When I became DCJ DEN Chair in November 2016 I made a lot of guesses based on years of random reading, plus experience. They turned out to be good guesses in the main.
In 2018, at the Australian Network on Disability’s Annual National Conference, I encountered Kate Nash, CEO of PurpleSpace. Kate introduced me to the idea of Networkology – a data-driven experience-based approach to supporting staff with disability. It was my first hint that there was a science behind the passion for Inclusion.
In June 2021 I quit DCJ, and for the next 12 months I threw myself into the luxury of researching disability inclusion and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) more intensely. I simply did not have the time to commit this amount of effort previously.
What has become abundantly clear is that if you want to generate enduring positive change for staff with disability you must adopt a scientific approach. This is no field for amateurs operating on good intent if the goal is enduring deep positive change. That is just self-indulgence.
In past essays I have explored the impediments to positive change. In this essay I want to explore opportunities for overcoming those impediments.
The scientific approach versus the good intent approach
Good intent is great, as a beginning. Being part of a cause is a good thing. But while gifted amateurs may score some successes, in the longer term the effort expended will not equal the positive outcomes attained.
It is a well attested fact that efforts at inclusion can deliver no discernible advance even 20 years later. See Iris Bohnet’s What Works. Dr David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute (NLI) observed that despite the millions of dollars expended on anti-bias training in recent years, the ‘bias problem’ has not gone away. Good intent not backed by science rarely delivers intended results.
The NLI spent around 3 years researching bias and came up with an approach that did not work. It was scrapped and after more research an effective methodology was developed. Even with good science finding solutions is not always assured at first.
The essence of a scientific approach is disciplined inquiry and experimentation followed by rigorous assessment and evaluation – as a virtuous cycle. This is important because organisations are complex things and what makes them tick is not obvious. This is where the amateur approach becomes problematic.
One of the problems of bias is that we think we know more than we really do; and we think we are smarter than we really are. There is a natural tendency to favour folklore and supposition over objective facts – and to even reject those objective facts when they contradict folklore and supposition. This applies even to those whose approach is, in their estimation, scientific. We are all vulnerable to this most natural of all human biases. The scientific approach, when done well, is humbling precisely because it shatters illusions and conceits.
However, if taking a scientific approach is not a habituated thing, it can seem daunting and even overwhelming. But if the difference is between ineffectual action and non-enduring outcomes and effective lasting change the choice should be clear.
For me research into psychology and the human brain are the most compelling, but just getting data on what is going on now is a great start.
Back in 2014 Kate Nash published Secrets & Big News. This was the first extensive research-based document on employees with disability I had come across. As I noted before, Kate introduced me to the idea of Networkology – the science of building a staff network.
Another powerfully useful book is Cherron Inko-Tariah Mbe’s The Incredible Power of Staff Networks . These two books are a must read as a foundation for setting up and running a Disability Employee Resource Group or Disability Employee Network.
In New South Wales we have the advantage of the annual People Matter Employee Survey (PMES) for public sector employees conducted by the Public Service Commission. It is followed up with an annual State of the NSW Public Sector. Both are a rich source of data, especially if tracked year by year.
In terms of the publicly known data some digging is rewarding but that seems rarely undertaken. This is a pity because there are useful insights to be gained. Of course, agencies will put the most positive spin on their data, but it isn’t hard to get a more balanced picture.
There is a huge amount of invaluable research on aspects of inclusion. I mentioned Bohnet above. I’ll add just a few more:
- Amy C. Edmondson – The Fearless Organisation
- D. Kahneman, O. Sibony, C.R. Sunstein – Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement
- Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow
- Jessica Nordell – The End of Bias
When it comes to brain research, I am particular inspired by the Neuroleadership Institutewhich is a research-driven company. I have read more widely on brain research, but not in areas specific to the theme of this essay. Lisa Miller’s The Awakened Brain was particularly interesting.
There is a lot of useful material on psychology more generally. I like Jonathan Haidt’s work, as well as the extensive literature on Emotional Intelligence.
The thing about psychology
Good psychological research extends in management, organisation culture and behaviour – in fact anything to do with how organisations and the people in them work. The research informs change management, learning and development, and anything else you think of.
These days you can’t really run a complex organisation well without relying on the latest research. This means a lot of catching up is necessary because people in key roles are busy as it is, without the need to constantly update their knowledge and skills. There is always a lag between current research findings and practice. This can be a good thing, of course, because that research isn’t always done well, or its interpretation can miss the mark. Keeping up also requires constant critical evaluation.
However, this more starkly demonstrates that an amateur effort at driving change in favour of staff with disability is unlikely to generate enduring or substantial success if it’s not equally diligent.
The thing about brain research
I started reading in brain research in the late 1990s with a fair degree of scepticism. I have had to significantly adjust my attitudes over the years. So much of our behaviour is hardwired into our biology and beyond the reach of glib efforts to coax or admonish us into change.
As our social, cultural, and work environments have evolved, those hardwired behaviours have resisted well-intentioned efforts to be modified and made as adaptive as desired. This has led to people being blamed for being resistant and is why anti-bias and anti-discrimination training fails and often delivers adverse outcomes.
This explains my affection for NLI. It understands that efforts at driving behavioural change in favour of inclusion must be grounded in brain research and not moral intent. Yes, the moral intent may be a guiding force, but it cannot be the instrument of change.
I joined the DEN in July 2010 because I wanted to see change. I had returned to work after an 18-month absence with acquired disabilities. My return to work was horrible, but not because anybody was being intentionally cruel to me. My colleagues were fantastic. My managers were well-meaning but inept. I was a novel problem to them (as I was to myself) and they had no prior experience or knowledge to guide them. A workplace adjustment policy was the number 1 priority for me.
When I became DEN Chair in November 2016 the membership was depleted and dispirited. It had no notion of being an effective lobby and the HR team that supported us was well-intentioned, but captive to the larger organisational imperative to change things slowly. There was good intent all around – but progress was painfully slow.
Things changed in 2018 when Kate Nash introduced me to a scientific approach – rational, methodical, strategic, and effective. There’s nothing mysterious about this. It is the way to succeed at most things these days.
There’s no reason why a DEN or an ERG should see itself exempt. Yes, a body of volunteers does not have the time resources of paid staff. That may make things harder. The issue of time and support is real – if the ERG/DEN is to have a meaningful impact.
Organisations should be working with DENs/ERGs in collaboration to bring about desired change in a rational and strategic way. They are allies with a common objective. But only one has the resources and the means to promote and support the Science of Inclusion.