Two books on Inclusive Leadership


Inclusive Leadership is an important aspect of the job leading and managing staff, but little acknowledged as a genuine challenge that requires intentional effort from the leader and real support by the organisation.

This means that a leader or manager who has an interest in developing greater awareness of Inclusive Leadership may not be aware of what is available to them. There are articles that can be found through an online search. These offer a condensed summation of related ideas; but cannot provide the essential ‘how to’ guidance.

I scanned available books on Inclusive Leadership and selected two audiobooks which were well rated, and relatively short.

Diversity in the Work Place: How to be an Inclusive Leader, Manage Diversity in the Work Place, Tackle Unconscious Bias, and Foster Inclusive Conversations

 by Erika Nielsen Brown is just under 3 ½ hours.

How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Creating Trust, Cooperation, and Community Across Differences by Jennifer Brown is just over 4 hours.

Good, but different, resources

Both books serve useful purposes, with distinctly different approaches. Erika Nielsen Brown provides a solid discussion on what Inclusive Leadership is, whereas Jennifer Brown sets out a methodology based on her own consultancy work. 

How to Be an Inclusive Leader assumes the reader already has a commitment to becoming an Inclusive Leader and is okay with embarking on a process of change immediately. The book is essentially a full on ‘how to’ guide.

Diversity in the Work Place takes a different approach. It lays out an argument that would suit a reader who wants to feel that there is no presumption that they are totally on board and ready to get into developing or refining their approach to Inclusive Leadership.

I found them sufficiently different as to be of combined value. I listened to them back-to-back over a couple of days and didn’t feel like there was a lot of repetition. Obviously, the key ideas are the same in essence, but the approaches were sufficiently different to make the individual angles interesting and valuable. 

Some key observations

Based on my notes as I listened to book books.

Diversity in the Work Place

  • A very good discussion on how bias is hardwired into us.
  • Explores elements of social psychology that indicate how unconscious behaviour that was survival oriented remains active – and can be misapplied. 
  • As we evolved, our behaviour was energy efficient – of necessity. We have an aversion to expending energy needlessly – responding to change, which is often unwelcome, is energy demanding. It can trigger aversion to the unfamiliar – individuals and cultural settings.
  • Biases are not only hardwired in us, we are also inclined to resist changing them.
  • Explaining the reason for biases does not mean ‘excusing’ them. 
  • Very good discussion on – “As leaders, it is important to understand where our own, and our employees, biases originate, so we can begin the process of dismantling them.“
  • The language is unfortunate – a case of a very good diagnosis but not the best framing of the ‘cure’. Mentions ‘correcting’ biases – an unfortunate terminology because it suggests something is wrong. I prefer to think in terms of evolving. That said, the author is not judgmental or blaming.
  • A diverse workplace is where “everyone feels part of an us even with their differences and no one is pushed out as a them.”
  • Bias can be conscious and unconscious. This is important. It means those who believe they are inclusive can still be influenced by unconscious biases
  • Our ability to be aware of our biases and manage them can be a mixture of unconscious and conscious responses. Figuring out what drives us to respond, or act, is not always an easy thing to do.
  • Not too many workshops – give support in a way that gives employees time to focus on engaging with their biases. Don’t overload. Remember that change resistance is not always recalcitrance. 

How to Be an Inclusive Leader

  • It is neuro-biologically impossible to eliminate bias – but you can become more conscious of it. 
  • Focus on how to become aware of biases, and not why (My note – beyond assuring that bias is not ‘wrong’, but just not appropriate. Not everyone is into the science).
  • Becoming an Inclusive Leader is a “personal and emotional journey”.
  • “No matter where we start as leaders, we all have a responsibility to learn how to improve our knowledge, skill and competencies to better support our colleagues, companies, and the people around us”
  • Adds ‘Belonging’ to Diversity, Equality and Inclusion. (My note – I like that – BIDE (bide means to remain, or stay) – so the foundation of retention?)
  • Becoming an Inclusive Leader helps a leader “evolve” and become a better version of themselves in the process (author has 4 stages in a continuum of that evolution). It is “a humbling journey of discovery that’s not always easy”
  • Rather than good or bad, better we think in terms of aware/unaware and conscious/unconscious
  • Refers reader to Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability


Both books have a focus on the US (that’s the biggest marketplace for all books in English), and this might lead a reader to imagine that things are not as bad in Australia. I want to caution against that. In the US there is a far more active conversation and there is much more publicly available research and discussion. Better figure it’s just as bad here – and we just don’t know it. 

The level of exclusion and the persistence of bias and discrimination across all diversity areas, and not just disability, means that inclusiveness is a challenge for all of us. 

Jennifer Brown included a quote from Peter Drucker (the great management consultant) – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This means that creating an inclusive culture is far better than having to come up with strategies to remedy issues that arise from exclusion.

Inclusive Leadership is critical to creating such a culture. If you can do only one book, chose carefully. Both are valuable; and reading both is recommended for readers who want a strong foundation in understanding how to be an Inclusive Leader.

I have Amazon links below to both books. I support local independent booksellers and have the Amazon links because they have audiobooks and ebooks which may be more accessible to some readers.

Diversity in the Work Place

How to Be an Inclusive Leader

Inclusive Leadership in the NSW Public Sector


As I read through the NSW Public Service Commission’s State of the Sector reports, with a focus on disability, it seems clear that Inclusive Leadership is a concern.

Here I have to make an almost embarrassing confession. Inclusive Leadership was scarcely a thing for me – as a discrete idea. It is strange how one can go through life dimly aware of a concept. Yes, of course the principles of Inclusive Leadership were everywhere. But the actual words “Inclusive Leadership” were in none of the sources I had been engaging with deeply. Not even the State of the Sector reports used the term. I searched ‘inclusive’ in the 2020 (appears 5 times) and 2021 (appears 8 times) and it was not once associated with the word ‘leadership’. This was despite the following statements.

Empowering public sector staff to work flexibly in ways that work for both them and their team is crucial to developing an inclusive and diverse workforce that reflects the community it serves.” (2020)

Our people are the key to having a world class public service. The sector would not be able to deliver world class services without an inclusive and diverse workforce that is fully engaged.” (2021)

I got curious about what was available on Inclusive Leadership online. There’s quite a bit. I put a couple of audiobooks into my audible wishlist and will listen to them in the next couple of weeks and write an essay on them.

Then I got curious about what the NSW Public Service Commission had to say on the theme. Not a lot. There was a cheery page with a downloadable PDF poster.

That poster

I have copied the poster’s content below for ease of reference. The worrying thing for me is that the PSC, which surely should have a commitment to Inclusive Leadership, doesn’t seem to give it too much energy. The 2021 State of the Sector report notes that:

This year, the People Matter survey expanded its focus on wellbeing by asking employees about their experiences of discrimination and racism in the workplace. As with other negative workplace behaviours, the numbers are low. However, any level of discrimination and racism is unacceptable, and we need to work together to ensure that everyone has a positive experience at work. 

I have a concern that saying, “the numbers are low” sends the wrong signal while saying “any level of discrimination and racism is unacceptable” If any level of exclusionary conduct is unacceptable numbers do not matter. Mentioning low numbers suggest no urgency, surely.

The poster’s content is not wrong so much as unhelpful. It assumes factors not in evidence:

  • The reader (leader) knows how to do what is listed.
  • The reader is confident that they will be supported within their leadership culture.

There is a huge difference between ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do’ – as any novice cook or brain surgeon well knows. Providing a cheery list of whats while offering no hows suggests one, or all, of the following prevail:

  • Saying what to do is considered good enough (it’s not the PSC’s role to do more than that, or that’s considered sufficient in itself).
  • Inclusive leadership really isn’t as important as it’s said to be.
  • There aren’t the resources to say or do more.

Please read through the poster’s contents below. As you do, imagine this has been presented to you are an action item. What thoughts and questions do you have?

Be Committed

What I say:

  • I consistently share how important it is to me that others are treated with fairness and respect. 
  • I speak up when I observe non- inclusive behaviour, and affirm inclusive behaviour. 

What I do:

  • My actions reflect equality as a core value to me. 
  • I regularly check-in with others to see what else they need to feel included. 
  • I allocate resources (e.g., time, energy) to improve inclusion. 

Be Courageous

What I say:

  • I understand where my weaknesses may exist and share them openly. 
  • I share my own stories and personal challenges in relation to diversity and inclusion. 

What I do:

  • I do not act as if I am above others. 
  • I help others to learn from my own strengths and weaknesses.

Be Conscious of Bias

What I say:

  • I ask for feedback from others to raise my blind spots and be more inclusive. 
  • I talk about how personal biases can create a lack of equality in the workplace. 

What I do:

  • I look for and correct bias in the system. 
  • I assign tasks / evaluate performance fairly. 
  • I intentionally put in processes to ensure my personal biases do not influence my decisions about others. 

Be Curious

What I say:

  • I communicate calmly and respectfully to my team in the face of pressure. 
  • I deliberately ask the quiet members of the team about their views in meetings. 

What I do:

  • I am approachable and open to new ideas. 
  • I listen closely and make time to better understand the diverse experiences of team members. 
  • I work comfortably with ambiguity and uncertainty. 

Be Culturally Aware

What I say:

  • I ask questions to learn more about others’ backgrounds. 
  • I change my verbal communication style appropriately when a cross- cultural situation requires it. 

What I do:

  • I seek opportunities to work with people from different backgrounds. 
  • I accept that different cultural situations may require me to adapt my behaviour 

Be Collaborative

What I say:

  • I communicate to team members that they should feel safe to raise any issues or concerns
  • I highlight shared goals to help different team members to work together

What I do:

  • I work hard to accommodate different working styles and preferences to get the best out of others. 
  • I create an environment where team members feel safe to take a risk. 

Telling or suggesting a leader should be committed, courageous, conscious of bias, curious, culturally aware, and collaborative is all well and good. But some of these are attributes of character, and others are skills. They are not hats that can be popped, and off, on at will. Being committed, courageous and curious are attributes we hope leaders have, but do they? Being conscious of bias, being culturally aware, and being collaborative can be learned – when opportunity and means are provided – or taken.


I am perplexed that the PSC considers this contribution to promoting and stimulating Inclusive Leadership sufficient. Perhaps it believes its role is to do some rudimentary research, create a basic page and make a poster? Perhaps there is an expectation that it is up to leaders to take it from there?

The wider research and literature paints a very different story – suggesting that skills are certainly lacking, and in some cases, character attributes as well.

The Diversity Council of Australia’s study Building Inclusion: An Evidence-Based Model of Inclusive Leadership, released in 2015 produced some concerning findings, including:

  • Interviewees rated the current level of inclusive leadership capability of senior leaders in their organisation relatively low. The average score out of ten was 5.8 with 26% rating it as either 5 or 6; and 17% rating it as being below 5.
  • Earlier DCA research found only 11% of Australian workers strongly agree that their manager actively seeks out information and new ideas from all employees to guide their decision making – a key capability of inclusive leaders. And Australian workers from culturally diverse backgrounds are up to three times less likely to experience their workplaces as inclusive.

Inclusive leadership is important for a variety of reasons. To begin with, we are all different. It is leadership for all. Effectively practiced, it can cut through the biases that impede genuine inclusion to ensure the workplace is safe for all – a place to belong, not just endure. 

The demand for such leadership is growing. For a public sector agency to deliver, it must see that Inclusive Leadership is non-trivial and requires investment of effort and resources to be effective. The individual staff member is the ‘tool’ leaders and managers employ to make the things they are charged with doing happen.

There’s an old saying that ‘a poor workman blames his tools.’ He also neglects and abuses his tools – I learned that as a kid. My stepfather was an old school carpenter and joiner. I wasn’t allowed to touch his tools until I learned how to care for them.

In a knowledge economy people are the ‘tools’ of organisation. Neglect or abuse them, and things don’t work. To have a ‘world class public service’ you must have world class inclusive leaders. It isn’t optional.

So, what’s the story?


Regular readers will be aware that I have been hammering away at a theme.  I am chipping away ideas that don’t deliver a satisfactory explanation as to why staff with disability are still not seeing the equity and inclusion promised. This is despite sincere affirmations of support.

It is not that there is a lack of genuine goodwill and good intent. It is that it is not translating into corrective or remedial action. Now, I have to remind myself, that while there are a lot of good things happening, it is still not enough. It’s not that there’s no good change. Rather that it is uneven. We can’t excuse a persistence of bullying and abuse in some areas because there are good things happening elsewhere.

My focus is on what is not happening, and why it is not happening. The question can be boiled down to “Why do good people let bad things happen?” The answer is “Because they don’t know they are doing that.” Why this is so is complex. This is what I want to discuss in this essay.  

Is this a right?

Across the globe there is powerful evidence of resistance to making the declared commitment to Disability Inclusion, and inclusion in general, a reality. In some cases, there is flat out refusal. In other cases, there is a leisurely process of adaptation – things are happening, but they are a ‘work in progress’. Really?

Disability Inclusion is the non-optional recognition of the rights people with disability to be accorded the same dignities as others. The 2nd General Principle of the NSW Disability Inclusion Act 2014 says “People with disability have an inherent right to respect for their worth and dignity as individuals.”

Now here it is worth pausing a moment. What is an inherent right? It is a right that is not granted. It is not a gift to be bestowed or withheld. It is a right that is intrinsic to a person. We can, in fact, take the words “with disability” out of the above principle and restate it as “People have an inherent right to respect for their worth and dignity as individuals.” But there isn’t an Inclusion Act. There is no discerned need for one.

What is it about disability (and other attributes of ‘diversity’ groups) that renders it okay that the “inherent right to respect for their worth and dignity as individuals.” is denied to people with disability, or assented to in a leisurely or non-urgent fashion?

Denial of inherent rights happens to us all at times. Our worth and dignity as individuals can be injured through carelessness or cruelty. The injury can be catastrophic, or something we shrug off. Our natural capacity for resilience can kick in – or get overwhelmed. This is part of who we are, and mostly we walk away, sometimes staggering, but surviving. Reality is tough.

We are more likely to affirm the inherent rights of those who are similar to us, and to offend against them when we engage with people who are not like us. This is hardwired into us. There was a time when this hardwired bias played a valid role in our survival.

The famous principle of Darwin’s theory of evolution – the survival of the fittest – merits thinking about in this context. The most fit, or fittest, means the most adapted, the most suited. That bias reflex, which once served us well, is now ill-suited to our needs. We no longer live in small communities in which the members are recognisably similar in appearance, conduct and capability. We live in large complex, pluralistic and diverse communities.

Public and Private Differences

The instinctive bias to include, or exclude, functions at an individual level, and is reinforced, or modified, by family, group (social, cultural, religious, employment) and community influences. Of those influences employment is the least subject to personal control – for important reasons.

Private businesses determine their customer based by choices they make. These choices can include operating with a bias to exclude or include certain people (like the poor or the non-hip). The larger the business the more complex the choice. A technology company or a bank may seek to draw customers from all segments of the community and strive to be as unbiased as possible.

Public sector agencies are under an obligation to be unbiased; and serve all members of the community equally. This creates an interesting tension between an employee’s individual right to be biased in their private life and their duty not to be biased as a public servant.

While we see bias as not a desirable attribute, we can’t impose a demand on an individual public servant to cease to elect to be biased in their private lives. In any case that would be futile. Our instinct to be biased is hardwired. The challenge is to help public servants to not exercise biases at work. That is a huge challenge for several reasons:

  • We are hardwired to be biased.
  • Our biases are unconscious.
  • Our biases may be reinforced by personal experiences and by influences outside work.
  • Our biases are very hard to shift – anti-bias training does not work.
  • We over-estimate our ability to be unbiased to a huge degree.
  • We may not have any motivation to cease being biased.

In Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald talk of “outsmarting” our instinctive reflexes to be biased. They say efforts at eradication do not work. They offer role models and systems as two ways of reducing the risk of bias influencing decisions and actions.

But before we think about how to outsmart our biases, we need to think a bit more about our personal responses – living with our own biases.

This is personal

I try to be inclusive, as, I assume, each reader does. I rate my performance as okay – selectively so. I am very inclusive sometimes and not so much other times. There are some people I don’t like. There are others I am uncertain of, and don’t feel comfortable approaching. And then there are those folk I really like; and feel very comfortable with. 

My public sector background has given me the opportunity to work with a wide variety of people with disability. I have friends and family members with disability too. Over the years I have developed a strong sense of professional inclusive conduct at work because of my work with people with disability. But I can’t swear that I do not exhibit bias toward, or against, members of the community. I do make an intentional effort not to be biased. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I can do at any given time.

I am okay about being biased on a personal level, but I am acutely aware that it can be inappropriate and unjust at times, and then I must work harder to honour my ideals. 

When I was chair of the DCJ DEN I realised that there was a risk that people who were discriminating against staff with disability may have a disability themselves. It could be the case that a manager’s adverse conduct toward a staff member with disability may be because of psychological injury. Blaming and shaming could injure the alleged offender – who we should be helping. 

In concluding that bias is a feature of being human, and not a bug, I see the way forward as a shared journey. It is one that begins with being comfortable with our own story of bias. In what could be thought of as a paradoxical way, the best ‘anti-bias’ move you can make is to acknowledge your biases; and feel comfortable with them. You don’t have to like them; or obey them.

Then you can choose when to be vigilant and avoid the risk of being unjust and unkind. Anti-bias training does not work because biases can’t be eradicated – only managed and outsmarted. To do either, you must be prepared to put in some intentional effort.

How much effort you put in is a personal choice. It comes down to that.

Thinking about role models

In Disability Inclusion there will always be people who are leaders, and whose conduct marks them out as great allies and champions. By leaders I do not mean those in formal leadership roles, but those who are workplace culture leaders.

It is essential that in any organisation those who are in formal leadership roles are also effective allies and champions – and preferably also workplace culture leaders as well.

Inclusion leaders should be encouraged in any organisation, with the one proviso that they are also supported to be effective.

Thinking about systems

There is compelling evidence that well-intentioned decision-making in areas like recruitment and complaints resolution is derailed by bias. The answer is to develop systems, guidelines and forms of accountability that reduce the risk of bias, and which increase awareness of those risks. There are substantial researched based options available. But responding to these opportunities  requires commitment at an organisational level in a significant way. 


We are changing how we live together in our communities. We have collectively chosen to end discrimination based on race, religion, gender, sexuality, and disability. These changes have been finding expression slowly for the past few centuries, picking up pace in the late 1960s. But we are operating on instincts that have been around for many tens of thousands of years.

We can choose to be leaders in driving an evolutionary change – and approach the opportunities and challenges that will come with insight, skill and compassion.

What do you choose?

Michael Patterson


A Reflection on 9 Months Past


It’s been over 9 months since I quit DCJ. I have had the leisure to do a lot more time into thinking about Disability Inclusion – a lot of listening to audiobooks and podcasts; a lot of reading articles and websites; a lot of talking; and a lot of writing.

I have expanded my focus on Disability Inclusion (DI) to look at the wider field of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) because it became very obvious that what was impeding progress in DI was impacting DEI as well. Disability isn’t special, it’s a subset – a specialised subset.

One of my treasured possessions is a t-shirt given to me by the DCJ DEN’s Guidance and Action Team (GAT). On it are the words “Solve for One – Extend to Many”. Like all favourite t-shirts, it will become too tatty to keep wearing one day. But the words are eternal. They come from universal/inclusive design; and became the DEN’s/GAT’s motto. What is solved for Disability Inclusion benefits everyone – but we can’t ignore the wider field – where so much work is being done. This includes what works and what does not – and why it does not.

Dedication to Disability Inclusion is an absorbing passion, but it can’t be a fulltime role of any but a small few. However, inclusiveness itself can’t be a parttime value, attitude, or behaviour – it must become the core of who we are. So, for me, the chance to spend as much time as I want on Disability Inclusion has been a privilege. I want to share some key learnings with you.

We are Not Naturally Inclusive – and This is a Feature, Not a Bug

There is a mass of research in psychology available these days that delivers some humbling news about us. We are hardwired to be exclusive, discriminatory, and biased. This is built into our brains. It’s a feature of who we are as human beings. These instincts have been fundamental to our survival in the past. But now they are increasingly problematic as our world has changed – and our cultural and social values have morphed into a form of inclusive humanism. Our cultures have become more diverse and pluralistic – and it is no longer okay to exclude community members just because they are different.

For many, Inclusion has been a theme all of their lives. But for others there was a watershed time in the late 1960s that marked a transition to a new set of social values. If you were born around 1968, or later, you would think that Inclusion a natural part of our social discourse. But remember, Iris Bohnet’s What Works: Gender Equality By Design was published in 2018. That’s 50 years on – and we are not there yet.

But let’s be clear. Exclusion will still happen on personal levels. We can’t mandate ‘niceness’ and openness in a person’s private life. It’s just not okay in roles of public trust, and where public funds and functions are concerned. We have to demand inclusion and equity of public sector employees in their official roles.

Resistance to the change is natural. That desired inclusive spirit is a stretch from our instinctive natures – and some people will welcome the stretch while others will resist it. Such change is not easy and requires intentional effort at personal growth. Some folk will resist with serious determination.

You cannot force or shame people into being more open and compassionate. This is a stretch exercise for the whole community. So, if you are the vanguard that’s great. Be there with humility and compassion. Model the change you want, don’t preach it.

It’s Doubly Hard for the Public Sector.

Research into bias and decision-making confirms that for DEI strategies to be highly effective they require committed support from an organisation’s executive leadership. This support includes: awareness of DEI issues and challenges, modelling desired behaviour, ensuring visibility of the DEI theme, supporting and participating in programs and activities, and developing and implementing an overall strategic and accountable organisational plan.

The public sector differs from the private sector in one key respect. Private sector responses to DEI are business-based, whereas the public sector has a non-optional obligation to ensure an effective response to all community members. Ensuring equitable and inclusive service provision and access to employment to all community members is a duty, not a business choice. This places a far higher onus upon public sector leaders to address the resistance to change toward more inclusive and equitable behaviour.

It’s a good thing that a state or nation’s government makes a commitment on behalf of its community that all members will be treated equally. But that’s a huge call to impose upon the public servants – and expect them to muddle through and figure out how to do it all – on top of everything else.

To be fair, we are making a decent go of it. But there are still areas where much needs to be done – something annually acknowledged.

The Need for Leadership

Public sector leaders carry a burden of obligation and expectation that can be onerous. They are the ones who must ensure the goals of DEI are realised. However, the presumption has been that the stretch change is just about being ‘nicer’. It isn’t. It requires knowledge, self-awareness, insight, and skill. It also requires resources – time, support, and learning & development.

Nobody attuned to contemporary social values will dispute importance of changing how we engage with people who are members of minority or diversity groups. But belief in those values, and faith that they can be expressed by goodwill alone, are not sufficient. So, while we should celebrate the fact our culture is changing in such a positive way, we must not believe we will make progress by some kind of magical osmosis by which ‘niceness’ will infect more and more people. There’s a bit of that going on, but it has a real limit. Learning to be inclusive can cause an existential crisis, and can require serious effort.

Effective leadership is necessary – and leaders must be skilled and supported. Within organisations in the public sector that support must include accountability. These days a manager’s role is not just to focus on the ‘operational’ demands of a work unit, but also to be skilfully supporting staff. That’s a skill area that seems to be growing constantly, demanding higher levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence than in the past. However, it is an integral part of the job now. More (and better) effort must be put in to recruiting managers/leaders with the personal attributes, skills and knowledge needed to ensure that meeting DEI objectives is part of core business.

This is another ‘work in progress’. As workplaces are evolving and the demands on, and needs of, staff are being re-defined, the need for managers to develop new skillsets isn’t being recognised to the extent necessary. In essence, as DEI reflects an evolving set of values and expectations, so what is needed to reflect and strengthen them is also evolving. This process of adaptation is competing for attention with traditional core business. It is non-optional, so it must become core business if the DEI goals are to mean anything.

Effective leadership is essential, but so is recognising that leadership and management roles are changing and with that change there are new demands and skills which must be acknowledged, facilitated and supported.

Intentional Effort is Required at All Levels of an Organisation

What is happening at a cultural level is the equivalent of needing an upgrade to our shared Operating System (OS). It isn’t that the old one is bad, or wrong, just that it’s not fit for the new purpose we have set for ourselves. The new OS has new features, and that means unlearning old habits. That isn’t easy. I bought a new keyboard that has a few new keys where old ones used to be, and after 3 months, I am still to break the deeply ingrained muscle memory. I am making the same keying errors daily – less frequently, but still making them.

Some of us will take to adapting to an updated OS with ease. Others will not. This will apply regardless of where you are in an organisation’s hierarchy. Becoming an executive does not magically confer powers for faster adaptability – even if the role requires, or expects, it.

The problem is that adapting to an upgraded OS can’t be mandatory; but must be necessary. This is a potential dilemma for the public sector, where there isn’t an option to opt out of being inclusive. That’s pretty much a contract public servants sign on to when they sign a Code of Conduct.

An obligation for intentional effort must come with some form of accountability – and here the public sector struggles. This is because it hasn’t understood the nature of the challenge; and hasn’t devised effective responses to it. That is the most important intentional effort required at the most senior levels of public sector leadership.

What Can You Do at a Personal Level?

It can be a struggle these days to find the time to catch on a bit of reading/viewing/listening. But an hour a week can do wonders. Taking time to stretch your ability to be inclusive – including inclusive of those who resist adapting – will always pay dividends. We all have to learn how the updated OS works.

Audiobooks will not be everybody’s jam. I like them because I can listen most places – and even in 5-10 minute chunks. That way I can get through at least one audiobook a week – but, I have to remind myself, I don’t have a fulltime paid job, or a family to wrangle. The critical research from books is often summarised in podcasts or YouTube, and I will include a few links at the end.

Depending on the size of your smart phone and how good your eyes are, getting the Kindle app can be a really handy way of working through a book, or an article, in short bursts.

Always remember that stretching ourselves into an updated OS is always better as a shared experience – and routinely repeated one. Doing so as a solitary, and only now and then, is sub-optimal.


Inclusion is novel and it runs counter to our instinctive reflexes. That’s why it it is hard to do for some folk. We can reprogram those reflexes with choice and determination. Some will find it easy, and others will not. Building cultural change in the public sector and the community takes time supported by smart intentional effort. This requires informed and supported leadership – because key decisions about knowledge, skill and resources must be made to enable people at all levels to adapt to the upgraded OS.

Some Resources

  • Melinda Briana Epler’s How to Be an Ally is my ‘must read’ at the moment.
  • Melinda’s podcast Leading with Empathy and Allyship is a great source of powerful ideas. Checkout the podcast app on your phone.
  • You can find plenty of content featuring Melinda on YouTube.
  • The Centre for Inclusive Design has a podcast – With, Not For.
  • Jackie Ferguson’s Diversity Beyond the Checkbox podcast is another good resource.
  • Search YouTube for talks by these authors. They are not all on inclusion, but stuff that is part of understanding why it’s so hard at the moment:
    • Daniel Kahneman
    • Brene Brown
    • Amy C. Edmondson
    • Iris Bohnet
    • Daniel Goleman
    • Sarah Rose Cavanagh
    • Hugh van Cuylenberg
    • Dr Carol Dweck
    • Dexter Dias
    • Adam Grant
    • Pete Walker

How to Be an Ally


Author, Melinda Briana Epler, was interviewed on the Centre for Inclusive Design’s podcast, With, Not For, on 11 October 2021. I listened to the episode on 12 March 2022. I mention this to get in a plug for the podcast. I am a little annoyed with myself that I left it so long. So, please do subscribe and catch up on the 8 shows posted so far.

I downloaded Melinda’s book from soon after the conversation began. The title drew me in – How to Be an Ally. Now, at 18:00 on 13 March, as I begin this draft, I am halfway through the book. (the great thing about audiobooks for me is I can listen to a book while I slowly prepare a meal or clean the kitchen)

Melinda runs a business called Change Catalyst, which she set up to further her goal of making as many people as possible allies in the broad field of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

This isn’t a review of the book. The fact that I spent a good deal of today immersed in it says it all – buy it, read it, or listen to it. I want to reflect on the idea of being an ally, as I understood it previously, and how Melinda has expanded it.

In The Beginning

Back in May 2018 I attended the Australian Network on Disability (AND) annual conference at Darling Harbour Sydney. I was with a crew from our Disability Employee Network (DEN), and this was our first AND conference. I was Chair of the DEN at the time.

The keynote speaker was Kate Nash from the UK based PurpleSpace. I’d not heard of Kate, or her organisation, before. Kate laid out the essentials of an effective Employee Resource Group (ERG) – most of which I wasn’t doing. She laid out a 3-sided model – the ERG (DEN), the organisation’s executive, and its D&I team. We were okay in that regard. That was a strong bond. But then she spoke of Allies and Champions in a way that was new to me. The idea of an Ally was completely novel.

Post conference, I figured that as well as enticing staff with disability to join the DEN, I should also open up membership to supporters – allies. Up to this point the DEN had never considered including them. A month before my term as DEN Chair ended, the membership looked like this – Staff with Disability, 53%, Champions 30%, and Allies 17%. For the most part Champions were executives, with a few exceptions – Executive Officers in the Districts. It meant that 47% of the membership were not staff with any declared disability.

As I was to learn, being an Ally also gave cover to Staff with Disability who did not want to disclose their disability. By ignoring Allies for so long, we had excluded a critical component of our colleagues – those who, perhaps, most needed the changes we were trying make happen.

Allies were also people who had direct personal experience of disability. I had a particularly moving interaction with a DEN Ally whose husband had suffered a stroke. She had not only deep personal experience with the day-to-day challenges a person with disability may encounter, but also the discrimination built into the physical environment and baked into people’s attitudes.

By the time I twigged to the power of Allies, the DEN had been around 8 years – 8 years of lost opportunity. The struggle for Disability Inclusion is not a solitary affair. Everybody can be involved – when we allow that to happen.

What the Book Adds

Melinda is concerned with people on the DEI (Diversity, Equality, Inclusion) spectrum – all of us, really, in some respects – but attends to those on the most problematic end of the spectrum – those most vulnerable to exclusion, discrimination and inequity.

The idea that being an Ally is a principled act in general, rather in support of a particular group, was, for me, startling and a bit challenging at first. This was especially so when Melinda identified ‘micro-aggressions’ – those small and subtle acts of rejection and isolation that are built into our cultural discourse, and our behaviours. It is normal to ‘other’ those who have been isolated, or rejected, by our culture. So, even when we do not intend to injure an individual or group, we have the legacy of doing so in the habit of casual language.

Melinda also asserts a principle of ‘Do no harm.’ There’s a lot on this theme you can Google. I came across the idea many years ago and wrestled with the issue of knowing whether you did, or did not, cause harm – in the context of a community of thought I was involved in. Back then, actions asserted to be in line with the ideal of ‘harm none’ turned out to be harmful – because we did not understand the impact of our acts and thoughts. Then it dropped off my radar as something to think about.

The book is a handy reminder for me to revive consideration of that principle. An Ally should aspire to do no harm. There’s a certain moral mindfulness in the proposition that I find appealing, and challenging.

Of course, the big ‘flip’ for me is the notion that Allyship is omni-directional and not just targeted at a particular group of concern. A member of a ‘group of concern’ can be also an Ally – and not just a ‘victim’. This thought was implicit in the DEN’s adoption of the Universal Design principle – Solve for One, Extend to Many. But that was disability focused. Melinda has encouraged me to see that sense of universality in a wider context. The sense of moral alliance that arises from an intent to do no harm – by action or inaction – is especially powerful and transformative.

But How Long Must It Take?

As I noted in my last essay, I was struck by Melinda’s comment on the podcast that “We are getting better, but not very fast.” My sense, developed in recent times, is that this is because what we are aspiring to do isn’t at all easy – and we don’t have an established methodology for driving the kind of change we are eager to see.

As I have noted elsewhere, inclusion is a relatively novel (in evolutionary terms) adaptive mechanism. We haven’t yet developed it into it being a thing we can expect without resistance and difficulty. It has been a growing part of our social discourse for the past 50 or so years – which isn’t long. This is important. Not being inclusive isn’t a bug. It’s a feature – but one we must now surrender as no longer being useful or desirable.

Melinda’s approach to being an Ally is a model for intentional personal change. If adapted and applied, it will add energy to that evolutionary imperative. But there’s a deeper perspective here. Beyond the personal, there is an organizational and cultural potential to adopt and support the idea of being an Ally. This requires leaders to be open and responsive to the idea, and the ideal. And here we seem to have a sticking point I’d like to explore with her at some point.


How to Be an Ally has instantly become a ‘must read’ book for anybody open to stretching their ability to be an effective agent in ‘making a difference.’ I am very mindful that not everybody has the opportunity and the means to be a leader in ‘making a difference’; and we must not be explicitly, or implicitly, critical of those who are not as energised as others.

So, I will speak here to those who are so energised; and say that the ideas and principles in How to Be an Ally are powerful tools for stimulating change at individual, workplace, and organisational levels. That they are also personally demanding speaks directly to that challenge of intentionally driving the evolution of our attitudes and values.

Link to How to Be an Ally on Amazon – for ebook and audiobook versions.

Podcast –

Accountability Part 4


In the course of researching a couple of themes for blog essays yesterday, I came across a Harvard Business Review page which had a few tiles that intrigued me. They were:

  • LEADERSHIP: It takes a lifetime of courage and practice.
  • MANAGING PEOPLE: It’s harder than it looks.
  • DECISION MAKING AND PROBLEM SOLVING: Balancing data, experience, and intuition.

These 3 themes summed up what I have been writing about for some time. But they were about organisational life as a decision-maker, leader, or manager in general. They were not about Disability Inclusion – and yet nothing of those words did not apply.

Nothing about Disability Inclusion is different from any other objective in a public sector organisation. Disability Inclusion magnifies the challenges. It is harder to do than other business-as-usual by a considerable margin because it engages human reflexes in need of intentional evolution. There are no guides of any real use. What there is is about what to do. But the vital ‘how’ and ‘why’ bits are missing. This is because the folk who write the ‘what to do’ guides do not generally know anything beyond that.

A recipe is a great guide to those who have the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of cooking under their belts. But it’s a trap to those who don’t. I have a Woman’s Weekly book with the title ‘How to Cook’. I am an okay cook, and this book taught me a lot of stuff I didn’t know, and, more importantly, disabused me of a bunch of wrong ideas.

The HBR tiles spoke to me because, in a few words, they distilled essential attributes of the main themes. I have persistently argued that Disability Inclusion is a professional affair. We all start off as passionate amateurs, inspired by a cause. I did. Then I became frustrated by the slow progress. I have confessed that I did not figure out how to do things better myself. I needed Kate Nash, CEO of PurpleSpace, to give me a wake-up kick in the pants via her keynote address at the 2018 Australian Network on Disability Annual Conference. I was immensely grateful. I was snapped out of a trance.

In this essay I want to reflect on the 3 themes on the tiles in the context of Disability Inclusion and accountability.

But first…

In my last essay on Accountability, I listed 6 books that have been deeply influential. Authors like Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, and John List and Iris Bohnet, both economists, have convinced me that we have fully entered an age when science should drive how we understand organisations.

Disability Inclusion is not just an organisational concern. It concerns the whole community. An organisation is a specific subset of a community. What applies at an organisational level has also relevance in the community.

If we can see it as a pursuit informed by a moral duty and shaped by science, we can perform it much better.


I sought chairpersonship of the DEN several times from 2012. In early 2016 I finally got to be deputy chair. That turned out to be nothing more than ineffectual status. I wanted to be chair because I was frustrated by the leadership I had been experiencing; and thought I could do better. I had leader/manager experiences in the past. But I had also deliberately chosen not to seek advancement from the grade 9/10 level I had when I joined the department in December 2001 as a Support Manager. I didn’t enjoy the management component of the role. I loved the front-line aspects of the job – getting my hands dirty, so to speak. But at the same time, I had been reading in management and organisational psychology for around 15 years. 

Leadership is an entirely different affair to management. Not all managers are leaders, and not all leaders are managers. We mash the two together because, relatively speaking, leadership in the public sector was a comparatively novel notion. It was just assumed that managers could, and would, be leaders.

Leadership is not position dependent. It is character driven. Loretta Malandro, writing in Fearless Leadership, makes this abundantly clear.

Managing People

In essence, we all try to manage people in some way – through influencing; or avoiding being influenced. It is a difficult and sometimes messy business in an organisational context. For those in formal people manager roles there is the rational dimension, which can be challenging enough. And then there’s the realm where personalities interact, and the personal dimension intersects with professional.

Back in the 1980s I came across the ‘management guru’, Tom Peters. One enduring lesson I took from his books was that we live in a ‘sloppy, messy’ world. He meant that reality does not conform to our neat categorizations, and things don’t play out as if life was a chess game. Human beings are dynamic and fluid states that can change slowly, if at all, and then suddenly do something unexpected. 

We can develop people management skills for the rational elements of our roles – but beyond that, things depend upon our levels of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and skills in influence, persuasion and communication. These are all things we can learn to do better. We can’t manage people if we can’t manage our reaction to them.

Decision Making and Problem Solving

My recent readings have been particularly revelatory in the area of how we problem solve and make decisions. 

We are not only disposed to think we are far better at problem solving than we really are; we are also naturally biased to favour some solutions over others.

The book Noise introduced me to the idea of Decision Hygiene.  It’s easy, and natural, to make poor decisions. I used to think that the need for greater self-awareness principally concerned our ability to engage more authentically and effectively with people. Now I see it is just as important in problem solving and decision making. Data is important, but how we interpret and process it is even more so.

And when that problem solving and decision making concerns other people’s welfare and wellbeing, the degree to which we understand how accountable to ourselves we really are is emphasised.

How we ‘balance’ “data, experience, and intuition” depends on how well we understand what balancing means.

At the moment I am listening to an audiobook by Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow. It came out in 2011 and is now something of a classic. Here’s a summary from Wikipedia – The book’s main thesis is that of a dichotomy between two modes of thought: “System 1” is fast, instinctive and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

Kahneman won Nobel Prize for economics in 2002. That’s an impressive achievement for a psychologist.

How we think matters. How we understand how we think matters too, perhaps more so. Not everything we think is a rational thought is. If we believe we are making what we think is a rational thought, it would be good to be able to have the tools to determine whether it is that. It could be an articulate justification for a bias, or an inaccurate ‘intuition’. When other people’s welfare depends on the decisions we make, a capacity for effective self-accountability is essential.


I am not suggesting for one moment that anybody who wants to be involved in Disability Inclusion must rush off and get an education in psychology or economics. But I am suggesting that the insight and the wisdom from the human sciences should be abundantly informing how leaders at all levels act and communicate within their organisations. By leaders I mean executives, line managers, active members of staff resource groups, and any other staff member prepared to model values and conduct consistent with inclusion objectives.

The innate goodwill of staff can be magnified or impaired by how leaders act. That positive energy and its potential for change can be squandered if leaders are not being informed by the new knowledge that is available. The good intent the majority of leaders exhibit is likewise squandered if it is not expressed through clearer understanding.

This is, in effect, the summation of my accountability challenge.

Talking with Canada


The Canadian government has an impressive online presence in terms of Disability Inclusion. I have no doubt it is sincere, but does it walk as good as it talks? 

Some months ago, a Blue Mountains Disability Forum meeting featured guests from two Canadian disability service providers who spoke about how they responded to the challenges posed by COVID 19. One of those guests was Stuart McReynolds, President and CEO of the Abilities Centre, based in Whitby, Ontario.

This is from their website: The dream of Abilities Centre began in the early 2000s, with a group of community champions who saw the urgent need for increased programming and services for people with disabilities in the Durham Region and across Canada. Their vision was to create a place where people of all ages and abilities could come together and realize their full potential, and in the process, change the social fabric of our communities and country. 

On Saturday morning (12 March), at 06:00 I had a Zoom chat with Stuart McReynolds. I wanted to know how what I read of the Canadian government’s public commitment translated into action.

A Genuine Commitment – and a Shared Challenge.

As we talked it was obvious that there was a great deal of similarity, in terms of expressed commitment to Disability Inclusion, in each country, though it was articulated in very different ways.

Canada has a Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, and a national Disability Inclusion Action Plan. The Minister, Carla Qualtrough, is legally blind and has a background in human rights law. She is highly regarded.

But, as Stuart observes, while it is a good thing to have a Minister for Disability Inclusion, there is a risk that this role can be seen as a success in itself, rather than an integrated function that permeates the wider government culture.

The Canadian government has established the Disability Inclusion Action Plan, which “will focus on: reducing poverty among Canadians with disabilities. getting more persons with disabilities into good quality jobs. helping meet the Accessible Canada Act goal of a barrier-free Canada by 2040.” The language will be familiar to Australians, especially those living in New South Wales.

As we talked, Stuart observed that requiring compliance with disability inclusion legislation and policies was delivering some good, but also much response was limited to minimal compliant actions. Good changes were happening, but resistance to the Disability Inclusion message was just as apparent.

Compliance as a tool of accountability is like a hammer head without a handle. The refinement and effectiveness of the tool is expressed only when it is complete. The other part of accountability is engagement and commitment. This is a common challenge for both countries.

How Do We Energise Engagement and Commitment?

Later that Saturday, I listened to an a very interesting interview with Miranda Briana Epler, founder of Change Catalyst, on the podcast With, Not For. This podcast is from the Centre for Inclusive Design, located in Sydney’s University of Technology. 

Miranda said something I will come back to in more detail when I write about her book, How to be an Ally, which I am listening to at the moment. She said, “We are getting better, but not very fast.”

Here, she echoed Stuart’s and my sentiment. What is the mystery of such resistance in a sea of goodwill? Must the process of creating universal Disability Inclusion be so slow? In some respects, it must. Canada’s 2040 goal may seem like a very long time before the whole nation is fully accessible – that’s 18 years away. In fact, that’s an ambitious target, given the cost of the necessary changes to be made to the nation’s infrastructure to provide universal accessibility to people with mobility and vision disabilities. However, whether it would happen without a clear and costed plan is another matter.

But accessibility is not just about the physical environment. It includes the social, cultural and psychological – and here, too, a clear and costed plan is necessary.

Before such a plan can be developed, we must ensure that what is proposed is based on knowledge, not guesswork. There is a question we must answer – how do we overcome the resistance to positive change?

Where To From Here?

It was obvious, talking with Stuart, that we share opportunities and challenges. Canadians are doing things that we in Australia can learn from, and vice versa. I gave Stuart details of the Australian Network on Disability (AND). He was contemplating something like AND’s Access and Inclusion Index.

We have an idea to set up a regular conversation between Disability Inclusion advocates in both countries. It would be good to include the UK as well, but this will take some delicate discussion over time zone differences to find the least painful times – especially for Australian participants.


The Disability Inclusion Challenge is global. Great work is being done in organizations dedicated to the cause. Our governments are genuinely supportive in legislation, policy, and sentiment – which is a good start. Our organizations and businesses are open to change to various degrees. Our communities are generally responsive and open to being more inclusive.

Progress is being made. How do we accelerate it?

Accountability Part 3


It took me 16 months as DEN Chair to wake up to the reality that effective change needed far more than I understood. To be an effective leader I had to develop a plan, form strong alliances with departmental leaders, and get an education.

As a member of the DEN, I had been passive. That was because of the way the DEN was set up. It had a strong secretariat provided by the department. This was normal. It meant that important work could be done without adding a burden to members in their regular roles. But it also meant that the contact between the DEN and the department was via the narrow channel of the Chair. Even as deputy chair in 2016, I had no real role. It was a job in name only.

In 2018, with membership restored, I created the DEN’s Guidance and Action Team (GAT). This wasn’t a management committee. The DEN didn’t need one. The GAT was essentially a group of activists who were into holding the department, and themselves and the DEN, to account. This widened the scope of conversation and engagement considerably. I started off with 15 buzzing and  passionate members. The number has since expanded to 27.

I have written about the GAT in The DCJ DEN Story: The Leadership Challenge, which is a page on this blog you can find through the menu. I mention here in the context of reflecting on accountability.

The Need for Accountability as a Shared Experience

Staff with disability need a strong and effective staff body through which they can engage in a shared conversation about Disability Inclusion with their colleagues and their management. It’s not for solo heroes. Engagement in the shared conversation must be dynamic and many voiced – in a spirit of shared accountability.

I have raised issues on the impediments to Disability Inclusion to focus attention on where the more problematic challenges lie. Local toxic management, unresponsive leadership, and distrustful and fearful staff do not describe every reality, and certainly not most. But these scenarios are nevertheless present in the public sector.  And the principles are universal – local management, senior leadership, and staff with disability – all have a role to play in that conversation of shared accountability.

Worst case scenarios – leading to a perfect storm of discrimination and exclusion – will occur under certain circumstances. Less perfect storms will happen when fewer failures of leadership (at all levels) are present in the chain of accountability.

No Heroes Needed

Disability Inclusion is everybody’s business. But the necessity of personal survival means that it cannot be a matter of somebody going alone as an Inclusion Hero. Managers and leaders who do not foster a culture of universal inclusion are failing a legal, policy and moral responsibilities. 

That failure is not about personal culpability. Managers and leaders of genuine moral integrity and compassion are as bound up in the constraints of culture, as we all are. If we are silent when we witness injustice for reasons of our own self-preservation, how can we hold others to account?

Senior leaders want better, but they know that being direct will not always get them what they want. If you are going to be an activist, you have to be canny. This is a seemingly paradoxical observation. If you have ten senior leaders in a room, all of whom want the same thing, you will not always get a frank and open conversation.

Think about it. Unless the situation is a full-on crisis that demands frank and fearless conversation…. But wait! Not even then. Researchers into decision-making argue that there are complex factors that influence how challenges are confronted, assessed, and responded to. We do our best, no matter what level we are at, to make good decisions and choices. And we routinely fall short of our ideals – and then convince ourselves we did not.

Executive leaders are not superhuman. Getting a senior leadership role does not confer remarkable insight. It would be nice to think that all senior leaders are smarter and more capable. That is true most of the time. But it is also true that individuals on the toxic end of the psychopathy spectrum will pass scrutiny and become an executive leader. There’s a certain ‘wisdom’ that a little bit of psychopathy helps in leadership roles – in government and in business. Indeed, there may be a ‘psychopathy gap’ to bridge. I am being serious here. I will do some deeper digging on that theme later.

The upshot is that we have senior executive leaders who are generally very smart and accomplished, and yet who make poor decisions about how to respond to issues of inclusion. Let me be clear, here, and emphasise that this is the normal state of affairs. How do I know? There are four compelling pieces of evidence in Australia:

  1. There is an abundance of literature written by highly qualified consultants working with (mostly) corporations using grounded research on inclusion, discrimination, bias, and decision making – and how they all intersect. We are not as smart, or as good, as we think – but we can be more so.
  2. We still have Diversity and Inclusion units. This tells us that achieving the ideals we all (well most) sincerely agree on is far harder than we hoped or imagined. It’s a journey, not a step.
  3. We have Employee Resource Groups for staff with disability, and for members of other minority and diversity groups. Staff still need to organise to advocate for change – and the rights and dignities to which they are entitled.
  4. We have a Disability Royal Commission. Think about it. Despite deep awareness of Disability Inclusion for over a decade; despite Disability Inclusion being on the radar of pretty much everybody; we needed a Royal Commission. It is not that we are evil. It’s that even good people do not stand up to be accounted when there is a powerful cultural, situational, and existential disincentive.

We must be honest about ourselves. We celebrate heroes for a reason. Despite the sentimental overuse of the word, and hence its devaluation, we still acknowledge a hero as a stand-out – an exemplar. The vexed issue of whistle-blowers and the weakness of the protections theoretically provided tell us something important. Encouragement to speak up to expose misconduct isn’t backed up by the support promised. Being as good as we’d like to be is not only harder than we imagine, it can also be dangerous.


If staff, managers, or leaders engage in discrimination, calling them out can be a perilous thing to do. Even when a desperate victim of such discrimination submits a formal complaint, or even takes legal action, and is successful, conduct may not change. I know of too many specific instances of this being the case.

Organisational cultures that fail to develop an inclusive spirit are ultimately influenced by senior leaders. The problem isn’t that the senior leaders do not care. While there are technical mechanisms to hold perpetrators of discrimination to account there is often no active will to do so. This is a cultural issue I haven’t yet explored to the degree that I feel confident discussing it. 


Our psychology, as individuals, as members of groups and communities (including organisations) creates a reality that falls short of our ideals, and our beliefs about how good we are. Moving closer to our ideals is possible, but that requires informed self-awareness.

We are all accountable for how inclusive we are. Good change happens when there is shared, informed and intentional conversation that then leads to action.

A workplace culture that is not inclusive and compassionate on its own account, and is shaped by toxic management and unresponsive leadership, should be unimaginable in a public sector setting. That’s the ideal, and the goal of Disability Inclusion. Staff are a part of the accountability equation too. Intentional change works best and fastest when its everybody’s business.

Below are my top 6 books that have helped me get a better understanding of how organisations – and those within them, work. The hyperlinks are to Amazon. This is not a recommendation you buy from them (Please support local independent bookstores when you can). It is to assist readers who may wish to use audiobooks and ebooks. Check out the authors on YouTube as they often give talks on their work.

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts – by Brené Brown

Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement – by Daniel Kahneman

The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth – by Amy C. Edmondson

The Voltage Effect: How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideas Scale – by John A. List

What Works: Gender Equality by Design – by Iris Bohnet

Fearless Leadership: How to Overcome Behavioural Blindspots and Transform Your Organisation – by Loretta Malandro

Accountability Part 2


How do we respond to evidence of discriminatory behaviour? Your reflex might be to imagine a simple act of confronting it and making it stop. But that’s not how we operate. Yes, some of us will act directly, but most of us are far more nuanced. Concerns about standing out, being seen as an activist, the status of the ‘perpetrator’, their reactions, and the extent to which we believe we will be supported all come into play.

Accountability has many layers, and many players. This, unfortunately, is little explored in Disability Inclusion.

The Canadian government has an interesting approach. It has a Management Accountability Framework (MAF). It sounds like a great idea, but it is still subject to the usual caveats that must be applied to all ‘good ideas’. Nevertheless it is worth quoting the website:

The 2021-22 people management methodology of the Management Accountability Framework (MAF) centres on departmental performance and management practices with respect to people management policies and priorities such as diversity and inclusion as well as departmental readiness for future of work.  

The methodology is aligned with the strategic vision for people management – to build a skilled, diverse, and productive workforce, with an improved employee experience, a healthy and inclusive workplace and an agile organization of work that consistently delivers results for Canadians

That sounds great. But I am especially interested in the ideas of Management Accountability being laid out re “departmental performance and management practices”. This is not to be a singular focus on managers/leaders, but the reality is that these are the people who set the cultural tone – if only by enabling, rather than impeding, what staff in general want to create. 

The accountability of staff in supporting Disability Inclusion is so often dependent on what management is seen to endorse. The worst-case scenario is staff supporting actions or values which are not supported by local managers. Then appeals up the chain of responsibility and power backs the managers, and not the staff.

When Things Go Wrong

The unfortunate reality about advocating for Disability Inclusion is that it tends to focus on apparent failures. This is often a mismatch between what staff value and what managers allow or support.

In any workplace there are two cultures which fuse to create an overall culture (management/executive and other staff). The point of fusion is often the nexus of mistrust between staff and managers. This is no better illustrated in my own experience; before I became DEN Chair. The then Secretary of FACS invited staff to contact him re any thoughts or concerns. I don’t know how many people did, but I was one of them. My colleagues responded to the invitation with a mixture of cynicism and suspicion.

There was a reason for this. Fine sounding statements from senior leaders tended to be scintillating bluster that led to an unequal and disappointing subsequent engagement. This eroded respect and trust. Putting on the mask of authenticity was seen as a deceptive action. Staff have long learned not to be deceived. And with bitter staff, senior leaders have learned to be cautious about being open. All that does is lead to further suspicion and mistrust.

The complexities of leadership at a senior level are not easy to communicate in such an atmosphere. The inevitable process of change management is always a challenge; and is rarely accepted agreeably by staff. An atmosphere of mutual mistrust is no good place to promote change.

Change management tends to be something confined to restructures within the public sector. It is not seen as being applicable to Disability Inclusion. Let me explain why this is not a good idea.

There’s a popular notion that ‘change is the only constant’. This tends to be uttered in a resigned and glib manner; or articulated with sparkling insensitivity. In its original Taoist context, it has a deeper meaning. Nevertheless, it is especially true as we, as a culture, respond to the changes in our level of recognised diversity and equity, and the values espoused in response – inclusion, and all that means, being the primary one.

As our cultures and communities evolve, the ones that acknowledge diversity and embrace inclusion are more successful. The strategic approach taken to change management for organisational change, as imperfect as it may be, is as applicable to cultural change.

The Darwinian principle of ‘the survival of the fittest’ does not refer to those who can run faster and longer. In this sense, the most fit means the most apt. Saying ‘aptest’ just doesn’t work. It is what is best adapted and most suited. Cultures must adapt to survive and flourish in a changing environment – especially when the culture itself is the changing environment.

The presence of UN conventions and national and state laws concerning Disability Inclusion impose an adaptive pressure upon an organisational culture. This is reinforced by policy. In NSW the Premier’s Priority concerning employment of people with disability in the public sector is an instance of policy pressure for adaptation.

Beneath policy we have plans and strategies. On one level Disability Inclusion is everybody’s business. It’s not okay for staff to be inert, pending directives from management. But if there is a toxic and distrustful relationship between staff and management, personal survival is a stronger imperative – especially when management signals it has no authentic commitment to Disability Inclusion by its actions or inactions.

How Likely is This? 

There are two sides to this question. One is personal and the other is cultural. Let’s deal with the personal first.

There are some managers on the more toxic side of the psychopathy spectrum. They will make the right signals and then contrive to have their far less inclusive and compassionate take on things seem like compliance with policy. The trouble is that we don’t have a handle on where the too toxic line should be drawn. We need to evolve that awareness. This is especially necessary when it comes to leadership and management roles. 

There is good evidence that 20% of managers are responsible for 80% of instances of bullying. If we drilled down deeper, we might find that 5% of managers are responsible for 50% of bullying. That’s just my speculation because I haven’t seen data on this. I don’t know if it is available. My point is that people on the more toxic end of the psychopathy spectrum not only generate a higher level of alleged bullying, but they also create a workplace culture unwilling to confront such misconduct. 

On a broader management culture level, we have 2 related concerns. The first is that executive leaders and senior managers are a class apart from the rest of the staff. They are less likely to hold their own to account. In any defined group it takes an almost radical perspective to hold a member to account – and that can be an act of martyrdom. This isn’t a moral failing of executives and managers. They are ‘victims’ of our psychology and instincts. We who are not in that group are just as vulnerable to conformity that looks like a moral failing. And can we say with absolute assurance that we would not conform?

The second concern is that here is a perfect place for a manager/leader on the toxic end of the psychopathy spectrum to operate. With skill, such a person can survive, and if they manage their instincts well, even thrive. The psychopathic personality likes power.

This means that almost certainly there will be leaders on the toxic end of the psychopathy spectrum in senior leadership roles. If, under them, there are others on the spectrum, as well as more junior leaders with no confidence to resist, it is possible to imagine a perfect storm of moral failure in which Disability Inclusion is shipwrecked while being celebrated as finding a safe harbour.


On the surface, the Canadian government seems to have a good accountability framework in place – in terms of how a department is managed and performs. I am still trying to find out how this is working out in the real world.

While it is essential to focus attention on leaders, who do have the responsibility to deliver on government and organisational objectives, it is important not to imagine that staff can be passive and merely compliant when it comes to Disability Inclusion.

Organisational cultures are layered in a way that tends to separate leaders from the rest of the staff in important ways. This is just how management and leadership works in organisations. Disability Inclusion should, indeed must, be able to reach across that separation. It is about our common dignity and wellbeing.

Accountability Part 1


Over the past few months, I have been delving into the psychological research conducted by practitioners of Behavioural Economics in my ongoing quest to understand why some staff with disability experience ongoing discrimination, and why change is sometimes painfully slow.

My aim has been to understand what and why, rather than take an accusatory tone that implies there is blame that should be assigned. Things are the way they are because of who we are. In short, the challenges of making Disability Inclusion real are not bugs. Rather, they are features we need to evolve into their next stage of potential.

In this set of essays, I will reflect on how accountability is something we must look at more closely. I was gently chided by a reader for making some essays too long, so I will keep this one to no more than the equivalent of 4 pages at the most. I expect 2 more of a similar length – but maybe 3.

The Virtue of Business

Public service has never been a theme much discussed in any of the 8 departments I have worked in. In recent decades it has been there discussion in the background, as kind of warm glow. But it has never been something thought to merit a deep dive. What does it mean, and why does it matter?

As inclusion has become an important theme, spurred on by anti-discrimination legislation and UN Conventions, its moral and economic dimensions have become important. The economic dimension has become a 

subject of particular inquiries.

Our communities are becoming more openly diverse through migration, and acceptance of differences that have always been with us. These were once part of fixed social structures that validated, or invalidated, human worth through inclusion, or exclusion, on grounds of gender, sexuality, religion, race, disability or states of health – physical or psychological.

In business there is a clearly delineated bottom line that is measured in unambiguous terms – profit. There are moral dimensions to how that profit is generated, of course. A business conforming to anti-discrimination law has a profit motive to embrace diversity and inclusion. Done well, it improves the bottom line.

This means a business can obey the law, be in tune with contemporary community trends, and improve its bottom line by adopting a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion. It also means it can use productivity and profitability as a measure by which it can hold its leaders and business units accountable.

That’s the potential at least. The reality is more complex, because not all businesses keep such a keen eye on the economic performance of individual business units. The well-run ones do. Keeping skilled staff, reducing recruitment demands, lowering the rate and cost of absenteeism, and building and keeping high performing team all improve the bottom line. 

Well run businesses engage experts to help them perform better. Those experts conduct research, apply their findings, and then they write books. The goal of these businesses is to provide a service/product that will generate a profit of acceptable level and moral quality. The goal of experts is to help businesses – and then get their insights into the public sphere.

This is a clear foundation for assessing the accountability of participants in the business. The rest of us can learn from the extraordinary growth in personal and organisational psychology.

Public Service is Different

Now and then, there are arguments about whether a public service should be provided by a for-profit business. Some areas of government enterprise have been privatised. The ‘profit motive’ has been seen to inspire people to work harder and better. For-profits keep costs lower. But they also extract profit from the available funds. Their track record varies from okay to woeful. At least I have not come across any glowing success stories. I’d be happy to be disabused of my possible bias.

However, the bottom line for a public sector is sufficiently different – and more complex than simple cost control and profit generation. The revenue raised does not come from trading. The departments and agencies are not generally involved in delivering products or services that are paid for by users to cover costs and make a profit. The income and the output are not tightly related through cause and effect. This is not true of state-run enterprises, of course, but they are not the dominant function of a public sector.

A public sector has, of course, a clear financial accountability – to spend the money raised by taxes and charges in a way that delivers the most amount of good to all people in a given state or nation. This is where things get interesting in terms of accountability.

A public sector is accountable to the community in a way a private business is not. The community is both shareholder and customer, and governments ideally should be advocates for both roles equally. But how does that play out in NSW, representing 8 odd million shareholder/customers? It creates a level of complexity no business has to face. So, while there is a financial bottom line, it shares its place with other factors as well. Among these are the individual service objectives of each cluster, department, and agency.

Figuring out what constitute the best accountability metrics for a public sector is no easy feat. This is complicated by the size and composition of the workforce. Now let’s add into the business-as-usual demands a requirement to meet diversity targets. Here things get very interesting, and I will focus on just disability to explore this.

The NSW Premiers Priorities set a target of 5.6% of the NSW public sector workforce being people with disability by 2025. Note, this is not a minimum of 5.6% per department/agency, but across the sector. This is, for me, a significant weakness in terms of equity, but that is for another essay. The NSW Premier’s Priorities were introduced at the end of the 2018/19 financial year. This will be 3 years ago at the end of the 2021/22 financial year.

I believe that the NSW public sector has already hit that modest target (the UK Civil Servicerate is 10% among the 34% who have declared their disability status and “only” 5.4% among senior civil servants). The 2021 PMES results shows 5% across the sector, but in a range from 2% to 12%. While recruitment methods must be improved to eliminate disincentives, biases, and discrimination in hiring people with disability, a greater emphasis on changing workplace cultures is critical. 

The creation of a safe work environment in which staff with disability can be open about their needs for workplace adjustments and accommodation is essential if there is any realistic hope of surveys showing the actual level of staff with disability.

Importantly, while the PMES results are grounds for hope, internal reporting across the sector show results significantly lower. What will be the metric used to affirm the 5.6% is hit or missed? Internal workforce surveys or anonymous PMES results? It must be the former. Hence the gap between the present situation and the target is so much greater.

Accountably Hitting the Target

Having a target without a means of hitting it is problematic. It’s like setting up a bullseye; but omitting the important fact that not only are there no skilled archers, but no bows or arrows. The people who have been charged with hitting the target have good intent, but only a vague idea of how to make the bow, bowstring and arrows – with which they then must become proficient.

Clearly it is unjust to hold people to account to hit a target without skills and tools. It is even more problematic when senior leaders are unaware of the skills and tools needed.

The presumption has been that getting to the target is more about recruitment, and that sorting out recruitment practices isn’t all that difficult. It is. Research on decision-making is clear that biases can derail the best intent in recruitment – and that anti-bias training isn’t effective. Also, this isn’t just a challenge for new staff, it applies also to existing staff fearful of disclosing a disability when seeking a promotion – despite assurances.

The greatest challenge is changing workplace culture, and here we come to the role of leaders, the need for plans, strategies, upskilling and how to create a framework of accountability.


As we think through what accountability means in the context of supporting staff with disability, we enter a realm of complexity that is well-researched in diverse areas, but not knitted together to offer guidance for advocates for Disability Inclusion in the public sector.

In my next essay I will reflect on this complexity, and how we can begin to assemble the means, and acquire the skills, to hit the target. Then the means of accountability can begin to take shape.

Michael Patterson