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.