“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment?”
– Harvey Blume, The Atlantic, 1998
Sarah was recently hired as a data analyst at a finance firm in the city. She has a Master’s degree, valuable experience and her skills are in high demand. But before she landed this gig, she’d been unemployed for more than 12 months. Social interactions are particularly tricky for her – she struggles with reading non-verbal cues and maintaining eye contact, so people sometimes think she’s rude or disinterested. Bright lights overwhelm her too, making it challenging to concentrate and communicate effectively, which makes interviews especially hellish. But thanks to a forward-thinking company accepting of her differences, she got this job. And she’s one of the most highly regarded, hard-working and productive employees in the office.
Innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, analytics, problem solving. They’re some of the most highly sought-after skills in the workplace – skills most of us spend years trying to develop by learning how to tap into a way of thinking that doesn’t come naturally to us. Yet for those it does come naturally to, those gifted with a brain wired for talents and perspectives ‘neurotypical’ brains can’t even fathom, the workplace remains a daunting challenge. And that’s a huge loss – not only for those neurodivergent employees who have so much to offer, but for the potential of the businesses they work for.
While I’m not an expert in this field, people in my family are neurodivergent so I’ve grown up with compassion and appreciation for people who see the world differently. I also spent many years in creative industries where I was working alongside people with potentially undiagnosed differences – and it was those differences that made them absolute superstars at their jobs.
But the corporate world isn’t set up to cater to those that don’t fit the mould. It’s an environment where the loudest voice is the one that’s heard, where open plan rules and social extroverts thrive (a perspective that Susan Cain covers brilliantly in Quiet). Those that need solitude, that flourish in a quiet space where they can really focus in, that aren’t comfortable taking centre stage, are left to flounder awkwardly at the edges.
Sir Ken Robinson, one of the world’s top business thought leaders and author of The Element, believes that if we want people to achieve at their highest levels, we need to transform the way we teach, work and relate to create conditions where people feel themselves and most inspired. And he’s so right. But before we can do that, we need to understand the challenges faced by those who are wired in different ways.
So What Exactly is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity isn’t a one-size-fits all term, and there’s no one-size-fits all set of traits that set neurodivergent people apart from any other. And while the word ’neurodiversity’ does include medically diagnosed ‘neurominorities’ like ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, dyslexia and dyspraxia, it more broadly refers to the entire spectrum of unique ways our brains work.
Judy Singer, who coined the term, says that we are – as a group – neurodiverse, because no two humans are the same. There is no ‘standard’ brain, everyone processes information differently. But for some, those differences – whether it be how they learn, their social preferences or the way they communicate – pose significant challenges in certain situations.
When it comes to the workplace, neurodivergence often presents as executive dysfunction – easily distracted, difficulty prioritising and starting tasks, missed deadlines, late to work and meetings, providing tactless feedback, speaking up inappropriately. Sometimes, like for Sarah, just getting through the traditional hiring process is tough.
And that’s where the issue lies.
Without the proper understanding and support, many incredibly talented and capable neurodivergent individuals are being written off, their confidence destroyed and all that fantastic potential left unexplored. I’m passionate about helping debunk the myths and stigmas around neurodivergence so that doesn’t happen.
My Coaching Approach
In my coaching experience, I’ve learned that every individual, with or without a diagnosed condition, has their own set of quirks, challenges, strengths and brilliance to contribute to the world. My role as a coach is to help them acknowledge and believe in who they really are, extract their wonderful talents and help them find roles where they can play to their strengths.
I’ve learnt that when someone shares their neurodivergent challenges, it’s vital to approach the conversation with empathy and respect. Not everyone is comfortable discussing a ‘diagnosis’ – some may not even be fully aware of it. They generally have quite a damaged belief of their capabilities though, having been told they’re different / not right / doing things wrong their entire lives, and often their journey has been marked by struggles, societal stigmas and assumptions.
But my job isn’t to ‘fix’ them – they’re not broken. It’s to show them how their unique traits enhance their value.
To do that, I spend time getting to understand what their diagnosis or behaviours mean to them, what they want to call it, and how it feels for them on a daily basis – where it can be difficult, and also where it helps them shine.
We then collaboratively come up with strategies to manage their behaviours. Sometimes it means approaching things in a completely different way, sometimes I help them with step-by-step actions so they can land their intention or intended impact. Other times we include their manager or workmates (or even HR) to fully understand the impact of their behaviours and the support that will help them perform at their best in the workplace. It’s a true team effort.
Supporting Neurodivergence at Work
With diversity now a key focus for many organisations, we often talk about the inclusion of workers from different social backgrounds, cultures and genders. But if we want to benefit from the unique insights born from a different way of thinking, we need to create a safe and inclusive workplace that embraces diversity in all its forms – including neurodiversity.
And that means having a greater sensitivity to individual needs.
With an estimated 15-20% of the population believed to be neurodivergent, there are many people – like Sarah – who would thrive in an environment that better sets them up for success. While accommodations aren’t universally applicable, and individual needs vary greatly, there are some actions you can take to create an environment where neurodivergent employees feel supported and valued. These include:
- Understanding their unique perspectives and what their neurodivergence means to them.
- Developing strategies to manage their challenges, rather than attempting to ‘fix’ them. Remember that you’re not dealing with imperfections, but differences.
- Working collaboratively with managers, teams and HR to provide the necessary support, so they’re all part of the solution.
- Providing them with a sensory-friendly workspace where distractions are minimised – whether that be adjustable lighting, noise-cancelling headphones or simply a quiet space.
- Providing tools to help them stay organised, which may include visual supports like checklists and schedules, as well as regular structured check-ins.
- Providing clear written instructions and expectations, even a step-by-step process where necessary, or visuals, diagrams and drawings.
- Establishing a mentoring program or ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) to pair neurodivergent employees with colleagues who can offer support and guidance – it’s a fantastic learning opportunity for both sides!
- Providing training sessions for all staff to raise awareness about different neurodivergent behaviours, encouraging open discussions to reduce stigma and misconceptions.
Neurodivergent Role Models
Well-known, successful neurodivergent figures help break stereotypes. Like the one that ADHD is a ‘white boy’ condition. Or that neurodivergent people lack the inherent qualities to excel in leadership positions.
While navigating certain social and workplace dynamics can prove challenging for some neurodivergent people, it doesn’t define their capacity to lead. In fact many famous leaders, including Steve jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Walt Disney – even Einstein – attributed their success to the way their neurodivergent brains work.
I recently watched ‘The Beckhams’ documentary on Netflix and couldn’t help but think that David’s self-proclaimed OCD tendencies (exhibited by his immaculate wardrobe and kitchen), would have been a huge advantage when focused on perfecting his impressive football skills.
There are also plenty of famous women diagnosed with neurodivergent conditions leading the way in their fields, including:
- Greta Thunberg: A powerful advocate for environmental action, Greta has Asperger’s, high-functioning autism and OCD. Her unique perspective and steely determination have sparked a global movement (you can read a heart-wrenching account of Greta’s diagnosis here).
- Simone Biles: The American gymnast, who boasts 30 Olympic and World Championship medals, was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age. She famously tweeted “Having ADHD, taking medicine for it, is nothing to be ashamed of [and] nothing that I’m afraid to let people know.”
- Emma Watson: Having shot to fame playing Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films, Emma is also a vocal women’s rights activist and former UN Goodwill Ambassador. She was diagnosed with ADHD in early childhood.
- Billie Eilish: Famous for her music, including the James Bond film soundtrack ‘No Time To Die’, Billie was diagnosed with Tourette’s when she was just 11 years old.
- Clementine Ford: TheAustralianfeminist, writer, podcast host and author was diagnosed with ADHD at 41. She beautifully described her relief at the diagnosis, saying “For years, I described my brain as “fizzy”. Now I know that it’s actually sparkling.”
Can you imagine how many other neurodivergent people there are out there who could make an incredible impact if they were just given the opportunity to embrace their sparkle?
By welcoming neurodiversity in all its forms, we can create inclusive, empathetic and innovative workplaces where everyone is able to explore their full potential. Workplaces where differences are appreciated as strengths, and uniqueness – not uniformity – is celebrated. As the famous Dr. Seuss wisely said, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
If you’d like to learn how to better manage, lead and inspire your team, check out my ‘Manager to Leader Coaching Program’. It’s been designed to help you level up your leadership skills so you can build a more effective team culture, create team cohesion, drive productivity and empower your team to succeed. You can download a program flyer for all the details, or simply get in touch and we’ll organise a time to chat!