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.
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.
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.