Part 2: The need for culture change and Operation Respect

New Zealand Defence Force: Resetting efforts to reduce harmful behaviour.

In this Part, we discuss:

Military culture

Operation Respect is a programme designed to prevent harmful behaviour and put in place an effective response and support system for those affected by it. These actions aim to create a culture of dignity and respect in NZDF.

Organisational culture is made up of rules, norms, values, and assumptions that develop over time, shaping both how an organisation works and employee behaviours. It influences what practices are rewarded, how well personnel feel they can do their jobs, and what the organisation's long-term priorities are.19 A healthy organisational culture is one in which stated values and beliefs align with people's experience, enabling the organisation to work effectively.20

To succeed in its mission to protect and promote domestic, regional, and international peace, security, and resilience, NZDF must be able to respond to a range of situations. It needs to adapt to a constantly changing security environment and have the capabilities to address new threats as they emerge.21 Appendix 1 sets out a more detailed description of the New Zealand military context.

A healthy culture is critical to NZDF's ability to deploy effectively and engage in a wide range of tasks. However, several reviews have found that harmful behaviour threatens NZDF's ability to achieve its wider goals. Tolerance of harmful behaviour risks cohesion within a unit and damages trust in leadership. It reduces the organisation's ability to recruit and retain people with a diverse set of characteristics and skills who are needed to maintain its adaptability.22

NZDF's core stated values are courage, commitment, comradeship, and integrity. However, the ongoing occurrence of harmful behaviours – and the challenges people face reporting them – indicate a lack of alignment between NZDF's core values and the experiences of some personnel.

NZDF is not unique. There is bullying, harassment, and discrimination in other workplaces in New Zealand. However, there are recognised differences between military and civilian workplaces that can act as protective or aggravating factors for harmful behaviour.23

Even though modern militaries engage in a range of tasks, combat remains a core part of the military role. Research has shown that combat-oriented organisations have cultural features that can create risk factors for harmful behaviour.24 Appendix 2 describes in more detail the organisational conditions that can create risks of harmful behaviour.

In summary, these organisational conditions include:

  • The military work environment includes living in close quarters with more fluid boundaries between people's work and personal lives.
  • Hierarchical power structures that concentrate power in the hands of a few.
  • Unit cohesion norms mean there is a risk that specific unit subcultures can have greater influence on behaviours within the unit than wider organisational culture.
  • A masculine culture that is less likely to value contributions from women and has a greater acceptance of discriminatory attitudes towards women.
  • Tension in the disciplinary and complaints system between a victim/survivor-centric approach and ensuring that commanding officers can maintain discipline and safety in their units.

Operation Respect and culture change

Operation Respect was launched in 2016. Operation Respect seeks to prevent harmful behaviour from occurring and, where it does happen, ensure that there are systems and processes in place to deal with it appropriately. The ultimate aim is to create a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment for NZDF personnel.

To achieve this, NZDF needs to understand what aspects of its organisational culture allow harmful behaviour to occur and establish ways to address these risks, while also building on the positive aspects of its organisational culture.

Operation Respect is focused on changing attitudes and norms about what are acceptable behaviours. These attitudes and norms are shaped by many factors. Organisational values, purpose, and objectives send messages that influence how people behave. Organisational structures, systems, policies, and processes also shape attitudes and norms, including the behaviours people are rewarded for and what are seen as acceptable ways to treat people. When we talk about a "culture change programme", it is one that encompasses these factors.

The 2020 review found that core aspects of how NZDF operates created barriers to implementing Operation Respect. Although we agree with this, it is our view that not all aspects of NZDF's culture are problematic, or that there needs to be wholesale change to the command structure and military hierarchy.

However, aspects of the culture that allow harmful behaviour to occur do need to be identified and addressed – for example, the way in which the command structure operates creates challenges for personnel to report concerns about inappropriate or harmful behaviour. The right protections need to be in place to counter this.

NZDF also needs to identify and target the organisational levers that influence behaviour, such as training and education, leadership development, and the disciplinary system. These levers all need to be used to send a message that respect and inclusiveness are essential to team cohesion and effectiveness.

Approach to Operation Respect after the 2020 review

The review, commissioned by the Ministry of Defence, was published in June 2020. It is important to note that at this time, and in the time up to this audit, NZDF was heavily involved in Operation Protect – the work to support the Government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This put significant pressure on the organisation and its resources.

Operation Protect was launched in March 2020 and involved more than 6200 personnel. It was one of the largest single commitments of military personnel in New Zealand in more than 50 years. Personnel worked in Managed Isolation and Quarantine Facilities from August 2020 until May 2022.

Many of the people we spoke to told us about the considerable pressure that Operation Protect placed on NZDF. For some, Operation Protect made it more difficult to make time for Operation Respect activities on camps and bases because more personnel were away on operations than usual. Operation Protect has also had a wider impact, as normal training and exercises were halted in many areas. It is in this context that NZDF began work to address the recommendations from the 2020 review.

After the 2020 review, NZDF committed to addressing all the recommendations and improving its focus on implementing Operation Respect.

The Chief of Defence Force issued a directive in December 2020 in response to the review. The intent of the directive was to refresh and reset NZDF's approach to Operation Respect. The Chief People Officer was instructed to create a refreshed work plan with the Operation Respect leads25 and the Operation Respect Steering Group. A "Plan on a Page" and a more detailed plan for implementing the recommendations were developed. The Plan on a Page set out a range of focus areas and actions under four headings:

  • Accountability and leadership.
  • Data management and use.
  • Reporting and support (survivors).
  • Targeted local action.

Changes were made to the programme management and governance structures, with the intent of giving Operation Respect more capacity and capability to bring about cultural change. A new Military Lead role was created to work alongside the Programme Lead, and responsibility for the programme was moved from Human Resources to the Safety Directorate. This was partly to separate Operation Respect from NZDF's diversity and inclusion work.

The Chief of Defence Force's directive intended to enable the single services (the Royal New Zealand Navy, the New Zealand Army, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force), Joint Forces New Zealand (Joint Forces), and portfolios to take more responsibility for Operation Respect.26

The directive instructed each service chief and portfolio head to appoint a lead to champion this work in their respective areas. All camp commanders and base commanders were instructed to prepare and deliver specific Operation Respect plans for their respective camp and base, setting out their three priorities for supporting Operation Respect.

The single services' approaches

The single services have taken different approaches to the Chief of Defence Force's directive. In June 2021, the Army decided its response to Operation Respect would be to make it a workstream of the Army Culture Development programme. The culture development programme was established in 2020 after the Army Leadership Team determined that, although the Army's culture was changing for the better, there were still aspects that were of concern. This included ongoing harmful behaviour and difficulties people experienced when challenging ideas and ways of operating. The Army Culture Development programme was designed to address this, and to unify the various organisational and Army-specific initiatives to target culture change, which were previously being carried out in a siloed way.

The Navy developed an initial Operation Respect Action Plan, but now also plans to carry out its Operation Respect response through its emerging culture programme. In July 2020, the Maritime Culture Guardians Board was set up by the Chief of Navy. The role of the Maritime Culture Guardians Board is to design and lead a programme of work that will identify and address the culture and people issues that are getting in the way of the Navy being a safe, inclusive, and operationally effective work environment. The Navy's response to Operation Respect is now being effected through the Maritime Culture Guardians Board. It is one aspect of a Navy-wide organisational culture refresh. At the time of our fieldwork, this work was still in its early stages.

The Air Force bases each developed their own Operation Respect action plans, in line with the Chief of Defence Force's directive. There is some overlap in the focus of plans (for example, minimising the harm from substance use) but the bases have each taken different approaches.

Further change is required

What NZDF is trying to do is difficult. Operation Respect is about changing attitudes and behaviours that have been in the organisation for a long time.

NZDF has been making progress in changing behaviours since Operation Respect was initiated in 2016. Operation Respect is visible throughout the organisation and we were told it remains a useful way to direct efforts towards creating a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment.

We also acknowledge that many people told us that significant cultural change has occurred in the NZDF in the last decade. However, as noted in paragraph 1.5, harmful behaviour persists and to bring about the change that is needed will required sustained focus and effort.

In our view, the first step is about more clearly defining the outcomes and objectives that Operation Respect seeks to achieve. This is discussed in more detail in Part 3.

19: Meredith, L, Sims, C, Batorsky, B, Okunogbe, A, Bannon, B, and Myatt, C (2017), Identifying Promising Approaches to U.S. Army Institutional Change: A Review of the Literature on Organizational Culture and Climate, RAND Corporation.

20: Fréchette, P and Warah, A (2020), Auditing Organizational Culture in the Public Sector, Canadian Audit & Accountability Foundation.

21: Ministry of Defence (2016), The Defence White Paper 2016, at

22: Teale, D and MacDonald, Dr C (2020), Independent Review of the New Zealand Defence Force's progress against its Action Plan for Operation Respect.

23: Zedlacher, E and Koeszegi, ST (2021), "Workplace bullying in military organizations: Bullying inc?", in P D'Cruz (Ed.), Special Topics and Particular Occupations, Professions and Sectors, 435-464.

24: Zedlacher, E and Koeszegi, ST (2021), "Workplace bullying in military organizations: Bullying inc?", in P D'Cruz (Ed.), Special Topics and Particular Occupations, Professions and Sectors, 435-464; Teale, D and MacDonald, Dr C (2020), Independent Review of the New Zealand Defence Force's progress against its Action Plan for Operation Respect; Castro, CA, Kintzle, S, Schuyler, AC, Lucas, CL, and Warner, CH (2015), "Sexual assault in the military", Current psychiatry reports 17(7), 54.

25: Operation Respect has a Programme Lead and a Military Lead.

26: Joint Forces New Zealand is responsible for planning and preparing for deployments and managing these deployments. NZDF also has a range of enabling functions that sit within various portfolios, based mostly in Headquarters. These provide business and integrated support to NZDF, including human resources, ICT and information management, and legal services.