The impact of being excluded


I have asserted that inclusion is a stretch exercise for many of us because we are hardwired to be exclusive and biased. We look after our in-group members and are distant from those we see as members of out-groups.

That was all fine and good when we lived in communities made up of in-group members – and we could reliably work in work cultures made up of people like us. But we don’t do that anymore. In NSW, in the major population centres we live and work with people from diverse backgrounds and life experiences. 

We are also hardwired to crave inclusion and belonging. Some of us belong to a large group occupying a defined space, but we no longer live among them. Some of us belong to a minority group – one that does not exist together in one space as a single community, but which comes together now and then – or which connects online. Others belong to a group so small the chances of most of the members getting together are remote.

The key is what group/s do we primarily identify with? We all belong to multiple groups. We have multiple layers to our identities. Here I am not talking just about the well-recognised diversity classifications – but identities based on hobbies and pastimes or politics, to name a few. When you say “I am…” you are articulating part of your identity.

Identity means more when you are away from your primary group

Back in 1996 I relocated to the UK with every intention of staying there. One day I was sitting in a pub and heard an Australian accent. I immediately sought the source out. She was from Perth and was living nearby, just one town away (that’s nearby in England). She’d not heard an Australian accent for a long time either.

What we both discovered was that coming across somebody who understood our story had a huge psychological impact. It was a huge relief. I was surprised, and when I got home, I became aware that on every wall of my flat I had an Australian image. Even though I was in England I was still inhabiting Australia.

I was born in Northern Ireland and had always said I was Irish. I was entitled to say that, but I wasn’t. I had migrated to Australia when I was 4. The only Irish thing about me was my history. Before I came back to Australia I travelled to Ireland, and back to my birthplace. Not only did nobody know my story, it was also incomprehensible to them. Had I chosen to stay in Ireland or the UK I would have had to have developed another identity and would have had to stow my Australian identity away. Let me be clear, being an Australian and being an Aussie in the UK are not the same thing.

If you are a migrant or a refugee, and you come to Australia, you have the same challenge. It is good to be with people who know, or can understand, your story. But you also need an identity that connects you with where you are. Perhaps, to be accepted in your new identity you have to stow away valued parts of your old identity – beliefs, traditions, dress etc.

The experience of being you is what makes up your identity. Sometimes being you changes. My trans brother went from being my sister to being my brother. He can be my brother to other people, but it isn’t safe for him to be trans. In fact, it’s dangerous in some circumstances. He can be himself only if he is just that safe bit when he is away from family and friends who know his whole stroy. There are few people with whom he can be fully himself – but then, I guess, that applies to most of us too. You don’t need a radical attribute to make you feel uncomfortable about being wholly who you identify as.

My disability does not identify me, but I can be identified because of my disability – the bloke with the blue crutches. My disability is also part of my identity because I have experiences that are peculiar to it, but it does not define who I am. And yet, when I am excluded because of my disability there are times when it feels like my whole self is being excluded.

Awhile back my colleagues elected to celebrate Christmas at a bowling club, with bowling a major activity. I like bowling. I watched a lot of it on telly and had planned to take it up when I retired. These days I can’t hold a bowling ball with any control. 

I elected not to go the bowling club. This was because I didn’t want to make it obvious that I had been excluded from a group activity, by accident. I wanted my colleagues to relax at the end of a hard year, and not feel bad about picking an activity I could not participate in. I knew some would. They were my friends, and they would have felt bad.

Sometimes we can be excluded because of our disability in ways that are demeaning and offensive. Brain research shows that exclusion triggers a threat response. The same part of our brain that registers pain also registers exclusion. When that is extended over time psychological and physical harm will be done.

We all have a sense of identity that is essential to us. And we all crave belonging and acceptance. When that identity is assailed or we are excluded it hurts us.

Identity at work

There is an ideal – bring your whole self to work. Within the constraints of workplace decorum that is a fine ideal. We have multiple layers to our sense of identity from which we can fashion an identity we want to express at work. If we work fulltime that’s a substantial portion of our year – about 28% of our waking time, not including a commute.

There’s a difference between who we want to be, and who we must present as to survive with some level of acceptance and inclusion in the workplace. For some the gap between want and must is acceptably narrow. For others it is a wide gap. What widens the gap comes down to several things:

  • A dominant workplace culture that does not accommodate alternative or diverse expressions of identity, and which is not expressly hostile.
  • A dominant workplace culture that does not accommodate alternative or diverse expressions of identity, and which is expressly hostile.
  • A leadership culture that fosters and allows discrimination or bullying by a minority, including managers and team leaders.
  • A leadership culture that espouses inclusion but does not facilitate it or practice it in any consistent or coherent way.

The people most vulnerable to adverse experiences are members of minority diversity groups. They possess personal attributes that are critical to their identity because of their membership of a diversity group (or several) and which cannot be readily concealed. It is notable that the 2021 NSW State of the Sector report identified people with disability and Aboriginal people as the two groups most susceptible to bullying. Embodied attributes cannot be concealed, and that exposure renders individuals vulnerable to unintended and intended acts of exclusion – of which bullying is the worst.

How does it feel to be excluded?

In the workplace we have an innate need to belong to a group or a team as a valued member – with our preferred expression of identity embraced and honoured. When that doesn’t happen, we are distressed, and that can lead to emotional, or psychological, injury.

Over my time as DEN Chair, I was involved in a number of interventions to support staff with disability experiencing discrimination and bullying. Some of those staff were at breaking point emotionally. They had made attempts to end the bullying; and matters only got worse. All are injured, some badly. Here are a few quotes from a few:

A: Because of my disability I have been the victim of bullying many times. Bullying is counterproductive; it robs the victim of their dignity; it affects their health and emotional well-being.  After I was bullied, I used all my leave and because of this I lost financially.  I was an emotional mess for many months. I have been to several Counsellors, but I can’t seem to move on. I feel like I have to try to do something about this so nobody else has to be humiliated and hurt like I have been.

B: The unjust treatment perpetrated against me by my manager and the inactions of (their) direct line manager had a significant impact on my emotional health and safety.  The long-standing mistreatment disturbed and interfered with my usual functioning and happiness; and impacted my professional reputation. What was worse than that was the response of the very people and processes that are supposed to be there to protect staff by fairly investigating complaints. 

The failed response by senior management (and other areas responsible) has had a greater impact on me than the long-standing mistreatment and actions I endured by my (then) manager. I don’t know if I’ll ever heal from the loss of faith in the system and people that were supposed to ensure I was safe. 

C: I have become obsessive about trying to stop XXX from bullying staff. XX is a serial bully and usually picks on people that XX considers vulnerable. I have witnessed XX harm so many people over the years.  This “haunts me” and keeps me awake at night. Also, I live in fear that XX may start to bully me again.

D: This pain caused by discrimination and bullying is not something that is healed by the well-intentioned announcements about inclusion and equity, at times rhetorically, by the Department. It is an injury that for many lingers, for some decades or a lifetime. A heartbreaking thought to suppose that for others, too much to bear living.

Exclusion is a form of assault

Bullying is an assault, psychologically speaking. It is the worst form of exclusion because it entails emotional violence. It says the victim is unworthy of respect, or compassion. They do not deserve to maintain their dignity. This is a terrible thing to do to an adult person who, outside of work, will be a valued member of a family or community. That aspect of their identity cannot be submerged at work.

Passive exclusion is less violent, but no less damaging. Small acts of exclusion accumulate, and it does not matter whether they are intentional or inadvertent. If you exclude, you can contribute to an accumulation of harm. 

I don’t mean for the reader to feel an obligation to be a friend to everyone. That’s not what inclusion means. It means in the context of a workplace that there is equal freedom to engage and participate – and everyone knows it and feels confident in engaging and participating.

Today’s diverse culture means that in our workplaces we will encounter people who are unfamiliar to us; and who would once have been an outsider to be avoided and shunned. I grew up with the legacy of a Northern Irish Protestant hatred of Catholics. I had to reject my father’s influence. My mother thought the Chinese market gardeners were “dirty” and warned me against eating Chinese food. My parents were raised in a culture that excluded with righteous certainty. It didn’t translate well in the world I was growing up in.

Things have evolved. Now we share the same in-group – as colleagues and maybe as team members in the same agency and the same sector. It doesn’t matter what group you are from outside of work. At work you form a new in-group randomly made of people whose background and origins have nothing to do with whether they are entitled to be a full member of your work in-group. That’s the difference. That’s the stretch – embrace the diverse and the unfamiliar.

The duty of equity

As we evolve as a culture, we transgress against and violate old truths that affirm it is okay to reject another because of some attribute that marked them as a member of an out-group.

My stepfather cannot accept his trans son because his Christian community does not. He had to choose between his child who has ‘violated God’s law’ and a community which supports him at a deep existential level. He has chosen his community. His community of faith is free to make a distinction that excludes others.

The NSW public sector is not so free. It must accept everybody. This is a profoundly novel state of affairs. Discrimination was routine, and the acceptable norm not so long ago. Now it is not. This change places a huge demand upon sector leaders, and I don’t think the magnitude of that demand is fully comprehended. It places a huge demand on staff in general too, but in a very different way.

The NSW Premier’s Priorities include increasing the proportion of women and Aboriginal people in senior leadership roles. That is because white Anglo middle class males have long been the majority of senior leaders. That’s not a demographic group highly exposed to the demographic diversity of the NSW population. But you need some significant degree of openness that comes from such exposure to comprehend what exclusion is, and what it does.

Sector leaders and managers must embrace this evolution, and in fact lead it. They must ensure their actions exclude no one; and do no harm. Unless they do that change is going to be slow and painful, if not catastrophic, to many.

This isn’t a matter of choice. The obligation of the public service is to serve the whole community with equal justice, respect, and compassion – whether staff member or service user/recipient.

The power of the bully

Inclusion isn’t a ‘nice to have’. At its fundamental level it is an inalienable right built into the moral fabric of our culture. We have done this via legislation and policy. 

So why do some members of the public sector feel they are exempt from an obligation to conform? More importantly, why do we accept a public sector leadership culture that accommodates instances of such self-exemption as fair and reasonable?

Studies show that most bullying is perpetrated by line and senior managers. Bullying by peers is possible only when management is weak or complicit. So, we can safely say that bullying is perpetrated or facilitated by managers/leaders.

That means either a lack of awareness of the duty of care, or a decision to assert personal exemption from it. Lack of awareness can be addressed by providing developmental opportunity. Though why one would imagine that such lack of awareness is acceptable in manager or executive grades is beyond me. 

Self-determined exemption from required standards by managers or executives strikes me as being utterly indefensible – especially when it results in psychological injury.


Exclusion is either intentional or accidental. Accidental exclusion can be remedied by interventions and support. Intentional exclusion cannot be placed in the same category. An act of intentional inclusion by a manager or executive demands a deeper look. Ineptitude or deliberate self-exemption? 

None of the voices I quoted above concerned ‘accidental’ or ‘inadvertent’ exclusion. The bullying was perpetrated over time. At best it was reflexive, suggesting an unconscious underlying psychological state. At worst it was intentional, suggesting the manager was on the toxic end of the psychopathy spectrum. 

In any case the perpetrator is not fit for purpose in a management/leadership role. The resistance to holding these perpetrators to account comes from more senior managers. The evidence this is the case is beyond dispute. When a manager becomes a member of the management in-group, the group will protect its own. Staff members below the manager class become the out-group. This is a hierarchical complexity that is insufficiently recognised.

It is also a recipe for disaster. There is a remedy, which will be resisted with great determination up the ladder of control. Change must come from the top. Until, and unless, it does abuse of the non-management out-group will not abate.

How Bold Allies Take Action


This was a webinar by the Australian office of the Neuroleadership Institute (NLI). Its primary function was to drum up business. The content is freely available in books and on the institute’s website. The how to element at an organisational level is what you pay for – and I would pay for such a service.

The webinar was on Zoom and participants were sent recording with impressive promptness. The session was only an hour, so while it did not get into the depth necessary, the key concepts were outlined – and they are valuable. I will discuss the key ones below. I sometimes quote directly from what was on screen.

What is allyship?

To quote the slide. “It’s when someone is aware of and uses their advantaged position to actively support people in less advantaged positions.”

There is a difference between being a sympathetic individual and being an ally, and this can be summed up as:

  • Don’t expect to be taught – Do your own research
  • Don’t view the desire for change as a personal attack – Listen non-defensively
  • Don’t self – victimise – Recognise systemic inequality

Allyship is an activity, not a sentiment. The NLI is strong on the need to develop habits of thought and action, and came up with 3 essential habits for effective allyship:

  • Identify Inequity
  • Increase Equity
  • Drive Change

There is a gulf of difference between sentiment and impact. Research on attitudes of staff conducted by Deloitte in 2019 showed:

  • 92% already see themselves as allies in the workplace
  • however, only 29% say they actually speak up in the moment when they perceive bias,
  • and nearly 1/3 ignore it.

There are 3 myths about allyship:

  1. Myth: Awareness is enough             Fact: Allyship must be coupled with action
  2. Myth: Allyship equals friendship     Fact: Allyship directly addresses inequity
  3. Myth: Once an ally, always an ally   Fact: The goal: exercise allyship continuously

Acts of exclusion have been shown to trigger threat and pain regions in the brain. Six reactions were identified, and they include all contexts, not just work:

  1. Reduced intelligence & reasoning
  2. Poor choices
  3. Antisocial behaviour
  4. Less self-control
  5. More defensive
  6. A lesser level of well-being (physical and psychological)

It is important to observe that exclusion can begin in one’s family of origin, one’s cultural setting, and the community as a whole. This may be true, for example, of a transgender person. In relation to people with disability there may well be support from family, but not in a cultural or wider community sense. What happens at work can be a perpetuation of exclusion begun elsewhere.

There has never been so much energy devoted to supporting acceptance of diversity. But without inclusion and belonging it has little meaning. Allyship, as an intentional act, is a great way to harness that energy and make it more effective in creating and maintaining real change.

Knowledge of what triggers our behaviour is essential

Our brains function on a threat/reward binary. Threat is the stronger impulse, but reward is the preferred impulse. The NLI has developed the SCARF model to help us think about how we respond to a situation. 

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

Unconscious bias: Accidental, unintended, subtle and completely

unconscious choices, made by everyone, all the time”. Essentially, “If you have a brain, you have a bias.”

Bias is a field that merits deeper examination. I have just finished Jessica Nordell’s The End of Bias. There is a lot of superficial commentary that is intended to be helpful, but in fact ends up being somewhat misleading. A fuller picture is better. Nordell’s work is the most comprehensive exploration of the theme I have come across. Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, co-founder of the NLI is an excellent exploration of the brain science of bias, and other themes.

According to the NLI, the science of driving change has 3 essential steps:

  • The development of an ethical conviction that exclusion is wrong
  • An empathic and compassionate identification with those who are excluded (discriminated against, bullied)
  • Activation of an intent to drive collective action to bring about the needed changes.

One slide struck me as being deceptively potent. In simply said: Power dynamics – Hierarchy can add another layer of complexity and threatYour Brain at Work touched on this to some extent. However, wider comments about the importance of Leaders in the webinar suggest a far more complex discussion on this theme is available from the NLI.

The other theme touched on in the webinar was “a growth mindset”. This is from the NLI blog – “growth mindset is the belief that skills can be improved over time, rather than being fixed from birth. You may never be the best at something, per se, but with a growth mindset you do believe that you can get better. Not only that, using a growth mindset compels you to focus on improving, not proving, yourself to face all future challenges.”

This idea is key to the approach taken by the NLI. You can read the full article here.


I am a huge fan of the work the NLI does. I like data that puts some arguments beyond disputation by people who are resisting the notion that there is a need to do better – and here’s a way that works.  By framing key areas for organisational and personal change in terms of brain science we avoid the messy moral discussions framed by sentiments and passions. Once you develop an ethical conviction that exclusion is wrong, you want to express that in ways that are rational, rather than emotive and dependent on sentiment.

Brain science on the side of the ‘good guys’. It helps us calmly see the complexity of the challenge, and the rational responses we can take to bring about enduring change in the most effective and efficient way.

I am not saying you have to go off and hire the NLI to run something for your org – and if you don’t do that you have no chance of ending exclusion. Obviously, for some orgs affording that option isn’t going to be on the table. But I could imagine several orgs getting together and having key people exposed to the depth of knowledge and opportunities for change that is available. 

Finally, the more we understand what drives us to behave badly or well, and what impedes the manifestation of good sentiment, the better chance we have of making the changes we want stick in an effective way.

The End of Bias


The End of Bias: How We Change Our Minds by Jessica Nordell was published in September 2021. The Amazon blurb notes that the book was shortlisted for a couple of awards and named a ‘Best Book of the Year’ by several organisations: 

It’s not often I agree with blurbs without reservation. The book is a beautifully written overview of what is known about bias – which is a lot. The insights are subtle and deep, and the stories compelling. It’s as solid a grounding on the subject of bias as you will find. 

What is bias? 

The Neuroleadership Institute says, “If you have a brain, you have a bias.” It’s a shortcut, and hence unconscious, way of making choices and decisions based upon data gleaned from nurture, culture, and experience. That data is classified according to whether it is a threat or a reward. It is a fast and energy efficient process. 

But that process now lacks several important attributes. The data may be wrong or out of date, and it is not context sensitive. There were times when the relatively simple bias-based process provided a quick, accurate and appropriate basis for a choice or decision. That is why such a process is hardwired into our brains. 

However, things have changed. Our social groups, especially in a work context, have become more diverse, and our overall environments more complex. The simple binary mechanism isn’t the best tool for delivering optimal choices and decisions anymore. 

We must reprogram our capacity for bias to avoid, or favour, a different set of attributes. For this to happen we must want it to happen; and be prepared to put in a reasonable amount of effort to make the reprograming stick. 

What can you do? 

I have been reading/listening to material on Inclusion and Diversity for the past 8 months pretty much as a fulltime occupation. Some things are very clear. Changing attitudes takes effort. It’s about building habits of thought and feeling. The best approach is little and often over a long time with a certain level of consistency. It’s like how you learned to drive. You started off with a massive cognitive and emotional load, and over time the essentials of driving became unconscious. But you still have to maintain conscious awareness of circumstances and contexts. 

Treat reading/listening to The End of Bias: How We Change Our Minds like a really great driving instructor. Effort will be required, but the experience could even be enjoyable. Afterwards, it’s up to you to take advantage what you have discovered, but you have gotten your bias L plates. 


I come across a lot of books I put into a ‘good to read’ category. There are a few that make it to my ‘must read’ category. The End of Bias is one of that few. 

Because of my disability I prefer audiobooks and ebooks. I can do both on a smartphone. Both are way cheaper than hardcopy mostly. For example, I bought my copy of The End of Bias audiobook for AUD$11.65. The current paperback price on Amazon is AUD $21.64. That doesn’t include postage. An audiobook can be 1/3 the cost of a paperback. 

I walk very slowly with the aid of crutches. That’s time I can waste on ‘monkey mind’ chatter, or I can spend it listening to something more intelligent and worthwhile. I listen to audiobooks and walk – it’s one of the few times I can do 2 things at once these days. If you are not a fan of audiobooks, please reimagine the benefits and opportunities they bring – whether you have a disability or not. 

The ARC of Disability Inclusion


I have been playing with this idea for about a month, after finding out that movement toward the 2019 NSW Premier’s Priority target for employment of people with disability (5.6% by 2025) has been scarcely discernible. There was a +0.1% growth only because of a dip from 2.5% in 2019 to 2.4% in 2020 and back to 2.5% in 2021. That’s zero growth, really.

I was reminded of Martin Luther King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I want to substitute ‘Inclusion’ for ‘justice’ – they are the same thing in many respects. And then I wanted to see if we could reimagine the arc as much shorter than King imagined. Change still takes time, but I keep coming back to the Neuroleadership Institute’s assertion that change can happen in months, not years. Whether this change includes Disability Inclusion I am not sure. But the Institute does demonstrate that rapid behavioural change at an organisational level can be achieved if the task is approached in an intentional and strategic manner. So, maybe.


I see the ARC as the first steps in breaking down the challenge of increasing the proportion of people with disability employed in the NSW public sector.

  • Attraction – Attracting people with disability to apply for roles, recruiting them and then having them record their disability on internal diversity records (you must bring them the whole way for an act of attraction to be successful).
  • Retention – Retaining staff with disability who might otherwise quit because of inaccessible systems and physical work circumstances, or because of bullying and discrimination.
  • Counting – Encouraging staff with disability to report their disability on internal diversity data records, and then using that data to make statements about how successful an organisation is in its efforts to be inclusive and safe for people with disability.

Each has a set of complexities associated with it. Each has an outcome for effort equation. And each has a strategic priority value. This wasn’t thought through in 2019 at all. 

There was an immediate leap to recruitment as the primary focus. In 2019 the sector workforce stood at 407,999 and disability employment rate at 2.5% – 3.1% off target. That meant recruiting around 50 people with disability a week for the next 5 years. How doable was that?

Moving on Attraction was no doubt important. But the higher priority was to establish a baseline of actual numbers. In an effort versus reward calculation a focus on Counting would have provided the best value for effort. An effective campaign to encourage current staff to report their disability to the internal diversity recording mechanism would have increased the reportable number of staff with disability employed within the sector at a far higher rate, and for less effort, than any other action.

It was entirely possible that some agencies already exceeded the 5.6% target in fact, but not in terms of official records. The most important question to ask was “Are we there already?” Then it would be possible to know how much off the target an agency was, and hence, then, to think about how best to go about hitting the target. 

Retention plays a vital role in ensuring that a workplace is accessible, inclusive, and psychologically safe. Resignation from public sector roles by people with disability because of bullying and discrimination is a leak that can and should be stopped. This is not just because it needlessly reduces the number of staff with disability employed, but because it is a clear issue of justice and fairness.

The response to the Premier’s Priority in 2019 was not strategic in any way. It produced the ineffectual Age of Inclusion campaign, and little else is apparent. There were some much needed improvements to recruitment practices in some agencies. But they were needed in any case.

In short, there has not been a sector-wide coordinated or strategic approach to hitting the 5.6% target.

The ARC must be seen like rainbow, but with 3 colours only, and with each colour having a spectrum of subtle tones. Nothing is simple and clear cut. No colour works alone. Let’s look at each a bit closer.


Letting people with disabilities know they are welcome in the public sector is important. Getting them to apply with confidence is the first step. Making the application process accessible is the next step, but one that is not always done well. This is despite some obvious accommodations being made.

An example is that while applicants are asked if they have a need for an adjustment during the recruitment process, they can only ask for what they know or anticipate. Overly complex questions and a very short question preview time prior to interview can be a surprise to a candidate with a cognitive or psychological disability and derail their performance at interview. It’s too late to ask for an adjustment at that stage.

Decision-making bias is a major concern. Unless recruitment panels are well-schooled in decision-making hygiene methods a candidate with a disability can be eliminated from consideration because of unconscious bias. Training in unconscious bias does not appear to work and can create an illusion that it is effective simply because an individual is aware of the idea. Being aware of bias isn’t the same as countering it.

Recruitment by untrained panel members is commonplace, and it is rare to find a skilled inclusion specialist being included on recruitment panels. This means that genuinely effective inclusive recruitment may be a hard goal to achieve without an ongoing investment interview skills development.

The NSW public sector workforce is made of a diverse array of roles, some of which have limited capacity to accommodate a range of disabilities. Some agencies may have little motive and few resources to undertake an audit of roles to assess which may suit people with an array of disabilities – and then recruit. 

In the absence of such an audit, and a targeted commitment to employing people with disability, using recruitment to grow numbers as a primary strategy will fail. And if there is no assurance that recruiters and selection panels have the skills needed ensure recruitment processes are genuinely inclusive, and bias is kept in check, the level of success will remain low.

For equity reasons an effective Attraction methodology is essential. It may maintain an inflow of staff with disability, but it can’t be the main solution to the challenge of meeting the Premier’s Priority target.


Retaining staff with disability means addressing an array of physical, technological, and cultural issues. Failure to do so will have two main consequences:

  • Staff with disability will exit for a variety of reasons concerning limitation of career prospects and discrimination and bullying
  • Staff with disability will not comply with requests to complete diversity data survey accurately, or at all.

Retention concerns not only staff who enter the workforce with a disability, but those who acquire a disability while at work. Other than those acquired in the performance of duties, these can include disabilities arising from accident, illness, genetic predisposition, or ageing. 

Meeting the physical needs of staff with disability – in terms of accessibility and ergonomics is an WHS requirement; but addressing accessibility issues may not always be possible in older buildings. There are limits that are imposed because of cost. Sensitivity around location is essential.

Addressing technological needs is more than responding to requests for accessible devices; and includes legacy software that maybe too expensive to replace. An example may be a core business application that is not accessible to a screen reader. There will be issues about recruiting a person who uses a screen reader; but is then unable to access key software – which limits roles that can be performed, and hence career progression may be blocked.

An essential element of retention is the workplace culture, and especially the leadership/management culture. If bullying is not effectively checked staff with disability may elect to quit; or be ‘managed out’. While the character and quality of the workplace culture involves everyone, it is the leadership culture that enables or disables its expression in creating inclusive and safe workplaces.

Retention is a complex area that is fundamental to getting to, and maintaining, the minimal level of representation of staff with disability on a sector-wide basis, as well as per agency. All agencies should have the 5.6% target, not just the sector as a whole.


This is the bedrock of the challenge. It is last only because Attraction and Retention must do their bit first. The first action of the sector, on the announcement of the Premier’s Priority target should have been, “Okay, we know the 2.5% is wrong, because that’s what the anonymous PMES tells us. Let’s figure out what the actual percentage of staff with disability isHow do we do that effectively?

There is a ‘trust gap’ between the reported data and the actual data. Staff do not trust their HR teams to keep their data confidential. And they have never been persuaded there’s a benefit to taking a real risk. Removing the risk and selling the benefit is an essential first act.

It is true that some staff are unaware that their agency wants their diversity data. Others, who figure their disability has no impact on their ability to perform in their role may not think their disability is relevant. Still others elect to not identify as being a person with disability. There’s a lot to do to get the numbers up. Developing trust is the key.

A critical area to be addressed is mental health illness. Staff diagnosed with a mental illness are the most likely to fear revealing their condition. The stigma associated with such a diagnosis is keenly felt. This is a complex area, and the trust gap extends beyond HR to include managers, and sometimes colleagues. Mental illness is not the only invisible disability that is not discussed out of fear of discrimination and bullying, but it is assessed as the most common.

A culture of psychological safety is essential if a worthwhile count of staff with disability is to be made and used as a reliable guide to the constitution of an agency’s workforce.

Good numbers when they are counted, are an indication that Retention is working. When staff feel safe, they are happy to provide their data and happy to reward their agency by helping it show how well it is doing on disability employment – and inclusion more generally.

There are some complexities about defining what a disability is for the purpose of the count. This is necessary because wearing glasses can be a sign of a vision disability. At what point does an impairment become a disability? A more useful definition is needed.


The NSW Premier’s Priority for the employment of people with disability is a numbers game. It is an important game because the numbers translate into human beings and the purpose of the target is to find an expression of a fair representation of disability in the public sector workforce in a way that reflects the community it serves.

But because the numbers are signifiers of people, we must remember that the human reality is deeply complex and subtle. Attraction, Retention and Counting make the ARC that bends towards Inclusion. Without skilled intervention that ARC has a long bend, stretching way beyond 2025. We can make it way tighter and shorter, with knowledge, skill, and commitment.

Your brain at work – and what this can mean for you


Your Brain at Work is a book by Dr David Rock, a co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute. It’s also the name of the Institute’s podcast.

The Neuroleadership Institute is dedicated to “Making Organizations More Human Through Science” and helping organizations “become smarter through more adaptive, resilient and inclusive leaders at all levels.”

Using brain science to achieve these goals is relatively new, and certainly not something I had come across before – other than the occasional references to scientific research in the more general conversations about organisational psychology and management practice.

Who is it useful for?

This content would suit readers who may have a psychological injury or disability; or a person whose disability makes working in a stressful work setting that much more difficult.

The book has a great deal to say about how to manage stress through developing an understanding of what is going on in your brain in a variety of scenarios. Being able to be aware of when built-in reflexes are being triggered gives the reader an opportunity to disrupt the reflex with a more intentional response.

The key message is that some experiences that trigger a ‘threat’ or ‘pain’ response don’t have to be responded to by just letting the brain follow a pattern rooted in its ancient past. At a basic level we have a binary response – away from or toward. We move away from danger and toward what is good.

These responses are unconscious to us because we have developed ‘explanations’ that we tell ourselves to justify how we reacted. We don’t know that we are responding to basic sensations of threat and pain.

We can learn to be aware of what is driving a reflexive response and we can choose to create a conscious evaluation of the level and nature of the threat or pain. This can begin with naming the feeling – “I feel threatened” or “I feel hurt”. That’s not something we may be good at doing – men especially.

Also useful for handling exclusion

I was interested to learn that the brain sees being excluded as something that causes pain. It is injurious. It is also a threat to our wellbeing. The extent to which brain-based senses of belonging and connecting are fundamental to our feelings of wellbeing was a surprise to me. 

Nobody likes feeling excluded, we all know the emotion that is triggered, even briefly. It is a flash of emotional distress that originates in our brains. Knowing this means we have a chance of better self-managing how we respond, and how we feel.

This isn’t a panacea to make exclusion okay. It’s a way of making an experience less painful than it might otherwise be. Its’s self-protective.


Your Brain at Work is a fascinating insight into the way in which our brain responds to challenges at work. Allowing a response to progress unmodified can set in place a chain of unintended consequences. Other people respond to a threat response with a threat response – and an unfortunate situation can escalate into an awful one.

The book is structured to take the reader through a series of scenarios that demonstrate what can happen when a response is unchecked, and then what can happen when checks are put in place.

It helped me to better understand my responses to stress and threat. And it made me more aware of the importance of the conscious choice between going with an instinctive flow, and taking responsibility for my reactions. It also helped me understand why inclusion is so important – for the psychological and physical health of ourselves and our colleagues.

Is this a lost opportunity for staff with disability?


I was sent an email announcing that the NSW Public Sector Commission is setting up a talent pool for Grade 9/10 roles. As these roles are where team leaders and managers often come from. I was keen to learn more.

The email from the Deputy Public Service Commissioner said in part, “Following a rigorous assessment process, the pool of successful candidates will be available from 1 July 2022 for 18 months. Recruiters and hiring managers in the sector can access the talent pool and browse for suitable candidates for ongoing and temporary roles, full time or part-time, in both greater Sydney and regional NSW.”

It looked like a good idea – until I looked at the focus capabilities, and then I was disappointed. I want to discuss why.

The Capability Framework

I love clear, well thought out methodologies, and the NSW Capability Framework is a very useful tool. At least, it would be if it was used as intended.

In sum, it has 5 groups of capabilities, each with 4 members, and with one of four levels of competence to be assigned to each capability. A capability is described as the knowledge, skill and ability required to perform a role.

For each individual capability there is a list behavioural indicators for each level. These briefly describe the behaviour that indicates performance at the desired level of competence.

Position Descriptions for a role specify focus capabilities and their levels. These are the required knowledge, skills, and abilities for the role. They replace the essential criteria of the traditional recruitment method. There may be some additional occupation-specific requirements in some instances.

Capability frameworks are in widespread use globally, but there is a common observation that they are frequently not used effectively, or beyond a mere ‘lip service’ level. In NSW the framework is employed in the development of a Position Description, and then frequently completely ignored in the rest of the recruitment process.

Why does this matter for staff with disability?

There are several issues to be considered:

Source of confusion and stress

If the capability framework is employed in a haphazard manner in a recruitment process, a candidate cannot reliably guess whether the panel will be using the framework, and to what degree. Hence crafting responses to the focus questions and preparation for the interview may generate needless stress and anxiety.

For example, a focus question response is usually a standard A4 page, and that is around 540 words at 12pt Arial. There are 2 such questions, giving around 1080 words to articulate how you meet the focus capabilities. Now and then a job ad may allow a 2-page cover letter as well.

If the panel is using the capability framework to evaluate applications, this means that an applicant has 2 pages plus their CV to indicate ability to meet 30 or so behavioural indicators. If it is not, and merely playing lip service to the framework by having the capabilities in the position description – because that is what is required, there will be far less pressure on an applicant. But how would you know? Not everybody asks.

For candidates with a psychological disability, and/or, a predisposition to be highly particular, this could generate a high level of uncertainty and stress. And if the application is culled – why was that? If it was because the focus capabilities were not addressed sufficiently, is that a useful guide for the next application?

A uniform expectation that the focus capabilities will be assessed in a methodical manner is surely preferable.

How is an applicant assessed?

Absent reliance on the capability framework, what has a panel to go on, other than to fall back on old ways of doing things? This usually means the application gets you the interview, and the interview gets you the job. Instead of the interview being just one step in the selection process it becomes the determining element. 

This creates two problems. The first is that the focus capabilities can be applied erratically and selectively to support a decision made on other criteria. The second is that bias is likely to have influenced the decision-making.

Research on bias indicates that it is very hard to avoid. Decision-making hygiene proponents argue for a structured approach to assessing candidates. The capability framework should provide a foundation for enabling bias-free recruitment decisions. An assessment table using the focus capabilities would allow for a capability-by-capability assessment across all candidates – a methodology recommended to reduce bias.

One size does not fit all – especially when its undemanding

The PSC grade 9/10 position description lists 7 focus capabilities, all at Adept level. To me that sets an underwhelming standard to “attract new, high quality talent”. I noted when I began this blog that I have grave concerns over the low level of demand made on senior staff. Adept level may sound good, but it is bang in the middle of the 5 levels – Foundational, Intermediate, Adept, Advance, Highly Advanced.

There is overwhelming evidence that very well-developed personal attributes are critical in effective leadership. This is part of a growing trend as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion become increasingly important across the globe. If the NSW public sector wants to be a World Class public service it must do much better in what it expects from its senior staff. For instance, a Position Description for recent grade 9/10 vacancy in the People Culture and Talent team in the Department of Premier and Cabinet listed 7 focus capabilities – 2 Intermediate, 3 Adept and 2 Advanced. The two Intermediates were Value Inclusion and Diversity and Deliver Results. 

I have been looking a Position Descriptions for the past 6 months, and this was the first time I have come across any focus capabilities at such a low level as intermediate. Even uniform Adept is not okay at a senior level in my view. This is certainly the case when it comes to personal attributes.

The greatest risk to staff with disability comes from managers and leaders who lack empathy, self-insight, and a commitment to ensuring psychological safety. The PSC Age of Inclusion manifesto asserted Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy, and then it develops a generic 9/10 Position with such soft requirements for the Personal Attributes? The Position Description nominated only one Personal Attribute – Display courage and resilience.

Personal Attributes in the Capability Framework

The Capability Framework lists 4 Personal Attributes:

  • Display courage and resilience – Be open and honest, prepared to express your views, and willing to accept and commit to change
  • Act with integrity – Be ethical and professional, and uphold and promote the public sector values
  • Manage self – Show drive and motivation, an ability to self-reflect and a commitment to learning
  • Value inclusion and diversity – Demonstrate inclusive behaviour and show respect for diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives

Which of those capabilities would you edit out of a selection for a team leader or manager role? It is rare to see more than 2 listed, which invites the question, “Which are optional two?” It is also rare to see the level above Adept for 9/10 and 11/12 roles.

Below are the Advanced level behavioural indicators for each of the 4 Personal Attributes. Which would you consider an unreasonable expectation of a grade 9/10 senior role – or higher?

Display courage and resilience

  • Remain composed and calm and act constructively in highly pressured and unpredictable environments 
  • Give frank, honest advice in response to strong contrary views 
  • Accept criticism of own ideas and respond in a thoughtful and considered way 
  • Welcome new challenges and persist in raising and working through novel and difficult issues 
  • Develop effective strategies and show decisiveness in dealing with emotionally charged situations and difficult or controversial issues

Act with integrity

  • Model the highest standards of ethical and professional behaviour and reinforce their use 
  • Represent the organisation in an honest, ethical and professional way and set an example for others to follow 
  • Promote a culture of integrity and professionalism within the organisation and in dealings external to government 
  • Monitor ethical practices, standards and systems and reinforce their use 
  • Act promptly on reported breaches of legislation, policies and guidelines

Manage self

  • Act as a professional role model for colleagues, set high personal goals and take pride in their achievement 
  • Actively seek, reflect and act on feedback on own performance 
  • Translate negative feedback into an opportunity to improve 
  • Take the initiative and act in a decisive way 
  • Demonstrate a strong interest in new knowledge and emerging practices relevant to the organisation

Value inclusion and diversity

  • Encourage and include diverse perspectives in the development of policies and strategies
  • Take advantage of diverse views and perspectives to develop new approaches to delivering outcomes
  • Build and monitor a workplace culture that enables diversity and fair and inclusive practices 
  • Implement practices and systems to ensure that individuals can participate to their fullest ability 
  • Recognise the value of individual differences to support broader organisational strategies 
  • Address non-inclusive behaviours, practices and attitudes within the organisation 
  • Champion the business benefits generated by workforce diversity and inclusive practices


Somebody makes choices about the Personal Attribute capabilities for a role – how many, which one/s, and at what levels. These choices are expressed in Position Descriptions for senior positions. What are they thinking? What is their rationale? What are their values?

I think I can confidently say that very few are thinking, “Let’s ensure we select people who can be leaders who inspire with self-awareness and empathy. Let’s make sure we have leaders who can foster and maintain safe and inclusive work cultures and work practices.”

The Capability Framework is a great tool. It’s not hard to use. It doesn’t take long to get comfortable using it. But great tools are not much use if you do not have a vision and purpose for using them.

The PSC has shown such a lack. But that’s across the sector too. A failure to use the tool as intended leaves applicants with disability exposed to the perpetuation of bias; and it can make the application process far more challenging than it should to be.

Top Podcasts


Podcasts can be a great source of ideas about Disability Inclusion and Diversity and Inclusion generally. They are free and come in manageable chunks. The speakers are often leading experts with global reputations. You get concentrated high-value content covering the spectrum of issues related to, and surrounding Inclusion.

Podcasts can make a commute a productive experience, and turn a trip to a supermarket, or a walk, into an education.

The trick with podcasts is to be okay with getting even just 5 mins listening in – but set yourself a larger target than that. Little and often is good. In fact it can be great.

There’s a huge amount of research on how we work and how it is changing – and how we understand Diversity and Inclusion challenges and opportunities. It helps to become more aware of what is possible. So, even catching 5 minutes a couple of times a day can be inspiring. This can be about both personal and professional development.

And be curious. You may come across a podcast title you think has nothing to do with you, check it out. But you may be surprised. You can always stop listening and move on to something else.

Some of the podcasts I have listed below are full on Diversity and Inclusion, and others have related shows only – but they are about work in some respect. If your podcast app allows, you can line up a few shows from different podcasts.

If you are time poor, be very selective. Pick a show and try to get 15 mins listening time in a day – even in 5-minute bites. That way you can get through a surprising amount of content.

The Podcasts

Leading with Empathy & Allyship

This is put together by Melinda Briana Epler, CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. That was a great book, and the shows are so good I have been going through all of them, but in a random way.

Coaching Real Leaders

An HBR podcast hosted by Muriel Wilkins. Great content for people in formal leadership roles. Includes shows that have useful content for anybody, for example ‘How to handle feeling overworked’ and ‘How do I get my confidence back?

Your Brain at Work

This is put out by the US based NeuroLeadership Institute and features David Rock, an Australian co-founder of the institute and author of Your Brain at Work. It is worthwhile working through every episode, because there are useful discussions on what neurological research says, and how those insights are put into practice. This is one of my go-to podcasts at the moment. I am listening to all 70+ shows.

HBR Ideacast

Harvard Business Review’s flagship podcast is full of great content. There are over 600 episodes.


Hosted by Jackie Ferguson, CDE. This fairly new for me. CDE means Certified Diversity Executive and Jackie is a co-founder of The Diversity Movement. It sounds good. And I signed up for The Diversity Movement’s newsletter.

With, not For

Produced by the Centre for Inclusive Design in Sydney and started just over a year ago. There are 9 shows at the time of writing. As you’d expect it is on inclusive design, and inclusion, with a variety of very interesting guests. A great podcast.

The Spark

This is a series put out by the NSW Public Service Commission. It is entirely HR focused. There are 12 shows broken into 3 groups – Smarter ways of working, People analytics, and the Changing role of HR. If you have an interest in HR it’s a good series from a public sector angle.

The 21st Century Workplace

This turned out to be a bit of a surprise. The topics of the shows I have listened to are non-obvious; but engaging and rewarding. There’s a limited number of shows in this current version. Its worth listening to the lot – or at least sampling them.

Walking Your Talk

This is a new one for me. Early on it sounds very good. This is straight from the podcast blurb: The Walking Your Talk podcast is about leadership, authenticity and courage. Every episode is a personal development experience showing you how you can transform yourself and thus transform those around you and ultimately the organisation within which you work.


A few years ago, I realised that I was talking a lot of nonsense to myself (self-indulgent BS that added no value to me or anybody else) as I lumbered along with my crutches. I figured I keep that up or I could use that time more productively. So, I plugged into the wonderful world of podcasts. The self-indulgent BS still creeps in at times and renders the podcast no more than verbal muzak jabbering away in the background. But I can always rewind.

Fifteen minutes a day isn’t much. It’s just over 1% of your day. Surely you are worth 1% of your daily time on personal and professional development. 

A reflection on what’s holding Disability Inclusion back


I have been reading widely on the psychology and psychobiology of Inclusion. This has included a survey of our biological imperatives and how we evolved from groups with powerful needs to protect their own and to avoid the unfamiliar – anything that does not look, or behave like, kin. Bias and selective exclusion are part of who we are – just by being a human being.

This is in comparison to what many would see as distinct humanitarian values – in the sense of identifying with people, regardless of who they are, in a response to a sense of common purpose. This is becoming more and more evident in the work of inclusion advocates. 

There is, then, a tension between heritage and aspiration.

I think there is need for a deeper consideration of the idea that being inclusive is a ‘stretch opportunity’. I wrote about this a short time ago. But it seems to be such a fundamental thing to understand that I want look into the ideas more deeply in the context of a practical response by senior public sector leaders.

Why is it important?

Since mid 2019, when the NSW Premier’s Priorities were announced, the level of employment of staff with disability has not trended upward toward the 2025 target. It’s not that nothing has been happening. Some very good progress has been made in some areas. It just hasn’t been reflected in improved employment numbers.

There is no instinctive rationale to act in a coordinated and effective way.  This is new stuff for a workforce or a work community. It is historically unprecedented. It is important to understand this.

The presumption has been that simply by espousing inclusive sentiments good things will happen. The presumption has been that people expressing the inclusive sentiments can make it happen. Inclusive sentiments are good, and are necessary, but they are not sufficient, not by a long chalk.

There is abundant research showing that equity and inclusion efforts routinely fail to meet their stated objectives. There are annual acknowledgements by executive leaders that ‘more must be done’ and ‘we must try harder’. They seem to be grateful for incremental improvements. The hope of rapid improvement seems to have been abandoned completely.

But I don’t think the work that must be done to achieve Disability Inclusion is understood. And the effort required is profoundly under-estimated. The Neuroleadership Institute talks of change in months, not years. But intentional effort is required.

We have not understood the novelty

The objectives of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are essential in our contemporary culture. A vast number of demographic, cultural, political, and economic changes since the early 1960s have transformed the Australian community to be something unimaginable a century before. This is a very new situation.

But we are operating on legacy systems of instincts and cultural values and beliefs. I have earlier talked about the need to update our Personal Operating Systems (POS). It is still the best metaphor. To behave differently we must install updates to our POS. Unfortunately, it’s not like we can plug ourselves in overnight and wake up updated to POS 2.0. Maybe one day? It requires intent and effort – and more for some than others.

This is the bit we struggle with – not everybody wants to update; or be updated. Some folk are perfectly okay with continuing the way they are. They may also be in a community – cultural or religious – which just isn’t into updating.

Most of us do want to update – but require different levels of intent and effort. The result is that there is a very uneven response to the expectation of inclusive behaviour. And this is met with a ‘one size fits all’ effort to stimulate change – and it does not work.

A reaction from some of the more active and passionate advocates of DEI is to take a moral perspective and assert that a failure, or refusal, to update one’s POS is wrong because the conduct supported by the old POS is now wrong. It’s not that simple.

Options for persuasion

DEI is widely accepted in principle. But so are many other things that don’t turn into modified and improved behaviour universally. The question is, “How do you persuade yourself, and others, to act in conformity with comparatively novel values?” Here I mean ‘novel’ on an evolutionary scale. These values have been present and espoused in our culture is small ways for millennia. Turning them in to mass social values is another matter. The history of the abolition of slavery is instructive here. In Britain that took around 60s years from the 1770s to the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1933 via a very bitter fight. It wasn’t abolished in the USA until 1865 – and even so de facto slavery persisted long after that. The legacy of the resistance to efforts to abolish slavery can be found in the persistence of institutional racism even now – 250 years later.

Persuading oneself to change behaviour can be a struggle, as any former, or current, smoker knows. What has driven a reduction in smoking more than anything else has been the increase in cost of cigarettes and tobacco. The unpleasant advertising has helped too, as have the adverse health effects. The change in attitudes toward smoking since the 1960s has been powerful.

Change on a mass social level is very different from the individual level – which can be hard enough. Some people quit smoking overnight. Others, despite being highly motivated needed nicotine patches and counselling to make the change. I was lucky. All it took me was 3 months in an ICU, paralysed, and being physically incapable of holding a cigarette. Up to that point I was failing to quit.

Persuading people to update their POS to reduce instances of discrimination, exclusion, and bullying will require a similarly combined approach:

  • Assisting people to update their POS on an individual level
  • Changing cultural attitudes to reduce acceptance/tolerance of undesired behaviours
  • Engaging with those powerful people who are not motivated to support the changes actively to turn them into champions
  • Effectively engaging in zero tolerance of undesired conduct in certain places

Of these the last is the most problematic.

The politics of zero tolerance

The paradox of a government desiring the expression of DEI principles across its public sector is that it finds itself between two incompatible demands:

  1. A demand for equity and inclusion, backed by legislation, to ensure all community members and employees are treated with equal dignity and respect.
  2. A demand to avoid employing mechanisms of enforcement against those who are noncompliant or reluctant in compliance.

These two demands clash in a zone of contradiction, where those subject to discrimination seek to invoke the assurances of equal dignity, which are affirmed in speech and in writing, but not in action.

This clash arises for a very simple reason – a failure to understand the challenge; and make provision for avoiding the appearance of a paradox which leads to inaction despite widespread affirmation of commitment to DEI objectives.

An articulation of zero tolerance countered by an appetite for abuse can be resolved by asserting that change takes time (which is true). However, this is also a misunderstanding of the challenge. Discriminatory and abusive conduct toward staff with disability is not subject to the ‘work in progress’ logic. 

Changes to systems, policies and processes do take time, and sometimes more time than can seem reasonable – such is the nature of bureaucratic systems. Violations of anti-discrimination, human rights and work health safety laws require immediate action.

There is no ‘paradox’ of incompatible conflicting demands between individuals exercising rights under law and the enforcement of compliance with those laws to ensure those ‘inalienable rights’ are enjoyed.

What does the data say?

The 2021 NSW State of the Sector reports notes that 2.5% of staff report on agency HR systems that they have a disability, but then goes on to note that “These increases are encouraging, but a large amount of work is needed to reach the Premier’s Priority target of 5.6% of the workforce identifying as having a disability by 2025.”

The 2021 PMES report for the whole sector offers a few useful clues as to why “a large amount of work is needed”

  • The response for diversity and inclusion records that 76% have a favourable experience, but that means that 24% did not. That’s 1 in 4 staff members. 
  • Grievance handling score the lowest of all assessment categories with a satisfaction level of only 46%. 
  • Satisfaction levels with recruitment were marginally better at 48%. 
  • Staff with disability were the 2nd most discontented demographic group, with low scores in 8 or the 9 areas assessed. 
  • The sector-wide report of the proportion of staff with disability is 5% on the PMES (ranging from 2% to 12% by agency). That means that only 50% feel safe recording that they have a disability. And there’s another 5% who prefer not to say. Potentially, 75% of staff with disability are not prepared to report their disability on internal diversity data records.

The low level of satisfaction with grievance handling and recruitment is across all demographic groups, but we know that these are two main areas of concern for staff with disability. Inaction to, or adverse consequences arising from, registered complaints is only part of the problem. Fear of submitting a complaint is another area of concern, but not one that is assessed in the PMES.


Staff with disability do not feel safe saying they have need of a workplace adjustment or accommodation if they are subjected to discriminatory and abusive conduct. And they may fear to complain about that discriminatory and abusive conduct because doing so may result in retribution. 

The single most problematic factor is the failure to require compliance with law, and to act, in the face of non-compliance. This is one thing that the sector can be in control of. Done competently it will have immediate positive consequences. The 2021 PMES report says 14% of staff experienced bullying. Over 24% of staff with disability reported being bullied. Global data on bullying says that most bullying is perpetrated by a manager or senior manager. This means that the people charged with monitoring the conduct of managers are also part of the problem.

There is an appetite for abuse in an organisation where senior managers engage in bullying. Senior executive leadership must be engaged in enforcing the zero tolerance assertions.

If the sector cannot think through the complex, but not insurmountable, issues concerning DEI, it will continue to fail to make progress in meeting disability employment targets.

There are three important steps that can be taken:

  1. Recognise that DEI is an evolutionary stretch that will be responded to different ways – from enthusiastic embrace, through slow compliance, to determined resistance – and support a more innovative approach to solutions
  2. Clearly articulate what the sector’s appetite is for accommodating resistance to change, and refusal to comply with law and policy
  3. Establish mechanisms for taking effective action. There is abundant evidence that failing to hold managers and executives to account for not conforming to required standards is one of the most destructive factors retarding positive change. Done well, this alone has the potential for generating rapid positive change.

These are comparatively simple steps, but they will make a powerful difference.

A reflection on trust


A big challenge an organisation has is to convince staff with disability to record the fact that they are a person with disability on the internal diversity data. This data is needed to provide a picture of how well an organisation is in being diverse and inclusive. In NSW, for example, the Premier’s Priority target of more than doubling the present rate of employment for people with disability to 5.6% by 2025 is a goal that should reveal how psychologically safe an organisation is – and how reflective of the NSW community it is.

This is important information for us all to know. But no progress has been made in the almost 3 years since the target was announced.

Not only do HR departments do a terrible job of selling their argument for a staff member with disability to contribute to the diversity data, they do not know how to address the ‘trust gap’ between themselves and staff with disability.

Data is the foundation of the Premier’s Priority. People are translated into numbers so an intellectual process of counting can take place. But the numbers are not translated back into people. This leaves them remote from triggers for empathy and compassion. It’s hard to build trust with somebody who does not feel that they are treated as a person – with real vulnerabilities and fears.

The trust gap

Here’s a hypothetic case. A government agency’s diversity data records 2% of its staff have a disability. Its PMES says:

  • 4% of staff have a disability, and 
  • 6% prefer not to say (PNTS). 

For the sake of argument, let’s say that we can safely add all of the 4%, but only 2/3rds of the 6% (because I am not convinced that all PNTS responses belong to the subject group – but are part of the ‘No’ group).  

That gives us a possible 8% of staff who have a disability – split evenly between those who are prepared to say so on anonymous survey, and those who are not. There is no doubt the actual number is higher – because of those who do not identify as having a disability, despite having one. 

What we can infer from the PMES results and the internal diversity data is that there is a trust gap of 80% (8% being our total and 2% being what is recorded in HR data). That’s huge!

If we pick a hypothetical staff total of 15,000 for the agency that means 300 staff with disability have provided data to HR out of 1,200 staff with disability. That means 900 staff have reasons not to provide that data. That’s 900 people with genuine vulnerabilities and fears – and maybe adverse, and even traumatic, experiences.

What might those reasons be?

There are 3 that have come up in conversations I have with staff with disability.

  1. I didn’t know the information was being sought.
  2. I don’t have faith that what I report will be confidential.
  3. Because of 2, I fear that this information will be given to my manager and it will be held against me, and lead to discrimination and bullying.

The first 2 reasons are down to HR usually being hopeless at marketing. There has to be some benefit to giving information about oneself – the “What’s in it for me?” question. And to ignore the fear by simply, and flatly, affirming that confidentiality is maintained is disrespectful of the grounds for mistrust. This is a ‘Don’t be silly, we really do keep the information confidential.’ rather than a ‘We acknowledge your concern. We are really sorry you feel this way. What can we do to make you feel safe?

A smarter marketing approach can address those 2 issues. Incidentally, I do believe that the data is genuinely confidential.

The 3rd reason is what we can focus on. Now, a lot of people who give the 3rd reason have an invisible disability. They may need a workplace adjustment or accommodation, but they will not ask for it because they fear that doing so will lead to discrimination or bullying. An example may be a staff member with a psychological health condition who fears that saying they have such a condition will lead to being subject to performance assessments, and revelation of their condition will render them vulnerable to bullying. This isn’t hypothetical. This is what happens more often than is fully appreciated, and it’s in organisational folklore. It’s a real problem.

The 3rd reason

The 2021 NSW State of the Sector report says that over 24% of staff with disability reported being bullied in the preceding 12 months. The 2021 sector wide PMES report showed that grievance handling had the lowest approval rating at 46%. We know not all staff with disability will submit a grievance. Those who do often regret doing so.

We can infer that the greater majority of the 1200 staff with disability in our hypothetical agency have visible disabilities. Around 280 may have been bullied. Let’s imagine only 50 lodge complaints and only half were okay with the outcome. That’s 25 who were not. In an agency of 15,000 staff that’s 0.166%.  That’s a very small number – but one made up of actual human beings. This is often forgotten when some agencies talk about needing to do better. There’s a lot of effort required for a very small number of people – and maybe that means it is seen as less important, because the resources can be put into other things involving more people. 

But then, there’s the Pareto Principle. You might know better as the 80:20 rule (it should be called the 20:80 rule in my view, but it sounds better the other way round). For example, in bullying research, it has been shown that 20% of managers are responsible for 80% of bullying. 

This means that it can take only one instance of witnessing (or hearing about) bullying against a person with a visible disability to convince others, whose disability is invisible, to keep quiet. Worse, when the impact of that bullying is known (impact on psychological wellbeing, impact on efforts to make a formal complaint which fail, impact on work performance, engagement, and unplanned absences) the ‘fear of disclosure’ becomes a very real thing. The staff member with the invisible disability does not trust the agency. They fear harm.

An agency’s more senior leaders are usually unaware of the conversations their staff have, and the beliefs they form about management integrity. The 2021 NSW PMES sector-wide report shows:

  • Senior leaders have a satisfaction rating of only 59%. That suggests the 41% of staff do not approve. In our 15,000 staff agency that’s around 5,000 actual human beings who are not happy with their senior leaders. That’s a huge number.
  • These senior leaders are responsible for the 3 areas with the least level of satisfaction. And they could act to make those scores far better.
    • grievance handling (46%) 
    • action on the survey (47%) and 
    • recruitment (48%) 

When you consider that managers and senior managers are the most common source of bullying, it is easy to see how the Pareto effect can work. A small number of managers adversely impacting a larger, but still relatively small, number of staff with disability can generate an infection of fear that permeates a workforce. This can destroy trust in the organisation’s leadership.

It doesn’t take a pandemic of bullying to induce a pandemic of fear

Staff with invisible disabilities have a range of clues to tell them it is not safe to say what they need. This will include an assessment of the overall level of psychological safety in their division, business area, or work team. They also will see how staff with visible disabilities are treated.

Staff will always gravitate toward groups where they feel psychologically safest, and such groups share insights, news, and rumours. Even in such groups individuals may not talk about their invisible disability. Staff with visible disabilities are not so constrained. ERGs or DENs are psychologically safe places, usually. Discussion about experiencing psychological injury is not secret and will get out to allies. The Pareto effect ripples out.


We need to remember that numbers and percentages represent real people. A few staff with disability who are psychologically injured by bullying may look good in terms of raw numbers and overall percentages. But the reality of being a member of a ‘diversity’ minority is that these numbers are always low. They always resolve into real people – actual human beings experiencing treatment that is demeaning and damaging. 

Numbers are important to help understand data in a convenient and manageable fashion. But you can’t build trust and psychological safety unless numbers are converted back into people, and empathy and compassion are triggered. 

We turn people into numbers and forget to switch back.

An organisation may pat itself on the back because 98% of staff are not psychologically injured by bullying. It’s like the lower the number, the less the entitlement to safety is acknowledged or worked for. A member of a minority group becomes a remainder in a numbers game – to be discounted; or rounded up. This isn’t what inclusion is about. You put the same effort into the 5% as you would with 50%. When you hit 100% that’s when its time to think you have done a good job.

Building trust and a sense of psychological safety for 100% of staff requires effort. The initial effort to hold bullies accountable in a meaningful way may seem a burden. But its essential. Without it, bullying of the most vulnerable will not stop. And no amount of hand wringing and saying, “We must do better.” will close the trust gap.

The 5 Biggest Biases That Affect Decision -Making

This isn’t an essay. Below I have copied an article from the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) on bias. Bias is a huge challenge for Disability Inclusion and this article is the most succinct articulation of key ideas I have come across. The NLI has developed a proprietary methodology – the SEEDS model – the outline of which is publicly available. I haven’t explored the cost of engaging the NLI to deliver training on the SEEDS model. Below is what is publicly available only.

There is a follow up hyperlink to a YouTube video discussion on the same theme at the end of the article and a promotion of a related podcast and a book.

The article – The 5 Biggest Biases That Affect Decision-Making

By Chris Weller

APRIL 9TH, 2019

Humans make thousands of decisions every day. However, our brains don’t give each decision equal attention—we take mental shortcuts.

To brain scientists, these shortcuts are known as “biases.” They’re neither good nor bad; they just are. They help us in certain cases and hinder us in others. For instance, an expedience bias compels us to make decisions quickly. If we’re in a burning building, that may be valuable. But it might be disadvantageous if we’re conducting a performance review.

At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we help leaders and teams mitigate the biases that negatively affect people and business decisions, so that they can be more innovative and effective. Through our research, we’ve organized more than 150 such biases into five broad categories. These five biases comprise the SEEDS Model®, the framework that underpins our solutions geared toward reducing unconscious bias.

We’ve outlined each of the five biases below.

Similarity Bias — We prefer what is like us over what is different

Similarity biases most obviously crop up in people decisions: who to hire, who to promote, who to assign to projects.

It occurs because humans are highly motivated to see themselves and those who are similar in a favorable light. We instinctively create “ingroups” and “outgroups” — boundaries between who we consider close to us and who lives on the margins. We generally have a favorable view of our ingroup but a skeptical (or negative) view of the outgroup. Hence why managers hire employees who remind them of themselves.

Overcoming a similarity bias requires actively finding common ground with people who appear different.

Expedience Bias — We prefer to act quickly rather than take time

Humans have a built-in need for certainty—to know what is going on. A downside of that need is the tendency to rush to judgment without fully considering all the facts.

Expedience biases crop up when we are reviewing employees and rely solely on one data point or recommendation. The fix is to take more time to gather a wider array of information.

Experience Bias — We take our perception to be the objective truth

We may be the stars of our own show, but other people see the world slightly differently than we do. Experience bias occurs when we fail to remember that fact. We assume our view of a given problem or situation constitutes the whole truth.

To escape the bias, we need to build in systems for others to check our thinking, share their perspectives, and helps us reframe the situation at hand.

Distance Bias — We prefer what’s closer over what’s farther away

Distance biases have become all too common in today’s globalized world. They emerge in meetings when folks in the room fail to gather input from their remote colleagues, who may be dialing in on a conference line.

The bias reflects our instinct to prioritize that which is nearby, whether in physical space, time, or other domains.

We can mitigate distance biases with systems that acknowledge important figures outside our immediate proximity, such as by calling on remote colleagues first in a meeting before discussing with the room.

Safety Bias — We protect against loss more than we seek out gain

Safety bias refers to the all-too-human tendency to avoid loss. Many studies have shown that we would prefer not to lose money even more than we’d prefer to gain money. In other words, bad is stronger than good.

Safety biases slow down decision-making and hold back healthy forms of risk-taking. One way we can mitigate the bias is by getting some distance between us and the decision—such as by imagining a past self already having made the choice successfully—to weaken the perception of loss.

What’s important to remember about the SEEDS Model® is that no one can mitigate bias alone. It takes an entire group using a common language around bias to help individuals make smarter decisions.

The original article can be found at

YouTube video: SEEDS of Change: The Path to Breaking Bias – 56:39

The NLI also has a podcast – Your Brain at Work as well as numerous other YouTube videos

David Rock, a co-founder of the NLI has a book – Your Brain at Work: Strategies For Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, And Working Smarter All Day Long. Below is a blurb about the book on Amazon.

A researcher and consultant burrows deep inside the heads of one modern two-career couple to examine how each partner processes the workday—revealing how a more nuanced understanding of the brain can allow us to better organize, prioritize, recall, and sort our daily lives.

Emily and Paul are the parents of two young children, and professionals with different careers. Emily is the newly promoted vice president of marketing at a large corporation; Paul works from home or from clients’ offices as an independent IT consultant. Their days are filled with a bewildering blizzard of emails, phone calls, more emails, meetings, projects, proposals, and plans. Just staying ahead of the storm has become a seemingly insurmountable task.

In Your Brain at Work, Dr. David Rock goes inside Emily and Paul’s brains to see how they function as each attempts to sort, prioritize, organize, and act on the vast quantities of information they receive in one typical day. Dr. Rock is an expert on how the brain functions in a work setting. By analyzing what is going on in their heads, he offers solutions Emily and Paul (and all of us) can use to survive and thrive in today’s hyperbusy work environment—and still feel energized and accomplished at the end of the day.

In Your Brain at Work, Dr. Rock explores issues such as:

  • why our brains feel so taxed, and how to maximize our mental resources
  • why it’s so hard to focus, and how to better manage distractions
  • how to maximize the chance of finding insights to solve seemingly insurmountable problems
  • how to keep your cool in any situation, so that you can make the best decisions possible
  • how to collaborate more effectively with others
  • why providing feedback is so difficult, and how to make it easier
  • how to be more effective at changing other people’s behaviour
  • and much more.

I have just started reading/listening to the book. It struck me as interesting because of the pressure of work many staff with disability are experiencing. I will write a blog essay when I am finished.