Building Diversity from Adversity

Why the talk of snapping back when we should be moving forward.

A hallway lit in rainbow colours

We are living through the making of history, so why all the talk of snapping back to normal as though historic pivot points don’t change how humanity operates? They have in the past, so why assume that they won’t change us this time round? This is the time to reassess and consider how to consciously incorporate what we have learned into a better future.

Many people, including disabled people, don’t want to return to the normal of before. As it becomes increasingly evident that our leadership groups are drawn from a very narrow group in society, those for whom the old conditions have been designed, this is the opportunity to address long standing exclusions. With a change in how we work must come a change in who forms our leadership groups.

There is a real opportunity to use the current circumstances to change how we work and who we work with. Most importantly, this is when we can stop all the talking about diversity and start building a new reality; a truly diverse leadership with all the benefits that it can bring us. Previous diversity talk has been predicated on the assumption that diverse people are welcome, including disabled people, so long as they slot into an old model of working that specifically excludes them because it has been designed to suit those currently in it.

This means disabled people have not been working in these environments in meaningful numbers, and rarely make it to leadership levels. Disabled people have long been told they cannot be appointed to a position unless they are able to work at an office and commit to long hours. Others have been denied advancement because they work flexible or part time hours, or are not provided with appropriate adjustments. The outcomes of these attitudes have been a less diverse workforce and very few disabled people in leadership positions.

The pandemic has shown us that these restrictions are limiting the effectiveness of our teams. When people are able to work as best suits them, including having more capacity because their day doesn’t include three hours of travel, their contribution increases. When work can be done from any location, people are able to contribute all of their energy to the work not the getting to work.

Most importantly, there is far more capacity for disabled people to participate in a workforce where extra physical demands no longer form part of unwritten job conditions. Rather than denying advancement to disabled people for not meeting arbitrary physical expectations, they can now be appointed to all levels, including senior positions.

This pivot point in history has shown us that everyone works differently and excels under different conditions. We’ve been welded to a centuries old model of work that insists on working from offices, between certain hours. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to harness the benefits of 21st century technology allowing teams to work from multiple locations and at more flexible times. It has highlighted the need for managers to engage their teams with innovation and agility. For many it has illustrated how much more effective teams can be when individual needs are acknowledged and adjusted for.

Now is the time to reconsider the old restrictions of being present in a specific location, between specific hours, in order to be appointed to a position. Its time to harness the technology available, and the lessons of an adverse situation, to bring more diverse people into our workforce and particularly our leadership teams. We have been learning that there is no one size fits all solution. By recognising that lesson, we can welcome more diversity into our organisations, building working conditions around the person.

Rock, Grant and Grey showed that diverse teams are more effective and solve problems faster in their HBR article of 2016. In their 2017 HBR article Sherbin and Kennedy explained that disabled people are ten per cent more innovative in the workplace. Diversity and disability are key elements of moving to a better future, yet we haven’t been using them because we have restricted ourselves to a centuries old model of working that suits very few. That can change now. The broader inclusion the current opportunity provides must be consciously noted and maintained.

While many have been struggling with an online world, disability leaders are embracing finally being in the room using technology and collaborative methods with which we are already familiar. We are seeing greater understanding that being physically in the same room is not necessary to have an effective conversation. Suddenly we can be speakers at conferences, participate in forums, attend virtual board meetings, and form part of remote teams and in recent times we have been doing all of these things.

As a result, disabled people have become more visible. We certainly do not want to snap back to the old version of normal. We want to move forward to a world where these gains become embedded and our expertise continues to be valued and used, where it is regularly in the room and where it contributes to a better style of leadership that is more inclusive and innovative.

Without realising it the pandemic has seen the world move to a more adaptive working style that better incorporates individual need. This provides a real opportunity to extend this to everyone, so that diversity can become one of the silver linings of a very adverse situation. We are finally more focussed on the individual, and that is what is needed to build disability diversity. Rather than assuming one size will fit all, it has become clear that we can work better by discarding those old limitations.

This is an historical turning point, and it has become one where disabled people can become more visible and more recognised as the experts that we are. Snapping back to an old normal and an old model of working is neither desirable nor sensible. Organisations which consciously harness the lessons of the pandemic, by appointing the many highly qualified and capable disabled people available to leadership positions, will be the ones that leap into a better future.


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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person.


Author: hchristinar

The professional hub for disability leaders. Time to change the way leadership is understood.

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