Accountability and inclusion 

Introduction

I have noticed with concern over the past few years in the NSW public sector the requirements for new or upgraded policies when the real problem is how existing policies are implemented, or not. This is like the enduring dark joke about governments setting up committees to avoid doing things. 

There is a fundamental fallacy at work – that making a policy clearer will contribute to its implementation and adherence to it. It won’t. If conduct at work causes injury it is concern for the injured person that triggers a response, not the fact that there is a policy prohibiting the conduct. When that concern is seemingly absent no amount of policy writing will bring it back. But its not absent, just dormant.

Historically our organisational cultures have not been built on concern for the welfare of individual staff members – unless they are members of a powerful in-group. Concern for the welfare of individuals as an element of organisational culture has been evolving slowly, but steadily, over the past 5 or 6 decades. 

Holding a team leader, manager or executive responsible for conduct that causes injury – by exclusion, or discrimination or bullying – isn’t yet an integral part of organisational culture. It is in an aspirational stage.

I have recently been reading a couple of books on leadership by 2 US Navy Seals – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Kate Nash of PurpleSpace really triggered my curiosity when she noted that Jocko was one of her favourite authors. Now I know why. The 2 books I have read are Extreme Ownership and The Dichotomy of Leadership.

Towards personal ownership

Efforts to refine policies are misguided, though well-intentioned, when ‘the problem’ about why policies are not followed is believed to be that the policy isn’t clear enough. 

It’s an effort to move forward, but it becomes an instance of wheel spinning because there is no traction for the change effort. This is an instance of magical thinking which asserts people will do the right thing when information is presented in the right way. It’s the ‘cognitive silver bullet’ fallacy. We are not moved by information. We are moved by concern, love, fear, empathy and so on. 

In the NSW public sector staff sign a Code of Conduct, which is a kind of contract about how to behave as an employee. What is absent is guidance on how to enforce it. There isn’t, to my knowledge, a policy on how the Code of Conduct is enforced. Codes of Conduct are clear on what is expected of a staff member in their interaction with other staff members and community members. There aren’t loopholes that accidentally excuse abusive or exclusionary conduct. But the Code of Conduct is not treated as a contract and is almost never invoked when dealing with misconduct.

I mention the Code of Conduct because it is an example of a simple and clear contract governing behaviour which, despite its intent and potential, is rendered impotent because there is no cultural character or will to enforce it. Yet despite this, demands for revised policies related to misconduct covered in the Code of Conduct continue. No better instance of ‘the problem’ being misdiagnosed could be found.

When we understand that books like Extreme Ownership represent an evolution in military leadership, we start to understand that what we are seeing is a corresponding echo in other organisations. How we lead has been evolving for decades. I had touched on this in earlier posts, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Evolving higher levels of accountability isn’t a case of addressing a deficit – as I used to think – but a case of activating a positive potential.  And because this is novel the means of doing so isn’t an established aspect of organizational culture – yet. It’s an emergent potential. Tweaking policies is what you do when you haven’t thought the challenge through, and don’t understand the question. 

The question concerns how we enforce agreed standards of behaviour. But the bigger question is why this is a problem. If we don’t understand this, we haven’t a hope of seeing why personal ownership of our behaviour as change agents is fundamentally important to our cause. Any change agent, or change advocate, must be a leader.

Accountability begins with us

The challenge with any problem is to analyze it effectively. That means asking the ‘right’ questions. 

I was at a community meeting on economic development in a small town in regional NSW several decades ago. A speaker was introduced as ‘the man with all the answers’ but he corrected his host, saying that he hoped he would be the man who helped the community ask the right questions. That response has stayed with me. Too often we base our actions and how we feel upon a not well-developed analysis of the problem. We go looking for answers too quickly. We think how we have framed the problem is the only and best way. We are rarely right.

When I started this blog in 2021 I was perplexed by reluctance of public sector executives to hold line managers accountable for permitting staff with disability to suffer under them. The legislation was clear. The policies were clear. The Code of Conduct was clear. Reports on the sector’s workforce made it abundantly apparent that the sector as a whole must “do better”. But what was that thing that it had to “do”? It certainly wasn’t the writing of yet more policies. 

There was a paradox for me. I knew many of the people who were in a position to take action, and who did act to an end unjust or injurious situation. But they didn’t hold the people responsible to account. Why not?

In the first half of 2021 I participated in a DEN presentation to the DCJ Board. I spoke about a DEN member forced to lodge an official grievance about the conduct of their manager, even though that unacceptable conduct was well known to executives the next 2 levels up. Why did they not take action over the conduct of a manager they were responsible for, and whose behaviour they knew to be unacceptable?

I argued that when a team member finds it necessary to submit a grievance about the conduct of a manager, that manager has failed in their relationship with that team member. It’s an opportunity to work with the manager to develop their skills in relating and communicating, not to forget empathy and caring. 

In essence this isn’t a situation where the manager should be punished for a failure, but an opportunity to assist them to develop the needed skills. It was a case of seeing a potential and acting upon it. 

The argument didn’t go down well. Not that it was rejected, just that nobody responded in a positive way. Had I missed something? I had, and I had no idea at the time what it was. 

As I listened to Jocko and Leif in The Dichotomy of Leadership the penny was beginning to drop. It had taken close on 3 years for me to begin to see what was going on. Jocko and Leif are US Navy Seals who teach their leadership insights to non-military organisations. That extreme perspective injects a novel element that has the potential to change how leadership is imagined – as a foundation of personal ownership.

You can’t have accountability without ownership 

A Seal’s perspective on life is interesting because when you intentionally put yourself in harm’s way owning that you have done that is essential. And yet they cite instance of Seals blaming others for things that could have had catastrophic consequences. 

It’s in our nature to blame others and excuse our failings. But like everything, the extent to which we own our situation is on a spectrum. 

Executive leaders must own their responsibility to a high degree to be where they are. But they are not saints.  They grow up, like we all do, in cultures with flawed people and nobody wants you to continually police others. So, we develop a tolerance for human failings. We learn to be silent at times when speaking out will cause more grief than we figure is necessary. 

Tolerance of harmful behaviour is something we all do. We can’t demand that organisational culture differs from our shared social culture. The claim that the NSW public sector does not tolerate bullying isn’t true. That’s an aspirational statement, not a statement of fact. But acknowledging this truth forces ownership to be taken. By saying the sector must do better, it becomes somebody else’s problem, and ownership is denied.

In The Dichotomy of Leadership Jocko and Leif show how their principle of extreme ownership must be used with subtlety. It can’t be imposed upon others outside well-defined situations. A perilous combat scenario isn’t the same as working in a public sector agency or company. 

Good people routinely fail to do things they theoretically ought to do. This isn’t a deficit, it’s the norm. Leif summed it up this way: “Good leaders are rare. Bad leaders are common”…”That’s just the way of the world.” This insight applies even among Seals – men selected because they have exceptional capabilities. In non-deficit terms he means that leaders not in need of a lot of development are rare and leaders who would benefit from significant support are common. The point to remember here is that the qualities being esteemed are emergent – novel and evolving.

The situation is made more complex by the fact that in any situation the competency demands made on us are task focused. Our ability to perform tasks at a required level of competence is constantly measured. But what is not measured and scarcely trained for is our ability to work skillfully with other people. This is the emergent element. 

We have human behaviour specialists but most of us get by on psychological folklore – which routinely misinterprets other people’s behaviour – and our own. We employ psychologists when things go wrong. Their job is usually to fix what others break. Effective leadership training can teach us how to not injure or break other people.

I have noted before that intentional inclusion is a cultural evolution. It is wanted and it is resisted. It takes intentional cognitive (intellectual and emotional) effort on top of normal life challenges. That resistance is normal and universal. We all resist. Resistance is not rejection. It is how we try to stay in control. We all try to manage how we respond to change.

Even a senior executive must engage in intentional processing of their own resistance to inclusion. This may happen as a self-determined act of personal and professional development (whether formal or informal). We can’t assume from a person’s role or status that they have greater knowledge of, or insight into, what we need to do to be more inclusive. 

Jocko and Leif talk about extreme ownership as something that must permeate our lives in a personal as well as a professional sense. I think there’s a critical link that wasn’t spelled out in Extreme Ownership and which they address in The Dichotomy of Leadership. That is that you can’t have extreme ownership in your professional life and not in your personal life and expect your insight on your professional life is going to be authentic.

But, yes, higher levels of ownership in one’s professional life are highly desired – just don’t imagine there is a perfect expression. Its aspirational, not diagnostic.

The idea of ownership itself isn’t novel or radical. We mostly know that we have a decent degree of ownership as it is. What is different is the ‘extreme’ element. 

This is about pushing beyond our zone of comfortable ownership into areas that challenge us, unsettle us, and which become a kind of existential risk-taking. 

Challenging others to be accountable for their actions isn’t something we are comfortable doing. In management dealing with unsatisfactory performance is often done poorly. It’s the conversation many mangers dread and avoid. We can get a sense of moral satisfaction when standing in judgement of people remote from us. But the closer we are the harder it is – which is why we mess up such encounters so often. 

A theory of the normal and how to evolve it. 

What we have as our normal reality isn’t, as we can so easily believe, a jumble of deficits and pluses so much as situations which may or may not be harmful to some and others which benefit some disproportionally. 

Inclusion is a response to an evolving cultural reality which seeks to diminish those injured by exclusion and in which benefit is shared by all. 

This is our normal and it’s not good or bad. It just is. There are no deficits, only potentials. Whether the potentials evolve quickly or slowly depends entirely on how those seeking to influence change perform. 

We can act as if we have a moral imperative to address deficits in others – and insist the desired change isn’t happening fast enough because of them. Or we can see that we lack the skills to advance the desired changes at the rate we want – and do something about being more effective. 

Heading in the right direction

The willingness of corporations and public sector agencies to engage management consultants and trainers is clear evidence that intentional improvement to how things are done is well-accepted. 

There are inclusion consultants, books, and podcasts. There is an abundance of research on how effective inclusion strategies are – which is nowhere near as effective as hoped for. 

But as with anything, we can’t prescribe the correct remedy unless we have the best diagnosis we can create. 

I am not claiming to be ‘the man with the answers’. I am still working on the questions. 

But what I do know is that our culture is evolving toward greater inclusivity, despite the fact that its moving at nowhere near the pace we’d like to see. I have seen the changes unfold progressively over the past 5 decades. Progress has been uneven, and people who continue to experience exclusion will continue to suffer in the workplace and in the community as that evolution progresses. 

Our community is under tremendous adaptive pressure on multiple fronts (social media, technology and AI, climate change, how we work, cultural and social values, and the list can go on). The evolution of greater inclusion is just one adaptive pressure. Like any adaptive change it takes cognitive effort and energy.

Our capacity as individuals to process the adaptive demands in our community and at work is limited. We have only so much time, so much attention and so much emotional energy to expend. For many, greater inclusion can be seen as just another burden that, while good to have, has to be pushed to the back burner while more critical demands are attended to. 

An alternative way of looking at things is that greater inclusion isn’t an additional burden, but something that is ‘always on’. It’s a frame of mind that I came to understand in 2018 when I was inspired by Kate Nash to completely rethink how I was doing things. But ‘always on’ isn’t for everyone.

The fact that the majority of our community members don’t share that ‘always on’ sense is a reality that can trigger morally self-righteous frustration. It can be seen as a deficit, rather than the blameless norm.

Sometimes inclusion activists settle down to a routine of low attainment. It can be an identity that is comfortable, and even rewarding. One can stand on the moral high ground and ascribe failure to the change resistors who refuse/fail to work to the same imperative.

Conclusion

As DEN Chair I learned a priceless lesson. My workplace community was full of goodwill that, if nurtured, could be harnessed in service of the cause of greater inclusion. 

I was routinely reminded by deaf and blind colleagues how I struggled to be mindful of their inclusion needs. How could I criticize others for their failure to be inclusive?

We could plant our respective diversity flags in a workplace community in an effort to morally colonize it – or we could model the behaviour we desired from others. We must own our imperfective spirit of inclusion and behave as aspirants with all our flaws, not enlightened prophets, not missionaries, and not colonists.

We forget that resistors against inclusion are individuals who are not driven by ill-will, but by competing imperatives. Yes, there are the sociopathic, the narcissistic and the psychopathic, but they are exceptional and rare. They are problematic in many ways, but they don’t merit exclusion, just management.

I firmly believe that accountability is a universal responsibility. It is a duty owed in a professional context, and this expectation is part of our evolving culture. You can’t have inclusion without accountability. Jocko’s and Leif’s idea of extreme ownership is the bedrock of taking responsibility for your own actions.

Driving change is hard. It takes skill. If the norm is change-resistance, then the potential is greater adaptative capacity which can be skillfully mined to achieve desired levels of inclusion. 

The inclusion advocate and change agent are where accountability starts. If we remember that great leaders are rare, but leadership skills can be learned, we can pause. We can ask whether we have what it takes to become exceptional, or even just good.

The best book on leadership?

Introduction

Kate Nash, the CEO of PurpleSpace mentioned in passing that Jocko Willink was one of her favourite authors. 

Jocko is a U.S. Navy seal and the author of several books on leadership informed by his military background. I have 3 of his audiobooks.

I am quite comfortable taking lessons from military settings when it comes to leadership and management because the settings are critical and methods not only must work, but they also need to be clear, uncomplicated, and highly effective. 

I responded to Kate’s comment by immediately suspending other book commitments and started listening to Extreme Ownership, which I have just finished over 3 days. 

Leadership has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s a learnable skill, but it takes personal commitment to go through the process. Encouraging Disability Inclusion advocates to develop and refine their leadership skills has become a passion for me.

I have previously listed my 2 favourite books on leadership (Fearless Leadership and Dare to Lead) – ones I relied on to straighten out my own approach. Now there’s another to add to that short list. 

The military perspective isn’t always a welcome one

The book draws on real combat experience in Iraq. I have a personal perspective on that conflict which made it difficult for me to accept the author’s accounts at first. 

But putting aside the geopolitical morality of the war, the human realities are still real. The insights and emotions are still valid. The leadership skills acquired and refined under real peril are genuine. The personal experience of critical leadership is still real, regardless of my moral qualms about the war.

The power of ownership 

The book is essentially about owning who and what you are in an organisational context – especially if you are in a leadership role. 

The authors argue that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders. That’s confronting. It’s a potent assertion of a life-and-death scenario when poor leadership can lead to death or injury. But in the safer workplace of the public or private sector a leader can lay back and blame their team without any compelling consequences being accounted. The truth of poor services or products can be sufficiently remote so that poor leadership isn’t seen as a huge problem. That’s something we need to deal with. This is especially so in the Inclusion space where success is hard won.

The discussion on managing up and down reminded me of how easy it was at times to simply give up on getting through to seemingly impenetrable senior leaders. A culture of frustrated resignation is easy to fall into. In the battle space that is catastrophic. In a safer environment it can become a norm of lacklustre performance excused by mutual beliefs that it’s somebody else’s fault. 

The personal discipline of fully owning who are and how you interface with teams and organizational hierarchies can be a challenging perspective when blaming others is the cultural norm. 

Sometimes you are on a hiding to nothing but in a battle space you can’t just take your bat and ball and go home. That perspective of critical self-awareness translates into safer places because it creates awareness of potential – how things could be if ‘extreme ownership’ was the norm in our personal situations – at work and elsewhere. 

Extreme ownership gives you nowhere to hide. In a high risk environment, we’d want to be with people who own their reactions and behaviour as members of a team.  The need is less critical in safer environments. However, the authors do demonstrate that translating the positive attributes that are critical in high-risk situations into safer environments significantly improves performances of teams and individuals. 

The reality is that high performance is something we crave – in others, and ourselves.

How does this make sense for Disability Inclusion? 

Change doesn’t happen as fast as we’d like and when we encounter resistance it is usually easy to blame somebody else and take a moralising stance. Or we can continue to do what we do and hope for better results because other folks finally and magically change. 

But the answer might be that we can lead in our efforts at Disability Inclusion more effectively – by becoming the best change leader we can be. 

Conclusion

This book won’t be to everyone’s taste. Confronting self-reflection isn’t an attractive pastime. Dealing with the confronting reality of combat can be too much as a teaching source.

Kate Nash transformed the way I operated as a DEN Chair because she triggered a radical rethink of how I understood my role because of what she established (insight and method). If she thinks Jocko is worthy of being a favourite author in advancing the cause of Disability Inclusion, I’d have been a fool to myself to not find out why.

I struggled to learn how to be as effective as I became. I needed guidance and advice, and Kate was my ‘breakthrough’ inspiration. Jocko’s Extreme Leadership book had that similar ‘breakthrough’ quality for me.

Kate’s own book, Positively Purple, is a powerful story of how she came to establish PurpleSpace.

Facilitating Inclusion

Introduction

I received a text inviting me for a chat overnight and it reminded me of how powerfully the ideas of Ernesto Sirolli’s Enterprise Facilitation methodology had influenced how I worked. The text was from Ernesto’s wife, Martha.

I met him back in 1988 when he gave a workshop as part of the opening of the Casino Regional Business Enterprise Centre that I had a lead role in establishing. 

What struck me was not just the content of his method but that he had developed a coherent method to help people grounded in psychology and philosophy. He had formed an understanding of what worked based on his experience of what did not. 

Ernesto began his work in enterprise facilitation in Western Australia. He was featured in an ABC television show called A Big Country made in 1985. I watched that episode and contacted him. 

Today the Sirolli Institute, based in Sacramento California, has a global impact. Ernesto has worked with communities under economic stress around the world to help in the creation of over 40,000 businesses. 

I was inspired by Ernesto’s approach. He had learned from failure and developed a methodology based on a coherent theory. Some 30 years later I was inspired again by Kate Nash whose PurpleSpace approach to supporting staff with disability was also grounded in theory and method. 

The foundation of methodology

There is a great fit between enterprise facilitation and disability inclusion, though this may not be immediately obvious. Both are people centred. This is crucial. 

I have fragments of Ernesto’s doctrine in my memory:

  • Do economic development as if people really mattered. 
  • Never initiate, never motivate – always respond.
  • If people don’t ask for your help leave them alone. 
  • Shut up and listen.
  • Act on the principle of, “The sun of love and the water of respect.” 

At the time I encountered Ernesto I was working in the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) – an agency seemingly devoted to misunderstanding the nature of the problems it was trying to solve. I was living on the far north coast of NSW at the time it was a counter-cultural heartland. Newcomers were streaming in. We had an oversupply of people and an undersupply of jobs. The solution was to increase the opportunities for employment, but the CES didn’t have that as a remit, so instead it provided training for jobs that did not exist.  

We were required to devise and offer training for occupations that were already over supplied. But I did manage to sneak in an isolated community business creation course after I met Ernesto. 

Ernesto’s journey began when he was working with an Italian aid agency in Africa. Instead of listening to what a community wanted it imposed its solutions – which failed repeatedly and ludicrously. This story is covered in Ernesto’s TED Talk and in his first book, Ripples from the Zambezi.

One of the questions I wanted to answer when I ceased full time work was ‘Why is inclusion so hard?’ This was similar to Ernesto’s question about why helping people was so hard. Why well-intentioned efforts at providing aid failed so often. 

Part of Ernesto’s answer was in the realisation that the people being ‘aided’ hadn’t asked to be helped. And they weren’t asked whether they wanted the aid.

So, had the people we wanted to be more inclusive asked for help to become more inclusive? They hadn’t. Had we asked whether it was okay to help them be more inclusive? No.

Yes, greater levels of inclusiveness are desirable – for obvious reasons. Inclusion is also mandated by legislation and supported by policy. But, at the actual level of personal performance, the passion to be more inclusive is patchy and uneven. 

A methodology begins with being invited to help. It evolves into a deliberate systemic approach – a skill. Another of Ernesto’s key insights was applying the idea of facilitation to helping people achieve their objectives.

Facilitation is the art of making something easier to achieve – by removing impediments directly or helping people acquire the skills or means they need to achieve their goals. Its about doing with, not doing to.

Can we facilitate inclusion? 

Ernesto’s rule of leaving people alone if they don’t ask for help is balanced by another insight. If people are successful and prosper in their lives, others will want the same thing – and may ask for help. 

In inclusion terms flourishing in a culture of inclusion may induce the less inclusive to want to change. But the only way you create a flourishing culture of inclusion is by modelling the behaviour you want to be replicated. When you are modelling the behaviour, you really know how to remove impediments, not just guess. Skill come from authentic knowing, not just theory.

Hence my argument that being the change you want to see is the first step. How do you induce the inclusion-resistant to be more inclusive other than by modelling the desired conduct yourself?

A staff network, or employee resource group, must be capable of creating a value proposition such that their organisation’s leadership asks for its help. It can, in fact, facilitate inclusion. But here’s the key. It must work only with whomever asks for its help.

Facilitation, as a methodology, works only if the facilitator responds to the positive potential of the individual being helped. It doesn’t work if a deficit is seen and responded to.

The roundtable as a facilitation method

In February 2019, as DEN Chair I attended my department’s executive board meeting along with 5 colleagues with disability. We gave short presentations on our experiences as staff with disability and then participated in an open conversation. It was a transformative experience for everyone. It set the template for what became known as Roundtables which were subsequently conducted across the department in the subsequent years.

I have written at length on Roundtables is some of my earliest posts, so I won’t repeat myself here.

It strikes me that the Roundtable is the ideal facilitation approach. The experience is invited because change is desired. But the secret is in how skilled the facilitators are in assisting the change toward greater inclusion. What impediments can be identified and addressed?                                  

Conclusion

The idea that we should try to change behaviours of only those who ask for our help is at odds with the assumption of a moral imperative implicit in the ideal of greater inclusion. We might argue that legislation and policy plus the evidence of injustice and suffering are sufficient justification to want to impose change.

There is a foundation of coercion in any organisation or community. But it is invoked only in extremis in healthy cultures. Self-willed intentional change of behaviour is the norm. Resistance to desired change is usually not intentional or conscious. 

When I came across Ernesto’s idea of the “sun of love and water of respect” I was surprised. That was a little too open for me at first. Ernesto’s Italian character allowed his heart to be closer to his work – as if people really mattered. This was Ernesto’s formula for nurturing the people he worked with – including those whose attitudes and values might be impediments to others’ aspirations.

Mostly advocates for greater inclusion will be fuelled by sincere good intent. They do genuinely care about the people they support. But the really effective change agents who work with the complexities of organisational cultures must have a higher order skillset.

A Facilitator must be self-aware. They must have a clear value proposition and the skills to deliver on it. This is something that can be learned. 

On Inclusion Networks

Introduction

I am listening to Greg Satell’s Cascades: How to Create a Movement That Drives Transformational Change and I am reflecting on some key insights. One is how the ecological concept of a keystone species can be applied to a wider idea that is the critical trigger for change, rather than a particular passion. Another is how inclusive networks work better than exclusionary change movements, which tend to be hierarchical around who can be included and who is most important.

In the context of Disability Inclusion this raises a question as to whether the objectives of Disability Inclusion are best served by a focus on disability or on inclusion as a general term.

At first, I believed that focus on disability was the way to go, but my position has changed over years as my understanding about how positive change is best achieved. That early focus was a kind of foothold. Disability Inclusion was new to my department. I was new to disability as a lived experience.

But once that foothold had been achieved the triggers for positive change seemed to be more in the embrace of Inclusion in general.

The bigger picture

So much depends on one’s environment. When I joined the Disability Employee Network (DEN) set up by my department in mid 2010 there were no other networks, at least so far as I was aware. There was an Inclusion and Diversity team, which was hugely supportive to the DEN. There was also a wider spirit of inclusion across the sector – but more of a latent potential than widely expressed conduct.

The question that struck me after a decade of involvement with the DEN was, “If staff with disability are not actively inclusive of other ‘diversity groups’, how can we demand greater inclusion for ourselves?”

Among any group of staff with disability there may be members of other diversity groups, and some who are members of several or even most. This is intersectionality at work – nobody has a single strand to their cultural identity. Importantly those other strands might be triggering exclusionary reactions that exacerbate the experience of disability-related exclusion.

Disability does, however, include exclusion from work processes because of specific motor or sensory disabilities – something not experienced by other diversity groups. In a broader cultural or community context similar experiences of exclusion or discrimination can be experienced – and with intersectionality thrown in it could be argued that the cultural/community experience should be of least equal importance to equal access to work processes.

Denial of accessibility isn’t, and should never be, part of one’s identity. But there’s more to the lived experience of disability than accessibility. There are elements of our lived experience of disability that are part of our identity and cultural experience, whether we like it or not. Maybe this is the larger part of our experience.

The keystone factor

In the context of the overall environment a person with disability lives in, the idea of Inclusion is the keystone idea, not accessibility. This does not mean that accessibility is any less critical, just that it can’t be the primary driver for positive change for the whole spectrum of factors that concern a person with disability.

A strong focus on helping a community in which one lives or works be more inclusive for all makes eminent sense. Allies to a cause may be driven by empathy for the challenge to make workplaces and physical environments more accessible, or they may be motivated by a desire to ensure universal inclusion. A similar argument may be made for Champions.

We may now imagine an InclUSion Network with subgroups whose focus in Inclusion, rather than diversity interest groups who may interact and be self-supporting.

Hierarchies v networks

Cascades explores how forms of organisation can work against the interests of members. Hierarchies tend to discourage lateral extension and exercise power and influence within a determined series of connections. They are selective and exclusionary. Networks extend laterally and sometimes in ways that seem random or irrational. Their goals are loosely defined, more general, benefits that can be won by members or participants. Networks are more creative and adaptive, and because they are inclusive, they can express in gentler or even humorous ways. I recommend exploring hierarchies and networks more deeply.

An InclUSion network as a primary way of stimulating positive change

Inclusion is something everybody wants, so is Accessibility. But far fewer people have unmet Accessibility needs than unmet Inclusion needs. It makes sense, then, to stimulate positive change toward what everybody wants and needs. Accessibility needs can be met as a consequence of greater inclusivity.

An InclUSion Network is essentially a kind of ecosystem in which the keystone member is a person of goodwill who is intentionally inclusive to all.

As I have observed recently there are things that need to change before this can become a reality. Advocates for, and agents of, change (Inclusion) must surrender any temptation to think in deficit terms and work on principles of positive potential. This means refining leadership skills into the art of leading by example – demonstrating the change they want to bring about.

Conclusion

Cascades has helped me clarify some themes that have been emerging in the past few months. Change isn’t easy and our culture is under evolutionary pressure to realise our Inclusive potential. We must be self-aware and avoid the self-righteous temptation to fall into the trap of seeing the change we want as combatting deficits in others.

If we are effective in modelling the changes that we want to see, we will generate an InclUSion Network whose influence will spread throughout whatever environment we are concerned about. The desired change will be organic, but it will also move at whatever pace reflects the character of the culture. 

The best way we can stimulate the speed of change begins with our own behaviour – in terms of modelling desired behaviour and developing the leaderships skills to magnify our impact.

What’s in a name?

Introduction

I have been engaged in consulting with half a dozen diversity networks, including a DEN, mentoring their leadership teams. It has been an opportunity for me to reflect on my own practice and to encourage leads to take a fresh look at their own.

The networks have retained the now well-established practice of referring to the primary leads as Chairs (man, woman, or person). This reflects the traditional committee structure – and its time to put that aside, and the titles related to it.

The committee model has done great service over the centuries, but its formality doesn’t suit the contemporary workplace cultures that many networks operate in. Leadership team members are often time poor, having to fit their network roles around their formal roles.

Functions and habits

There are critical jobs to be done in any network. But the model for how they are done isn’t fixed. The committee approach has been the standard, but now we can explore more dynamic approaches drawn from military doctrine and enterprise creation. The emphasis adaptation to need, flexibility, and innovation as well parsimony of effort. In an earlier post I explored the idea of a network lead being a ‘wild card’ in that they do not fit within the standard organisational hierarchy. For example, as DEN Chair, despite my mid-level grade and non-manager status I had direct access to the department’s Secretary.

It’s not usual to see that an enterprise and a military action are similar, but there’s an advantage in discovering how the idea of military doctrine provides a foundation for a highly effective results-oriented leadership approach. A good example is the Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual by Jocko Willink (Kate Nash, CEO of PurpleSpace is a fan of this author). I am not suggesting an aggressive approach so much as one that is highly adaptive and flexible – something our contemporary military has crafted into a high art.

In the public sector context these enterprise and military perspectives offer a contrast in thinking about how a staff network can best operate in service of the needs of its members and the organisation. The challenge is to break away from habits of thought that tend to preach conformity to the prevailing conceptions of authority.

Models that focus on how to make best use of limited resources (time and attention especially) to achieve significant outcomes are better suited to contemporary circumstances.

In May 2018 I attended the Australian Network on Disability’s (AND) annual national conference in Sydney. The keynote speaker was Kate Nash, founder of the UK based PurpleSpace – an organisation dedicated to supporting staff with disability to achieve change in their organisations. I have written extensively about that experience, so I won’t rehash the detail here. The key observation is that Kate exposed me to a way of operating that was novel and, as I adapted to it, it transformed how I operated as DEN Chair. The DEN became a highly effective instrument of positive change precisely because it changed how it behaved.

What Kate Nash did for me was open me to a way of operating that dealt with the realities experienced by staff with disability rather than conforming to past ways of doing things. Most importantly, you can’t drive change by meeting only 4 times a year. There’s an ‘always on’ mode you must find – a committee is not a good vehicle to do so.

Passion for positive change

As a person with a fulltime disability, Kate helped me see that a parttime passion for change is a bad match. But it has taken me over a decade to fully appreciate that a fulltime passion for change doesn’t have to be an extra impost of time and attention, rather a refinement of my personal approach. Always on isn’t something that has to be a burden to be shouldered, but rather a value to be lived.

The value of a name

I have been gently suggesting that ‘Coordinator’ is a better title than ‘Chair’ because it suggests active engagement better. You can chair a meeting and still not arrive at actions as the primary concern because ‘chairing’ implies sitting down and talking as a primary function. On the other hand, being a coordinator is instantly more of a doing name.

I am not asserting that coordinator has to be ‘the name’, only that ‘chair’ has to go. Also ‘coordinator’ tends to be thought of as a job, whereas ‘chair’ is an occasional role. And everybody knows what chairing a meeting is about – something you do for a short time and then go back to your ‘real job’.

I don’t like committees. I have been on many and I have chaired many. My dislike has been honed over decades of steady disappointment. That’s why, as DEN Chair I called the DEN members who offered to be more engaged the Guidance and Action Team (GAT) and not a management committee. They performed the necessary functions of managing but as guiders and action initiators.

I’d rather see those engaged with leading a network called the leadership team with no reference to management or committee.

Time and effort

Staff networks are voluntary but vital. Their role in evolving workplace culture is invaluable when they are operating at peak potential. But to enjoy that potential some things must come together in a harmonious and productive way.

These days, time and attention are scarce resources which must not be squandered. We can begin with crafting crisp understandings of what a network is for – what potential value it can add to the inclusion aspirations of staff (the workforce community), and the organisation as a whole.

If we name functions correctly, in ways that suit a network’s purpose, we can focus attention on the positive and productive nature of a role. That will help focus attention on important actions and ensure that the attention expended is crisply focused.

Conclusion

My legacy as DEN Chair is cemented and I cannot revise it. But chairing is what I did least. I negotiated, wrangled, persuaded, inspired, aspired, and envisioned. It was one of the toughest roles I have undertaken, and one of the most rewarding.

Being a member of a staff leadership team can be complex and challenging. It often propels members into challenge areas they are unfamiliar with. It’s a real and difficult job that takes personal commitment and dedication to be done well. In a very real sense, it can be as professionally demanding as any mainstream leadership role. That reality is, however, effectively camouflaged by the names we give these leadership roles. 

By choosing your role names carefully you can focus attention on core goals and values. This in turn can clarify expectations and prevent misinterpretations of the nature and purpose of the network.

The getting of personal power to drive change

Introduction

A recent post attracted some interesting feedback. In response to Take the positive potential approach a reader asked for follow up posts, which I am happy to provide, but in 3 parts.

This is the first part in which I will endeavour to offer “some concrete strategies or actionable steps for implementing these principles in practical settings” and on “how individuals in an organisation can address power dynamics which could significantly influence the pace and effectiveness of inclusion initiatives.”  

Positive potential and personal power

The moment we see things in terms of deficits which must be corrected, rather than potentials to be nurtured, we throw away our personal power. Correction requires the assent of the correctee, who must also agree that they are in need of correction.

Any manager will tell you that the hardest conversation to have is about performance standards. This is even more difficult if (a) the other person does not see there is a problem, (b) you do not have any recognised authority in relation to that person, and (c) the other person is at the same level or senior.

Identifying a problem that can be resolved chiefly by another person thinking, feeling, or behaving differently may have some rational foundation to it, but you have just handed the power to change to that other person. Yet you are the one who has identified a need for change. Your success chances are as close to zero as they can get.

The thing about seeing the positive potential for change is that you don’t have to ask permission to nurture change. We welcome nurturing behaviour reflexively. But, let’s be clear, you can’t perform nurturing behaviour while harbouring deficit sentiments. We have all experienced overt nurturing behaviour that comes across as coercive with a hint of moral blackmail.

The most important question you must ask yourself is whether your desire for greater inclusion is fuelled by grievance and frustration or driven by compassion and concern.

Being the change you want to see

Older books on management and leadership pay no attention to key ideas like emotional intelligence, psychological safety, or the importance of empathy. These days there is a wealth of contemporary research-based thinking on leadership.

If you want to be a change agent, you must be an effective and skilled leader. Leadership isn’t about positions in an organisational structure or hierarchy, it’s about influencing behaviour through your actions.

Probably the biggest impediment to the rate of uptake of desired change is that the champions of that change are sincere but not skilled. They rely on the moral power of their position. This is often reflected in the assertion of rights. But how is such a right realised? Other people must change their behaviour to permit the right to be lived. But how do they do that?

Understanding the practice of effective leadership is essential. This puts the onus on the change agent to nurture others – psychologically and morally – through modelling the desired behaviour.

There are many excellent books on leadership. Here are my two favourites:

Fearless Leadership: How to Overcome Behavioral Blindspots and Transform Your Organization by Loretta Malandro and Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brené Brown 

Another key text is The Fearless Organisation by Amy C. Edmondson. The full tile adds: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. This is a critical idea. You don’t get positive learning and growth without psychological safety. And you won’t get psychological safety if you take a deficit approach.

I have found it interesting that my favourite authors in this field are women. They bring the nurturing element in ways that male authors don’t so well. This is tough work as well, as the titles convey with ‘fearless’ and ‘dare’. Its about the courage to look at yourself as a leader/change agent and bring your own standards up where they must be for success.

Understanding that workplace cultures evolve

When I left full-time work, I had the leisure to research and reflect. I put a lot of energy into grappling with the problem of change resistance and a seeming aversion to accountability. These had been perplexing me for the whole time I had been DEN Chair. Change resistance had been described in quite a few books but no explanation as to why was offered. I had to delve into organisational and evolutionary psychology to get a few clues.

Organisations must be change averse, as must individuals. We must have a bias toward stability. As a result, we adapt more slowly than is ideal when change is necessary for survival. There’s a reason that change management is a thing requiring considerable skill. And when it comes to individuals thinking of the field of psychotherapy. Change isn’t easy, even when we want it.

Organisations operate in a complex environment with political, economic, cultural, technological, and now climatic forces demanding responses constantly. Organisations are run by people having a go a running the show as best they can – and not always doing a great job. Organisations are staffed by people doing the best they can to handle work demands and personal demands as best they can – and not always doing a great job either.

This is the reality upon which a change agent wants to impose different ways of thinking, feeling an acting. Neuroscience tells us that changes to our behaviour require considerable cognitive effort. How does the change agent work with that?

There have been powerful currents of evolving values that have changed workplace cultures over the past 60 odd years. The significant themes of inclusion and diversity are efforts to influence how those values are expressed in the workplace cultures.

How effective have those efforts at influence been? The positive changes made indicate some degree of success has been achieved, but evidence of ongoing resistance to responding to the evolving values means more work must be done.

While the impetus for positive change persists what also must evolve is the way change advocates and agents do their bit. This is what seems to be missing when we envision formulas for success. We can contribute to the trend toward better human-centred values by adding our nurturing good intent to the steady but slow stream of change, and we can add skilled interventions to strategically address roadblocks we encounter.

Conclusion

How can individual change advocates in an organisation “address power dynamics which could significantly influence the pace and effectiveness of inclusion initiatives”?

The short answer is that they can become more skilled at what they do. Well-intentioned but unskilled efforts will harvest the ‘low hanging fruit’. But what works the first time won’t next time when all the low hanging fruit are gone. The next phase of stimulating positive change requires more skill.

This isn’t surprising. Virtually every job working with people has become more complex, demanding higher levels of skill. What is surprising is that it has taken so long to understand that this complex and challenging role of change advocate/agent is worthy of being seen as a professional level function.

Personal power to drive positive change is derived from two key factors:

  • Understanding the nature of the challenge, and
  • Developing the skills needed to be an effective change advocate/agent for greater inclusion.

On a personal level, it was the opportunity to step away from deep engagement with the problem of change resistance and a chance for almost fulltime research for 18 months that helped me look at my own practice with fresh eyes. A feature of my time as DEN Chair was a commitment to professionalism and to a relentlessly positive approach. I hadn’t formulated that as a theory at the time.

“Concrete strategies or actionable steps” are of value only if you have the skill to execute them. At the risk of straying from the theme of nurturing leadership I did discover the following book while looking up the details of those above. Leadership Strategy and TacticsField Manual by Jocko Willink takes a military perspective. Sometimes we need this. Below is part of the blurb from Amazon:

Leadership Strategy and Tactics takes the guesswork out of leadership by translating theory into practical skills and manoeuvers that leaders at all levels can apply, practice and execute.

From the #1 New York Times bestselling co-author of Extreme Ownership, this book is a powerful and pragmatic step-by-step guide to leading any team, in any situation, to victory.

It’s partly about understanding the problem and developing the skills to address it. It is also partly about understanding that sometimes the challenge is to support evolving values and behaviours through nurturing behaviour and other times about problem solving in a more direct and strategic way.

Ultimately, we have to be the change we want to see. That’s where our power to create positive change resides.

Note: I use Amazon information on books because it is the only source I know of that covers the range of accessible options [ebooks and audiobooks]. If you are into 3D books, do please support your local independent bookshop.

 

When will books become really inclusive?

Introduction

One of the many joys that escaped my grasp when I was hits by GBS was that of reading books – at least the 3D variety. I have been a reader all my life and holding a book has been something I have delighted in. 

In the aftermath of GBS my ability to pick up, carry, hold, and read a book made from paper radically diminished. What was once a sensuous delight became a struggle, a chore, and finally a something to be avoided. I felt the sense of loss keenly. 

But as I was recovering, I bought one of the first iPhones. I had a Nokia 3310 which was a nice little phone, but with my now incompetent hands it was a struggle to use it. It took me a week of many hours of practice each day just to be able to pick it up and hold it to my ear. It took longer to dial numbers. 

The iPhone was not only far easier to use it introduced me to the world of podcasts and then audiobooks. I then bought an iPad as well and discovered ebooks. 

Now well over a decade later I have become a devotee of audiobooks in particular and ebooks to a lesser degree. If I can’t get an audio version of a book, there’s usually an ebook version available. Sadly though, few non-fiction books produced before ebooks and audiobooks became popular can be found in other than their legacy 3D format. 

These days there are still many books aren’t published in ebook or audiobook formats. They can be had only in paper between hard or soft covers. Often they are intended for academic libraries.

Below I will argue this is not only an out-of-date attitude, but also deeply non-inclusive. It isn’t just about people with disability. People who are time poor or whose lifestyles make lugging 3D books around problematic also benefit from higher degrees of inclusivity brought by ebook and audiobook formats. 

Inclusion and the evolution of technology

In the past 15 years or so technology has evolved in ways that make life far easier for people with disability.  AI has the potential to revolutionise accessibility in ways we can scarcely yet imagine. 

Books have been transformed into sources of information that can be accessed by people with disabilities using technologies of their own choice. They are no longer confined to the print format that has been standard since the invention of the printing press. 

I am ignoring braille here intentionally because it has limited utility and I want to focus on the wider utility of technologies beyond the needs of people with disability. 

My notion of inclusion here is wider than disability.  Reading has traditionally been an activity undertaken as a single focus while usually sitting down whilst in the possession of a substantial item resting on a table or held. 

Ebooks and audiobooks have transformed this picture. 

I have the Kindle app on my phone and my computer. I frequently go out with just my iPhone. Now I can read any of maybe 10 books at any time on my phone. I can adjust the font size to meet my needs. 

So, on a device smaller than any one book I can access multiple books to read with ease. 

The phone also is my primary source of audiobooks. Paired with a Bluetooth headset (I prefer Shokz) I can listen to audiobooks as I drive, walk, exercise or do chores, as well as sitting or lying down. 

Between ebooks and audiobooks the opportunity to ‘read’ has expanded massively. Whether the desire has matched the expanded potential I can’t say. But it is the opportunity I want to focus on, because it applies to people with disability as well as anybody who might benefit from greater opportunity. 

Reading has been transformed because now we can be read to as well as reading on our own account. This isn’t new. Our parents read to us, and public broadcasting services had daily book readings. What is new is that this experience can now be on demand and personalized.

Conclusion

I loved holding books. I loved collecting them. I have a wall in my home which, apart from a door into a room, has a large built-in bookshelf. It is still substantially full of books. But is more décor and memory than a resource.

The only books I have bought in the past decade are ebooks and audiobooks – and I mostly access them on my phone. Between my iPhone, my computer and my audiobook and ebook providers my new library takes up no additional space.  It has no additional weight. The books, a source of ideas and information, have become information. 

The old format of 3D books occupying space and having weight is actually legacy technology which has served the world wonderfully well for centuries. But we are in the digital age now with means of storing, distributing, and accessing the content of books in new ways that make books and the ideas they contain far more universally accessible. 

Publishers still put books out in 3D form as a first, habitual reflex. Sometimes, often in fact, that’s as far as things get. 

I think we must come to see 3D books as legacy technology that panders to nostalgic hankerings for how things used to be. I am sympathetic to that sentiment, but not supportive. 

There are questions about whether audio input sticks as well as print. I think this is a question of habit rather than anything essential to our nature or our brains. We, after all, developed an audio-based culture long before print. 

When writing was developed the sages of the day feared it would reduce the powers of memory, and they were right. Digital technology is doing the same thing. How many critical phone numbers do you now remember? Your partner’s? Your parents? 

Technological evolution creates and destroys. It mostly advances inclusion, but it helps if we are intentional about it and employ the principles of Inclusive Design from the outset.

There are economic factors that make human spoken word audiobooks not a viable option for every published book. But AI may change that in the coming years.

The ebook should be the automatic inclusive format for all published books, with the 3D variety an indulgent nostalgic non-inclusive legacy format.

Maybe not too far into the future we can instruct our personal versions of Siri to read to us from our chosen ebook when we don’t have the chance to sit down and read it ourselves.

Take the positive potential approach

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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.

The truth about bias

Introduction

The Neuroleadership Institute (NLI) is blunt. If you have a brain, you have a bias. Bias isn’t an eradicable fault in our minds. It’s a feature, but not one we manage well in all circumstances.

Below are a few quotes from a NLI article by Komai Gulati from 2020. I’ll come back to this article later.

Evolutionarily, biases act as adaptive processes that allow us to use prior knowledge and experiences to inform our decisions and actions in the present.”

Unfortunately, in our modern world, not all biases serve to benefit us and those around us. In fact, when left untethered, biases can seep into hiring, promotion, feedback, and management and lead to poor decision-making and sub-optimal working environments.”

For leaders, it’s important to learn to mitigate that bias before it negatively impacts decision-making and work environments.” 

Let’s adapt that last quote:

For decision-makersit’s important to learn to mitigate that bias before it negatively impacts decision-making and work environments.” 

What a difference a meaning makes

Mitigate – Verb – make (something bad) less severe, serious, or painful (Oxford English Dictionary – OED). 

It is unfortunate that a well-intended use of a word can undo a positive line of thought. What is to be mitigated is not bias per se but inappropriately applied bias.

How do we know when a bias is inappropriately applied? When we have an obligation to be fair and impartial we are at risk. Unfortunately, one of our inherent survival-oriented biases leads us to over-estimate any of our abilities, and this includes our assessment of our ability to be fair and impartial. We can, and will, sincerely believe we are being unbiased when, in fact, we are not.

This doesn’t mean we have to live in fear and loathing of biases. They are our friends in many situations – mostly when our personal interests are legitimately being served. In fact, without these functional biases, we might be incapable of timely and effective action.

When we accept that bias is our default mode, we can employ reflective assessments to determine when our employer’s interests might be impeded by our biases. Our employer’s interests and our interests do not naturally intersect at all times.

One interest is a prohibition against discrimination that affects both public and private sector organisations.

Discrimination has two important meanings. Many years ago, it meant only “recognition and understanding the difference between one thing and another.” (OED) Now we mostly understand it to mean “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people” (OED).

What has happened in this evolution of meaning is that we have condensed our expression to remove the word ‘inappropriate’ as a qualifier of the original idea of discrimination. Being discriminating used to be a good thing, because it meant discerning or selective in a positive way.

We can be biased in ways that serve our personal needs in what we think is a good way, but which violate our employer’s anti-discrimination obligations. The easiest way to understand this is to look at our natural tendency to prefer people who are like us. That is perfectly fine in our private lives, and out of line when we are acting as employees making decisions as a representative of the organisation we work for.

Don’t choose alone

Recruitment is rife with bias. Selection panels are often assembled by the hiring manager who might have activated their preference for people like themselves, and so have ended up with 3-4 people with a similar bias potential on their selection panel.

The solution is to intentionally ensure that decisions (recruitment or otherwise) are not made in isolation (as one person or a group thinking alike), but in company that can bring diverse perspectives to bear on the decision-making process.

This will not eliminate bias leading to inappropriate factors being considered in discriminating (choosing) between options (like which candidate to hire), but it dilutes the risk.

On a personal level, self-reflective awareness of the risk of a bias being misapplied in certain settings is essential. But if decision-making is shared among a diverse group of equally self-aware colleagues the quality of decision making is elevated.

Understanding bias better.

NLI’s has done great research on unconscious bias and has condensed 150+ biases into five key bias groups that are reflected in NLI’s SEEDS Model®: 

  1. Similarity: The tendency to view people who look or think like us more favorably than people who are different 
  2. Expedience: The tendency to rush to conclusions in an effort to minimize cognitive effort 
  3. Experience: The tendency to believe that how we see the world is inherently truer than someone else’s perspective 
  4. Distance: The tendency to assign greater value to those things that we perceive to be closer to us, rather than further away 
  5. Safety: The tendency to over-account for negative outcomes instead of positive ones 

These bias groups are the foundation of our personal unconscious processes for dealing with our lived reality. They are not objective, but we can use them effectively when we are acting on behalf of people who share our worldview. The problem comes when the people impacted by our decision-making don’t share our worldview, and they expect us to embrace their worldviews in our deliberations. This is an obligation to be inclusive.

Complexity, diversity and pluralism

Our culture, and the communities within it, has been evolving rapidly over the last 60 years. Anti-discrimination legislation places obligations upon organisations to make fairer choices in workplaces that continue to grow more and more diverse.

This means that an obligation to be less biased is now more urgent than it was in the 1960s. Under the pressure of such a level of change we can feel under threat. Biases are survival strategies that must adapt as the environment changes. When we feel under threat we are more likely to rely on our biases.

If we understand biases as cognitive shortcuts, we can understand that what is important is not that we exercise biases but whether our biases are adapted to our current environment and in service of our goals and values.

If we do not agree with the broader tend toward greater diversity, we will activate our present biases against that trend. This must be a conscious choice – to adapt or not. If we choose to adapt, we must accept that there is a cognitive burden we must bear as we intentionally change our goals and values to align with the larger cultural trend.

Biases are a legacy of earlier evolutionary responses – choices became unconscious and automatic because they proved to be beneficial (to individuals, to families, to tribes, to communities, to cultures). For an adaptive response to the current evolution of our culture to eventually become equally unconscious we must do intentional work on our self-awareness. We must change how we behave intentionally.

Conclusion

The NLI article sums up the situation neatly:

“As today’s (organisations) are making a genuine effort to address the biases prevalent in their workplaces, research shows that simply acknowledging the existence of bias is not enough to prevent its negative effects. To that end, NLI offers a three-step process for reducing the effects of bias: Accept, Label, Mitigate.” 

“Biases form the invisible lens through which we all subconsciously see the world. Accepting your own biases, as well as others’, involves understanding that bias is a natural, inevitable part of human cognition — not unique to you, your (organisation), or your employees. Labelling bias using the SEEDS Model® makes it easy to adopt a shared language to call out bias in respectful and meaningful ways.” 

Bias is perhaps the greatest barrier to disability inclusion, and it is often mistaken as a fault to be eliminated rather than a reflex to be evolved. It is therefore critically important that people with disability have a clear understanding of what they are trying to change.

I encourage the reader to visit The Neuroleadership Institute’s website to explore the array of ideas on bias and diversity, equity and inclusion. I have no connection with NLI. Their content on bias is just the best I have seen.

Recognition of Staff Network Leadership

Introduction

Leading a staff network is under-valued because, outside of those who hold leadership roles, it is rarely examined in the context of professional development. It isn’t usually seen as requiring a professional skillset.

Here I want to explore the demands of staff network leadership in relation to the NSW Public Sector Capability Framework. There are 20 general capabilities divided into 5 groups. Below I have identified 16 capabilities that could be applied to a staff network leader. I will go on to briefly discuss each.

Personal Attributes

  • Display Resilience and Courage
  • Act with Integrity
  • Manage Self
  • Value Diversity

Relationships

  • Communicate Effectively
  • Work Collaboratively
  • Influence and Negotiate

Results

  • Deliver Results
  • Plan and Prioritise
  • Think and Solve Problems
  • Demonstrate Accountability

Business Enablers

  • Project Management

People Management

  • Manage and Develop People
  • Inspire Direction and Purpose
  • Optimise Business Outcomes
  • Manage Reform and Change

Personal Attributes

Staff network leaders of necessity contribute a very substantial level of their own time to the role. Sometimes this can create tension in their personal lives. In addition to efforts to negotiate an accommodation of their staff network role within their formal role can raise challenges that must be handled sensitively and deftly. The need to display resilience and courage, and manage self is fundamental to being an effective staff network leader.

A strong positive personal reputation in relation to network members and the agency in general is essential. The need to act with integrity is foundational to effective staff network leadership.

No staff network functions in isolation. Aside from intersectional links with other staff networks, those who might be allies and champions have their own styles and priorities. The ability to genuinely value diversity is essential.

Relationships

The relationship capabilities are central to leading a staff network effectively. The ability to communicate effectively is foundational and is perhaps the most complex and nuanced of the capabilities. It includes private conversations with individual members, running small and large meetings, and engaging with managers and executives. Writing skills must also be well developed in a variety of formats.

Working collaboratively is critical. This may include working with other staff networks or engaging with business units to achieve network objectives.

Because staff networks aren’t part of the formal structure the ability to effectively influence and negotiate is magnified in value.

Results

An effective staff network must be results-oriented. It must provide benefits to members, and it must deliver a business outcome (improving staff welfare and agency culture are 2 good examples). Hence delivering results is a key priority.

Time and attention are scarce resources for volunteer staff networks. Effective prioritization and planning are essential to ensure intended benefits are delivered.

Because staff networks sit outside the standard organisational operational structure the need to think through risks and opportunities and solve problems can be significant.

Staff network leads must demonstrate accountability to members, whose interests they represent, and to the agency, whose resources (time, funds, and attention) are relied upon. The agency, the members, and staff more generally are all critical stakeholders.

Business Enablers

Of the 4 capabilities project management was the one that was most applicable across all networks. Leading a staff network itself can be a major project. As well, reform and change related activities are best seen as discrete projects.

People Management

Staff networks are voluntary, so people management skills must be developed to a high degree. Inspiring direction and purpose are critical to a network where engagement is voluntary. 

Managing and developing people is vital with members who participate in network activities which may be new to them. This is especially the case with leadership teams where members may not have leadership experience and need support to build confidence in their capacities.

The challenge of optimising business outcomes is essential if a network is to provide benefit to the organisation to justify the time and resources applied to the network. These outcomes not only benefit members and staff more generally, but also the agency as a whole.

Networks can be actively involved in reform and change, so the need to influence and manage change and reform processes can be central to network activities.

Conclusion

In many respects, being DEN Chair was the hardest role I have ever had. It was more complex than any previous role. Most of my previous roles involved engagement with the public in some way (individuals, service providers and businesses – usually in ways that were dynamic and challenging – but always within a clearly defined set of parameters.

I have described being a staff network lead as being a ‘wildcard’. You don’t have a place within the clearly defined hierarchy of status, responsibility, and influence. But you must respect it and work with it. There is great opportunity but also great risk. You must be a diplomat able to engage with staff at all levels about matters that can be complex and delicate.

I hope I have shown that being a staff network lead can be more challenging than many other leadership roles. The fact that it is voluntary and requires a lot of additional time adds to pressure to perform at a high standard. People who put their hands up to take on a leadership role are driven by a passion for the cause. But they rarely know what they are taking on – in terms of the complexity and the nature of the challenges.  

Recognition of the skills required can transform how we value staff networks and support their volunteer leaders.

Staff networks, or Employee Resource Groups, exist because there is an assumption of benefit to be had from their activity. Or maybe they are merely tolerated because their creation is a matter of policy and compliance is performative only. The latter situation is the worst-case scenario for a network lead. The magnitude of difficulty is magnified. Getting good results when the organisation’s senior leadership is not committed to the desired positive change is a far greater challenge. Network leaders who succeed under such circumstances will have earned our respect. Its hard enough when senior leaders are actively supportive.