Good different: Embracing neurodiversity at work
Around 15% of the population is estimated to be neurodivergent – that is, they have a brain that functions in a way that differs significantly from what is considered ‘normal’ or typical.
Of course, no two minds are the same and we all experience things differently – a nice bit of jazz might be relaxing for me, but to someone else it’s like listening to a cat in the drier.
But when the way your brain works makes you struggle to focus or find certain social situations overwhelming, being neurodivergent can have some major challenges.
And yet these are exactly the kind of people many of us need in our talent pool. That’s why big corporations such as Microsoft, IBM and Proctor and Gamble are recognising the benefits of embracing neurodiversity in the workplace.
And guess what? They’re already seeing success from their newly launched neurodiversity programmes.
So how can we as employers tap into the rich tapestry of neurodivergent thought and make sure these employees stay engaged, fulfilled and happy?
Here are some steps you can take.
The difficult thing about catering for neurodiverse people in your organisation is that all neurodivergents are different. In fact, that’s kind of the point. There's a saying, “If you’ve met one autistic person... you’ve met one autistic person.” So yes, there are some similarities between certain conditions, but on the whole your approach should always be a frank, honest conversation about how you can help.
Target neurodivergents in your recruitment marketing
If the role you’re hiring for is crying out for someone with a particular skill set (think pattern recognition, creative thinking, data analytics…), why not target these candidates in your advertising?
Google famously posted an incredibly hard maths problem on a billboard to catch the tiny proportion of the population who could solve it. These were then pointed towards a website with another problem to solve before finally being shortlisted for a selection of roles. If you want people with particular skills, use your recruitment marketing to find them.
Take a strengths-based approach
It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing neurodivergence as a disability and having to make ‘accommodations’, but while this will always be helpful, you’ll do better to focus on what these employees are good at.
When employees of all neurological backgrounds feel confident and good at their work, they have higher self esteem, will be more engaged and more likely to stay in their role. So set your neurodivergent colleagues up for success by focusing on their strengths. The Table Group’s ‘Six Working Geniuses’ assessment is a great place to start.
Don’t make assumptions
As we said above, it’s easy to lump all neurodivergent people into one category, but this just applies assumptions that might not be correct. Not all autistic people struggle with empathy, for example, and not all people with Tourette’s syndrome suffer from tics.
Instead, educate yourselves and others about what your neurodivergent employees struggle with by having open conversations.
Be clear and consistent
For neurotypical people, navigating the social conventions and banter of the office comes naturally. But this isn’t always so for neurodivergents. Unclear instructions, shifting goalposts and between-the-lines feedback won’t always land, so say what you mean.
It also helps to break down tasks into manageable chunks, as many neurodivergents spend a lot of time masking their difficulties, making daily life seem overwhelming at times. Written step by step instructions are best, with regular checking in to see that they’re clear and understood. Most importantly, have an open door where no question is too silly, so management is approachable and employees are afraid to ask.
Technology is on your side when helping neurodivergent employees, so use it.
Assistive technology like speech-to-text (or text-to-speech) software, productivity apps like Pomodoro, note-taking apps and live captioning can all make life smoother. For example, providing written captions in meetings might be a game-changer for an employee who struggles to process verbal instructions.
You guessed it – the best way to include and accept people from all backgrounds into your organisation is to hear from them. Letting your neurodiverse employees express themselves and share what they struggle with is the best way to educate others about what they need to feel accepted.
Encourage neurodivergents to speak up and share their experiences to the company, in person or in the company newsletter.
And if you’re neurodivergent yourself, share your story!