‘Failing Upwards’ and The Impact on Disabled Workers — (2021)
Last week, Emma Hudson, editor at LinkedIn news, shared a BBC article about ‘Failing Upwards’ at work. It’s hardly surprising that workers may be scrutinising their colleagues more closely than ever before when job security is a looming threat for many.
As an accessibility consultant, one question about the phenomena instantly entered my mind:
Does “Failing Upwards” Discriminate against Disabled workers?
Academics already believe white; cisgender men are more likely to benefit from failing upwards. Managers are unconsciously swayed by ‘cultural matching’ — biased towards employees who share their race, gender, and class.
The ‘Dunning Kruger’ effect — whereby a less skilled person is likely to have an inflated sense of confidence about their abilities and vice versa — has been a notable concept in popular and business psychology for decades. Regardless of their other skills or attributes, an employee’s level of confidence a key factor in whether they inspire confidence in their employer.
Unfortunately, confidence may be the biggest barrier to failing upwards for disabled workers. Disabled people may struggle to confidently evaluate their skills — but the lack of confidence employers have in disabled people is much worse. According to a survey by Leonard Cheshire, 20% of employers admitted they would be less likely overall to hire someone with a disability.
Disabled people may feel even more vulnerable if they’ve previously left work due to their disability. Additionally, people with an ‘invisible disability’ may also face imposter syndrome towards their symptoms and diagnosis. That’s a pervasive problem. If someone doesn’t feel comfortable naming their disability or health condition — they won’t be able to search for resources that could help them.
In the BBC article, Chamorro-Premuzic identified a range of traits that can charm employers: Style — Extraversion — Confidence — Assertiveness — Eye Contact — Body Language — all of which are harder for disabled people — particularly if they are neurodiverse or live with mental illness — to demonstrate.
While there are many schemes to try and increase the number of disabled people who enter into work, the Revolution Foundation thinktank cautions that such schemes ignore retention, and the Trade Union Council has warned that prejudice, unconscious bias, and lack of flexibility can all impact disabled people’s ability progress at work.
Disabled workers face some of the highest rates of unconscious bias — 36% people surveyed by Scope believed that disabled people ‘were not as productive as everyone else’ — and a quarter of disabled people said they had ‘experienced attitudes or behaviours where people expected less of them because of their disability.’ With such negative attitudes towards disability, it’s no wonder disabled people may feel more anxious about making mistakes, let alone talking about them openly.
Sadly, this anxiety can be worsened by internal judgement too. Whether it stems from a diagnosed mental illness, or negative experiences, it can be easy for a small mistake to trigger a spiral of anxiety that compounds the original mistake and turns it into something much harder to deal with. One example of this was shared in a recent episode of the podcast 80,000 hours, where guest speaker Howie — who lives with Depression and ADHD — described how the stress caused by a simple booking error highlighted his struggles with work: and ultimately contributed to his over yearlong break from work.
Can Disabled People Benefit from ‘Failing Upwards’?
Some disabled people may be more likely to ‘fail upwards’ than others.
When I started to consider an ADHD diagnosis at university, I empowered myself by reading the success stories of ADHD’ers who had excelled as employees and entrepreneurs. While these stories certainly have their place, they tend to be shared by white men who lack visible differences, were able to access financial resources — and whose organisational deficits may have been delegated to wives or female colleagues.
Women with ADHD, on the other hand, face increased stigma, worse employment outcomes, and higher rates of mental illness. Race, gender identity, income and many more factors impact the likelihood that someone will be diagnosed. Many undiagnosed people find themselves on the edge of sacrificing their careers: tired from not understanding why they make the mistakes they do, nor how they can improve and impress their management and co-workers.
What Should Change?
As part of my freelance work, I frequently study the Equality Act 2010, and Disability Confident Scheme. One of the things that I find uncomfortable about such government schemes is that they’re often filled with subjective caveats. For example — That the adjustments made for disabled employees must be ‘reasonable’ for a business to make or that They must be made ‘as long as the employees are still capable of working to the needs of the business.’ (Paraphrased.)
This sounds fair — but decisions about a disabled person’s work capability are often made based on their employer’s opinion rather than any objective framework. Government schemes are valuable — but only when employers know of and are happy to work with them.
Ideally, employers would ensure that when they encourage workers to think positively about mistakes and failure: they consider that disabled and other minority employees need to be shown they’re safe to do so.
Immediate implementation of Access to Work for all self-declared disabled workers could ensure that they are not discriminated against ‘Failing Upwards.’ Instead, disabled workers would be protected against unconscious bias as soon as they enter work.
Currently, disabled people have to fill out complex paperwork — and, if their employer is cautious or unhappy about the scheme — decide whether to go against their wishes.
 All these topics are covered in ‘The Strives, Struggles, and Successes of Women Diagnosed with ADHD as Adults’ by Mira Elise Glaser Holthe and Eva Langvik