How to make job interviews fairer for people with disability and a lot of other folks

Introduction

Introverts like me loathe job interviews for a variety of reasons. The questions often aren’t clear. They can be ambiguous or overly complex. The rushed opportunity to review them ahead of the interview triggers anxiety and brain fog. 

I have been involved in recruitment (5 years as a fulltime job and as a panel member and an independent) for many years and I have applying for jobs long enough to remember when we didn’t get the questions ahead of time. And then we did. We were advised to arrive 15 minutes in advance of our interview time and suddenly that set a rule about how long we had to look at the questions. There was no thought-through rationale that said, ‘This long and no more’. It has been thus until we started asking questions.

Then we started to develop rules that said the questions were secret and you had to hand them in, and definitely not give them to anybody else. Though why you would wasn’t really thought through – and certainly not in the age of smart phones. We accepted the mythos as though it was gospel and not habit. Now change is hard to make happen, despite the flagrant advantage of doing so.

The advent of equity principles meant we had to adjust the recruitment process to accommodate accessibility needs of applicants. I had gone along with these developments without too much thought until a friend and former colleague started asking more questions – really sensible ones.

He experienced severe anxiety reactions when he got to an interview and read the questions. Even when it was patently evident that he knew his stuff he had no control over what happened – he made a mess of the interview and that reliably tanked his chances.

There is an intended rationale to having interview questions ahead of the interview, but that has nothing to do with the time allowed. The reality is that few recruitment panels think about this. Its just the way we have done things for ages.

But we can do far better.

Why not change?

My friend’s questions were penetrating. What were we assessing with our 15-20-minute review period? What work-related function matched being asked to respond to 4-6 questions which may or may not be clear after such a short preparation time? Why could the review time not be hours or even days? The reflexive responses to these questions made it clear that nobody had really thought about this, and now folks were scrambling to defend the status quo – but with unconvincing arguments.

There is a bunch of people who find the intense short period of review problematic. Here’s a short list: people (like me) who write very slowly because of motor impairments; various expressions of neurodiversity which may struggle with how questions are expressed; people with anxiety (like my friend); people with vision impairments; people recovering from illness; people who have recently experienced trauma; a new parent after a sleepless night. You get my point – almost anybody. You will note that not every instance of need would fit the description of a disability – and hence would not fit most people’s notion of being entitled to an adjustment.

When I first started arguing for a universal entitlement to access to interview questions days in advance of the interview, I was initially concerned that there might be a justly perceived advantage unintentionally conferred upon applicants with disability. The obvious solution was to offer this advantage to everybody. For reasons whose logic still eludes me this was firmly resisted by the NSW public sector.

I am an advocate of inclusive design which eliminates the need for adjustments and accommodations. Giving everyone access to interview questions days in advance of the interview eliminates actual disadvantages and actual unintended advantages conferred by allowing only a select minority to seek adjustments. This situation also addresses the accidental injustice visited upon those whose attributes should render them eligible for an adjustment but who don’t ask because they see their disadvantage as just a part of life – and not a disability.

I am unaware of any rationale other than habit that defends giving access to interview questions ahead of the interview. There was an original good idea defended by reasoned argument that triggered the change. But that was maybe 30 years ago, and we need to revisit. A lot of things have changed since then, including our values and expectations.

Breaking habits isn’t easy

In the NSW public sector interviews should no longer be determining factor of a recruitment process. But old habits die hard. Regardless of how suitable a candidate is based on their CV and other criteria their prospects will live or die on the interview often enough to still make it a rule.

The object of any recruitment exercise should be to get the best person for the role, but this can’t happen if we unintentionally make it difficult for candidates to demonstrate their best attributes. Interview questions seek responses that demonstrate an applicant’s suitability via capabilities or knowledge, so the applicant’s ability to give their best answer would, you’d think, enhanced by time to read the questions, reflect on what is being sought, and time to prepare a considered response.

In the NSW public sector there may be 4-6 focus capabilities as well as other desired capabilities for a given role. Applicants may be new to the sector and unfamiliar with the capability framework. An interview may have 4 questions which may or may not have multiple elements which may or may not clearly relate to a focus capability, or two.

An applicant has no way of knowing whether the recruiters are disciplined in their adherence to assessing against the specified focus capabilities – which they are often not. Consequently, the challenge of interpreting 4 questions in relation to 4-6 focus capabilities and preparing thoughtful responses in 15 to 20 minutes is an impossible task. And nobody attempts it, not really. They scramble to write down thoughts as they randomly arise, sometimes in legible handwriting {something I was never good at). Who would be great at this? Probably only people with psychopathic inclinations.

Recruitment panels often aren’t as disciplined as they might be and base their selection on whoever they most liked at the interview. This creates bias toward extroverts and may explain the frequent disastrous selection decisions. I am not asserting that getting interview questions well in advance will put a stop to disastrous recruitment decisions. Other mechanisms must be in place to further reduce that risk. But allowing introverts and people with other diverse attributes to perform at their best will give a better array of credible choices.

I have heard arguments against providing interview questions in advance, but none are plausible. A popular one is that the applicant might research their response – as if this was a form of cheating. I can’t tell you how many times I would have been grateful if a team member had researched their response to a task, instead of relying on hearsay, or their less than well-informed opinion. You can frame questions to assess for insight and values as well as knowledge. If you can’t pick when you are being manipulated and lied to, maybe recruitment isn’t something you should be doing.

A recent example of how getting questions in advance works to improve equal access to opportunity 

I asked my former colleague several questions about their experience. Their responses are below.

Q 1 – Describe how your anxiety affects you and what happens when you go to an interview under normal circumstances.

I have been diagnosed with high functioning anxiety. This condition is activated only under fairly rare circumstances and does not influence my normal work experience. Job interviews are one of the rare instances when my anxiety is activated. Interviews generate extreme anxiety responses that disable my ability to comprehend interview questions. This triggers a complete panic attack which manifests in severe emotional disturbance and cognitive incapacity – I simply shut down and become a bumbling, nervous mess. 

Q 2 – How does having the questions in advance help you? Can you describe your initial reaction and how that changes as you prepare?

Getting questions in advance creates a feeling of distance from the sense of threat the interview environment creates. My panic responses are greatly reduced and are progressively eliminated. This gives me time to process my emotions and create an opportunity to provide coherent responses to the questions, almost as effectively as I do in my day-to-day work environment. I still feel a residual anxiety, but it isn’t disabling.

Q 3 – Describe how you have performed in the last 2 interviews? What feedback did you get?

In both interviews I presented as composed and was able to articulate my responses in a coherent and professional manner. I received positive acknowledgment from both interview panels. After the first interview I was offered a substantive role. I was unsuccessful at the second interview, despite an equally competent presentation. I should note that at the second interview I was also told I had to provide the reason for my workplace adjustment request, so I was honest and told of my anxiety condition. I wasn’t aware that this was something a panel might demand. On reflection I fear that this may have placed me at a disadvantage in being considered for the role as I did not feel it appropriate to go into detail, and neither did I think the panel was qualified to interpret what I told them.

Q 4 – Why do you think having interview questions in advance helps? Would you recommend this for everybody?

Having questions well in advance of the interview allows one time to prepare responses as one would in a day-to-day work environment. Interview questions can often be complex or unclear at first glance. This is pressure enough for most people, but it makes developing responses harder for those that are more complex thinkers who feel the need to take the time to consider their responses. This is more about types of neurodiversity than anything else. Being neurodiverse isn’t necessarily a disability. Its just being different. It isn’t fair that an interview format should be a one-size-fits-all approach with such a limited response time.

In over 35 years working in the service sector, I have never been in a position where I have been allocated 3-5 maybe complex questions, with a demand that I develop answers to all those questions within 15 to 20 minutes. 

Would I recommend this to everybody? Absolutely! My question is “Why are we still using such an exclusionary, intimidating and impractical recruitment method? What is it we are testing for?”

Conclusion

There are other fundamental issues with recruitment practices I can’t explore here because they are universal and not related to inclusion. I am concerned with equity of opportunity for people with disability, and the best solution to ensure such equity, without also causing unintended unfair advantages is to ensure all applicants have interview questions well in advance. There are no downsides to this. It may mean that key decision makers will have to think more deeply about recruitment practices and be less resistant to adaptive change.

This should be a no-brainer. We can improve the overall quality of responses to interview questions and create a level playing field for almost all applicants. We will get better and fairer outcomes.

Recruitment is complex. It concerns judgement about whether others are best suited to a role using contrived methods that may or may not be the best way of illuminating decision-making. Many on recruitment panels lack the experience to develop a high level of competence. Most applicants aren’t expert at showing their suitability in the best light. 

There’s a lot we can do to improve how recruitment decisions are made.

Why have an ERG?

Introduction

For a little over 9 months, I have been working with a public sector agency proving periodic support to a number of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) leadership teams. The groups have been at various levels of development and the leads have had a range of experience in running their ERG and supporting its membership.

Things have changed since I led an ERG – even though it wasn’t that long go (2016 – 2022). Mostly the time available to devote to working on the demands of leading a network has reduced. This has led to a disconnect between the rationale for, and value of, an ERG. There is little time in a working day to do what should be done as part of core business, let alone the voluntary work of an ERG. 

I was a member of my disability ERG for over a decade, a deputy chair for just over a year, and the chair for 3.25 years. I also had the advantage of 2.5 years working my agency’s internal responses to disability inclusion. I was able to see how the disability ERG and the agency’s policies and practices intersected and could generate mutual (shared) benefit.

The past 9 months have given me the opportunity to reflect more deeply on the foundations of my success and how the ERGs I have been working with might find their own success in their own specific situations.

Here I want to focus on ERGs formed to address inclusion and equity concerns. Not all ERGs have a problem-solving mission. That noted, even those who are not may find some useful thoughts below.

The defining the relationship

Back in July 2010 when my disability ERG was formed there weren’t many policies or practices supportive of staff with disability. The ERG’s role was to identify the pain points and unmet needs of staff with disability and consult with the agency on what solutions we wanted.

By the time I became the ERG Chair in November 2016 there were policies in place. But knowledge of them and adherence to them wasn’t common among those who were expected to know. In any case some of the policies and resultant practices left a lot to be desired.

I progressively shifted the ERG from being a passive participant in consultation to a pro-active advocate for making the policies work. We were a kind of canary in the coal mine. When the intent articulated by a policy didn’t translate into an inclusive or accessible practice we spoke up. But we were not adversarial. Our approach was collaborative – how can we help you turn intent into practice?

Part of that approach was to increase awareness among key staff of the lived experience of having a disability at work and experiencing exclusion and inaccessibility. We fed back to peers and leaders how we experienced their policies and programs. There was abundant good intent, but it often didn’t translate into effective remedies.

That feedback established a central function of the ERG – asking how well-intended policies and programs played out in the ‘real world’ of the lived experience of staff with disability. This feedback function is half of the yin/yang balance of an ERG. The other half is creative – initiating innovative responses based on lived experience insights.

I was committed to ensuring the disability ERG wasn’t seen as a union. Other disability ERGs in the sector had unionist members and this led to a degree of confusion. That was understandable. There was a shared commitment to justice and equity. But I had a substantial background as a union rep and I could imagine nothing more catastrophic than an ERG replicating the tactics of unions. 

Unions have a role when a situation, for whatever reason, escalates into a dispute. An ERG must be a partner and a collaborator, and never an adversary. 

ERGs must have a clear sense of where they sit in the arena of employee-led activism. ERGs are committed to the ‘interests’ of staff rather than their ‘rights’. This is a nuanced distinction to be sure, but it conveys a fundamental difference in style – co-creative versus adversarial. The ERG style cannot be confrontational.

That function and distinction isn’t necessarily understood and agreed to by an agency’s executive leadership team. Hence the relationship between the ERG and the agency must be thought through, explored, negotiated, and agreed upon. It must be clear and unambiguous.

I also have a substantial background in compliance monitoring (licenses and contracts). I achieved far more by building relationships and collaborating on solutions than my more confrontational colleagues were able to do. I got better, sometimes radically improved, outcomes by getting to know the key people and understanding their business or service. I also shared insights into why regulatory functions are necessary – and where we could do better.

If I could succinctly define an ERG, I would say it is an organised and intentional part of a feedback loop characterised by respectful relationship building and positive collaboration on closing the gap between intent and actuality. 

Feedback

ERGs have the potential to be recognised as a key source of invaluable feedback on how policies and programs are playing out in the experience of employees. This is a proactive and collaborative role which communicates how policies and programs are working out relative to what is intended and hoped for.

The ability to feedback effectively is critical. For staff an ERG can be seen as a trusted voice to articulate issues and deal with delicate personal matters in a diplomatic and effective way. For the agency the ERG can be recognised as professional source of vital insight into how policies and programs are being responded to.

Innovation

An essential aspect of giving feedback is proposing solutions and remedies when well-intended actions by an agency fail to deliver. What can be done better or differently?

An ERG able to offer high quality insight into the lived experience of staff with access and inclusion needs can work with an agency to refine policies and programs and collaborate on problem solving. This is an opportunity to drive genuine innovation via authentic shared commitments to co-creation. But for this to happen the relationship between ERG and agency leadership must be negotiated and settled.

The unreasonable burden on managers

For the past 9 months I have been talking with a range of ERG representatives about their experiences. A huge level of expectation is placed on managers – in terms of what they should know and how they should act. This used to be a perfectly reasonable expectation, but times have changed. 

Several years ago, the NSW government kicked off the Age of Inclusion campaign. It had a manifesto which said, “Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy.” Nice idea, except for a huge problem. Self-awareness and empathy are hardly attributes that would be assigned to managers and executives on the whole. How those highly desirable attributes would be developed or fostered was nowhere explored. They are not part of any recruitment process even now.

There is no doubt that the best leaders are self-aware and empathic. But they are scarce. There is no doubt that these qualities should a minimal requirement for leaders in conformity with our contemporary values and expectations. But who is going to make that happen, and how are they going to do it?

The point I want to stress here is that many policies and programs are developed with an entirely imaginary leader in mind. And when real leaders fail to exhibit their fantasised virtues and skills they are blamed – from above and below. 

Contemporary legal and social value realities place a burden of responsibility upon leaders that did not exist 25 years ago. But in that intervening time little has been done to prepare organisational leadership for the realities of implementing the new demands on/obligations of leaders in relation to how they relate to their teams.

ERGs have been developed in that time to meet a need within an organisation’s workforce culture. But that need is rarely frankly articulated. That need is a critical role – to act in partnership, from the perspective of a staff member with access and inclusion needs, with the agency to realise its policy objectives on staff wellbeing. 

Leaders, at manager level especially, play a critical role in realising those objectives. But they are often neither well-suited nor well-equipped to deliver. That’s not their fault. There is little opportunity for leaders to explore just how much expectations upon them have changed. For some, managing is a task focused and transactional role, and that is what they signed on for. Others see it as a facilitative and developmental role. They are in a minority.

As is so often the case operational realities lag behind aspirations and ideals, and that lag is rarely discussed as a solvable problem to be addressed with a realistic appreciation of just what is involved.

ERGs must shift any disposition toward passively expecting managers to deliver on the full range of expectations current policy making practices impose. This is unreasonable and unfair.

Instead of seeing managers as singularly responsible, ERGs must see them as key administrative players in a shared burden of responding to changing expectations and demands. It is true that some managers will be so out of synch with the evolving values that they will resist collaboration. That resistance can’t be tolerated, and more assertive action will be required.

I learned from my compliance monitoring days that taking the time to build respectful relationships with key people created mutually respectful insight into the complexities and difficulties that arise in owning and running a business, managing a service organisation, or performing in a compliance enforcement role.

We can have completely just expectations about what is needed, but utterly unrealistic expectations about how that need can be satisfied. Those charged with delivering an outcome may not be able to do so without cooperation and support. ERGs don’t represent passive recipients of policies and programs but engaged participants in a workplace environment.

The thing about the idea of inclusion is that you shouldn’t/can’t exclude managers or leaders because they aren’t doing what you think they should be doing. Inclusion is about building a respectful understanding of what impedes well-intended aspirations. 

The problem of the lack of accountability

Public sector agencies are plagued by a lack of accountability at leadership levels. It’s a problem in the private sector as well, but there, there is remedy. A clear bottom line accommodates drastic remedial action when that is threatened.

Accountability becomes a problem when there’s pressure to adapt and change, but the needed insight and resources are often not sufficient to deliver an effective response. The burden of change becomes a backlog on managers who often struggle to keep abreast of business-as-usual demands, let alone undergo a significant psychological change that will enable them to lead and inspire with self-awareness and empathy.

There’s a kind of magical thinking that permeates our traditional hierarchical organisations. A good idea is conceived with genuine good intent but the command, “So let it be!” is utter more as an incantation than a genuine strategic intent. The business of manifesting that expression of semi-divine will is enthusiastically delegated to those who may not have the knowledge, time, resources, or passion to do the job needed at the standard required. The result is often a pale shadow of the original noble vision, despite earnest good will being expended.

Inclusion is a far more complex affair than politicians and their policy wonks imagine. Good ideas are rarely resourced to the extent they should be in an ideal world. Nobody is to blame about this. This is normal. What is different in we are now ineptly trying to do good and important things rather than nothing at all.

Organisations don’t create ERGs unless they implicitly acknowledge that they need help to align organisational cultures to match expected/desired operational changes in conformity with legislative and policy requirements. What is missing is an explicit acknowledgement of this and the coalition building that indicates that there is a shared acknowledgement that the normal approach isn’t sufficient.

Accountability is an embedded problem in the public sector for a host of reasons not relevant to this discussion. But I want to quickly say it is also universal in our culture – and maybe our psychology. It is also reflected in an ERG’s passivity and willingness to blame the organisation’s leadership for failing to honour their obligations and meet their expectations.

It is in ERGs that inspiring “with self-awareness and empathy” should be found because ERGs can self-select for these qualities in a more adaptive way than organisations currently can. ERGs are anomalous in important respects. As noted earlier, they are not unions. They are a novel development filling a vital role that simply has not been clearly articulated. They are an expression of good intent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the creators know all the answers. Its all a work in progress – an experiment – and an important one at that.

In a sense accountability sits with an ERG to be up to the job it has taken on – and that should be its focus. This means it should be aware of the reasons it was created. An ERG sits outside the normal hierarchy, and this gives it potential for great, but unconventional, influence. It must establish a clear contract with the agency for this influence to be fruitful.

The shock of the new

Finally, it is essential to appreciate how new all this is to everyone involved. Our workplaces are evolving to meet emerging ideals and values. For example, in NSW the Disability Inclusion Act was introduced in 2014 – a scant decade ago. Its requirements are an add on that have required adjustment on the fly. 

The Disability Inclusion Act created a requirement for NSW public sector agencies to have Disability Inclusion Action Plans (DIAPs). They are great ideas but they have been often more about compliance with the act than a passion. The intents expressed in the DIAP requirements can be seen as a great potential to drive change or signs of failures of agencies to really give a damn. We can choose.

We routinely underestimate what is required to become aware of, committed to, and then conform to new expectations – even when we are strongly sympathetic to them. The myth that mere cognitive stimulus is all that is required to trigger a cascade of rational changes persists. Advances in psychology and neuroscience tell us otherwise. 

There’s a science and an art to working with individuals, teams, and workplace cultures to manifest the changes our emerging values want. But when two parties want a common outcome but lack a shared understanding of either needed art or science progress toward that outcome will necessarily be slower than it might otherwise be.

One lesson I quickly learned as an ERG Chair was that despite my good intent, I lacked key skills and critical knowledge. I was fortunate to attend the Australian Network on Disability’s 2018 Annual National Conference, where Kate Nash was the keynote speaker. Kate is the founder and CEO of PurpleSpace. The day after the conference I attended a Networkologyworkshop run by Kate.

That experience transformed how I ran the ERG. I routinely remind Kate how grateful I am for that experience. There is a science to running an effective network, which can be learned. There is also an art which can be developed.

The changes impacting our workplaces seem relentless and even though they are moving us in the right direction – toward being more inclusive, more compassionate, and empathic – it’s still hard work even when we are intentional and willing participants.

This is a vital point. ERG leaders uniquely sign on to drive that change in an intentional way. It’s their sole business. For everyone else it’s an add on. We need to remember that.

Conclusion

I have been obliged to revisit my time as an ERG lead and understand that times and people have changed. I can’t simply encourage ERG leads to do what I did as an act of mimicry. This has meant I have had to reimagine the circumstances I worked in. They were hugely helpful to me. But does this mean the present environment is inherently less favourable, or just unfavourable to replicating what I did the way it did it?

It’s a bit of both – but still not all of what can be. What is now is what has to be worked with, so we need to evolve how we see things. I shaped the disability ERG as a de facto business unit working with mainstream business units to achieve a considerable level of success. It took the lead in collaborating with formal business units to feedback how staff with disability were experiencing the agency’s intent to be more accessible and inclusive.

Change toward greater accessibility and inclusion demands attention and engagement. It competes for that cognitive and emotional energy required against other demands that are considered core business. Staff wellbeing has traditionally been either a low priority or entirely transactional. But changes in our social and cultural values have been driving a radically different approach. The welfare of staff members is seen as a high priority. How that expresses itself in organisational practice and culture will depend on how much attention can be attracted and effectively applied.

Eventually we will evolve a work culture in which staff wellbeing is understood to be core business. But that is a huge step, despite the flow in that direction. We have add-ons, but at least we have them.

ERGs are a novel response to a novel situation – the evolving values that govern how workplaces should function. We need to understand that. There are no cultural rules about how they function. Developing them is a challenge to be welcomed. But there are rules in organisational, social, and individual psychology that will determine success or failure. It is important to understand them, and work with them to create benefits for all. There is no ‘them vs us’. Rather there is a dynamic tension between required actions and desired actions and intended outcomes and actual outcomes. 

The interplay between ERGs and their agencies is a zone of potential for considerable and rapid positive change. But both ERG and agency must have a mutual understanding of, and commitment to, exploiting that potential.

Ultimately an ERG is an expression of a staffs’ desires to achieve the satisfaction of essential, even fundamental, needs through respectful relationships with the people charged with ensuring they are delivered. The intent of all parties is good, but the performance (delivery and feedback) is still evolving toward what is mutually desired. There are exceptions to this, but such situations need more than an ERG to trigger the needed changes.

ERG operate in a unique creative space and have extraordinary potential to be a partner in driving desired changes in inclusion and equity in unprecedented ways.

Let’s be clear about bias and prejudice

Introduction

Let’s understand that the reason we are biased and prejudiced is because being so was once a really good thing. This is a topic I come back to often because it is so important that we don’t misunderstand it. If we get it wrong many of the remedies countering exclusion that we put in place won’t work. When that happens, we waste the precious and scarce resources of time, attention, and commitment.

At the time of drafting I had just finished reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It’s a sobering survey of our impulses to respond to cognitive dissonance in self-justifying ways.

Here’s what the Amazon blurb for the book says: Renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right – a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.

Things have changed since our brains were hard-wired for impulses that served tribes well, but let individuals be sacrificed in the interest of the tribe. A male who over-estimated his strength and speed may die miscalculating a mammoth’s reaction, but maybe only after a run of successes that kept the tribe in food and other mammoth generated resources – like hide and bones.

Young males today perpetuate that same habit, which is fine in sport and military service – once disciplined – but tragic on our roads and in pub fights.

The fact that we are hard-wired to imagine we are smarter and more capable than we really are isn’t an inherent problem. It just becomes a problem in the wrong context. 

Likewise, our reflex to be biased and prejudiced was a positive survival mechanism that favoured family or tribe for good reasons. These days bias and prejudice operate in ways that sustain bonds and relationships on a private level – and about which we usually give no thought. I have family members who now and then struggle financially, and I help them even though there are unrelated others who may have an even harder time and also need help.

I have noted elsewhere that we have shortened ‘inappropriate discrimination’ to just ‘discrimination’. We now have ‘anti-discrimination’ legislation because, apparently, ‘anti-inappropriate discrimination’ is too cognitively taxing for legislators and policy makers.

Being a ‘discriminating’ person was once a good thing to be. It meant that you chose carefully and wisely with an eye to quality. But no more.

So many of our impulses have gone the same way. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being biased. Its just not appropriate in some situations. This is what we need to understand.

Dealing with human nature

My suspicion is that self-justification is also a default survival reflex. We do better if we over-estimate our ability than under-estimate it. In short, confidence is better than self-reflective honesty in many cases. This is especially so when you must act boldly and quickly. There are many instances when over-estimating our abilities can be beneficial, but it can also be catastrophic. But like so many hard-wired reflexes we must modify them to match our reality.

Our brains were hard-wired 10s of thousands of years ago and the culture we live in now is around 250 years old at the most.

If we look at reflexes and impulses that were developed at our origins and see that they now cause problems its only because our social environment has evolved rapidly and radically. Now we find ourselves in work and social situations where being unself-reflective, biased, and prejudiced aren’t desirable traits.

The interests of corporations, NGOs and government agencies in sophisticated western communities are not advanced by permitting biased and prejudiced behaviour to prevail. These organisations respond to our increasingly complex, diverse, and pluralistic communities which have an expectation of equity by making policies consistent with those expectations – but not with our habits or reflexes. We are living in an aspirational reality.

Whether this expectation is a good thing or not has been mostly decided in favour. We have collectively agreed we are aspirational. We now have laws and policies to back up that popular position. But not everyone agrees or is keen on complying.

Our cultural reality has evolved to a point where once useful and even necessary reflexes contradict the present social intention. Where exclusion was once a necessary survival reflex it can now be a cultural deficit. And the more specific the culture the more that deficit becomes problematic.

Our cultural and social evolution has outpaced our biological ability to adapt. We are playing catch up – all of us are.

There is intentional work to be done

The reason The Ten Commandments is a thing is that humans require constant reminders that they must modify instincts and impulses to conform to the aspirations of the community in which they live.

We have imposed a moral value upon conduct which is natural to us, but which is no longer appropriate to the community we live in. This can lead us to imagine that inappropriate conduct is inherently wrong rather than simply out of place.

How we respond to demands to change our values and behaviour in conformity with relatively new ideas varies widely. A minority will change rapidly to conform to the new ideas, ideals, and values. A minority will not comply and do so with strongly articulated determination. The majority will change with varying degrees of enthusiasm and capacity.

Altering reflexive behaviour requires effort. We may or may not have the cognitive and emotional resources to change our reflexive behaviour quickly, even when we want to. This is true of all of us.

Switching on and off doesn’t work

It isn’t easy to be highly inclusive at work and return to being very biased and prejudiced out of hours. For some this may, however, be a necessary balancing act to cater to work and personal realities.

Leaders of organisations understandably don’t feel an obligation to be overly concerned about an employee’s private life. But how they are able to comply with work-based inclusion policies will be powerfully influenced by their personal life circumstances. Sometimes those circumstances can cause a tension.

I grew up in a family steeped in Northern Irish Protestantism. We had migrated from Northern Ireland to Australia, but my father expected I would obey his injunction to despise Catholics. At the time I was in a small rural primary school and excluding kids who were Catholic wasn’t anything I was about to do. It would have meant excluding kids I really liked and getting into fights I had no desire to have. My father didn’t understand this. Neither did he understand that conflict with him was more in my interests than obedience. For some, however, conflict with inclusion policies can be more in their interests.

Working for an organisation with inclusion policies can place tensions on people whose private situation may be dominated by historic, cultural, and religious pressures to behave in exclusionary ways.

It’s hard enough to be consistently inclusive intentionally when you want to be and when the only real impediment is a lack of practice and an established habit. Its far far harder when there are strong influences that are anti-inclusion at play in your life.

Conclusion

Inclusion is everyone’s business. It always has been. There is evidence our ancient ancestors cared for their severely disabled family members. But between now and then we also responded to necessary us vs them imperatives.

In contemporary organisations we still find layers of power and privilege that trigger us vs them responses, but our goal – for our shared wellbeing – is to expand the embrace of our sense of us through acts of inclusion to encompass the whole workforce as a community – and beyond to include customers, service users and service providers.

This is a huge endeavour. It has been a work in progress of decades, and there is much work yet to be done. We will achieve our desired goals faster if we understand the challenge clearly.

Empathy and why we need to get better at it

Introduction

It started with a text conversation.

Me: I am getting into the Brokenwood Mysteries -2nd time around. I can’t help but notice that the police station is accessible – ramp and handrails. This is so unlike Death in Paradise – steep narrow steps up to the police station and no handrails. Amazing what you notice and value with a certain lived experience bias.

She: Hah, I notice that too now. I endlessly tut-tut about it.

Me: Oh dear! We are both suffering from EIS – Exclusion Intolerance Syndrome.

She: I wonder if it’s contagious? If only …

Me: I fear you need to develop a vulnerability first. 😵‍💫

She: Ah, if only a solid dose of empathy was enough to get you there. That would get the community going.

Discovering empathy

An upshot from this interchange was that I decided to explore what was available on empathy via Google. I was mildly alarmed by the high number of academic articles that came up in response to the search term ‘empathic communication’.

I gathered a selection of essays, abstracts, blogs and guides from a 15-minute search:

  • Extending the empathic communication model of burnout. A search for alternative ways to reduce caregiver burnout (Abstract only)
  • 4 Ways to Communicate with More Empathy
  • 10 ways to communicate with empathy and authority in times of crisis
  • Conceptualising Empathy Competence: A Professional Communication Perspective
  • Empathic Communication: Why it is Important at Work
  • Empathy and Communication: A Model of Empathy Development (Abstract only)
  • How Leaders Develop an Empathic Communication Style
  • The Power of Empathy and Communication Symmetry

I found a definition of empathy from Wikipedia: Empathy is generally described as the ability to take on another’s perspective, to understand, feel and possibly share and respond to their experience. There are more (sometimes conflicting) definitions of empathy that include but is not limited to social, cognitive, and emotional processes primarily concerned with understanding others. Often times, empathy is considered to be a broad term, and broken down into more specific concepts and types that include cognitive empathy, emotional (or affective) empathy, somatic empathy, and spiritual empathy. 

Empathy is still a topic of research. The major areas of research include the development of empathy, the genetics and neuroscience of empathy, cross-species empathy, and the impairment of empathy. Some researchers have made efforts to quantify empathy through different methods, such as from questionnaires where participants can fill out and then be scored on their answers. Some other research discusses the effects of empathy, benefits and issues caused by a lack of or an abundance of empathy.

Discussions of empathy are common in the fields of ethics, politics, business, medicine, culture, and fiction.

But all this is head stuff

My phone has the Oxford Dictionary, which defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” However, I am not so sure I agree it has anything to do with “understanding”.  I try to understand empathy to be about resonating with another’s emotional state – feeling what they are feeling as best we can.

There is, in the above, material, a clear acknowledgement that empathy is a vital capacity that is often absent when its presence would have made things much better for one party in a transaction. This is the thing that has changed – how the other party feels matters. It once didn’t.

Traditions of unequal relations of power and authority have made disinterest in the feelings of the weaker party the norm. Now we are acting to change that, but we are starting from a disadvantage.

Empathy is what we mostly reserve for our in-group, and more usually an intimate inner group. But even then, it can be impaired by traumatic life experiences. Men, for example, have long been dissuaded from being empathic in general. 

Some of us naturally strive to be universally empathic – and do a decent job of living their ideals. Most of us are selective, and others have an impaired capacity to even meet our personal needs for empathic connection.

Time to change

Thomas Kuhn famously observed that science progresses one funeral at a time. He was noting how beliefs are changed often only when ardent adherents die. This is true of values and attitudes – as each younger generation knows. Hence empathy is better known to younger members of our community than those much older.

Empathy has been a problem for those in power for a few decades now – as the less powerful members of organisations are accorded more dignity and rights. This applies to people with disability and members of other minority/diversity groups. You can’t have equity without empathy. And equity is a problematic thing for people accustomed to believing that power and authority bring with them unequal entitlements – to which they aspire.

In past decades staff members were often regarded as the ‘wetware’ in the organisational machinery – somewhat more flexible, and valued for that, but also dispensable. As our cultural values have evolved that attitude has been challenged in legislation, policy and, to a growing degree, in practice.

But so long as organisational leadership is dominated by masculine culture and expectations of privilege, empathy will continue to be confined largely to defined groups that attract personal interest.

We also portion empathy out according to who we feel merits it. Some members of our community are embraced by a spirit of compassion expressed by service providers. Others are not. They feel chastened, and even oppressed by the ‘service’ visited upon them. In the human services field, the absence of empathy in engaging with service recipients can be considered morally just.

Power disparities exist between service providers and service recipients in the same way as between leaders and subordinates. Cultural values that have become part of the organisation’s culture will foster or impede the expression of empathy – depending on what motivates those cultural values.

How do we change this?

We need to think of power structures, cultures, and individuals as a triad in which empathy can be weak or strong, and fostered or impeded in each element.

Individuals are the critical element. Their ability to be empathic varies widely. Empathy isn’t a capability assessed in recruitment. It’s a random factor. Depending on life experiences, beliefs, and community of origin, individuals may exhibit empathy on a spectrum toward the people they work with and customers/service users. That spectrum goes from loving inclusion to abusive exclusion.

Work cultures are not just how individual work together. They are also beliefs and values that influence how the work done is understood in economic, social, or moral terms.

Organisational power structures are comprised of leadership cultures which determine how governance policies, procedures, and practices are complied with, enforced, or celebrated.

The potential for greater empathy in each element is undoubted, but nothing can substantially evolve without individual commitment to personal change.

Conclusion

I came across an article by Priya Nalkur in Psychology Today titled Love and Inclusion: Intersecting Pathways to Fulfillment – Love and inclusion meet in leadership to build empathy, belonging, and equity.

My immediate response was, “Wow! Psychology has been evolving well away from its heady roots and into engaging with emotions.” It is possible to engage with empathy on an authentic heart level and remain within an intellectual discipline. This is where we have to get before we can have shared conversations about how to be more empathic at work. The articles I noted at the beginning see empathy as a problem to be solved intellectually. That isn’t enough.

I checked out Psychology Today and found it a potential great source for what I see as properly integrated psychological insight. I wanted to subscribe, but that’s only for 3D publications which don’t suit my accessibility needs.

I was reminded that I have seen the same evolution reflected in The Psychology Podcast, which I get through my Apple podcast app.

We are not going to confidently grow empathy unless we can talk about it freely, authentically, and competently. It helps, then, if we can learn contemporary ideas about empathy grounded in sound psychological research.

I have had to learn that being empathic isn’t easy for everyone. Some of us must work at expressing what we feel with comfort and confidence. That takes intention and commitment and a degree of courage to be awkward at first. I am getting there – slower than I’d like, but I am making progress.

Is success the enemy of real inclusion?

Introduction

This will seem like an odd question to ask. What inspired it was a discussion about a diversity group’s celebratory plans even though there were several pain points that were not being addressed.

It wasn’t that I was thinking that the celebratory themes had no value, only that In a hierarchy of priorities for attention and effort they were placed higher than issues that were causing real distress.

Did this also apply to disability? I needed to reflect on this.

What happened to activism?

Activism, as I understand it, is action taken to address pain points – hazards that have psychological, social, or physical harmful consequences. For example, exclusion of a person with a mobility disability from a work or social venue because of the absence of a ramp or other safe means of access can have multiple adverse consequences. An activist might take action to ensure safe access as a matter of some urgency.

There are other legitimate themes for disability inclusion advocates which require persistent and long-term action. These may be characterised as attitudinal, procedural, and practice changes which are accepted as a change willingly undertaken by the organisation – but which then become bogged down. For example, when I joined my DEN as a founding member in July 2010, I agitated for a workplace adjustment policy for people with disabilities not caused by workplace accidents. The idea was taken up by the department and it was absorbed into HR business activity. When I became DEN chair in November 2016 we had no policy yet, though it was being developed.

A sense of urgency that is typical of activism fades when a proposed change is accepted by the organisation, and it becomes part of business-as-usual. 

Urgency v bureaucratic process

Most business-as-usual processes are not driven by a sense of urgency. There are legitimate reasons why some changes in procedure or practice can’t happen quickly. But often it’s about resources – personnel and funding. This is about managing ‘competing priorities’ – the bane of so many mangers.

Because disability inclusion isn’t seen as a work health and safety (WHS) concern the risk of harm (psychological or physical) that arises from any form of exclusion or inaccessibility isn’t given the same weight as regular WHS issues. And even so, psychological health remains under-valued – probably because physical harm is seen as more real than psychical harm.

There are legitimate concerns about how risk of harm is categorised, and this isn’t a discussion for here. What I want to emphasise is that what is initiated via activism loses the urgency momentum when the demand for change is accepted by the organisation. The importance of real pain and harm of exclusion is recalibrated with tacit acknowledgement that an organisation ‘must do better’. How it ‘will do better’ is rarely monitored with the same passion that drove the initial alert.

I see a role for disability inclusion advocates as conveyors of civil impatience about the progress of agreed and accepted changes to policy, procedure, and practice. The sense of urgency that drove the initial activism should not be relaxed. Instead, there should be a steady reminder that the issue is about the safety and welfare of staff and real people are suffering while the agreed change is developed and implemented.

Capture of the activist’s passion

There is not a huge difference between an organisation refusing to make changes and agreeing to act but not doing so in a timely manner. What starts off as good news fades when the proposed action is simply added to the business-as-usual menu. 

This is not to suggest any intentional or cynical intent. Business-as-usual has its own hazards – lack of resources, loss of attention, cause champions move on, and the progressive devaluing of the need for change in the general politics of getting stuff done. 

Add to that the need for work unit managers who are given the task of introducing the change to maintain a good relationship with their executive leaders.  That relationship is key to getting things done. But these executive leaders may have no understanding of, or commitment to, the issue as originally expressed – and may be under pressure to address ‘higher’ priorities.

It is also easy for an activist to become dependent on maintaining the peace within their workplace hierarchy and culture in terms of their own career – but also be seen still loyal to the cause.

This isn’t a moral observation – just a reflection of a reality – and hence the need for higher order skills in driving change.

Recovery of civil impatience

Disability inclusion has the goal of ending suffering. Neuroscience has allowed us to understand that exclusion from a group triggers responses that are not unrelated to physical pain. ‘Ending suffering’ can seem to be rhetorical overkill until we understand that Complex Post Traumatic Stress can be precipitated by psychological crises. Bullying, isolation, or exclusion can all do it. Promising change and not acting in a timely manner adds insult to injury – and that insult causes harm too.

So, acceptance of an issue by an organisation isn’t ‘job done’. It simply shifts the nature of activism into a different phase. The urgency wasn’t just about an issue being accepted as a need for changes to policy, procedure, or practice. The urgency was/is about ending the suffering.

This new kind of activism requires different skills and insights relative to the passion to have the issue acknowledged. As DEN Chair I ensured the DEN’s Guidance and Action Team (GAT) behaved as a de facto business unit – professional, knowledgeable, and diplomatic. We consulted with business areas to apply steady pressure to drive desired change. Some things still took a long time. 

Organisations are change resistant and nothing about an organisation’s culture or processes is conducive to rapid change. But change moves faster when senior executives ‘get it’. Managing up is a critical skill that all activists must acquire and master. So too is influencing workplace cultures in a way that skilfully keeps the sense of civil impatience alive but without degenerating into militancy and deficit finding. Seeking to activate positive potential is the only way to progress.

The appeal of inertia

Inertia is attractive to both sides. Gentle wheel spinning indicates effort is being applied. Organisational resistance isn’t denial. Those who are on side may be sincere allies but the reality they are working with isn’t conducive to change happening at a decent pace.

And inertia can take the heat off on both sides. This isn’t a criticism, just a reflection of reality. The human reality of ‘managing competing demands’ tells us that if things are ‘progressing’ that may have to ‘good enough’ for the time being. We have done enough within our means. Pushing for things to change faster can seem rude and impolitic. It can get supporters off-side.

Activists also have other dimensions to their lives that will ‘compete’ with their cause. Okay, that said, there are activists who will want to reach through their screens and grab me by the throat. But they are in the minority.

Here there must be a distinction between activists who persist in one mode and those who shift modes to adapt to the new environment in which to exert influence of a different order. This transition isn’t something every activist will find easy or even desirable. So, having done a job within a capability range, it is fair to imagine ‘job done’.

This is part of the cognitive fallacy that suggests that the effort to convince an organisation to make changes is done when that demand is accepted. It’s as though the momentum from the initiating activism is transferred and perpetuated in the organisation’s business-as-usual environment.

This isn’t reality. 

The holistic perspective

Success in getting an issue on the agenda for change is only the first step. Its an important part of the process of driving change, but it is not, of itself, sufficient.

Effective activism doesn’t assert ‘mission accomplished’ until the cause of suffering has been acknowledged and addressed – and the suffering has ceased.

It is tempting to see activism as just a form of moral combat struggling against unjust resistance. However, the moral momentum can be crudely expressed and expended long before the cause of suffering has been resolved.

A holistic perspective on a cause will see how multiple factors play out to create the suffering that triggers the activism. We can delve into evolutionary psychology to understand the impulses that drive individuals and groups to act as they do. We can explore organisational psychology to understand why workplace cultures act as they do. We can interrogate social psychology to appreciate how evolving values change our expectations, but not always our conduct. And we can look at ourselves to see what excites our concern and compassion – and what gives us permission to back off from what was once urgent.

Conclusion

Activism is hard. We are driven to a desire to end suffering and then reality hits us with a wall of resistance. Drawing attention to suffering does not mean that everyone will jump to end it. It would be wonderful if that is all it takes. 

Many will express sincere intent that it ends. But intent dies without will. And the will to change is often snarled in a thicket of existential complexities. It is easy and tempting to craft a story that celebrates moral virtue battling against ‘evil’ resistors.

I paused before writing of suffering because it could be mistaken for manipulative hyperbole. But then I thought it might be useful to remind activists that this is what they responded to in the first place – and the efforts to drive change that remain not done.

I don’t know when Diversity and Inclusion teams became a thing. But I remember when they were not even imagined, and any suggestion they might be good idea was laughed at.

Disability activism became a thing in the 1960s (along with a lot of other themes). My former department created a Disability Employee Network in July 2010 even though it had been engaged in disability matters for at least the preceding 30 years.

As a culture we continue to evolve toward greater inclusion. There are arguments about when this became a passion – the ending of slavery, women’s suffrage? In any case its being going on for a few centuries, and the scope of our inclusive embrace has been getting wider. We have been doing this precisely to end the suffering that arises from exclusion from our sense of shared humanity. That task becomes more complex and challenging as we seek to make changes at societal, communal, and organisational levels. The activist must evolve with the challenge.

In an organisational context, the low hanging fruit has been harvested over the past few decades. Its time to stand tall and go after the rest. That means acquiring deeper understanding and developing more refined skills – if we care enough to do so..

On recruitment of people with disability

Introduction

This has been stimulated by recent conversations and is based on the NSW public sector’s current practices. The state has an expressed commitment to employing more people with disability, which I do not doubt is sincere. However, experience doesn’t necessarily match.

There is a widespread belief that bias can be mitigated by brief training efforts – in disability awareness, in inclusion and diversity and in combatting bias. There is no evidence I am aware of that confirms such efforts do any good. Indeed, there is evidence the outcome is contrary to the intent. Brief training doesn’t stick as a rule and must be backed up by revisiting and active reflection on the training. This doesn’t usually happen, so participants in such training can be misled that they have been ‘trained’ in bias mitigation.

Under that error many will assume that this brief cognitive input has made them sufficiently aware of bias to ensure they will not be swayed by it. If only it were that simple!

Effective bias mitigation requires two key things – intentional and conscious awareness in company of at least one other person engaged in the same endeavour to mitigate bias and specific practices designed to reduce the risk of bias. 

Here I want to focus on the second factor via 3 elements of the selection process – initial assessment of applications, adjustments at interview and the composition of the assessment panel. 

The elimination of disadvantage and bias in recruitment isn’t simple, but a more systemised approach will go a long way to reducing risk.  Recruitment is often undertaken by people with limited or no experience in selection processes. It’s common for the manager of the work unit to convene the selection panel and determine its members. This is a huge risk area that could be significantly reduced by ensuring all recruitment is undertaken by recruitment professionals. This is, however, not about to happen, so mitigating the consequent risk must become a priority.

I am not entirely disparaging training efforts. In fact, I do think that effective training in bias mitigation has benefits wider than recruitment. However, we must understand the limits of well-intentioned training and ensure its not the only strategy employed.

Initial assessment of applications

Depending on roles applications may comprise different phases. Research into ‘decision-making hygiene’ provides good arguments for each step being assessed separately, and candidates rated for that step. This approach will produce an aggregate score which will rank applicants.

An advertisement for a Senior Project Officer that I saw recently had only 4 stages – a cover letter (a page), responses to 2 questions (a page per question), the CV, and the interview. Assessment is theoretically based on identified core capabilities from the Capability Framework. There can 4-6 capabilities which must be addressed. However, asking a candidate to demonstrate they meet these capabilities required and assessing them against them is a hit and miss affair.

I question the value of the first 2 steps because the requested excessive brevity seemed to me to diminish the value of what was asked for relative to what is being assessed. There are, I believe fundamental problems in asking for elements in a selection process that can’t be usefully assessed toward ranking an applicant.

This example can hence only be used as a thinking model rather than an instance of a workable approach.

Nevertheless, ideally this situation would lead to 4 assessment steps, each rated only against other candidates’ same submissions. For example, all cover letters would be assessed together and ranked. This would be ideally done with names masked.

The advantage of this approach is that the interview tends to be the determining assessment step. This is where applicants with disability are most vulnerable, and where bias can really kick in. A strong candidate may have 3 high scores from the other steps which could off-set a weaker interview performance.

The disadvantage is that it takes discipline and more time to make this approach work and will not be preferred by busy hiring managers, regardless of their obligation to minimise bias. It would have to be a mandatory approach.

Culling applications

The NSW public sector theoretically uses the Capability Framework to identify usually 4-6 focus capabilities which a role is considered to require. This would be a great idea if the intended rationale was uniformly employed.

It would be sensible to cull applications depending on the quality of demonstrated fit against the focus capabilities. These capabilities are skills, not experiences, so a CV isn’t a fair source – unless the applicant has been advised to write a CV highlighting capabilities. This, so far as I am aware does not happen. Ads for roles do not direct applicants to the capability framework or how to prepare a CV. This might disadvantage external applicants if assessment against capabilities was uniformly practised. 

Absent the CV in the example considered here the assessment panel is left with the cover letter and the targeted questions. If these are not designed to elicit responses related to the focus capabilities, there is a serious question to be asked about what logic is employed to cull applications.

This question matters because the default rationale for culling may be the CV. CVs are not easy to interpret. For example, a long-term public sector employee may have no awareness of a private sector role, especially in relation to capabilities. In essence, a CV should not be used to cull applications where the focus is on capability rather than experience.

This matters to an applicant with disability because their disability may have disrupted work experience.

What is needed is a standard focus capability based initial written element of sufficient word length to give an applicant with disability a fair shot at making it to interview.

This could be as basic as saying “Here are the focus capabilities for this role. In no more than xxx words please tell us how you meet them. Your response will be used to assess whether you are one of the xx applicants to progress to interview.” This could replace both the cover letter and the 2 questions. A word limit per capability should be set.

Assessment by capability rather than experience is a good approach in my view, but it must be governed by a strong methodology which breaks the habits of past practices.

Adjustments for interviews

The opportunity to ask for an adjustment at the interview stage is universal these days. But this mostly relates to physical accessibility. Requests for adjustments for other reasons are not yet common. Physical or sensory accessibility requests are usually easy to accommodate. In addition, such disabilities tend to be evident.

There is, however, a wider variety of disabilities which are ‘invisible’, which may not be something a candidate feels comfortable disclosing, or which may not be thought to be a disability.

The standard practice is to give candidates around 20 minutes to preview 4-6 interview questions shortly before the interview. We have been doing this for decades. I can remember when getting the questions in advance was an innovation – and thought be some as going soft on candidates. 

It’s a silly practice as it is. At best it’s a quiz under an unnecessary time pressure. It measures nothing useful and significantly disadvantages a wide range of people with disability. This includes people who are neuroatypical, people with anxiety, and people with sensory or motor impairments. 

This spectrum of people also includes many who do consider themselves as a person with disability. Some anxiety states are situationally triggered for a variety of reasons. For example, anxiety can be induced by public speaking, singing in public, disclosing personal information in a new group, sitting exams, and job interviews. Impaired performance under a state of anxiety is not indicative of performance in general.

Interview questions serve a purpose in asking candidates to express ideas clearly to show understanding of a role’s dimensions and requirements. They are not intended to be quizzes, as they once were. When we understand that history, we can appreciate that current practices are not only out of date they can be seriously discriminatory.

The solution is to eliminate the pointless hothouse pressure of having a scant 20 minutes to review 4-6 questions and prepare responses. There are 2 further problems with this practice.

Questions should be designed to elicit responses related to the identified capabilities and some questions have 2 elements in them. I reviewed 4 questions from a panel in 2022 and 3 had 2 elements, making a total of 7 questions to be considered in the limited time made available. It was also not clear how the questions related to the capabilities.

I have proposed giving all candidates the questions 3 days in advance. Others, with more experience in contemporary recruitment, think 5 days is better.

I proposed 3 days for all candidates after an applicant was given the questions several days in advance because of their disability. It was the right thing to do. But it also gave them and unintended advantage. The only way to meet their adjustment need and be fair to all is to ensure everyone has the same opportunity. The disadvantage and the unintended advantage are both eliminated. It is a truly inclusive step.

The panel members

I have been an independent on panels that have been skilfully run, and it was a pleasure to have been part of such a high-quality exercise. I have no doubt that well-run panels that reduce the bias risk are real, but they are not as common as we’d like.

As well as being a person with disability and a former DEN Chair I have an extensive background in recruitment. Because of this I feel comfortable taking my role as the ‘independent’ literally. The independent may be the key to ensuring that the bias risk is reduced – if that status is recognised in a more formal way.

The most important change to recruitment practices would be to develop a pool of formally recognised and independent panel members (Inclusion Independents) who are trained in recruitment practice and bias mitigation. Each selection panel would be randomly assigned a pool member who would certify that the recruitment exercise met minimal standards for bias mitigation. 

The independent would have standing in the human resources team, so if clear bias was encountered the recruitment could be suspended until a solution was developed.

Identified roles

This is a vexed area that stirs strong emotions that are vented in advocacy, but rarely in opposition. Arguments against are rarely plainly stated or defended. It merits a more substantial consideration than I can accommodate here.

I will simply observe that in sympathy with the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’, where roles concern disability they should be filled only by people with the experience of living with disability – unless specialised qualifications are required.

The theme of identified roles attracts a lot of heat and little honest debate. It is an argument that must be had. But when it comes to roles directly related to disability, I think there is no legitimate argument to be had.

Conclusion

Eradication of bias is a nice target, but likely unattainable. But very significant reduction is realistic. I have addressed only 3 elements of the recruitment process to demonstrate that bias reduction isn’t a serious challenge in itself – so long as a disciplined methodology is developed and implemented. But there are challenges in establishing disciplined uniform methods. These require a commitment by senior management to ensure bias mitigation methods are consistently implemented.

Effective bias mitigation in recruitment benefits everyone, not just people with disability.

I have had over 6 years’ experience in recruitment as a job and many times since as a member of selection panels. My success rate as an applicant is about 50:50. 

Effective recruitment is difficult. It is a far more skilled affair than most appreciate. Sometimes the choice is a standout no brainer. But it often comes down to finding reasons to exclude an applicant on a fine point. After all you can offer a role to only one person.

You can exclude applicants through the initial coarse sieve of culling. Here obvious acts of discrimination can eliminate an applicant on grounds of gender, race or assumed religion – to mention a few common excluders.

The finer sieve of assessment through interview is where applicants with disability are at greatest risk. This is where the strongest protections must be located. The most potent is, I believe, the genuine accredited independent. That said, this isn’t a substitute for other bias mitigation efforts, just a bulwark against their ineffectuality until things substantially evolve.

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.