Take the positive potential approach


A recent chat with an associate reinforced a message I got the day before when I was listening to a podcast that featured a chat with Ernesto Sirolli. We are inclined to look for deficits – failures to conform to our notions of the ideal. We should, instead, be seeking potential – and opportunities to activate it.

Sirolli inspired me to completely rethink how I worked. That was back in 1989. His genius was to develop an approach to enterprise facilitation based on deep psychological and philosophical precepts. I have applied his insights to every other aspect of my professional life.

If we understand that things aren’t broken, but that non-ideal states are revealed, we can act in more effective ways. These non-ideal states have always been that way. What has changed are our values. Now we want the way things are to conform to our evolving values. That’s progress. That’s evolution.

There’s also a tension between what is and how we want it to be. Understanding the nature of that tension is essential if we want to succeed at Disability Inclusion.

Against change

But one of our biases is to resist change. There’s a great deal of hype about how we live in a world of constant change. But that’s misleading and has led many of us to misunderstand the difference between things that change readily (like weather) and things that change slowly (like our behaviour).

As a result, we are inclined to see resistance to change as a deficit, especially when the change we want is good, and continued resistance has clearly adverse consequences. This includes causing harm. But our feelings don’t change reality, just our reaction to it. Resistance to change is natural, and its not a deficit. It is a potential, and that’s a positive thing.

Some of us have made radical lifestyle changes because we have become highly motivated by self-interest. We might imagine this allows us to believe behavioural change is easier than it really is. 

Some of us change our behaviours because we are moved by how another person experiences us. Respect and compassion can be great motivators when they are activated. But researchers tell us that people in leadership roles have a diminished capacity for empathy. And other folks are slow to be empathic for a variety of reasons related to their own life experiences and circumstances.

Our default setting is to resist behavioural change even when there might be what other people see as compelling reasons to make the change. This is our normal. Seeing this as a deficit misses the better option of seeing a positive potential.

When we misdiagnose the cause of resistance to change, we risk creating responses that do not work, and which waste time and effort, and generate a negative perspective on the challenge we have identified. This negative perspective captures the change advocate and the change resistant.

Another important insight is that while we might want to drive change in our area of focus and interest, we must also be alert to ways in which we resist change related to other people’s areas of focus and interest. Are we, as Disability Inclusion advocates, as passionate about inclusion demands from others?

If we are not, we risk failing to advance Disability Inclusion, despite our intent.

The flip

Our workplaces are evolving partly because our values have been evolving. We can look back to the 1960s when rights activists triggered changes to the way we engage with the people who we now classify as members of ‘diversity groups’. Over that 60-year period our values have continued to evolve faster than our behaviour. That’s why we still have diversity groups and Inclusion and Diversity teams today. What was obvious 60 years ago is still obvious today – and yet behavioural change still lags behind our acceptance of evolving values.

There’s always a lag between the adoption of a value and the expression of that value in behaviour. Some communities will adapt quickly, usually because they are motivated by self-interest and compassion. Other communities will adapt more slowly. 

Large organisations tend to adapt more slowly and unevenly because they are comprised of individuals who do not tend to have strong personal bonds to the organisation or the majority other staff members. We must remember to see an organisation’s workforce as a community with distinct attributes.

We can begin to understand that within the evolution of inclusive values there are opportunities to enhance the rate of adoption of those values as behaviours. We can look at an organisation to discover how to transform resistance into adaptation.

This is a positive action that seeks out potential, not a negative one that identifies failings. 

The assertive militancy of the 1960s and 1970s that kicked off powerful equity and social justice movements was necessary and may still be so today. But there’s a fundamental difference between triggering political change and nurturing organisational communities to adapt to now accepted ‘new’ values.

We must learn how to transform aspirations into consistent behaviours.

A challenge arises when we ask people to engage in intentional behavioural change at a personal level. This is about nurturing, not militancy – persuasion through example, not coercion. Its about activating potential, not fixing faults. There are no faults – just untapped potential.

How do we, as Inclusion Advocates, communicate the change we want when we are frustrated and perplexed? I have spent 3 years pondering this question. We must flip our perspective. We cannot be vexed by something that is not strange or in violation of good order. 

There’s always a temptation to project our ignorance upon others as violations of ideals we have assumed to be universal. I can look back on what I failed to achieve, among many successes, and now see it was because I didn’t understand the real challenge.

Resistance is normal. Change is necessary. If things change slowly, do we blame the resistors or the change agents? If we think in terms of moral values, we champion the change agents and blame the resistors. But if we think in terms of competence and ask who has the conscious intent to bring about change, we have a question. How competent are the change agents? Can they do better? They can.

Our emerging values are about Inclusion. Disability is just a particular element on the spectrum of attributes embraced by our growing passion for Inclusion. We must embrace change resistors and understand their needs. In essence we must model the inclusivity we are seeking as a universal attribute of our own behaviour.

There is a critical distinction to be made. Organisations have legal obligations to be inclusive. But meeting that obligation involves people who are responding to inclusion demands on a personal level. They are not purely rational agents dispassionately complying with policies and laws. This is personal whether we like it or not. There are no exemptions or free passes.

Change is slow

When we see the 60-year time scale we can appreciate how much has changed, but also how much more is needed to enable our behaviours to reflect our ideals/values. We are getting there, slowly.

Part of the reason change has been so slow may be that the change advocates have not been as skilled as they imagine. Often the possession of a moral right has been assumed to be sufficient. Once people are made aware that their attitudes/actions are harming others they will change. Right? Wrong.

To the extent to which change has been supported by crude efforts at persuasion those efforts at persuasion have been substantially ineffectual. To figure out why, we have usually identified the problem to be associated with recalcitrant attitudes. We have often missed the chance to question how effective or even appropriate those efforts at persuasion have been.


Advocates for Disability Inclusion, and Inclusion generally, must be clear on the cause of the problem they are addressing. Interpreting it in deficit terms – imputing wilful failure by other people to act or change – requires a coherent response. This is tricky because it is hard to work effectively with people you fundamentally blame for not behaving as you want.

Well-trained social workers employ a ‘strength-based approach’. This looks at a person’s growth potential rather than their problems. In my terms it looks at a person’s adaptive capacity by assuming that they do want to behave in ways more conducive to their (and other people’s) wellbeing.

Organisation’s workplace cultures are generally sources of abundant goodwill. Manifestations of change resistance are not evidence of the absence of goodwill. Change resistance is the norm. Sadly, so too is weak empathy. That abundant goodwill is potential for steady, if slow, positive change. If we are more skilled as advocates then the rate of change may be higher.

Translating good intent into changed behaviour requires intentional conscious action until the behaviour is changed. That means we must devote considerable cognitive effort to bring about that change. While some may have no desire to expend that effort most folks are happy to devote some effort – depending on what other demands are being made on them.

Because of this reality, change in organisational cultures can be slow and patchy. Inclusion advocates must not only model the behaviours they want to spread across the culture but remain focused on positive potential and be patient. That is hard work – there’s no escaping that.

Each organisation’s workforce culture has subtle nuances that only insiders will know well. If the focus is on positive potential, strategies for stimulating change can be developed and successfully applied if those nuances are accurately identified, respected, and embraced.

Our success depends on how we interpret, and respond to, the resistance we meet. A ‘positive potential’ interpretation works best. Disability Inclusion advocates are working at the leading edge of positive evolutionary cultural change. It’s a novel place to be and we are still discovering how to do our work well.

This is new stuff. There are no established methods to follow. We are still developing them. We can be innovators and continue to build upon earlier successes, or we can bumble along with inept good intent. 

Inclusion is a 60-year-old social justice theme, but our communities are expressions of constantly evolving realities. Inclusion is still the ideal, still the goal, but how it is communicated and how it is realised must continue to evolve.

One thought on “Take the positive potential approach

  1. I’d appreciate a follow on from this thought provoking blog including some concrete strategies or actionable steps for implementing these principles in practical settings. Also how individuals in an organisation can address power dynamics which could significantly influence the pace and effectiveness of inclusion initiatives. Lastly, how might we measure and evaluate the effectiveness of inclusion initiatives, which is crucial for assessing progress, identifying areas for improvement, and ensuring accountability in promoting inclusivity within organization.

    Love reading your blogs, I don’t always have time to comment but you always make me think outside my own experience and you’re always inspirational.

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