Dis-ability: How coaching fulfils potential and directs focus on ability

December 3, 2021

In the first conversation with Consuelo Battistelli, the DE&I manager at IBM Italia, the topic was immediately directed towards Disability Management, which unfortunately, is the last priority for companies when it comes to inclusion.

In several countries, a diversity quota is obligatory by law. To this effect, it can often appear that efforts to hire and introduce individuals with disabilities into the workforce are solved rather quickly.

But is a law on quotas enough to generate real inclusion?

Consuelo, who’s been working in DE&I since 2016, realizes more than others that those with disabilities are not always accepted, at least in the organizational context. In her experience, it is not unusual to provide the most advanced tools and structures to support disabilities (e.g. ‘disabled-proof’ office, a modern tool and tech solution, or a policy?). However, relying just on this approach is not always a coherent way to include them as a proper team member or a valued member of the organization. It’s crucial for employers to realize that their obligation does not end after a worker is onboarded. 

Mario, an employee for a large corporation had once expressed to Consuelo, “I was given the most advanced technology to support my job, but in reality I was not even aware of who my boss was and I would spend countless hours each week just reading novels to keep myself occupied.” For Mario, the basics of management (setting objectives for him, receiving feedback, being evaluated according to a performance management system, etc.) didn’t seem applicable him.

This is a very common phenomenon for managers. Often times, managers become unsure about their approach towards people with visible disabilities. For example, sometimes they are more indulgent with their employee and therefore avoid providing proper constructive feedback or assigning stretch projects or even a leadership role. In other occasions they are simply not comfortable in facing the topic with that person. Moreover, for a business this is not only an ethical issue, but a matter of waste.

So how much are companies losing when disability is not addressed correctly?

According to CIPD, there are around 7.7 million people working with a disability or a long-term health condition in just the UK only and yet, only around half of them are in work (CIPD, 2021)

Furthermore, according to a CTI – Centre for Talent Innovation’s study, only 21% of employees with disabilities disclose to HR that they have one (consider the fact that not all the disabilities are visible and some are related to mental health).

CTI reports that 75% of employees with disabilities have market-worthy ideas and among this talented pool, 48% say their ideas went ignored by decision makers or relevant stakeholders, 57% feel stalled in their careers, and 47% feel they would never achieve a position of power at their company no matter how high-performing or qualified they are (CTI,2017)

Companies may risk wasting talent inside the organization, especially when you consider the employees who are feeling left out will likely develop more frustration and disengagement. This results in lower performance or them leaving the company. Also, companies risk losing insights on the perspective and needs of a vast majority of consumers. This has been estimated to have a cost £249 billion in the UK alone. Not to mention reputational and legal risks.

If you intend to come up with a proper disability strategy (apart from focusing on policies, structures and tools), you need to work on removing culture barriers. A part of your talent strategy to support people with disabilities may then include training all employees in understanding certain specific challenges that disabled people face and maybe inviting some of them to share their stories and testimonials.

At the same time, it is important to make sure that your work has depth that not only reshapes the mindset, but also develops the right skills at two levels:

  1. Equipping leaders with the capability to create psychologically safe environments. Your leaders must be able to foster trust within their team to help their collaborators talk openly about their specific needs, understanding how to best use their talents, how to develop, and empower them instead of relegating them in the role of ‘victims’. This is particularly possible when a leader is equipped with coaching skills, therefore able to listen and question the other person in a non-judgmental way.
  2. Empowering people with disabilities in expressing themselves and in recognizing their own talents and abilities (instead of focusing on the dis-abilities) to support the company’s and team’s goals. This outcome is reachable with 1:1 coaching, especially with a strengths-based approach, which focuses on generating awareness on the unique talents of the person and his/her sources of motivation and energy.

Coaching is therefore the best tool since it provides a psychologically safe space for people with disabilities to express themselves freely. It also supports those with disabilities to learn how to assert their needs, feel more self-confidence, while at the same time raises awareness on their talents and on how to strengthen them in proper situations. 

Coaching also benefits and supports leaders by helping them adapt their leadership style towards a more inclusive style. At the same time, in a coaching program focused on disability management, leaders learn to recreate a psychologically safe environment and adopt an active listening and empowering conversational style for their people.

Adopting a good disability management policy has its advantages on many levels. For the individual, they are able to feel more motivated and included for his/her value instead of it being just a compliance with a law. For the company, it provides in-house expertise and awareness on competencies that are often ignored.

In reality, what is needed is a shift in focus and approach. A manager who develops a questioning and listening approach, based on coaching skills, can learn to express enough curiosity to ask the person what they are capable of doing, instead of what they are incapable of and ultimately, empowering them to ‘see’ and develop their potential.
Author:

Valeria Cardillo Piccolino
CoachHub Senior Behavioral Scientist MED

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