While we are busy making statements about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) and talent, there is an entire population of people that get missed in most of these discussions. These are our friends and colleagues who are neurodivergent. They have been silent for a long time, because when most people hear a label, it comes with a perception centered on the word “disability.”
When hearing the word disability, people often immediately think about what someone can’t do versus what they can do within the context of their label. Disability is complex because it’s defined by society and social expectations of people versus the actual human condition. In fact, many of our friends do not mind being called “disabled” because it is part of their identity. When we use terms like “differently abled or say they “have” <insert name of the thing>, it reduces the person to the label. Individuals are so much more than how their body works or the way that they process thoughts and activities. This matters, especially at work and in the way that we think about learning programs and environments. This is even more important when we have neurodivergent colleagues and we cannot see the condition. Neurodiversity is about how people’s brains are wired and the behavioral traits associated — which often scares managers who do not understand the potential value within the human being.
When a person’s environment requires an accommodation for a need that may not be visible, they often get labeled or belittled for something as simple as not wanting to socialize or preferring to work alone. As leaders, we talk about being psychologically safe but need to check some of our thoughts when working with others.
Do we penalize someone who performs well alone but struggles in a busy and sensory stimulating work environment? What about the employee who may not remember everything they took notes in a meeting because of poor auditory memory and slower note-taking ability? These situations only touch the surface of how we need to get better at challenging our initial assumptions to learn about strengths and talents entire groups of people who are often missed or misunderstood at work. How can we get curious or better? Here are some tips:
1. Be a leader who learns beyond your role and what you can see.
Take the time to learn about different types of neurodiversity, conditions and the unique strengths and challenges. As learning happens, curiosity grows, and appreciation happens organically. Just like our colleagues are learning how to do the job, a leader who is educated can adjust tools to help fit the work environment and the human being.
2. Include and accommodate people with the right tools to do the job effectively.
There are assistive technologies, flexible work schedules and communication aids available that can help nearly anyone with a need.
3. Encourage the whole team to recognize and value the diversity that exists.
Take the time to celebrate the strengths and talents on the team. Think strategically about giving the right assignments at the right time to the right people. Create collaboration opportunities that encourage diversity of thought and work products. Ask questions instead of making assumptions about what a team members or colleague is capable of. Listen to everyone’s experience and remember, if someone thinks they are up for the challenge of an assignment, they likely can do it.
4. Provide meaningful feedback.
Often, leaders hold back on providing meaningful feedback to employees with a disability or who are neurodivergent. Don’t do that. Take the time to think through your perspective and the delivery of the feedback and do it in a meaningful way that will help the team member recognize their achievements and provide them opportunities and meaningful paths for growth and development. Foster a supporting and understanding environment when giving feedback so that people feel comfortable sharing their experiences and asking for help when they it.
5. Pay attention to the unique gifts on your team.
Many neurodivergent colleagues have stellar abilities in the following areas:
- A heightened ability to focus on details that others may miss.
- Unique approaches to problem solving, which can help identify innovative solutions to more complex challenges.
- Exceptional memories which can help in areas like data analysis.
- Creative skills with unique perspectives and insights which can drive impactful and effective solutions.
6. Pay attention to the work and impact of famous people who are neurodivergent — it may change your thinking on the subject. Start with the following:
- Temple Grandin is well known in the autism community and has made great contributions in the fields of education and animal science. Her recent book “Visual Thinking” explains how many neurodivergent people think in pictures. She discusses the difference between visual thinkers, verbal thinkers and visual-spatial thinkers. Her research can help inform the way we connect to learners and colleagues.
- Carol Grieder is a biologist who won the Nobel Prize. She made significant contributions in the field of teleomeres, which are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that are part of the ageing process and also impact the development of cancer cells. She is dyslexic and often talks about how her experience with dyslexia has impacted her approach to research.
- David Neeleman is an entrepreneur and airline executive who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. He often talks about how his experience has influenced his approach to business and how his work gets done. He talks about multitasking and risk taking as well as the impact of his mind on his ability to think and be innovative.
- Michael Phelps and Simone Biles are two well-known Olympic athletes who often speak about how ADHD helped them hyperfocus on training and competition.
- David Beckham has Tourette syndrome and speaks about his experience in managing his symptoms in order to accomplish athletic success.
- Stephen Colbert, a writer and comedian with his own television show has spoken about his obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, and how they have influenced his work.
Instead of shying away from the neurodivergent team members, think about the impact they may have on the work getting done. There is an entire untapped market of highly skilled and likely underemployed people because the workplace does not always understand the potential of the person behind the diagnosis, and training can help by raising awareness.