When is it going to be okay about being not okay?


In a sense one of the goals of Disability Inclusion is to create a workplace culture in which it is okay to say you are not okay.

In the past I have observed that everyone has times when a life circumstance bear down heavily for a time and we exhibit symptoms of what might be clinically described as depression and/or anxiety for a time. Added to that might be a burden of stress arising from personal circumstances, family or work, or a mix of any of them.

Generally speaking, our capacity for resilience kicks in when the circumstance has passed – but to what extent? That resilience is more than just a psychological capacity, it depends on our brains as well. In fact, nothing is just a psychological capacity. Contemporary brain research shows that a complex array of factors will influence the extent to which our capacity for resilience is activated – and at what speed.

We can’t have an idea of an optimal norm as a benchmark for everyone. In the past, in workplaces dominated by men, the ‘manly thing’ to do was to suck it up and move on. That meant repressing emotions like anxiety and grief – which later expressed in substitutional and toxic ways – like bullying.

A few years ago, a colleague struggled to cope with the demands of their role while coping with a dying parent in a nursing home that was not doing the right thing. They were the primary person responsible for monitoring the parent’s care, and their siblings were not only not supporting, but started to accuse and blame over what was happening. 

It was an awful situation to be in, and my colleague eventually found the pressure too much and, after a struggle to juggle competing demands and pressures for over 6 months, they had a public melt down at work and took a month off to chill.

A dying parent can be a challenging experience if things are going well. With complexities of care and family politics such an experience can push a person to their own limits. It is worse when there is no let up at work either.

There are many situations that can push to the edge of our ability to maintain the mask of coping. Some come and go quickly, and others are drawn out over months or years.

Flexible work arrangements are essential for everyone

All this with my colleague happened before flexible working became a thing. I knew what was going on because we talked. They had to leave work early many days, and there were things that had to be done. But otherwise, nobody else knew there was a challenging life situation – until the melt down. Privacy was maintained and that melt down was attributed to another, unflattering and unkind reason that caused needless injury to reputation.

Not everyone is okay about exposing a very private drama to a manager, or to colleagues in general. Maybe a few confidantes will know, but they will likely be sworn to confidentiality. For quite a few staff, their manager would be the last person they would share details of their private lives with.

How to allow adult staff to be grown ups

I was listening to an audiobook discussing the evolution of management recently. The author observed that in the old command and control approach – still a legacy in many settings today – adults were treated like ‘children’. Their work performance was scrutinised to an extreme degree. They had to seek permission to take a toilet break. They were subject to crude reward and punishment regimes. They judgment was not respected, and their opinions never sought. Status trumped experience and expertise.

Now I didn’t like the use of the term ‘children’ here at all. But I understood the intent – to denote that an adult person was treated in a lesser manner at work. People who were social peers outside work were forced into a hierarchical structure in which those in subordinate roles were considered incapable of expressing the same level of agency. A fully responsible adult making essential and competent decisions about their private life was transformed into a less competent person the moment they signed on at work each morning.

This legacy lingers still. It still informs policies and practices. It is getting much better in some workplaces, but in others there is still a vast area of improvement needed.

The reflex at management level is to doubt the integrity of a staff member and to require revelation of private detail so the manager can determine whether they agree. This becomes apparent the moment a manager asks, “Why….?

If there is evidence that the majority of staff are disposed to exploit and abuse flexibility, there might be good reason to interrogate a staff member seeking an accommodation related to their workload or work time. But I have found no evidence this is the case. There may be a situation where a genuine workplace situation is such that accommodating a request for an adjustment, or an accommodation represents a real problem for a manager and there may be a need to determine whether the staff member’s need is of sufficient urgency to warrant wearing the adverse consequences of a favourable decision.

I would observe that in a well-managed and psychologically healthy workplace staff members seeking an accommodation usually will factor in the impact of a request on their team. The impact of poor management is rarely understood by an organisation’s leaders, with the result that they are more disposed to support a manager who asserts a right to adjudicate on a request. This is a truth that has been confirmed time and again for me.

The legacy of Taylorist management thinking is tenacious. It suits individuals who are less disposed toward empathy and insight, because it confers situational authority, rather than earned relational respect.

In a respectful, psychologically healthy, and safe workplace a staff member is treated as a responsible and honest adult until they demonstrate that such respect is not properly due them. There will be people whose psychological make up makes such respect a risky proposition. But they will be rare. This is the problem – the exceptions are treated as the rule. This is the Taylorist legacy. It may have been ‘scientific’ at one time. Its not now. Our values have changed.

What does all this matter?

Staff with diagnosed psychological disorders are subject to discrimination just because they reveal they have a ‘formal diagnosis’. There is a stigma attached to such a revelation. 

There is no inherent or essential ‘need to know’ why a staff member seeks an accommodation. A request made by a responsible adult person concerning their ability to perform their role to the best of their ability should be taken on face value.

Let’s think this through. Suppose a staff member says they have a need to end work at 14:00 on a particular day. It doesn’t matter when they say it. Imagine a list of ‘good’ reasons why that might happen. Now imagine some ‘bad’ reasons. How many of those ‘bad’ reasons might be down to an adverse emotional state, and may be part of a more complex life challenge? Who’s to judge?

Back at the beginning of 2020 I started a Change the Conversation initiative to alter the way we talked about mental health and mental illness – two terms I believe to be utterly inappropriate. I wanted to explore developing ways of talking about our inner states using normal language, and not straying into the area of psychiatric or psychological jargon. 

I did this in response to conversations with a colleague with a formally diagnosed psychological condition. There had been no progress on stigma of ‘mental illness’ over the past 18 months, despite our efforts. It remains unresolved still.

Lately I have been wondering why it is even an issue. Why should trying to ‘fix’ people with adverse and discriminatory attitudes be the only approach? Why not eliminate the need to ‘disclose’ at all?

The trend toward greater flexibility is growing. But that can seem like a trade – if you tell me why, I will grant permission – that nobody should be obliged to make. The better way, which honours adult agency is one of advising and acknowledging. And unless, and until, this becomes a genuine concern about work performance and capacity it doesn’t include disclosing a reason.

A staff member with a diagnosed psychological condition should never need to say why they need an accommodation. If work performance or capacity becomes an issue, it should be dealt with in a manner that is still respectful of a need or desire to not disclose.

The prime issue is not a question of disclosure, but of a need to know. 


Some readers may instantly object that there are exceptions. I agree, and it is worthwhile having a shared conversation about that. This is why I distinguish between an accommodation and an adjustment. But the context for such a conversation should not be an attempt to claw back the privileges of Taylorism, but to rather clarify what management as if people really matter looks like.

Management has always been predicated upon the assumption that the organisation has the power, which it distributes to its managers, and the staff have none (which is why unions). That’s old hat. These days an organisation should be the mechanisms and processes by which adults possessing and retaining their full agency come together to perform tasks in the service of agreed objectives for agreed rewards and penalties. The obligation to ‘sell’ one’s privacy for the right to vary how one works is no longer okay.

In a psychologically safe workplace, a staff member may feel perfectly free to say why. But even so others may not, for a variety of reasons – increasingly so a diverse workforce

The stigma some persist in applying to ‘mental illness’ may not go away, because the personal right to have such a prejudice cannot denied. But the power to exert that bias can be removed by making the right to know a rare exception – and then not even one a manager may have access to.

This is not an argument for chaos, only the retention of agency and dignity in the negotiation of a need for an accommodation. To do this the right and power of managers to demand to know why must be re-imagined – not as a right granted by holding a power position, but a privilege granted in response to respect and empathy.

The cognitive and emotional burden of disability


Disability can be seen as a one-dimensional experience.  For example, my reliance on Canadian crutches for mobility might suggest that I have certain accessibility needs, and if they are satisfied then the impact of my disability has been mitigated. 

I was prompted to write on this theme a few days ago. I got up from my chair with just one crutch, which is normal at home, and made to walk to the kitchen and almost fell. My left foot dragged on the carpet and that was enough to throw my balance off. I was lucky this time. I managed to grab the bookcase in time. 

I try to limit myself to 2 falls a year. I have one left for 2022. I fall for the same reason every time. I am not paying attention. Every step I take must be intentional and conscious. I have a great sense of balance, but almost no ability to prevent a fall beyond a certain point. I have fallen when I have been using 2 sticks several times.

When I walk, I need to be constantly aware of where my feet are, and how they are moving. My ankles don’t flex normally and if I don’t lift my feet, they can drag. It doesn’t take much to throw me off balance and avoiding that takes constant additional cognitive effort. 

The need for constant additional cognitive and emotional effort takes its toll over a day if I am travelling. That can impact my mood and enthusiasm. I am comparatively lucky in that things are way better when I am sitting down. When I was commuting, getting to and from work was demanding, draining and sometimes dangerous.

I remember when I could stand up and walk with no care. Now, I have that only experience in my dreams. When I wake up into my reality there is always a sense of sadness, a sense of burden in knowing what’s ahead.

Expectations of heroic conduct

In July 2010 I attended the inaugural meeting of what was then NSW Ageing Disability and Home Care’s DEN. Almost nobody then, or thereafter, spoke openly about their own experience of living with disability. A few revealed a personal dimension when they talked about the frustration of encountering discriminatory attitudes or the difficulty in getting accessible technology. We were encouraged to talk about the fact that we lived with disability, and the experience of discrimination, but not the experience of living with disability. 

As a result, we had remarkably little understanding of what our colleagues were experiencing. We were not complainers who want sympathy and didn’t want to be seen as such. So, we kept quite in public. In private there was a little sharing, but it was not much, and it was guarded – at least that was my experience.

When I became DEN Chair in 2016 and I started to advocate for members I had conversations that drew out the depth of personal experience to a far greater degree. I spoke with members with a range of disabilities, and it was a humbling experience to come to know the deeper personal side of living with a particular disability. 

Without exception the people I spoke with were of good humour, possessed great strength of character, and were compassionate. But there were times when challenge of navigating their world was such that the cognitive and emotional burden was revealed in expressions of exhaustion (physical and emotional), frustration, or pain (physical and emotional). All battled the risk of depression to some degree.

This hidden side of living disability is rarely openly expressed. I think this is a pity, because it fosters an illusion that we are all heroes who do not have an inner life that can be demanding of cognitive and emotional effort, drain our energy, cause stress, and influence our moods.

This is a legacy, I think, of the campaign that made people with disability out to be exceptional. The goal was to show we could do and be more than the soft discrimination of low expectations allowed. The people depicted in the campaign always had a visibly obvious disability. They looked determined and strong. The Paralympics added to this. We saw performance of disability, not living with disability.

How hard can it be?

In the early days of the DEN, we met at the Portside Centre in Sydney. A blind colleague arrived at the meeting one morning in a rage. They had walked maybe 700 metres past several active construction sites and had to cross 4 streets. The noise from the construction sites drowned out the alert sounds at pedestrian crossing that let them know when they would walk. They had no sound clues at all, and they had arrived stressed and distressed. The noise from the building sites was oppressive, and dangerous, depriving at least one person of vital sensory awareness.

The fact that they had persisted and had arrived was impressive. That took guts and fierce determination. But what stayed with me was the flood of emotion – the frustration and anger. I started to understand just how harrowing what was to most other folk a short walk could be. I had taken the same route myself. I had struggled on my sticks to cross streets in time, avoid being jostled by the crowd of commuters streaming to their offices, and keep myself upright on the sloping footpath. I had arrived feeling drained and need of a break and a coffee. But it was minor compared to what I witnessed.

Disability is not just the named thing. It has an experiential atmosphere – how it is lived and how others respond to it. It is the whole experience – most of which is hidden, private.

Extra effort

Sometimes a disability means that significant additional physical effort is required to achieve the same outcomes ‘normal’ folk achieve quickly and with ease. This starts from waking up – getting up, getting ready, and getting to work can be the hardest part of the day. In jobs that are largely sedentary, doing the work can be the easiest bit of the day. And, going home can be just as tough as getting there.

The increased physical effort also has cognitive or emotional consequences. 

A few years ago, I spoke with a colleague who had lower arm and leg amputations. He used prostheses. He described a typical morning – from getting up to getting to work, which was daunting to me. Then he casually mentioned that the pain was what he really didn’t like. Although his daily routine was normal to him, it was still demanding. As we spoke it was also clear that it had an emotional impact as well.

It is little wonder that COVID was a blessing for many people with disability. Working from home not only reduced the physical demands of getting to work; it also eased the cognitive and emotional burdens associated with commuting. For some that also reduced risk of injury as well.

Living with disability can be hard work, and a lot of that work is associated with getting around – but by no means all. This doesn’t mean that being isolated is preferrable. It means that having a choice to exert the additional effort, accommodate the cognitive and emotional burdens, and expose oneself to risk of injury is better than having no choice.

How does it feel to…?

This is not a question we dare ask as a rule. We struggle to acknowledge life experiences that are challenging in an open way – unless we know a person closely. By social convention we guess a lot. We compassionately allow that people might be having a tough time when we know what they are going through – usually transient experiences involving grief or stress.

Our culture favours stoic determination and keeping emotions private. Saying what we are experiencing is something we may not even share with those we know intimately. This is not something we can change, or maybe even want to.

But there’s a difference between not asking and assuming that there’s no inner experience that is continually cognitively and emotionally demanding just because the superficial impression is of a simple disability.

The impact of an illusion

These days we speak of the social model of disability. The PWD website has a good definition:

The social model sees ‘disability’ is the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers. It therefore carries the implication that the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment must change to enable people living with impairments to participate in society on an equal basis with others.

To me this definition risks creating an illusion that there is no existential foundation to disability – just an interactive one. The previously dominant model of disability was the medical one. Here is what the PWD website says:

According to the medical model of disability, ‘disability’ is a health condition dealt with by medical professionals. People with disability are thought to be different to ‘what is normal’ or abnormal. ‘Disability’ is seen ‘to be a problem of the individual. From the medical model, a person with disability is in need of being fixed or cured. From this point of view, disability is a tragedy and people with disability are to be pitied. The medical model of disability is all about what a person cannot do and cannot be.

There’s a lot wrong with the ‘medical model’, but this definition seems to be also politicisedand turned into a loathsome extreme that makes the social model seem like the only good thing.

There may well be a legitimate medical aspect to a person’s disability. And while it is certainly not true that “people with disability are to be pitied” it is true that some disabilities can be the source of existential pain – especially with acquired disabilities that rob a person of being able to do what they once did. I know this very well.

Likewise dismissing the notion that “ disability is all about what a person cannot do and cannot be” seems to me to be missing the point of the idea of disability. Some activities and roles are ruled out – period.

Trying to shoehorn disability into a politically agreeable definition poorly serves people who live with disability. Yes, there’s much about the social model that brings much needed changes, but to assert that disability arises because of an “interaction” with “barriers” reduces the meaning to a simplistic level. And this level is the source of illusions that can generate offensive assumptions.

The comedian, Adam Hills, has a prosthetic foot that doesn’t appear to cause him many problems in terms of barriers to activities. But he did reveal that he makes frequent trips to a physiotherapist because the prosthetic foot throws his back out. Improvements to prosthetic feet may solve this problem. Hills still sees himself as a person with disability. Essentially, if you need a prosthetic foot, you have a disability, even if that prosthesis makes it possible to do nearly everything you can do with a regular foot – wiggling toes is not yet an option.

A disability is a permanent variation from the norm to a degree where an adjustment or accommodation is necessary to ensure equity. It may have a medical foundation. But while adjustments or accommodations may address many issues about equity, there are two persistent features to keep in mind:

  1. They are not universal or ideal.
  2. They may mitigate the impact of a disability, but they do not negate the disability itself.

Thanks to the profound misfortune of war, advances in technological responses to physical disability has been extraordinary. But even so those solutions are not necessarily effort, angst, or pain free. Removal of barriers is a good thing – but it’s not the only thing. Somethings can’t be removed.

I want to propose an existential model of disability:

A disability is a permanent variation from the norm to a degree where an adjustment or accommodation is necessary (but not always available) to ensure equity. It is also the experience of living with that permanent variation in whatever way an individual can.


Disability is an experience, not just a thing. That experience often entails additional demands on the individual’s cognitive and emotional resources during normal daily life. If this demand is significant, whether episodic or ongoing, it can constitute a burden of stress that may impact mood and attention at times.

A burden of stress is something we all carry at times – generated by life circumstances. We don’t need that burden added to by avoidable situations. Exclusion, discrimination, and bullying are avoidable if we are kind, inclusive, and respectful to each other.

People with disability are not heroes whose lives may have been transformed because barriers related to their disability have been removed. The experience of the disability remains – and living with it goes on.

Do no harm


I am belatedly listening to Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive Management, Revised Edition. Drucker is the god of management theory, and really stands head and shoulders above most others writing in this field.

I was struck by his assertion that “a responsibility of a manager is to not knowingly do harm.” He observed that “integrity is the one absolute requirement of managers and leaders.” Character is also an essential attribute – and if a manager is seen by subordinate staff to lack either, or both, the result is always destructive. Drucker is a firm believer that a person who fails in a management role should be assigned to an alternative role, including being restored to a previous one.

It is a near universal feature of writing on Inclusion that the role of leaders and managers in fostering a work culture conducive to Inclusion is critical. Drucker makes a vital distinction about managers and leaders. He says managers are part of a leadership team, rather than being seen as leaders themselves. Leadership to Drucker is a far rarer quality than most contemporary commentators prefer to think. People can be in leadership roles, but that doesn’t make them leaders per se.

There is a risk, I believe, that themes that are popular and trending become prone to unsophisticated hype. There are boosters making a living from selling simple versions of quite complex ideas. I have had to refine my ideas about leadership and leaders as I became aware of this. 

Here I want to reflect on this refinement in the context of Drucker’s assertion that “a responsibility of a manager is to not knowingly do harm.”

Not knowingly do harm

The focus word here is ‘knowingly’. It raises a question about what is reasonable to know in the context of doing a manager’s job. We may also ask what is meant by ‘harm’. In fact, before we get into exploring what is reasonable to know, let’s look at what we can reasonably mean by ‘harm’.

Organizations are not keen on being open about the idea of staff being harmed in other than physical ways – and this is usually covered under the heading of Work Health Safety. Psychological harm, which is far more prevalent, isn’t a comfortable topic. This includes exclusion, discrimination, and bullying. These words do describe actions that are harmful in that they can lead to an individual feeling anything on a spectrum from being mildly upset or offended to significant psychological distress. And physical illness will result from prolonged psychological stress.

Workplaces can be stressful for a variety of reasons – fewer staff and higher workload demands as wage budgets are constrained is the one that I hear most often. This isn’t a complaint so much as an observation. There is always a mismatch between demand and resources in a well-run organization. Such a situation can be exacerbated by less than stellar leadership and management.

But we can’t just think in terms of work-related stressors. We must allow that a staff member’s personal life can have its own burden of stresses. This is not to imply these are the result of any failure to self-manage. Life can just dump monumental challenges upon us without warning, or even a soft “excuse me.”

Staff with disability may also have additional stresses related to living with their disability. In short, the burden of stressors any individual staff member may be carrying could be significant – coming from multiple causes.

This applies to staff at all levels of an organization. The risk of psychological harm is always real and operating with that risk is an inherent aspect of leading and managing.

This is where the idea of knowingly causing harm becomes interesting. It includes intentional acts, and negligent acts. What should a staff member, manager, or leader reasonably be expected to know is a harmful action?

What should be known?

Exclusion, discrimination, and bullying are acts that can be perpetrated unintentionally and unconsciously – as well as being intentional and conscious. A defense offered by intentional and conscious actors is that what they did was unintentional and unconscious.

Drucker observes that knowledge workers own the means of production – knowledge. By that he means that a high percentage of staff in modern organizations are there because of their education – they are knowledge workers, whether in a highly skilled professional area, or in more general roles like policy, project, or program officers.

He observes that maintenance of the capacity to be an effective and efficient knowledge worker is the knowledge worker’s responsibility. This is very much the opposite view to what prevails in many Australian public sector organizations. Here, the organization sets the level of knowledge required, and is expected to also provide the means of its maintenance.

The impact of this situation is that there will be a gap between what a staff member ought to know and what an organization can provide. As a result, leaders and managers may plausibly claim that they have not been provided with the knowledge they need to have to prevent them from causing unintentional harm. If the organization accepts this proposition, it can claim that a lack of resources to be applied to learning and development is a plausible reason for staff being inadvertently harmed through the lack of awareness of what constitutes harmful conduct.

This is, of course, complete nonsense.

Knowing isn’t enough

The NSW Department of Customer Service (DCS) has a very good page on its website setting out the details of its Code of Ethics and Conduct. I think it’s fair to say it is one of the best I have seen. So, it’s interesting to see what is and isn’t there.

Under the heading Why we need a Code, we find: “We are all responsible for our own actions. This Code identifies standards of behaviour and direction for all employees and anyone performing work for DCS no matter where or how we are working. It supports us to ask, ‘What is the right thing to do?’ and then to do it.”

Next, we find an exploration of the 4 key words that are a kind of motto for the NSW public sector – Integrity, Trust, Service, and Accountability (ITSA).

Are your actions consistent with the ethical framework? Do a quick assessment by answering these questions:

  • Integrity: Would your colleagues say you have considered the views of all stakeholders and customers and acted in the right way when making decisions, even if it was to your disadvantage?
  • Trust: Would your actions, if they became public, build confidence in DCS and the public sector?
  • Service: Would your customers say that your actions improve the quality of the services they receive?
  • Accountability: Would your Leader and the Secretary say that your actions are in the public interest and comply with the law?

This is good stuff for an organisation focused on serving the community – which should be all public sector agencies. We can go to read (and here I have sampled only a few key points):

In addition to the above responsibilities, all Leaders and SEB 1 and above level employees must also:

  • model ethical, efficient and safe work practices required of all public sector employees
  • be open, honest, respectful and comprehensive in your communication with all employees, including about standards of conduct and behaviour in the workplace
  • ensure equity in employment and a workplace free from discrimination, harassment and bullying

I mean no criticism of the DCS when I say that while what it has produced is very good in many respects, it misses a few key elements. It’s articulation of ITSA is entirely externally focused, and for good reason. But I think it is far too often forgotten that members of staff are community members and stakeholders, so an articulation of ITSA must also have an internal focus. Below is an example I have invented for the sake of this argument.

  • Integrity: Would your colleagues say you have considered the views of all internal stakeholders and acted in the right way when making decisions, even if it was to your disadvantage?
  • Trust: Would your actions, if they became known to your colleagues, managers, and leaders, build confidence in you as a person and as a staff member?
  • Service: Would your colleagues, managers, and leaders say that your actions improve the quality of their experience of the workplace?
  • Accountability: Would your colleagues, managers, and leaders say that your actions support the welfare of staff and comply with the law?

Now, it may be argued that the Code of Conduct generally covers behaviour toward staff. The above select example I provided suggests this is the case. Except (and without inferring any failing on behalf of DCS) that the evidence in the 2021 NSW State of the Sector Report makes it clear that managers and leaders not delivering on their obligations, and efforts to hold them to account are not successful.


I think Drucker’s assertion that knowledge workers are responsible for ensuring their knowledge is current is a powerful idea. However, it is one I think will be very unpopular. He noted that knowledge is constantly evolving and keeping up can be difficult. This is true.

An organization has a responsibility to ensure its staff can work as efficiently as possible by having good quality technology, systems, and policies. But whether the work done is effective depends on the knowledge worker’s skills and how well they are managed.  This includes ensuring a workplace is “free from discrimination, harassment and bullying.” That takes knowledge and skill as well as the character and integrity to follow through on the injunction “must ensure”. Saying a staff member “must ensure” leaves no room to quibble – or so you’d hope, and maybe expect.

Codes of conduct are at the heart of an organisation. At their best they can only enjoin those bound by them to do no intentional harm. They are clear on what conduct that causes harm up to a point. The point of a Code of Conduct is that it is a guide to harmless conduct. Here the harm being considered is chiefly concerned with ethical and reputational standing. Causing personal injury is understandably less of a focus. When it comes to psychological injury, we see well-intentioned injunctions. What is absent is an affirmed commitment to monitoring compliance. 

In short there seems to be a missing component – the organisation’s commitment to ensuring compliance as part of the deal. Since staff sign the Code of Conduct, which they are obliged to read it and understand it. Any breach must be intentional, inadvertent, or negligent. Ignorance can’t be a defence. Work cultures normalise behaviours, and in the absence of active engagement with ensuring compliance a complaint-based form of accountability will not, and cannot, be a substitute.

Our workplaces are changing. New values are being articulated. New obligations are being placed on staff at all levels. And those obligations are not being met to the extent desired. Exclusion, discrimination, and bullying remain unacceptably prevalent. 

The question we must ask is whether those obligations are fairly imposed. Is it fair and reasonable to say a manager or executive must ensure a workplace is free from discrimination, harassment, and bullying? If it is not, we must remove that obligation. If we think it is fair, and we think discrimination, harassment, and bullying cause harm, we must insist that there is accountability when that harm is caused.

All staff (but managers and leaders especially) should ask themselves “Would your colleagues, managers, and leaders say that your actions support the welfare of staff and comply with the law?” No? Then what? This is the singular challenge for an organisation’s culture.

How things look 12 months out


I started writing this on 10 June 2022. That’s exactly 12 months since I exited the NSW Department of Communities and Justice – Disability Inclusion team. This matters to me because I walked away from my unfinished Disability Inclusion journey, but this was not due to a lack of passion. There are just times when you know you have to go – and this was my time to go. I didn’t leave with any adverse passions, just a sense I had to do something different in how I approached Disability Inclusion.

I have several times posted essays on my progress in reframing my understanding of Disability Inclusion. I have wanted readers to understand that the blog is a journey of discovery.

Some good news

I was forwarded an email from the DCJ Secretary acknowledging DCJ’s success at the recent Australian Network on Disability (AND) Annual National Conference in Melbourne. The department was given two inaugural awards:

  • Disability Confidence Award – DCJ was awarded this in consequence of its participation in the Access and Inclusion Index in 2021. To quote from the email “We were the only organisation to top the index in three different areas – commitment, career development, and workplace adjustments.”
  • The DCJ DEN won the first Disability Employee Network of the Year Award.

The email went on to mention the DCJ Disability Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP) in a positive way. 

These 3 things (the DEN, A&I Index and the DIAP) were the focus of my passion and efforts in recent years. 

The advantage of having time

I have had free time over 12 months to focus on whatever I cared to. I have listened to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts on inclusion and organisational psychology.

As well as the audiobooks and podcasts I consumed online articles and did hours of internet research. In between I talked with people who share my passion. I was on a mission to fill in gaps in my understanding about how and why Disability Inclusion works – and fails.

I was astonished at how much there was to learn. I thought I was doing okay before. In fact, Disability Inclusion, and Inclusion more generally, is an evolving science that synthesises the efforts of psychologists, brain scientists, business researchers and Inclusion advocates. Knowledge and practice are being refined continually.

The danger of comfortable niches

If we don’t continually upgrade our knowledge, we can get stuck doing stuff that was good practice some time ago, but which didn’t work as well as hoped or imagined. 

We can become comfortable with being ineffectual and believe that the struggles we face to overcome resistance are normal. While the struggle to overcome resistance is normal, being ineffectual should not be.

I have been impressed by the claims made by the Neuroleadership Institute, whose stated mission is “Deliver change in weeks not years” That’s a bold assertion to make. I haven’t been fully sold on that proposition yet, but I am feeling more comfortable with it as I discover more about its work.

The Neuroleadership Institute also introduced me to the idea of a Growth Mindset. That’s a theme of an essay I posted on May22nd.

Who is responsible?

On a sector/organisational level I want to distinguish between an individual’s capacity to research more effective methods and what should be provided to support that individual staff member’s inquiry. These days the amount of information is significant. Asking a motivated staff member to troll through available information and discern what is best and most useful is unreasonable.

In many organisations Disability Inclusion is an add-on – as if it is a free service to be provided by staff whose time and attention is already taxed. It must be part of core business for which resources are provided. But unless senior leaders are aware of this argument, they won’t support it. And how are they going to become aware if they do not have access to contemporary ideas and data?

It does take doing a research project to become aware of what is available. This is what has been made clear to me over the past 12 months.

The importance of knowledge

The famed management consultant, Peter Drucker asserted more and more contemporary employees are ‘knowledge workers’ and this includes public sector employees who are using their education and skills to design and deliver services to the community.

The extent to which knowledge is the focal factor in so many roles is profoundly under-appreciated – especially in fields where there is constant discovery and innovation. The situation is not helped by an aversion to what is called ‘Life-Long Learning’. There is a resistance to learning and responding to demands for upgraded skills that is innate in many of us. We are change resistant by nature. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a reality which is disposed to accommodate that resistance, so there is always a tension between how we behave, and how it is thought we ought to behave.

While L&D teams strive to create more effective ways of upskilling and increasing knowledge, the budgets to support them are not as strong as they could be, and the intended recipients of the learning are not necessarily enthusiastic consumers. This is the reality we live with. It’s not going to change in the foreseeable future.

On a sector level, when it comes to Disability Inclusion, and Inclusion more generally, I think there are compelling arguments for the development of

a ‘clearing house’. This can curate and disseminate contemporary thinking on the theme – books, podcasts, and articles – that will assist individuals at any level in an organisation to get up to speed with current thinking and practice.

But for this to have any value and impact there must be an accountable requirement by organisations that their staff become informed. There’s no point in setting up a service on the basis of something being ‘nice to have’ – ‘must have’ is a smarter foundation.

The I work for NSW website carries a commitment asserting, in relation to people with disability, that “We are committed to building safe and inclusive workplaces for all NSW Public Sector employees.” And it goes on to add “We are doing this by … building a culture of inclusion across our workforce.”

However, between mid 2019, when the Premier’s Priority to increase disability employment to 5.6% by 2025 was announced, and mid 2022, there was no growth. The reason why is plain. There was no planned, strategic, or coordinated effort across the sector.

Put simply, if public sector staff are required to become aware of contemporary ideas and practices in Disability Inclusion it is worthwhile the sector investing in such a service. But not unless that requirement is tracked and accountable. 

You are not going to develop inclusive workplaces without knowledge, skill, planning, coordination at the pace that is desired and necessary.

Efforts at promoting Life-Long Learning in the public sector have failed. The need is routinely testified to, but there has been no effective response – no discernible strategy at a sector level. The private sector has competitive pressures and rewards, whereas the public sector has neither. Things happen when you add incentives.

This means that without this intentional and committed effort, Disability Inclusion will evolve only by accident, dependent on individual commitment by people who are already have their time and attention taxed.

Obstructions to an accountable public sector

Over the past 12 months I have refined my ideas about why Disability Inclusion fact does not match the sentiment. It’s not that I don’t believe the sentiment is real. It is sincere, but it is also clueless – and this is down, in large part, to the want of knowledge.

The chief problem is the belief that Disability Inclusion will happen because people want it to happen. But not only is the ‘problem’ mis-identified, the ‘solutions’ are misconstrued. It isn’t that the ‘solution’ is difficult, just that the pathway to it is complex. We don’t like complexity, which is why we fail at solutions so often in the public sector.

In the private sector things are very different. Apple is the massive corporation it is now precisely because it dared to engage in crazy complexity. Watch Steve Jobs on YouTubetalking about the first iPhone in 2007. You will see vision, commitment, and determination. This is what is absent in the public sector.

The curse of complexity

Disability Inclusion is fiendishly complex. You must fuse organisational psychology with individual psychology – and then add the politics of organisational hierarchies. This blends organisational cultures with personal passions and ambitions. Then we need to understand how our instincts and brains shape our biases. 

What we believe about ourselves, and others, will determine how we frame our vision for inclusion. There is compelling evidence that we hold inflated views about our strengths overly negative assessments of others – especially those we see as members of outgroups.

We must avoid imagining that there’s a definitive simple methodology that will solve the problem and those who are not on board are intellectually and morally deficient. It’s not that simple. There is a method – and it is complex.

We are heirs to this complexity. It will not magically disappear. It’s what we must work with.

The problem of novelty

Disability Inclusion, and Inclusion more generally, is novel. Our culture is evolving in ways that can be challenging to many – and this is especially so across the Inclusion spectrum (race, gender, sexuality, religion, disability).

People respond to novelty in a wide range of ways. We are naturally change resistant, so often the reflex response is to resist. If we are in crisis, we will champion novelty if it offers relief (which is why Disability Inclusion advocates push for new ways of doing things). But in terms of how we may react to others in crisis, there is a spectrum of responses that is dependent upon our individual attributes. This includes our personal capacity (cognitive and emotional capacity, time and attention) to be as empathic and inclusive as we like to think we are and want to be.

The challenge for Disability Inclusion advocates is, I now believe, how to make inclusiveness accessible, so it can be adopted with greater ease. This can be done by working smarter – better informed and more strategic.


In 2018 my approach to being DEN Chair was radically transformed by Kate Nash, CEO and founder of PurpleSpace – a UK-based organisation dedicated to Disability Inclusion. Kate gave the keynote address at the Australian Network on Disability’s Annual National Conference in Sydney.

Kate introduced me to the idea of Networkology and set out an approach to Disability Inclusion that was far more strategic and coherent than anything I had been doing. I changed how I did things radically. Success was fast in coming. What I did was to listen to people who know and try out their method. That worked.

In What Works, Iris Bohnet argued for a more systematic approach to attaining gender equity goals. Despite years of engagement with gender equity campaigns Bohnet saw persistent failure. Gender equity is the ground level inclusion challenge that started in the 1960s. If anything is emblematic of how complex inclusion is, it is gender equity.

PurpleSpace, the Neuroleadership Institute and Bohnet share one thing in common – a recognition of the importance of informed, updated, systematic, and disciplined practice in driving positive and inclusive change.

Since encountering Networkology in 2018 I have been persuaded that a strategic, professional, knowledge-based approach to Disability Inclusion is the only pathway to success. Everything I have read, watched, and listened to in the past 12 months has confirmed that.

Public sector agencies must develop expertise in their leaders and Disability Inclusion advocates by investing in, and supporting, such an approach if the inclusion goals of the sector are to be realised within a reasonable time. Disability Inclusion must become a priority that is backed by the resources needed (vision, knowledge, time, attention, method, and strategy). If its not, no assurance of commitment is worth anything.

The Illusion of Inclusion


I was listening to the podcast Leading with Empathy & Allyship, show #83 How to Hurry History: Moving DEI Forward Faster, with Laura Liswood. It turns out that Laura has a new book out, The Elephant and the Mouse: Moving Beyond the Illusion of Inclusion to Develop a Truly Diverse and Equitable Workplace.

Liswood has the kind of background I find intensely interesting. She’s a deep thinker and the driving force behind the establishment of the Council of Women World Leaders. That’s impressive!

The premise of the title is that dominant group (the elephant) knows very little about the minority groups (the mouse). But the mouse, for its own survival, most know a great deal about the elephant. 

In a way, the illusion of Inclusion arises because while the elephant (organisational leadership) may think kindly upon mouse (members of diversity groups), it knows very little about what it’s like to be a mouse. Without that insight, the elephant cannot moderate its behaviour to match intent. The consequence is squashed mice. Nobody wants to be elephant-kill.

Liswood is emphatic:

  • Effort doesn’t always equal outcome
  • Intent doesn’t always equal impact.

A great amount of effort has been expended on boosting inclusion, but the results have been poor. In short, the effort expended, and the intent applied have delivered disappointing outcomes and have had a far lower impact than intended.

The vast majority of people in our culture (this is an important caveat) agree that Inclusion is a good thing. But there’s now a thriving industry of DEI speakers and trainers who are tapping into the good intent, but who are reporting resistance. This resistance is mostly unintentional (and institutional), but there’s an influential minority that is intentionally resistant.

Here are 3 key ideas from Liswood.

Discrimination is a wide and messy field

We tend to think that discrimination is confined to the usual diversity group members (gender, sexuality, race, disability, religion), But not so. You can be subject to discrimination because of height, weight, looks, introversion, personal style and taste, and class – the list can go on. In fact, you can be discriminated against for pretty much any reason other people can come up with.

Why does this matter? In terms of Disability Inclusion, it’s going to be struggle if you have a bunch of other attributes that can give elephant (and other mice) cause to not see you; or want to know about you. 

It is important to remind the reader that ‘discrimination’ used to be a virtue. It meant “having or showing refined taste or good judgement” (Oxford Dictionary). Being thought a discriminating person was desirable. But, almost in a paradoxical sense, we have developed a bias against the word’s original meaning, so that it now has a negative connotation. We have created a short cut from inappropriate discrimination to just discriminationInappropriate discrimination is unjust, unkind, and, in some cases, illegal. 

But, because of the way our brains and language work, it’s easier for us to work with the biased idea. Its handy to keep this in mind because when it comes to discussion about reframing how we think, this example will be helpful.

Staff with disability report being subject to being bullied more than any other group. Bullies target people they perceive to be vulnerable. If you have a constellation of other attributes that also trigger biases, getting a workplace adjustment in place might become a lot more problematic. Feeling as though you are fully included is going to be much harder as well.

I have previously observed that intersectionality is an important idea in Disability Inclusion. Now I believe it is critical. Disability may be the prominent identified personal attribute, but that does not make it the only attribute that triggers exclusion. Likewise, if people with invisible disability possess other attributes that may have already triggered discriminatory conduct, saying anything about an invisible disability may be a step too far.

Bias is a limiting notion

Liswood doesn’t like the word ‘bias’. For her it carries negative and even blaming connotations. This happens when a word is employed to convey negative messages with a moral overtone. A person can be ‘accused’ of bias – and thus its technical or neutral value is lost.

But Liswood opens the concept out beyond its limiting character. Rather than bias, she asserts that we have a cluster of largely unconscious beliefs, perspectives, perceptions, associations, actions, roles, and archetypes that influence our choices and behaviours. I’d add to that list instincts – behavioural reflexes hardwired into our brains. Liswood’s cluster opens up culture, nurture and experience (beyond nurture) to be understood as the constituents of biases.

The Neuroleadership Institute is clear that “if you have a brain, you have a bias.” Our experiences trigger the development of patterns in the brain, which then express in response to cues. Our instinct to not waste energy on consciously processing responses (a high energy consuming process) means that a lot of our ‘thinking’ is condensed into brain energy saving ‘biases’.

A bias is a tool. Using the right tool for the job makes sense. Nobody would want to use a hammer when a drill is needed. These days the relational jobs we have to do are different from the old ones. Now we need to develop new tools.

Using bias in a pejorative way – implying a moral failing – doesn’t help. We are good at seeing biases in other people, and bad at seeing them in ourselves. We are psychologically constructed that way. As they say, ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’ 

I think Liswood’s argument for unpacking biases is sound. It helps us understand the constellation of factors that constitute a bias. This is the first step to reframing our biases. Getting rid of them is impossible. But we can reshape them by reforming the input. This is something we do all the time, but hardly notice. Information helps, so does ideas about social values. If we expose ourselves to new information and new social values with sufficient intensity and frequency, we can develop new biases (shortcuts) that better match the values we aspire to.

Part of this concerns having sufficient self-awareness to know when an inappropriate bias is kicking in, or to not be self-defensive when an ally lets us know we are in the thrall of a bias.

The science of human behaviour employs another elephant metaphor – the elephant and the rider. Here the elephant is what is below our conscious awareness, and the rider is what is conscious. The social and moral psychologist, Johnathan Haidt, has described the rider at times as little more than a PR agent for the elephant. By that he means that what we think is reasoned thought is actually no more than rationalization to justify what the elephant feels is true. Hence, we will justify a bias and believe we are providing a rational defence of a belief or action.

My favourite illustration of this is a 1960s magazine cartoon depicting a guy caught in the act in a motel room. The door has been burst open by a Private Eye with a camera and the outraged wife. The guy blurts out, “But honey! I can explain!” Okay, that may have passed for humour 55 years ago, but it illustrates Haidt’s point perfectly.

The uncertain value of knowledge

Liswood describes research that shows that men are happy to know that a policy favouring DEI is in place. They seem content that having a policy is sufficient. Women, apparently, are less likely to end their concern at this point and want to know whether it is effective. I have reservations about such research as a purely gender-based distinction. This may be the case when the policy relates to women. To me it’s more a power group (elephant) thing – though dominated by men. 

The fact a policy has been developed and implemented can seem like a job done. But where does the responsibility for knowing end? The fact that policies are often reviewed only long after they are promulgated in an effort to determine whether they are working as intended suggests that there is no active critical monitoring. A policy promoting gender equity in promotions isn’t working after 3 years? This couldn’t be monitored in real time?

Liswood observes that “the presence of knowledge about others does not guarantee success, but the absence of knowledge guarantees failure.” How the elephant gets to know about the mouse (mice) is another question. The will to know is what I am interested in. A will to know is an expression of active engagement. If something isn’t working, let me know when you know, and let’s do something to sort that.

The disparity between developing and approving policy and monitoring it in practice is well known. I want to use a gardening analogy here to tease it out. If a policy is an action seed, simply throwing it on the garden bed (workplace) and expecting it to grow isn’t enough. For that see to bear good fruit, a lot of gardening is needed. A valued seed is nurtured into fruition.

There is a passage in the Christian Bible that illustrates this point perfectly:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. (Matthew 13 3-4)

If there is a will to know, a way to know will be found. If there is a will to change, a way to change will be found.


The Elephant and the Mouse is a 4 hour and 23 mins audiobook full of deep insights from a veteran DEI advocate. Liswood has a passion to give history a bit of a hurry up. She is prepared to look at the DEI landscape and add her take on things. 

There’s a lot of DEI content that can be regurgitated rote. But it doesn’t deliver any bang for the bucks expended. It assumes the ‘magic bullet’ approach – input rational content and behaviour will change. Research demonstrates, for example, that anti-bias training can often have the reverse impact. The only impact ‘awareness training’ may provide is to make the participants more aware of their own awareness. They may think they are more inclusive, but nothing else changes.

When organisations have limited funds to spend on supporting DEI, the magic bullet approach is the most effective way of getting ineffectual L&D experiences to the most people. That’s true equity, at least, but it doesn’t lead to true inclusion.

In line with the biblical quote above, the solution is to become a constant gardener. Gardeners have a passion to nurture their environment. Resetting your biases can only be a personal commitment reflecting personal insight. For a Disability Inclusion advocate, this is something that allows the person you want to enlist as a DEI ally to frame the challenge in a way that strongly connects to their heart. 

I find the story of Liswood going off to interview women presidents, prime ministers, and heads of government and ending up being the co-founder of the Council of Women World Leaders inspiring. A small act of inquiry generated an unexpected outcome. It shows what one mouse can do – give birth to an elephant.

Her deep experience tells her that “the Illusion of Inclusion” does not have to remain as a mirage forever on the horizon of our aspirations. We can make it a reality faster if we act with knowledge, insight and passion.