Part 3: Better defining outcomes for Operation Respect

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

In this Part, we discuss the need for NZDF to clearly set out the intended outcomes and objectives of Operation Respect. We also discuss:

Operation Respect is central to, and distinct from, NZDF's wider work to modernise. It is central because safe, respectful, and inclusive environments attract and retain personnel. It is also essential for creating effective leaders and teams. Operation Respect is also distinct from NZDF's wider work because there are a complex set of factors that enable harmful behaviours to occur, and developing effective ways to mitigate these needs its own focus.

Operation Respect is a significant programme of work. To be successful, the programme of work needs to be based on a clear understanding of the problem it is trying to address and why change is important for the organisation.

Leaders need to be prepared to examine the features of their organisation and culture that allow harmful behaviour to happen, that prevent people from feeling safe to report, and that prevent people from accessing the support they need.

It is also important to clearly define the desired future culture and the specific outcomes that the programme intends to produce.27 People need to be able to articulate what they want to see to ensure that action can be properly directed.

The process of defining the preferred culture and what will be done to bring it about can help leaders examine beliefs and assumptions about organisational practices to assess whether they are still relevant.28 This work can also surface competing values – for example, values emphasising personal sacrifice and obeying orders can conflict with values encouraging people to seek help.29

Summary of findings

A reset of Operation Respect is required to establish clear direction and drive coordinated effort. After the 2020 review, NZDF focused on addressing the recommendations and has made some progress. However, in our view, this is unlikely to be enough to bring about the changes to organisational culture required to prevent harmful and inappropriate behaviour from occurring.

In our view, NZDF leadership does not yet have a shared understanding of the problem or what Operation Respect needs to achieve. Operation Respect has the potential to be a core enabler of operational effectiveness. This a strong case for change, but has not yet been clearly articulated by senior leaders.

Senior leaders also need to work with the organisation to clearly define what a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment looks like and identify the main risk factors and contributors to harmful behaviour. This work needs to inform a new organisational strategy and plan. Without it, efforts will not be targeted at the right levers to make meaningful and sustained change.

NZDF is aware of this, and in May 2022 began work to reset the direction of Operation Respect.

The approach following the 2020 review did not provide the direction needed

After the 2020 review, NZDF quickly developed plans and started addressing the review's recommendations. Although NZDF's approach was well intended, its plans were not driven by clearly stated and shared goals or a clear and well-considered strategy.

We reviewed documents that set out the priorities for the Operation Respect work after the 2020 review. These documents described a goal of eliminating harmful and inappropriate behaviour to ensure that all personnel can perform their duties in a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment. However, we did not see clear outcomes or objectives defined for Operation Respect, an explanation of why specific activities were prioritised, nor how they would contribute to the desired changes.

In our view, there is a risk of effort being wasted if it is not supported by clear enabling strategies. Some examples of the lack of clarity we observed include:

  • The Plan on a Page highlighted activities like ensuring that "expected behaviours are clearly communicated and demonstrated by all leaders" and that "incidents of harmful and inappropriate behaviour are addressed by leaders, and people are held to account for poor behaviour". However, we heard that leaders did not have a shared understanding of the expected behaviours and there was no planned work to ensure that they did.
  • The Plan on a Page indicated there would be a focus on ensuring clear and robust reporting and support mechanisms for those experiencing discrimination, harassment and bullying, and harmful sexual behaviour. However, it did not set out what the current challenges were or what needed to change. For example, one activity proposed to respond to bullying was reinvigorating the Anti-Harassment Advisor network.30 This is positive, but in our view, there first needs to be a common understanding about what constitutes bullying and where it is happening to ensure effort is focused in the right areas.

Many people we spoke to told us that the current approach has not been sufficient, and that the organisation needs to develop a clearer strategy and plan to guide the work and make sustained change. We agree. NZDF needs a strategy that sets out clear outcomes and specific objectives and identifies the levers it can use to influence the desired behaviours. The strategy must be underpinned by a theory of change that describes how activities will meet objectives and generate the intended outcomes, and how success will be measured. We discuss levers of change and how they can be used to organise the strategy and plan in more detail in Part 4.

Taking the time needed to develop the strategy is essential to establishing the foundations for Operation Respect. This is covered in detail in Part 4. The challenge of this task should not be underestimated and needs to be driven by Senior Leaders and include all parts of the organisation.

Operation Respect needs to be seen as a key enabler of operational effectiveness

For Operation Respect to achieve its goals, it needs to be seen by everyone in the organisation as a core enabler of operational effectiveness. It is important that leaders can articulate this.

High-performing and effective teams depend on all members feeling safe and respected and trusting each other. Harmful behaviour, and the failure to act on it, breaks down trust and makes it difficult for people to rely on each other, which is a risk to operational effectiveness.

Good leadership is core to NZDF's success and the effectiveness of individual teams and units. Where leaders engage in harmful behaviour, or fail to adequately address it, they undermine people's trust in them as leaders.

The directive from the Chief of Defence Force stated that work on Operation Respect was crucial for operational effectiveness and that it should be a priority for all leaders. However, we heard that in practice the level of priority placed on Operation Respect by leaders was variable. Some leaders understood that it was core to their roles and the success of NZDF, and prioritised it. Others did not.

We heard about examples of work related to Operation Respect being carried out on some camps and bases and in some units. At Ohakea Airbase, for example, we were told that the Base Command team had developed a People Safety System that mirrored the Aircraft Safety System as a way to better embed Operation Respect into people's day-to-day working lives.

We also heard about one Army unit that previously had issues with bullying (especially about meeting fitness requirements). Leaders in that unit had recognised that the changing nature of combat increasingly meant it was the "smartest not the strongest" individuals that they needed to attract. As a result, work was done in the unit to build a broader understanding about the contributions that different members of the team could make, and help encourage an environment where team members could feel safe and included.

Although there were many leaders who understood that Operation Respect was important, they still viewed it as an extra activity to manage rather than recognising it as a core aspect of people's roles and the work of the unit. This meant it was not always prioritised in day-to-day work and was deprioritised when people became busy.

This was raised in the interviews we carried out. We heard from many people that Operation Respect was not embedded in people's everyday working lives and there was insufficient focus on how it fitted with, and supported, people's operational roles.

We understand that training for new personnel is extensive and designed to build practices into people's "muscle memory". This means that in stressful situations or danger, they are able to react based on their training rather than needing to take time to think things through.

In our view, Operation Respect needs to be similarly embedded so that responding appropriately (when, for example, witnessing inappropriate behaviour) becomes second nature for all personnel and core to their idea of being a good soldier, sailor, or aviator. Operation Respect is therefore integral to the wider conversation about the future soldiers, sailors, aviators, and civilian personnel that NZDF needs to recruit.

Eliminating harmful behaviours must be Operation Respect's core focus

Operation Respect needs a clear focus on sexual harm as well as harmful behaviours such as bullying, harassment, and discrimination

Since it was launched in 2016, Operation Respect has improved awareness of sexual harm in NZDF. The survey results set out in our monitoring report indicate that 81.5% of people consider that Operation Respect has been "effective" or "very effective" in reducing inappropriate sexual behaviour in the workplace. It continues to have visibility throughout NZDF and is a well-known initiative focused on harmful behaviour. Given this, we consider that work on inappropriate and harmful behaviour should continue to be branded as Operation Respect work.

We also saw persistent negative perceptions about Operation Respect among some groups. When the programme was first launched, some interpreted the messaging of Operation Respect as implying that all men had the potential to commit sexual violence. As a result, some people developed negative perceptions about the intentions of the programme. This led to opposition to the programme. Some leaders found it difficult to talk about Operation Respect and sexual harm due to concerns about disengagement and backlash from personnel.

In other areas, we saw that NZDF changed the focus of Operation Respect from "addressing harmful sexual behaviour" to more generic focus on "culture change" or "respect". In some instances, it was described as a "values-based" approach. This was based on the idea that emphasising the core values of NZDF personnel (courage, commitment, comradeship, and integrity) would, by extension, create an environment that would prevent harmful behaviours from happening. This approach is evident in some of the camp and base action plans and activities.

We were told that this approach had become popular because it might help to avoid the backlash that had previously been encountered when sexual harm was discussed in the original rollout of Operation Respect.

We have several concerns with this approach. In our view, it does not send a clear message that harmful sexual behaviour is not tolerated in NZDF, and it could be interpreted by some personnel as a lack of willingness to confront the organisation's problems.

Avoiding talking about sexual harm does not encourage senior leaders to examine the underlying norms and beliefs in the organisation that allow this behaviour to occur. It perpetuates barriers for people wanting to report harmful behaviour. We are also concerned that it will lead to activities that are not specifically focused on addressing the enablers of sexual harm.

In our view, NZDF needs to ensure that Operation Respect retains a clear focus on preventing sexual harm. Leaders need to build collective ownership of the problem. It was evident from the research for our monitoring report that some people see Operation Respect as irrelevant to them (and even as a hindrance to operational effectiveness). There is not yet an organisational understanding of the need for Operation Respect, and of harmful behaviour as a collective problem that requires a collective solution. This is needed if all NZDF personnel are to see themselves as having a role in addressing it.

NZDF needs to better understand where and why harmful behaviour is occurring to know where to target action

In NZDF, there are people who continue to experience harmful and inappropriate behaviours, and they do not always trust the organisation to deal effectively with those behaviours. Most people we heard from understood that there is a problem. However, we did not see evidence that important risk factors were well understood – for example, where harmful behaviour is occurring or the reasons why some people do not trust reporting processes.

Some people, including people in senior positions, expressed a view that the harmful behaviour in NZDF is merely a reflection of wider society. Although it is true that harmful behaviour happens in wider society, this perspective suggests that behaviour in NZDF can change only when society changes. This does not help leaders understand the unique risk factors in NZDF that can contribute to harm, the protective factors that help to minimise risks, or what they can do to create change.

Other people expressed a view that sexual assault was perpetrated by only a small number of "bad eggs" and, therefore, NZDF should not require everyone to attend training or briefings on the topic. This perspective suggests a low level of understanding about how aspects of the way NZDF operates might increase the risk of harmful behaviour occurring.

There were people we talked to who were more informed. We saw evidence that several camp/base/unit culture audits had been carried out. These audits highlighted risks associated with hierarchical power structures and power inequalities (especially in training environments), gender norms in some units, use of alcohol, and close living and working environments. However, we did not see evidence that this information had been collated and used to inform NZDF's overall approach to Operation Respect.

Identifying the main risk factors and contributors to harmful behaviour is required to help to target the systems and structures that need changing to prevent harmful behaviour occurring.

A shared understanding of what a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment looks like is needed

After the 2020 review, senior leaders reiterated their commitment to Operation Respect and to creating a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment. However, we did not see evidence that there was a shared understanding of what this was. In our view, senior leaders need to clearly define what a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment looks like and be specific about the behaviours that they want and do not want to see.

Terms like "respect" and "safety" are understood differently by NZDF personnel. Discussions with some Navy personnel, for example, indicated some felt that a respectful workplace was one where junior personnel could share their views and disagree with superiors. For others, this was seen as disrespecting hierarchy and command. Our discussions also highlighted differing views on how the command structure should be exercised. In an organisation where this is fundamental to operational effectiveness, these differences in understanding need to be resolved in a way that also makes it clear that harmful behaviour is not acceptable.

There were some discussions about this taking place. As part of the Army Culture Change Programme, discussions with senior leadership have revealed differences of opinion about what is considered acceptable behaviour (particularly in the treatment of subordinates). Discussions have focused on what it means to be a soldier and what kinds of values and behaviours should flow from this. This is a positive and necessary step to develop a shared understanding of the desired Army culture.

These types of conversations between leaders and with personnel in NZDF are important for developing the Operation Respect strategy and plan. In our view, important topics for discussion include:

  • what constitutes harmful sexual behaviour;
  • what constitutes bullying, harassment, and discrimination;
  • what safe and effective teams look like;
  • what supportive leadership looks like; and
  • what a safe, respectful, and inclusive disciplinary and complaints system looks like.

These discussions will be difficult for some. In our view, it is important that discussions are facilitated and supported by the right type of expertise. We found through the research for our monitoring report that discussions about harmful behaviour can be isolating for some women, especially when they work in teams that are mostly male. Careful consideration should be given to how this is managed. We discuss communications in Part 4 and the importance of specialist expertise in Part 7.

Inappropriate and harmful behaviours need to be defined

Operation Respect has expanded people's understanding of what constitutes harmful sexual behaviour. There is an understanding of these behaviours at the criminal end of the spectrum. However, unacceptable non-criminal behaviour is not as well understood. Behaviour that some NZDF personnel did not necessarily understand as harmful included sexualised jokes (sometimes referred to as banter), showing inappropriate photos and videos, and inappropriate discussion of people's personal lives.

In our interviews with NZDF personnel, gossip about people's personal lives was described as common in some units or teams. However, it was not always understood as a form of inappropriate behaviour. We heard this mostly from women. They described the negative effects these types of behaviours could have, including diminishing their trust in peers and superiors and affecting their career prospects.

Sexualised jokes and comments appeared common in some units or teams. There was no shared understanding of when behaviour crossed the line from acceptable workplace banter to inappropriate behaviour. Some people determined appropriateness based on whether they thought the person at the receiving end of the joke or comment was likely to be offended. The idea that whether certain behaviours are acceptable is an individual preference can be problematic when strong team cohesion norms make raising issues difficult. In these circumstances, inappropriate jokes can become an accepted way of building camaraderie.

In 2017, the scope of Operation Respect was expanded to include bullying, harassment, and discrimination. However, there is no clear understanding of what constitutes these behaviours either. We heard different perceptions about what was considered acceptable banter in a work environment, and what crossed the line into bullying behaviour that ridiculed and excluded.

There was also no shared understanding of the difference between appropriate command and disciplinary behaviours and bullying from superiors. For example, personnel had different views about whether yelling and swearing at subordinates was appropriate to develop the strength and resilience needed in military environments, or whether it was harmful. Although people generally described the move away from the "break-them-down" approach to training as positive, we also heard concerns about training becoming too easy and not adequately preparing people for their roles.

What an effective team looks like needs to be more clearly defined

The research for our monitoring report revealed different views about how people should treat each other in an effective team environment. For some, effective teams were those that comprised of a diverse range of perspectives and skill sets that were respected and leveraged for performance. However, we also heard about pressure to fit the norm of the unit and fear that those who did not fit this norm would be excluded (due to, for example, their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, personality, or skill set).

Work is needed to set out behaviours that support establishing safe, respectful, and inclusive teams.

What supportive leadership looks like needs to be more clearly defined

Leadership is fundamental to the success of Operation Respect. It is the biggest determinant of operational effectiveness.31 This encompasses the abilities of leaders at all levels to create safe, respectful, and inclusive environments.

NZDF personnel described to us the type of leaders they felt were needed to create safe, respectful, and inclusive environments. Personnel talked about how it was important that they were pushed to develop mental and physical resilience. However, they felt that this needed to occur in an environment where they were safe and respected, and having leaders who were accessible, empathetic, and encouraged them to have their voices heard supported this.

This view was not universal. Others believed that encouraging junior personnel to voice their views and challenge more senior colleagues could undermine the chain of command.

In our view, senior leaders need to do more work to develop structures and systems that can maintain the integrity of the chain of command and create resilience, while also providing personnel with a sense of agency. People want to feel that their views matter and that they can raise issues without fear of repercussions.

What a safe and respectful disciplinary and complaints system looks like needs to be defined

How reports of inappropriate and harmful behaviours are dealt with affects the likelihood of people reporting and the prevention of future harmful behaviour. It also has a significant impact on the wellbeing of victims/survivors. Work to set out what a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment looks like for NZDF needs to include consideration of how this applies to the disciplinary and complaints systems.

In our view, NZDF needs a more advanced understanding of the factors that will help survivors feel well supported, safe to report harmful behaviour, and respected through the complaints process if they choose to report. This involves understanding where this is different from, or what tensions there may be, with current practice. We discuss this further in Part 4.

Recommendation 1
We recommend that the New Zealand Defence Force clarify the outcomes and objectives of Operation Respect. This includes clearly defining what a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment looks like, which behaviours are unacceptable, why Operation Respect is important, and how Operation Respect will enhance operational effectiveness in all parts of the New Zealand Defence Force's work.

A new prevention strategy is in development

During our audit, NZDF started work on a new prevention strategy and plan. This is being informed by the completion of a review of national and international evidence, and research and evaluations that NZDF has commissioned. In November 2022, after our audit work was completed, NZDF signed off an Outcomes Framework that sets out the aims for the Operation Respect programme. This will form the foundation of the Operation Respect strategy and plan. Although the work is in its early stages, we are encouraged by the evidence-based approach that is being taken. Implementation planning and the development of a Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Framework will be progressed in 2023.

Senior leaders, including the Chief of Defence Force, service chiefs, and portfolio heads, should play a visible and active role in resetting the direction of Operation Respect. It needs to be clear to all NZDF personnel that the organisation is committed to making the changes required (see Part 5).

NZDF has recently engaged experts in organisational development and harm prevention to assist in progressing this work. This is positive. In our view, it is important for NZDF to ensure it can access appropriate expertise to assist with this work. The behaviour changes sought are complex and required at all levels of the organisation (see Part 7).

27: 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.

28: Levin, I and Gottlieb, JZ (2009), "Realigning organization culture for optimal performance: Six principles & eight practices", Organization Development Journal 27, 30-46.

29: 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.

30: Anti-Harassment Advisors are NZDF personnel from throughout the organisation who volunteer to provide guidance and support to people who are affected by bullying, harassment, and discrimination. They receive training on how to deal with these types of problems.

31: MacKenzie, M (2015), Beyond the Band of Brothers: The US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight, Cambridge University Press.