Exclusion is a feature, not a bug, and what we can do about it


What triggers and perpetuates our capacity to engage in exclusionary behaviour in the face of earnest assertions that such conduct will not be tolerated? It is not as mysterious as it may seem.

Most of us are kind and caring, although we don’t always make this known to others readily. Some folks are not. Mercifully they are not common in our organisations. Though there enough of them to make their conduct dangerous to vulnerable people.

It is tempting to see failures to act inclusively and find reason to assign blame. Efforts at promoting inclusion are often information-based. There is an old myth that if we give people information, they will adapt their behaviour. When this inevitably doesn’t happen, we assume a lack of interest and caring – and thus we see a moral failing. We can feel excluded from a moral framework that affirms our human value – and it can feel uncaring. It isn’t, or rather, it very rarely is.

In advocating for disability inclusion, I was, early on, frustrated and bewildered by the way organisational leaders, who were so enthusiastic to my face, so often failed to follow up. The sense of righteous urgency I felt ran into resistance and obstruction, a lack of accountability, and an unreflective insistence that certain conduct “will not be tolerated” while evidence it was being tolerated was everywhere abundant – and apparently ignored.

We got changes and improvements by persistent, insistent effort. But these changes were not as great as sought, nor as timely. Perpetrators of egregious conduct against staff with disability remained unrebuked and unrestrained despite what seemed to be reasonable efforts to intervene.

What was going on? When I quit my full-time job in June 2021 after 19.5 years, I finally had the time to explore this question in depth. I spent the next 18 months in close to fulltime research. Below is a summation of where I am up to in the quest to understand. I wanted to know if I was diagnosing the problem correctly.

The question is complex

Large organisations like government departments are novel developments in human history. They are evolving a behaviour we described, a few decades back, in terms of organisational psychology – and as our knowledge has advanced this has fragmented into myriad specialisations. 

Organisational behaviour, and the culture that is generated is constantly evolving in response to social, economic, and technological changes.

A significant social change for us [and here I am thinking specifically of NSW, though it is generally the case] is our continuously changing pluralistic multi-cultural community. Government commitment to ensure that the public sector workforce reflects the community it serves is an essential, but novel goal. This also comes with an obligation for mutual respect and inclusion within the workforce – a necessary expectation. But it is one that places an interesting burden of intentional behaviour upon staff. Exclusions and even enmities that might be normal in one’s private life should not be continued in the workplace.

Organisations and communities are made up of individuals and groups. This brings in individual psychology in two important ways. A certain amount of our behaviour is hardwired and inherited from our primate ancestors. We have reflexes and biases built in. Then we have our individual experience-based behaviours. These are complex and influence every aspect of our lives – at home and at work.

Let me summarise all this briefly:

  • Our organisations are novel and evolving forms of behaviour.
  • Our community is a novel and evolving form of living together.
  • Our workforces and novel and evolving forms of working together.
  • While we are generally people of goodwill and kindness these qualities are not uniformly distributed, while there is an expectation that a public sector workforce should/must exhibit these qualities in a uniform way.

The goal of creating an inclusive workforce which is universally safe for the diverse array of people who make up our community is a necessary one. But we have hugely under-estimated the effort needed to achieve it. We need to step back and review our beliefs in the light of contemporary research. This isn’t an easy task as it is scattered through books, articles, and podcasts.

Exclusion is a feature?

It is. Inclusion is intimate. We reflexively don’t reject those who look/behave like us, but neither do we actively include, unless they are known intimates – like family members – and even then, not always.

In terms of include/exclude options we are more disposed to exclude. That’s safer on the whole. This is a reflex that goes way back to when survival was tough. But its not all black and white. We will exclude strongly or mildly, motivated by fear or strong aversion all the way down to mild dislike or lack of interest.

We overcome a reflex to exclude by re-assessing the individual or group in a new context. I was born in Northern Ireland. My father’s family were staunchly Protestant and militantly anti-Catholic. When I was growing up in western Victoria, while my father joined the Protestant church and perpetuated his loathing of Catholics, I thought that was a dumb attitude in a small country town. I had schoolmates who were Catholics, and I valued their friendship over any nonsense my father was into. His beliefs and passions didn’t fit my context, and I had no motive to perpetuate them.

Some changes are simply down to intergenerational changes in context, like mine. The young adapt quickly. But sometimes cultural aversions are deeply rooted and do not fade quickly. There can be many motives to exclude that begin as a cultural foundation, and which may be added to by personal experience. This is especially the case with intergenerational trauma, which may lead to complex PTSD being experienced in a home or community setting.

This may seem like it has nothing to do with disability inclusion, but it has a lot. Many cultures exemplify the unblemished. We may be heirs to cultural values that do not honour disability as being just part of the spectrum of being human.

Our instincts are to favour those without disability when it comes to choosing a mate. But if we have close family members with disability our responses may be very different. We encounter caring and inclusion up close.

While we can recognise that exclusion is something we are hardwired to enact, the reasons for doing so may not be valid all the time.

For example, advances in technology, such as JAWS and screen readers, mean that blind people can no longer be justly excluded from roles they were unable to perform in in the past. Activation of an exclusionary response must now be modified by insight into the context and by extending personal inclusion to the individual.

There are multiple reasons why disability might trigger an exclusionary response. They can be contextual, cultural, or personal. Because of the changes in our cultural values, technologies, and social obligations we must be careful in running with any impulse to exclude, lest we are unkind and unjust.

Disability and intersectionality

People with disability are distinguished from other ‘diversity groups’ who are subjected to exclusionary and discriminatory behaviour because we add the attribute of requiring accessibility. In that sense people with disability can have an impact that benefits all people, whether they are a member of a ‘diversity group’ or not, because improved accessibility can help us all.

However, we must not see people with disability only in terms of accessibility. We cover the spectrum of human attributes and identities. No ‘diversity group’ will have no people with disability as members. As a result, inclusion challenges may arise from a ‘diversity group’ attributes, or identity, as well as the simple fact of living with a disability and the accessibility challenges associated with that disability.

The difficulty of changing behaviour

Changing how we behave is more about motivation than information, as anybody trying to break a bad habit knows. Motivation driven by goodwill and compassion is better than feeling forced to comply, although, to be honest, fear can be a great motivator to change, as well as stay the same. So, kind persuasion is better than policing.

Changing behaviour takes effort. It imposes a cognitive load on our brain. It requires attention, repeatedly, and sometimes constantly. The extra energy required isn’t just mental, it’s also emotional. And for that extra energy to be applied it must be redirected from somewhere else. That can include feeling angry or fearful. We change our behaviour because the new behaviour serves us better than the old, and the new thoughts and emotions are better than the old ones.

Most staff work hard at jobs that demand their attention because of workload and the nature of the job, and they may have private lives that may also demand their emotional attention to a very high degree. They don’t have a lot of extra energy to put into being more inclusive, no matter how much they may want to.

Change on a personal level, even when we are willing, may take much longer than we hope for.

In-groups and out-groups

We all form in-groups and out-groups – the people with whom we feel we belong, and those with whom we feel no great connection. Often these groups are formed unconsciously, because we are more inclined to belong to a group whose members are more like us. We can thus unintentionally exclude people, not because we don’t like them, just because they are not sufficiently like us for us to feel comfortable about bringing them into our in-group.

There are, of course, intentional exclusions from group membership because of biases or fears that are not based on reality, and which are unjustified by any measure of fairness.

In-groups and out-groups also occur because of organisational status. Managers and executives may prefer each other’s company over their direct reports. This becomes a problem when it comes to holding a manager or executive to account over discriminatory or abusive conduct. It can seem like in-group disloyalty to hold one of your own to account, whereas disciplining a direct report is much easier.

The challenge for in-groups is to become more self-critical and to set high standards for their members. This is especially the case where the in-group’s organisational status gives them high influence in setting workplace culture and maintaining conduct standards.

Leaders lose their capacity for empathy

Researchers have been discovering interesting, but unsurprising, truths about being in charge. Leaders’ and managers’ capacity for empathy decreases with increase in their power and influence. In some sectors a lack of empathy was thought to be a good thing. Employees were no more than parts of the system of production and could be discarded when necessary.

This is another instance of what we think is a bug being a feature. In large organisations, like an army, too much empathy at the top will impede operations – if the general cares too much about the foot soldier for example. On a personal level I am all for lots of empathy in armies. But I do recognise why this might be a problem in the face of awful necessity.

However, government departments are not armies, and their workforces are not soldiers. The loss of empathy among those at the top has the potential to injure staff who are subject to bullying and harassment, exclusion, and other forms of discrimination because there is little empathic motive to stop it.

The risk is that those in charge do not invest the effort needed to understand the challenge to make inclusion a reality through intentional efforts. Inclusion becomes a peripheral matter to be addressed when the ‘real business’ is taken care of. But that’s when a workforce’s capacity to respond to change is already taxed heavily.

Declaring that discriminatory conduct “will not be tolerated” is pointless when the will to be intolerant is weak, and the means enact to a response to that discriminatory conduct are scant, unevenly, and ineptly applied. Misconduct by leaders in relation to their staff seems rarely to be called to account.

Yes, progress is made, but against a headwind of ingrained habit, reflex, bias, and little insight as to why that resistance persists.

There are strong arguments based on contemporary research that a safe and inclusive work culture boosts productivity, improves performance and increases the retention of skilled and experienced staff. From a ‘return on investment’ perspective, ensuring the welfare of staff should have high priority as part of the ‘real business’. 


I do not despair of the slow pace of change because I have been instrumental in speeding it up. We can do better by being informed by authentic, strategic and intentional insights, so we do not waste precious attention and willingness to act on efforts that are not productive.

The worst thing we can do misdiagnose the cause of resistance to the change we want to create. Misdiagnosis leads to the wrong treatment. The consequence may not be terminal, but it will still be injurious.

The NSW Public Service Commission is, I believe, requiring agencies to develop a bullying and harassment policy. Clearly bullying and harassment is an active concern, and staff with disability are disproportionately the ones most affected.

But these policies aren’t about preventing bullying and harassment, otherwise you’d think they’d be called a preventing bullying and harassment policy. This would, you’d think, make much more sense. The problem has been misdiagnosed and the treatment will be futile. The NSW public sector code of conduct forbids bullying and harassment. That’s a policy.

What can you do? Please think about what I have written here. I am not claiming it’s the full answer, but it’s a good start. We have only so much time, attention, and emotional energy to invest in bringing about the changes we want, and there are a lot of folks who are sincere allies with the same limited budget of time and attention. To make desired changes stick we need to understand why there is resistance and set our sails accordingly.

The challenge is to take a novel and complex reality for what it truly is and shape our efforts to get closer to our goal/ideal in the most effective and efficient way.

Google ‘Sailing into the wind’. We can still make good progress into a headwind. It just takes knowledge and skill.

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