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Neurodiversity: Why thinking outside the box matters

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

What do you think about when you consider diversity in the workplace? Usually what comes to mind is gender, race, religion, age etc - all of which of course are hugely important, but perhaps it’s high time that neurodiversity also makes the list.

There are so many benefits to having a diverse workforce, and it's been proven beyond doubt that a neurodiverse workforce adds another string to the bow of competitive advantage.

What is neurodiversity?

It is estimated that around 1 in 7 people (more than 15%) of people in the UK, and 1 in 10 in Ireland, are neurodivergent. This means that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently.

Ernst and Young’s excellent article into neurodiversity gives a useful definition of neurodiversity in all its forms:

“Neurodiverse individuals have intellectual, developmental or learning disabilities such as autism, dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and social anxiety disorders. Many of them have superior technical and mathematical abilities, have a strong propensity for details and can concentrate for an extended period on complex tasks, often recognizing patterns others don’t see”.

Research from the same article has shown that many neurodiverse individuals possess unique strengths in the following areas:

  • Processing information: researchers found that autistic employees have an information processing advantage and are better able to detect critical information, which may account for their higher-than-average prevalence in IT positions.

  • Productivity and work quality: JPMorgan Chase reports that professionals in its Autism at Work initiative make fewer errors and are 90% to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees.

  • Sustained attention to detail: neurodiverse employees often bring a hyperfocus to complex, repetitive tasks, which they can sustain over a long period of time.

  • Dependability, motivation, engagement and peer integration: at least 86% of employers surveyed by the Institute for Corporate Productivity rated employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities as good or very good in all four areas.

In short, individuals who are neurodivergent can bring a whole array of talents and skills that are beneficial to many work environments. It may seem strange, therefore, that neurodiversity as a bias is even on the agenda. Why wouldn’t companies want to hire individuals with superior skills in complex areas, for example?

The answer lies right back at the beginning - at hiring policies, and at promotion practices and opportunities further down the line. Ultimately, neurodiverse individuals often struggle to fit the profiles sought by prospective employers.

The issue with current hiring practices

In large organisations especially, HR policies and processes are developed to be wide-ranging and scalable. The problem is that scalability is often at odds with the goal of neurodiverse hiring.

As this article from the Harvard Business Review points out, the behaviours of many neurodiverse people run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee. For example, strong communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, the ability to network, and the ability to conform to standard practices etc.

These criteria systematically screen out neurodiversity.

The article points out two of the biggest challenges to neurodiverse hiring in traditional HR approaches:

  1. The interview: Despite their desirable skills in many areas, people who are neurodiverse may not interview well. For example, autistic people may struggle with eye contact, or answering direct questions or generally having confidence issues.

  2. Conformity to standardised approaches: Employees with neurodiversity typically need to be allowed to deviate from established practices, which could be anything from noise levels to daily work routines, managers will have to offer a tailored work setting

How HR managers and business leaders can change the status quo

Here are some thoughts from the Harvard Business Review article about practical steps that leaders and managers can take:

  • Train other workers and managers: to help existing employees understand what to expect from their new colleagues and any accommodations that might need to be made

  • Set up a support ecosystem: Companies with neurodiverse programs design and maintain simple support systems for their new employees.

  • Tailor methods for managing careers: Neurodiverse employees need long-term career paths, just as other workers do. This requires serious thought about ongoing assessment and development that will take the special circumstances of neurodiverse employment into account.

Making changes such as these to the workplace culture not only benefits the neurodiverse employee, they can also benefit the wider team - as the EY article also noted.

Accommodations made for the neurodiverse benefitted neurotypical employees, including setting clearer expectations, giving more explicit feedback and providing consistent communication. Many managers of neurodiverse professionals reported increased sensitivity to the individual needs of all employees, improving their ability to leverage the talents of everyone in the workplace.

Why neurodiversity is good for business

Neurodiversity in the workplace is not just a social enterprise.

When companies embrace neurodiversity, they also gain competitive advantages in other areas including productivity, innovation, culture and talent retention.

A report by JPMorgan Chase found in Financial Times that professionals in its Autism at Work initiative made fewer errors and were 90% to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees.

People with dyslexia tend to think outside the box and are more likely to produce innovative and creative ideas — a fantastic quality for companies striving for innovation to offset their tendencies to all look in the same direction.

It is clear that with some accommodations, hiring and promotion approaches can be adjusted to attract and progress a more neuro-diverse range of individuals than they currently do. It is also clear that a more inclusive approach to hiring will add skills and expertise which organisations need and which are in strong supply from the neurodiverse talent pool. Surely it is also therefore clear that with the ever shrinking pool of available talent and the underemployment of neurodiverse individuals the question becomes not “Why would you?” design inclusive processes, but rather “Why wouldn’t you”!

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