I left the NSW Department of Communities and Justice on 10 June 2021 with a deep sense of unfinished business across the theme of Disability Inclusion. I had achieved a lot of good stuff, but nothing was settled and sure.
When I came across the idea of the growth mindset in the work of the Neuroleadership Institute, it encapsulated the essence of what I had achieved. But it left me keenly aware of what I had not. I’ve had 11 months of research since I walked away. That has been a profound journey of inquiry and discovery.
As a fulltime employee I didn’t have the time to invest in the level of inquiry that I discovered was necessary to catch up on, and stay abreast of, the research in, and developments on, the theme of Disability Inclusion – and DEI in general.
It is almost an embarrassment that the NSW public sector says it wants to be a ‘world-class’ public service, and yet is seems unaware of what it entails to get to that admirable standard.
Since the announcement of the NSW Premier’s Priorities in mid 2019 the goal of more than doubling the proportion of staff with disability has gone nowhere. In 3 years no apparent growth has been recorded. There has been progress on other priorities. Disability employment uniquely has a zilch outcome report.
Why is that?
The obvious explanation is that there has been no co-ordinated strategic response to the announcement of the priorities. There are two reasonable explanations for this – a calculated judgement the priorities are just political window dressing and can be safely pushed onto the backburner, or a lack of means (resources, understanding and commitment) to make the target an attainable goal. Maybe a bit of both in some quarters.
Either way the message is clear. The executive leaders of the NSW public sector do not appear be committed to Disability Inclusion. Why? They have the power and the means to make a positive difference – and nothing has happened. But this isn’t the whole story.
Let’s pause a moment on assigning blame. Research into gender differences show that men are content when a policy has been developed and activated. This research has been conducted chiefly in relation to the slow movement toward gender equity targets in employment. A senior executive body comprising an overwhelming majority of men will see ‘job done’ at the policy level. It is unlikely that a minority of women at the senior level will change this until that minority has the numbers to be confident in driving attitudinal change. That’s some time off.
To be fair, leaders also delegate. But this has a cascading effect, so that same problem will express at each lower level of executive management, where men are the influential majority (predominantly rather than exclusively, of course). Here I don’t even mean that men must be in the majority, just that the ‘male model’ of thinking prevails. At the end of the delegation chain there may be staff able to act, but with fewer resources and little ability to influence the need for more resources and tighter planning.
It would be useful if senior leaders, and the people they delegate responsibility to, had a functional appreciation of current DEI developments. There’s a reason this doesn’t happen. When I was fulltime in Disability Inclusion (plus being DEN Chair) I was putting in at least 2-3 hours a day on audiobooks and podcasts. But I am a nerd. I do research like other people eat, breathe, and maintain a pulse. I get through at least 2 audiobooks a week, plus podcasts. I am not boasting. I am making a point. If it has taken me almost 11 months to catch up, how behind are other folk?
A prime function of the NSW Public Service Commission should be to scan the developments across the globe and post the best up-to-date insights in a clearing house of some sort. A lot of this stuff is free. But there’s so much of it that a curator is needed for the whole sector on an ongoing basis.
It is not reasonable that people in high demand roles (at all levels) devote more of their time to exploring the field of DEI and ensure their understanding is current. What can seem like resistance is really a genuine lack of capacity.
But providing the updating is of little use if there is no growth mindset to be receptive to it, and act on it.
What is a growth mindset?
Readers may recall that years ago that ‘Life-Long Learning’ was the buzz phrase of the age – and then it quietly limped away, defeated by sturdy ignorance. It may seem like a good idea – but only to a few – too few.
A Growth Mindset is the new version. And the cute thing is that some advocates hark back to Life-Long Learning as if it is not a failed aspiration. The same advocates struggle to gain traction with Growth Mindset – new jargon -same old resistance.
A 2018 HBR article, 5 Mistakes Companies Make About Growth Mindset
By Heidi Grant, Mary Slaughter and Andrea Derler clarifies some misconceptions about it. I quote from the article below in italics.
The idea of a growth mindset is the belief that continuous improvement is possible and that failures are opportunities to learn, rather than something to react to with blame and shame. I’d add that a commitment to the idea of constant adjustment or adaptation to novel developments is needed. The increased attention to Disability Inclusion is such a novel development.
Though the idea of Disability Inclusion has been around for over 30 years, in NSW there was a watershed moment when the Disability Inclusion Act was passed in 2014. This meant there was a need for continuous improvement in the way Disability Inclusion was responded to, and an adaptation to the politics and culture of a greater emphasis.
Leaders in organizations can certainly help people adopt a growth mindset by fostering a culture around specific habits and practices, but abstract entities that don’t have minds (like a business or a brand) can’t have a growth mindset. But individuals can have them personally, and organizations as well — in the sense that all people involved have it.
So, it is something that can be instilled at a cultural level. But there are limits to that expectation.
We often hear that growth mindset registers as “Anyone can do anything, so long as they put their mind to it.” In fact, this feeling of limitlessness may distract employees from pursuing what they were hired for, or from what they excel at most. The result is often demotivation and confusion.
We hear a lot that leaders are using growth mindset to chastise employees who say they have too much on their plate. This is counter-productive. Growth mindset must always take people’s cognitive capacity in mind. No one has infinite resources.
When people really do have too much on their plate, attacking their mindset is counter-productive. Because the problem isn’t their attitude — it’s that they can’t bend the laws of space and time.
These last two quotes resonate with me strongly because you can’t mandate a growth mindset any more than you can mandate compliance with Disability Inclusion expectations – and for the same essential reasons.
Yes, a growth mindset is required, but getting it is a more subtle and complex matter than just demanding that it happens.
How do you meet the obligation for Disability Inclusion and respect the adaptive capacity of staff at all levels?
I want to suggest that Disability Inclusion is a subset of the growth mindset in two key ways. First is that both are about growth in knowledge and competence over time. The second is that, like engagement with any novel demand, mistakes are going to be made – and they are growth/learning opportunities. There is that enduring wisdom – if you are not making mistakes, you are not trying.
There is a steady pressure to respond to Disability Inclusion imperatives. The NSW Premier’s Priority on disability employment was meant to be such a pressure. But it was more like radiation from the sun than a call to action. It didn’t trigger action, just demotivation and confusion among those who hoped it would. Its left other folk with red faces, in consequence of their inaction.
It’s not like the staff of the NSW public sector are sitting around wondering what to do with their time. I am hearing from all levels that they are feeling “smashed”. For a variety of reasons these are not easy times.
But that does not mean Disability Inclusion action should be shelved until times get better. No. Rather, it means that action must be strategically sensitive, properly focused, and sufficiently resourced to ensure that it is accepted as a growth opportunity and not the imputation of moral failing.
This means that the message given to all must be that we are all obliged to respond to the changing cultural environment and evolving values we mostly agree are desirable, if not essential. That response must be facilitated by employing the current insights about learning and change – positive opportunities for growth provided in small bites often.
The Neuroleadership Institutes talks about building habits. This isn’t about going from zero to perfect, but about getting better and better about adapting day-by-day, or more realistically, week-by-week.
Promoting learning is a science-based activity that can be elevated to an art by some. What it is not is something to be attempted with good intent and undisciplined beliefs.
Re-imagining Disability Inclusion
The point of contention seems to be about how long it should take to make Disability Inclusion normal. From an idealist standpoint, Inclusion should be immediate. From a pragmatic standpoint it will eventually happen. What is missing is a middle path of a planned and resourced approach.
If there is no planned approach, progress can’t be assessed, resources can’t be wisely allocated, and a commitment to Disability Inclusion can’t be honestly asserted to be genuine.
Change always requires effort, and that means it requires resources to fuel that effort. Two of the most precious resources in a contemporary public sector are time and attention. Both are needed to ensure that cognitive and emotional overload do not happen, and the desired change is resisted, and disliked. Neither of these resources should be squandered on change efforts that do not work, or which work poorly.
The approach must be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. This is going back to basics, but with an important difference. Disability Inclusion is as much part of core business as anything else. In a public sector it is a service delivered to stakeholders (including public sector employees who are members of the community and are entitled to be treated inclusively at work as much as in the community).
In fact, a service is not just about what you do, but how you do it. Its not an option to separate the what from the how. Whether a service is inclusive is an integral part of what it is – not an optional attribute. Think of the what and how of a service as the noun and the adjective of thinking and acting. They go together naturally. As we think more inclusively, we act more inclusively.
Take the statement “Our services (noun) are inclusive (adjective)”. The adjective inclusive denotes the quality of the services. The quality of a service is an integral part of the service – as score business. As our cultural values evolve, so the quality of our services changes and adapts.
Inclusion has long been expressed as a moral element – a kind of cultural obligation at which some are failing. But if we understand it as an integral part of a core business service, we can see it as more of a learning and continuous improvement opportunity – as our cultural values respond to demands to reflect our community’s aspirations.
It takes some effort to reimagine Disability Inclusion as an essential aspect of core business service delivery. But this is necessary if it is going to be embedded in practice. We cannot afford to have it as a ‘nice’ sentiment we express when we can get around to it – after we have taken care of the ‘real’ core business. We must become SMART about it and grow a shared action-orientated mindset.
Part of having a growth mindset includes a willingness to rethink and reframe challenges. This includes integrating Disability Inclusion as a critical element of core business service provision – and is hence non-optional. It is not about extra work, but different work. This is the missing component. Managing that change to a different way of doing things hasn’t been thought through. The critical resources are not there.
In the past we have assumed Disability Inclusion is a ‘seed idea’ that will take root anywhere because of its obvious moral virtue. But, in fact, it needs fertile soil prepared as well. This is what a growth mindset creates.
How to embed a growth mindset in an organisation’s culture is another discussion, however.