], participants defined and prioritized future opportunities; aligned existing capabilities to achieve those opportunities; identified existing gaps and barriers; then, planned together how to overcome the gaps and barriers that they had identified. The result was a detailed plan that everyone understood and owned. What each party had to do was clear.


2. Group Design


Motivated teams are required to realise even the best strategy.  The group design work engaged the agency’s key teams in a conversation that led them to a shared understanding of each team’s unique purpose and values in relation to each other, and built norms of trust and reciprocity as they undertook the work.


The agency’s vision and strategy formed the foundation for the groups to consider the full suite of core design principles. They figured out their fair share of effort (CDP2) and how they were going to effectively make decisions together (CDP3). Each team then assessed how they were going to monitor their agreed behaviors (CDP4), correct their course so they stayed on track (CDP5), and developed systems for fast and fair conflict resolution (CDP6). The group design work also helped teams to effectively collaborate with each other as part of a larger system (CDP 7 and 8). This had important implications for management and helped those who were responsible for designing the regulatory systems and effective procedures for good governance. Further, this work helped improve levels of trust and reciprocity where groups cared about the rights, welfare and feelings of other groups that were a part of the organization and surrounding community.

Prosocial teams were consistently more motivated, achieved their objectives, and behaved in ways that benefited all players in the system.


3. Personal Responsiveness


At the heart of a PROSOCIAL environment are team members’ personal responses to challenging situations. The third important part of our work with the Agency involved developing the personal responsiveness of each individual, a behavior known as psychological flexibility [for more on psychological flexibility, see here or here].


Our workshops helped team members to identify their personal values and what was intrinsically important to them. This was critical as each person’s natural strengths, values, and ambitions were then made available to the others in their team. Teams were then helped to integrate their best selves which enabled them to achieve more together than if individuals acted alone.


Team members were equipped to adopt a mindful orientation toward personal experience and so build resilience. They learned to accept inner experience for what it was without necessarily trying to change its frequency or intensity. This gave them the psychological freedom to give more attention to what was important to them in the long run. People grew to understand and test unconscious biases and assumptions about who they were and how the world should work.


People who are mindful of what is important to them are more able to change their behavior in line with their chosen values. This practice had a range of important applications, including the development of leadership attributes, enhancing performance, increasing mental flexibility and improving physical and mental wellbeing. Such personal responsiveness has been shown to significantly enhance work engagement, communication, stress management, learning and information processing, emotional intelligence, executive functioning and cognitive style. Some of these outcomes were evident in this work.


Program Design


The program was implemented over a series intensive workshops of 1 – 2 days each that were held approximately 3 – 4 weeks apart. These focused on: 1) personal responsiveness, 2) shared strategy and propose, 3) group design and the development of PROSOCIAL norms for working together. Action learning and one-on-one executive coaching supported the implementation of organizational change between workshops. Action learning happened in groups and teams of about 5 – 7 people who met together about every two weeks to reflect on their efforts to live in line with their values, regulate their behaviors as a group and deliver on their chosen purpose. By reflecting together individuals learned what worked best and were able to reinforce those behaviors

The action learning process was important because all change involves relapse. It is natural for individuals and groups to relapse into old ways of doing things at least 3 – 5 times before sustained change emerges.  By taking an action learning approach people learned from their natural experience of growing and developing rather than mistakenly thinking they are failing when things did not go as they imagined.

The program finished as a community of practice emerged. This centred around middle management who, under the direction of the executive, continued to build on the best practices learned through the program and action learning processes. The results discussed below show a real and lasting organizational change.




Evidence showing the impact of this work is a combination of measures from the 2014 – 2015 Australian Public Service (APS) State of the Service Report, which explores how the capability and capacity of the APS contributes to meeting strategic goals and addresses the Government’s priorities; and, participant interviews post intervention. These results are presented below.


APS State of the Service Report


A number of positive themes were drawn from the agency’s 2014 – 2015 APS Employee Census results. These are presented below in two graphs. Percentages indicate the proportion of employees within the agency that agreed with the statement in the years 2014 and 2015. Our work with the agency happened between the census dates. The Department of Statistics indicated the percentile shifts listed below from one year to the next were either positive by comparison to the whole APS and/or significant in terms of a measured change. Significance was particularly assigned to those responses related to an individual’s job/role, workplace safety and diversity.



Fig 1. shows the measures identified by APS State of the Service 2015 Report as having significantly improved compared to the agency’s baseline measures from previous years;Fig 2. shows the percentage improvements in terms of agency-specific performance measures (2014 cf 2015; blue bars) compared with whole-of-APS performance changes (2014 cf 2015; red bars). Many of the agency performance measures improved significantly following our intervention compared with marginal improvements or an overall decline in terms of average whole of APS measures in 2015.


Fig 1. Measures identified by Australian Public Service Commission (State of the Service 2015 Report) as having significantly improved compared to the agency’s measures from the previous year.


Fig 2. Percentage improvements in terms of agency-specific performance measures (2014 cf 2015; blue bars) compared with whole-of-APS performance changes (2014 cf 2015; red bars).


Interview Responses


A series of interviews were conducted post intervention with ten agency staff from the executive and mid-level management to gain a subjective assessment of the change. Four questions were discussed.


How has the work we have done impacted:

  1. The agency’s approach to developing strategy?
  2. Team culture and effectiveness?
  3. Staff engagement and motivation?
  4. You personally?

Below is a summary of the interviewee responses in their words, which has been validated by the interviewees as being an accurate representation of their views. The comments include suggestions about how the work we did with them might be enhanced.


Approach to Developing Strategy


The work we have done together is as good an outcome as could be expected—it has impacted profoundly on culture. The whole process was empowering and engendered inclusivity which heightened the impact of strategy. It got people thinking correctly about strategy and involved in good decision making. The way the work was done with the CEO and executive was essential, it meant there was a united message and effort. This was a critical part of the process. The measures from the state of the service report—collegiality, shared vision, etc.—show significant shifts which is directly attributable to the work we have done together.


The foresight-roadmapping worked well for middle management. People generally don’t get strategy. Our work together provided leadership and management with the tools for that. This approach reduced what is normally unnecessarily complex to something simple and accessible. It translated aspiration into concrete actions. The process was very consultative and energised everyone in the process. Middle management now thinks more strategically versus just having ideas. We are asking “How does this fit?” Leadership is being driven from the middle.


Team Culture and Effectiveness


Firstly, leadership has to have an appetite for risk and a willingness to learn. Team design work has reinforced this and impacted as a result. We have folded the EL1s (Level 1 Executive Officers that report to the EL2 Officers) into the leadership mix. The group design work has shaped attitudes and developed trust. This approach was powerful. Revisiting this (using the group evaluation tool you provided) showed trust had developed – understanding your team, your tribe, clarifying how you share a common purpose. Our work together allowed us to find vehicles for whole of organization conversations. Another key element was the restructuring of the organization so the innovation team reported directly to leadership. This was key to the success of innovative strategy.


Following your work with us the senior managers are more cohesive. Due in part to a change in leadership and structure, and having some difficult personalities leave, but also as a result of your sessions, dialogue has improved between managers; they are reflecting together which is building relationships. The biggest observed improvement is at the EL2 level—they are more supportive; they are thinking together. Some are representing team members more effectively. Though, there are teams that are not aligned as well. They are asking “What do my staff value?” “How can we look after them?” We need to do this better. We often realise too late when they are about to leave. There is a need for more acknowledgement.


Results from the State of the Service Report reflect the impact of your work—clear improvements in relation to management and strategy. While the tools (you introduced us to) as such were not always used, the principles have generalized. As far as I can tell, strategy is seen to always be responding to change, staff cuts, relocate staff etc. An improvement was noticed as a result of your work but may be impacted with coming changes.


Delegations have been pushed down more to the managers, the EL2s and 1s. It is less hierarchical which has meant people have had to be more responsible. We could do more on how to have “tough conversations”.


The values work and work on norms (group design) was very useful for framing and setting up project teams. Cheat sheets would be useful so the basic ideas and principles can be at hand. I usually have these in my diary. Tools for practice.


The group design work with intact teams was very powerful. We plan to do it periodically as a group to check how we are tracking. The related work on values, communicating to learn and lead, and action learning was very powerful—the team is still talking about it.


A combination of change, personalities and pressure to perform had undermined trust across the organization. The work you did with us has rebuilt the trust. We have learned to say to each other, “You can be open and work with us. We value you!” We have learned to adjust to different styles of leadership. The organization has developed a healthy appetite for risk. This creates more opportunities for ideas. The team design work is what made the difference.


Staff Engagement, Motivation, and You Personally


The conversations we had about values is making a big difference. We’ve learned values are something we “do,” not just talk about. This work opened a conversation that has impacted the culture of the organization.


Perspective-taking skills gained through the work we have done means we have gained an appreciation of how people think differently and value different things. It has helped people manage change and has impacted the culture of the organization. People were helped to think differently about how we work together and support each other. It became safer to try new things. There is now a creative tension between conversation and change. People are more settled. While there are challenges the organization is functioning well. There is more acceptance of change without loss of quality. More is understood about each individual’s motivation and how people work.


Developing personal responsiveness (psychological flexibility) has been very valuable. It is the key to the whole process.


Implications for this approach to cultivating PROSOCIALITY


We are confronted by apparently intractable dilemmas—environmental, social, economic and political—PROSOCIAL reframes these dilemmas such that individuals and communities perceive possible and necessary responses seated securely within our collective moral fibre. We are neither trapped in exorable dilemmas nor free of moral responsibility for creating and sustaining approaches that maintain our collective achievement of mutually beneficial outcomes. It is our responsibility to build relationships based on trust and reciprocity, and to build these core values in and of themselves. PROSOCIAL provides us with the tools to do this. We can challenge the assumption that there is only one type of institution for dealing with the social dilemmas that confront us—the competitive marketplace in which individuals pursue their own short term interests—and build communities where members learn to work together constructively with a set of governing principles (PROSOCIAL compacts) that align our personal and collective values and include sanctions for inappropriate behaviors and motivators for desired behaviors that will yield positive impact in

the long-run.



  1. Constanza, R., Visions of alternative (unpredictable) futures and their use in political analysis. Conservation Ecology, 2000. 4(1).
  2. Phaal, R., C.J.P. Farrukh, and D.R. Probert, Technology roadmapping—A planning framework for evolution and revolution. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 2004. 71(1-2): p. 5-26.