Paul Atkins (PA): Thanks very much Robert for agreeing to do this interview. I'm interested in both the programs you ran for the Australian government, the Government Agency and the Department Division. I understand that you did a similar thing in both cases so maybe you can refer to both these cases in response to the questions that I am going to ask you?

So, let's get started. First up can you tell me a little bit about the needs that the two organisations had and why you thought prosocial would be a good solution?

Robert Styles (RS): Well, in both cases the needs were two-fold – a combination of strategic and operational. 

First, the Government Agency, one of Canberra’s cultural institutions. The CEO explained to me when we first met in 2014 that she wanted to work with her executive to increase the relevance of the institution. She was asking, “What could our mission be? Where should we focus our effort in order to provide a meaningful experience for our visitors? How could we catalyse a transformative and reflective conversation about the meaning of democracy in today's world?” Big questions, in my view. As we explored these questions, it became apparent that innovation was required on the part of those working in the organisation. At the time, most of their practices were quite traditional, and a live question related to the relevance of their historical practices going forward. What needs to be preserved as change is charted and pursued? As you can imagine, questioning the enduring relevance of what for some equated to their professional expertise and life’s work was the source of some conflict between individuals and groups within the organisation. The CEO, previously a documentary maker working in television, had been in her role for twelve months and was challenged by how to lead innovation and change while keeping the peace.

The Government Department wasn’t that dissimilar to the Agency, actually. Late in 2016, I met the woman who had assumed the role of First Assistant Secretary (FAS) in charge of the Division twelve months before. Broadly, the Division was responsible for looking after all Australian Government real estate, actual and virtual, within Australia and throughout the world. She explained at our first meeting that the Secretary had given her “clear riding orders!” when she assumed her role as leader. The Division was not functioning well for various reasons, and she was being relied upon to sort things out. Apparently, two separate divisions had merged twelve months before she took over as leader. These two divisions performed very different roles. One group were technical experts, those who understood how to look after buildings and property. They understood bricks and mortar as well as networks and firewalls. The other group were policy experts. The government of the day had charged them with the responsibility to divest as much government real estate as possible in order to save the government money. According to the FAS, the day these two divisions merged, the “Hunger Games began!” During our first meeting, she explained to me that the situation had proved so intractable that after 12 months of trying, she didn’t know what to do to improve things.

In both instances, the Agency and Government Department, I introduced the ideas embodied in ProSocial as a possible way forward, and they agreed to give it a go.

PA: So how did you implement ProSocial?

RS: The approaches I adopted in both institutions were a little different. Though many aspects were the same. The difference related to the way I worked, the design principles stayed the same, of course.

The initial work with the Agency happened in 2014 and 2015 and involved a series of facilitated workshops at which the practice of psychological flexibility or one or several of the design principles were introduced to mid-level managers and executives. These leaders engaged in discussion about the meaning and relevance of the practices and principles and how well things were working in that regard. Between the workshops, group and one-on-one coaching sessions were provided to a number of the individual teams and leaders with the aim of supporting them as they endeavoured to translate what they had explored in the workshops into action. Following the cycle of workshops involving the managers and executive some additional workshops were held for specific teams responsible for the coordination of education tours through the institution and the design and hosting of the various exhibitions. Each of these teams had quite a diverse set of responsibilities. For things to work, different individuals or sub-teams had to interact with a significant number of stakeholders to coordinate their effort and input.

The work with the Department Division occurred several years later in 2017. By this time, I had observed that translating the prosocial principles into the living and breathing normative environment of a community or organisation happened a lot more effectively if I got myself out of the way. You’re probably wondering what that means? Essentially it means I get them to do more of the work. In the Agency I did most of the workshop facilitation, coaching and mentoring. In Department Division I worked only with the most senior leaders in the division and supported them from behind the scenes as they did the facilitation and coaching/mentoring work with their Branch team-leaders and staff. I ran half-day workshops with the FAS and the five Branch heads, the executive, once a month to introduce an aspect of the work the Division had to do. They would then run a particularised version of the same workshop with their Branch, I would oftentimes observe from the back of the room and shadow coach. After the round of Branch workshops, the FAS with her executive and I would debrief. Key learnings and insights taken were then used to draft the agenda for a Division wide forum at which select team-leaders and staffers presented to the whole Division the outputs from their Branch workshop discussions. The cycle would then repeat itself – five times in all. I provided one-on-one coaching to the executive throughout. It worked very well!

PA: One of the core ideas in prosocial is surfacing individual interests and integrating those into the collective interests of the group. Can you tell me how you used prosocial to do this in these cases?

RS: Certainly. You know I think this is one of the most important aspects of this work. To help people find a home for what they value within the collective purpose. In each case there were two interrelated processes. One was designed to help these organisations and respective teams define or redefine their purpose which is all about CDP1. The other was helping individuals to more effectively give expression to their unique brand of magic which is about psychological flexibility. 

In the Agency the work on psychological flexibility happened toward the beginning of the intervention whereas in Department Division it was the last phase. In the Division we started with collective purpose, CDP1. The reason the order of events varied were multiple: the size and structure of the organisations, the pressing needs at the time, levels and nature of conflict in the system, and the like.

In the Agency the broader context was more of a blank slate in terms of redefined purpose. They were just continuing with business as usual. They were running a cultural institution as they traditionally had for many years within one of Canberra’s heritage buildings. Essentially there were five groups within the organisation: the executive who were responsible for the overall leadership and reporting to the Senate, or more recently to their Board; the learning team who were responsible for school programs and guided tours; the exhibition and events team who were responsible for organising and hosting various exhibitions and events within and outside the institution; the maintenance team who maintained the heritage building; and, the human resources team. To varying degrees these teams interacted with other cultural institutions and local universities co-hosting events and doing different forms of research on the history of democracy in Australia as well as current opinion captured through the hosted events. Functions and dining rooms provided another dimension of activity within the institution. You can imagine the tapestry of interests! The presenting challenge for CEO, as I mentioned, was twofold – strategic and operational. While she had ambitions for the institution, she had not really begun exploring this with others in a formal way. The pressing problem was operational. Teams were competing with each other wanting their particular interests to be the focus of what the museum was doing at any particular time. Some strong personalities were asserting themselves in ways that were generating conflict both laterally between groups and vertically between the executive and team members at the frontline. 

Because of the prevailing climate within the Agency, I decided to begin with exercises on cultivating psychological flexibility. The aim was to create a safe space for people to talk about what was important to them personally, to explore the nature of the habitual and oftentimes unproductive responses being taken to the challenging situations they were finding themselves in and to defuse things enough so they could begin seeing themselves more for their ‘magic’ within. In other words, to help them cooperate with the natural movement of life and what was important in the moment rather than what their minds were habitually labelling as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. 

These reflections and conversations had the team members sharing amongst themselves what they were striving for socially or wanted to strive for, which was personally important not only for them but also for others now and in the long run. This also, by design, touched on the unproductive, defensive and habitual behaviours that were taking them away from what was important. They were incredibly honest. I remember one of the executives saying that she wanted to get better at speaking openly and honestly about what she didn’t know when she was in situations where she was expected to speak from a position of authority. She explained how, quite habitually, she would try to fake it for fear of being seen by others as not knowing what she was talking about and perhaps even being stupid. A kind of pretending to be someone she wasn’t. She said that following such exchanges, she felt quite exhausted and inauthentic. It was her preparedness to be open and vulnerable that really got the broader conversation going. My main objective was to have their hearts and minds meet. There were comments that, “we’re all really just the same aren’t we!” as though their common ground of being human was being realised. By contrast, there were other comments like, “Wow, I didn’t really appreciate how much you folk (the maintenance team members) care about this building”, a comment by one of the exhibitions and events people.

This opening of hearts and minds set the scene for the more strategic conversation about what their shared purpose could be. The topic of subsequent workshops. To do this I had the various teams reflect on questions about what a preferred and probable future could look like. Not only from their point of view and expertise but from the perspective of all the others in the system who would be a part of that future, be they within the Agency or outside. I like this process because it accesses the wisdom in the room. The output of the discussion was a compelling vision statement about what the meaning and practice of democratic processes could look like for Australian citizens in 20 years’ time and the particular trends that would need to be impacted in order for this future to be realised. The discussion embraced not only the interests and perspectives of each of the teams within the Agency but also the interests and perspectives of all their stakeholders – teachers, students, families, researchers, policymakers, political leaders, government, tourists, and others.

The work of surfacing individual interests and integrating those into the collective interest within the Department Division was quite a different exercise! Because of the conflicting interests between the technicians who primarily cared about looking after government real estate and the policy people busy selling off that real estate, I decided to start the whole intervention in a different way. It was designed to get the groups, rather than individuals, talking about what was important to them as well as what they were challenged by. Really, this was a different way of catalysing the same type of reflection that doing the group matrix does. I took this approach for two reasons, because of the size of the institution, but mainly because of the lack of listening. I observed that much of the conflict was a consequence of these groups not being heard. I recall at the first Division wide forum, individuals from the opposing factions standing up and asserting, in rather forthright terms, their point of view across the room, defending the legitimacy of their people’s interest. Having observed this, I decided to facilitate a process designed to change the listening in the organisation. I had my fingers crossed I tell you. I suggested to the FAS and the executive that each of the five Branches discuss amongst themselves a set of who, what, and how questions and have representatives from each Branch report the outputs of their discussions to the rest of the division at a forum. The questions were carefully worded in four categories.

‘People’ questions: Who are you as a team, broadly what do you think and feel about your work and the organisation? Tell us a little about your team, including how long you’ve been here, what roles you have played in the past, including what you take pride in and what you find challenging? 

‘What’ questions: What is your team’s current business, are you aimed in the right direction and pursuing your goals properly? What is the key issue in your team’s work currently, and how are you handling it? Are you headed in the right direction, and pursuing it in the right way? What is your organisations core strength? How do you know? 

‘How’ questions: How does this place work, by what explicit rules, unspoken norms, tacit agreements, processes and procedures? What was your team’s most difficult decision in the past year? What were the issues and how did you wrestle with them? With what results, and how did you feel about it? How did others react? What networks(s) of people within and external to the organisation act to influence what gets done and how things get done? What do the people have in common? How does the organisational infrastructure work, including – policy, roles and responsibilities, and processes, such as decision making, coordination, and communication processes? 

‘Leadership’ questions: What do we need to know to make the right fit between the organisation and existing leadership styles? What kind of leadership are you looking for from your leader/s? What will be the cues for leadership to tell if they are on or off track? What are the norms for giving feedback upward here?

As it turned out this was a very fruitful exercise. It did change the listening. Many said they had never been asked questions like these. Not only did the exercise of having each group contemplate the answers help them take a broader perspective on their situation, because they knew that the other groups were contemplating the same questions they were very interested to hear what they had to say. The increased level of attentiveness was palpable at the forum when each group shared their reflections and answers. Each group took great care in documenting their views, and from this, the executive was able to derive key themes related to ‘expertise and capability’, ‘communication’, and ‘leadership’ that reflected significant aspects of the normative environment. The FAS, at a subsequent forum, fed back a summary of these themes to the Division. My sense is they felt heard. 

At this point, the climate was such that the FAS and her executive were able to invite their now receptive team leaders and staff to consider what the organisation’s role could be in the longer term and how they could possibly work together to shape the direction at the Division level. This was the segue into an active consideration of the prosocial principles as they applied to the Division. The first phase involved getting clear about, ‘Where are we going?’ and ‘How do we get there?’ which was about CDP1, redefining purpose. This was followed by the phase, ‘How do we work together on the journey?’ which was about the rest of the CDPs. Toward the end of the intervention, the focus was, ‘How can we leverage each other’s expertise and capability?’ This was about cultivating psychological flexibility. The Division engaged enthusiastically from this point. In fact, one of the staffers said, “We should call it ‘Operation Voltron’!” and it stuck. The sub-title being, “We each have a role to play, a perspective to bring and a stake in the outcome”, under which was a full-colour picture of a Transformer. It was great. Surfacing individual interests and integrating those into the collective interest had begun.

PA: How did you implement the ACT matrix and did you find it useful?

RS: Yes, implementing the matrix was very useful. All the work associated with developing psychological flexibility that I’ve mentioned was facilitated using the matrix. The way I use it is a little different to the way Kevin Polk originally designed it. 

As well as foregrounding the difference between inner experience and actual behaviour, the above and below the horizontal line distinction, and the tension between toward and away moves, I like to use it to help people evaluate the coherence of their worldview. One of the behavioural principles I leverage when doing this work is related to the function of the self-rules we have in use. To do this, when considering the relationship between both the toward move in concert with the values intrinsic to that behaviour and the away move with the inner aversive experience being avoided, I ask the question, “What assumptions are you making that might be worth testing?” For example, the woman I mentioned earlier who wanted to get better at speaking openly and honestly about what she didn’t know rather than pretending, her toward and away moves; when she stopped to think about the assumptions she was making, they fell into two classes. Those related to her toward move of speaking openly and honestly were all quite coherent. She assumed that if she did speak up it would improve relationships and she would feel much better within herself. On the other hand, the assumptions she was making about her away move, pretending she knew, were, upon analysis, a bit of a myth. She had somehow subscribed to the notion that others would automatically think less of her if they knew she wasn’t sure about something and that she was perhaps even stupid. You should have seen the look on her face when she said this out loud to herself. From a CBS perspective, this is known as an ineffective self-rule. It functioned to take her in an unhealthy direction, personally and socially. In fact, she knew it, she said she often felt quite exhausted and inauthentic when she behaved that way.

When these conversations were facilitated in both the Agency and Division, they made explicit what was intrinsically important to everyone, particularly at the team level, be it the executive, the group of mid-level team leaders or an intact team at the operational level. The power of this conversation truly emerged as the intrinsic interests of the individuals found a home for expression through the shared purpose. For example, in the Department Division, one of the team leaders volunteered to coordinate a series of brainstorming meetings involving anyone from the Division who was interested in exploring possibilities at a strategic level. The openness and frankness of ideas generated led to some important innovations. 

A little bit more about the context first so you get a sense of the impact of cultivating psychological flexibility. As I mentioned earlier, two different divisions had merged, technical and policy people, and they were at odds with each other operationally because they didn’t share a purpose. Some of the assumptions that were challenged within these groups served to overturn this situation and orient them more toward collaborative effort. They chose to work with each other as a consequence of reinforcing what was intrinsically important. 

The technical people valued looking after real and virtual real estate in unique ways that only they could. When they considered how they might express these values in the longer term as a group, they reconceived themselves as a hub at the centre of an extended network around the world. A network of experts whose services would need to be procured to do the work locally. In this worldview, as a hub, they were setting high standards for safe, secure, green, efficient, and user-friendly government-owned buildings and virtual environments. As they contemplated this future world and the myriad of regulatory and policy requirements required for it all to work, they realised, “We need you, policy folk!” 

The policy people, too, at the outset, it was apparent that they valued serving the government of the day and playing their part in realising civic good. As a group, they had also embodied the norm of being apolitical, a requirement of all public servants in Australia. Their job was to just serve the government of the day without being personally biased by their own political orientation. That, if the government changed its view, or if there was a change of government, they would just follow without question. When they questioned the workability of this norm as they had embodied it, they realised that, in part, it wasn’t really working. When they looked 10-20 years into the future and rendered their preferred vision of the world, many of the values they embraced aligned with the technical group. They, too, foresaw a clearer, greener, safer, and more efficient workspace for Australian public servants and any citizen or stakeholder within those spaces. They realised that their passive embodiment of being apolitical had rendered them somewhat speechless within the system. They uttered statements’ like, “We’re here to do the government’s bidding, not to question what we are asked to do”. This changed to, “Heck, if we are going to provide the government of the day a real service, we have to take a longer-term view of what is important for Australia and learn to offer courageous policy advice instead of being scared our head is going to be shot off if we stick it up over the pulpit!” When this shift occurred, they said, “If we are going to offer courageous advice we need to know what we are talking about. We need you technical folk!”

So, the matrix as a tool for cultivating psychological flexibility worked well.

PA: Were there particular core design principles that were problematic for the 2 groups? Could you tell us a little bit about what that looked like?

RS: Problematic is probably not the right word. It was a matter of helping them translate and particularise the principles into their working and normative context, which in each case was a process. A process that didn’t stop, actually. I have caught up with leaders of both institutions since we worked together and have learned how these processes have evolved in quite unexpected ways.

Let’s take CDP3 as an example, which is about collaborative decision-making. When I caught up with the CEO of the Agency earlier this year, she told me about how post our initial work, they embarked on the process of becoming a statutory authority or an Australian Public Service Agency with its own independent Board, which has afforded them increased authority to self-regulate (CDP7). This meant they were able to transact and act in the world in a very different way. An increased variety of collaborations were possible (CDP8). Prior to that, the Agency was constituted as an ordinary government department within the portfolio of the Minister for the Arts, I think, and answerable to the Senate. This shift to becoming a statutory authority reflected an evolution of decision-making capacity for the organisation (CDP3) along with the other CDPs. Here, decision-making is conceived at multiple levels—constitutional choice, which in turn shaped the Agency’s approaches to public choice and operational choice. While constituted as an ordinary government depart, the scope of choice at the other levels was restricted. For example, they didn’t have full control over their budget. Each year, as a government department, they were given a budget along with a set of priorities from the government of the day. At the end of each financial year, if there was any money left over, they had to return it to the Reserve Bank. Once they became a statutory authority, they had full control over their budget. This led them to develop and implement an internal set of policies and procedures that further enabled them to plan and choose what they wanted to do (CDP2). 

Mechanisms like having an independent Board helped provide direction and build engagement reflected other ways in which the CDPs had been particularised. The senior leaders of the Agency, with the help of the Board, had to monitor (CDP4) the Agency’s relationship with the government of the day and the growing number of external stakeholders, as well as the internal relationships between the various divisions of the institution (CDP8). To effectively do this, they first cultivated an appetite for risk and then gradually refined the structure of the organisation and overarching regulatory environment to manage the risk (CDP5). This involved the Board and CEO clarifying the type, tolerance and scope of risk that was acceptable for the organisation. For example, basic human rights and the reputation of the organisation could not be exposed to risk. On the other hand, an increased appetite for risk meant an increased appetite for experimentation. Different groups not only knew the boundaries within which they could prototype new ways of preserving and building civic engagement through the activities of the organisation (CDP1), but they also had the freedom to experiment in safe-to-fail ways (CDP7), which consequently facilitated learning and innovation. Monitoring in this space was primarily about tracking the success of various initiatives and reporting against these to the Board and Senate. Some of the work the Agency did in this space led to it being identified internationally as one of the most innovative institutions of its kind in the world at the end of 2015.

At the mid-level of both the Agency and Department Division the team-leaders were engaged in a different type of conversation. This began during the intervention when they were actively encouraged to put ideas forward and debate the merits of different considerations (CDP2&3). The leaders of both organisations explained that it took a while before the people in their respective organisations found their voice because they were used to just doing what they were told. As well as engaging them in high-level decision-making processes, a particularly important step that undergirded their maturation as leaders in their own right, was the delegation of authority to self-regulate (CDP7). In the Agency, this included the formation of a new group with members from across the organisation who took responsibility for innovation. This group reported directly to the CEO. Similarly, in the Department Division, the self-organised task force that explored the idea of the Division becoming a hub represented their ideas to the executive to subsequently have many implemented. These mid-level leaders had reconceived and reinvented themselves. They experienced growing legitimacy and increased support over time.

As you can see, the nature of these prosocial interventions built the capacity for autonomous and self-determined leadership that was increasingly driven from the middle of the organisations by the EL2s and EL1s (Executive Level 2 officers are team leaders/managers and Executive Level 1 officers are their assistant managers). When I interviewed both the executive and team leaders, many explained how much more vital work was as a consequence of being empowered in this way. I have to acknowledge the way that the leaders of the two organisations actively drove this. They invited the lower-level managers and leaders into the senior leadership mix and continued to encourage and support their active participation. They did things like take smaller groups out to lunch, where they posed strategically important questions and engaged them in discussion and debate in a relaxed and informal setting; they personally mentored others who were assuming higher level leadership roles; their modelling subsequently influenced others. Over the months, these mid-level leaders grew to feel they actually had a voice in the system that was being heard and mattered. The FAS of the Department Division said to me the last time we spoke, “My executive is humming like they have never done before!” I observed this flowing downstream to their team leaders. They were treating their ELs the way the FAS was treating them.

Other activities that reflected an increased embodiment of the CDPs included the way the executive proactively responded to the needs of the divisions and branches across the organisation as they pursued strategic initiatives. For example, the executive in both institutions provided education and technical assistance for related teams in pursuit of efficiencies or cost reduction, encouraged local teams to develop and enforce their own rules, systematised the open exchange of information, and actively informed the groups across the system of what other groups had accomplished. 

PA: How did you work with each of the core design principles for these 2 groups, or did you treat them more holistically?

RS: As you have probably gleaned, the process was quite organic, always a principled and collaborative response to the prevailing context – the emergent future in the present. Quite evolutionary, really. The CEO of the Agency explained that most of the successes that her organisation continues to enjoy weren’t conceived of in the first year we worked together and that a lot has emerged over several years as a consequence of the work we did together. You know, I have been invited back a few times to support different groups in the Agency to continue refining their approach. Earlier this year, I coached a group of team leaders as they developed a proposal that they called “Big Bold Opportunities” that would “increase the significance of the “Agency’s” work and influence on the brand ‘democracy’ and move us closer toward the realisation of the Masterplan”. Based on prosocial principles, they conceived three big, bold ideas: to build a Learning Centre – physical and virtual; to host a Youth Engagement Program, and to provide an Enriched Teacher Professional Development Program. The group of team leaders involved worked with their team members, drew up the proposal and presented it to the executive. Subsequently, the proposal was approved by the Board, and they have embarked on a refreshed 10-year journey (CDP1). Once they had been given the authority to take this forward, they then got stuck into working out how to work together to realise their goals (CDPs2-8). All along, they continued to reinforce the relevance of what was personally valued by each individual and to give those values a home within the shared purpose.

PA: This is fascinating work. Have you been able to measure the impact of it at all?

RS: Yes, the impact of the work in both the Agency and Department Division was measured. In both cases, Australian Public Service Employee Census data (Commission 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018) captured pre and post these interventions over several years showed a significant, positive, sustained improvement along several dimensions, including: Employee Engagement, Inclusion & Diversity, Wellbeing; Leadership, Workplace Culture, Workplace Conditions, Performance Management, Organisational Change, Innovation, Risk Management, APS Values & Code of Conduct, and Agency Specific Performance. In both instances, these measures showed significant improvements when compared with those baseline measures taken over previous years, with some measures improving by up to 25% and 28% (See Figures 1 to 6 below). In fact, some measures continued to climb over subsequent years as the cultural-normative environment evolved and the principles were further embodied. These statistical results were also substantiated via some qualitative evaluations involving the senior executives and staff from both organisations. Their testimony is reflected in this interview (Also see Agency Interviews below). The Agency outcomes were also corroborated through their 2015 Annual Report prepared for the Australian Senate. Both organisation’s senior executives continue to acknowledge the impact of these interventions. Reportedly this approach has helped them regularly exceed set targets as measured by their pre-determined strategic objectives and key performance indicators. 

PA: This conversation has been very useful. Given the innovative nature and success of this work, have you been approached by other agencies or organisations? It is quite apparent that this approach is applicable in any context where long-term change is sort after. 

RS: Yes, the innovative nature of this work has been recognized. In addition to these two organisations, over the last couple of years, I have been working with key leadership teams from a variety of public sector organisations in African and South & West Asian countries. These people were participants in a suite of programs designed to impact food, water or energy security as well as gender equity and social inclusion across the region. They were hosted by the Australian National University (ANU) and funded by the Australian Government between 2017-18. The participants first came to the ANU for a five-to-seven-week intensive course that engaged them in formal learning related to the objectives of the overall program. During the concluding week, they would work with me to design a personal project aimed at delivering a sustainable impact on return to their home country. In each instance, they were introduced to the prosocial approach we have been discussing. Each person was then supported remotely for six months as they implemented their plan. In some cases, I would travel to Africa or SW Asia to facilitate a follow-up workshop to help them further embed positive change. 

Understandably, not all individuals were overtly successful in creating enduring change, but a good proportion (around 40%) were. Where there was success, a key component was directly attributable to the structured prosocial methodology that they learned at ANU and subsequently employed. The context and challenges were diverse! To me, this shows the inherent universal appeal of this methodology. I guess this is also evident in the work of Elinor Ostrom. She derived the eight CDPs after studying what reinforced the sustainable governance and equitable management of scarce resources practised by indigenous as well as contemporary communities around the world. So, it’s no wonder that the people from the developing countries I have had the privilege of working with readily identified with and successfully employed the CDPs. 

You know, this work continues to bring both a tear and a smile to my face. My heartstrings are tugged each time I contemplate our future as a species and the way we are failing to look after each other and spaceship Earth. These social, environmental, political and economic problems we are confronted with are seemingly intractable. But are they? I suggest not! It is clear to me that the work of prosocial changes the way people live and work together such that it is making the difference.

I have been privileged to know some extraordinarily good people, including you, who are pioneering an aspect of change that is surely needed, and I see prosocial as an important and enabling part of this effort. It’s not easy to reframe and own our part in the system while maintaining our shared dignity as human beings. I often find myself working with individuals and teams who struggle with the inherent moral and ethical dilemmas’ that rift the space between being pro-self and pro-social and the resulting psychological and emotional impact. Prosocial, the combination of cultivating psychological flexibility and implementing the CDPs, shows that we can choose to be simultaneously pro-self and pro-other while fully experiencing all that such a choice offers up, no matter how exhilarating or uncomfortable. I think our personal and collective well-being requires that we appreciate it is not about the hedonistic inclination toward just feeling 'good' – it is not about 'good being'! It’s about 'Well-being!’ Being able to feel it all really well for what it is and courageously continue moving together in a direction that is important in the long run.

Figure 1. Measures identified in the Agency APSC 2015 Employee Census Report (Commission 2015) as having significantly improved compared to the Agency’s measures from the previous year.

Figure 2. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2015) in Agency’s 2014 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2015 performance measures (blue bars).

Figure 3. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2015, 2017) in the Agency’s 2014 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2015 performance measures (blue bars) and 2017 performance measures (green bars) showing sustained change.

Figure 4. Measures identified in the Department Division 2017 Employee Census Report (Commission 2017) as having significantly improved compared to the Division’s measures from the previous year.

Figure 5. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2017) in Department Division 2016 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2017 performance measures (blue bars).

Figure 6. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2017, 2018) in the Department Division 2016 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2017 performance measures (blue bars) and 2018 performance measures (green bars) showing sustained change.

Government Agency Interviews

As mentioned above, at the conclusion of the Government Agency intervention, a series of interviews were conducted with a number of 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 on:

  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. When the interviewees themselves read these summative statements, they said it was an accurate representation of their experience. 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. 


Commission, APS 2014, '2014 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.

Commission, APS 2015, '2015 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.

Commission, APS 2017, '2017 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.

Commission, APS 2018, '2018 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.