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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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