Embrace cognitive difference to achieve competitive advantage in business, writes CIPD diversity & inclusion adviser Dr Jill Miller.
The term ‘neurodiversity’ refers to the full spectrum of human cognitive difference, but is becoming shorthand for an emerging strand of workplace diversity and inclusion, referring to people with alternative thinking styles, such as those with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Such conditions can lead to unique strengths – including creativity, data-driven thinking and an enhanced ability to focus on tasks – that could result in competitive advantage.
Increased societal awareness and appreciation of neurodiversity has come from a greater medical understanding of different neurodiverse conditions, higher diagnostic rates and celebrities being open about, and attributing their success to, having a certain neuro-diverse condition. For example, Richard Branson has openly talked about dyslexia being a strength, enabling creativity and new ways of tackling challenges.
Using neurodiversity to springboard innovation
“More and more organisations are embracing neurodiversity as a competitive advantage”, says Ed Thompson, CEO of Uptimize, a company that provides online neurodiversity awareness training and works with Microsoft, JPMorgan and Google.
“There’s real excitement about the skills neurodiverse people can bring to their work, and the potential to leverage neurodiversity in the workplace to build innovative and creative teams”.
Sourcing talent is a struggle in many industries, particularly in the UK, where future access to skills is uncertain due to Brexit. In the labour market, however, neurodiverse individuals have been overlooked, with employers focusing on potential employment challenges rather than the strengths and talents individuals bring and the value of different cognitive styles.
Forward-thinking employers are turning this around. Why wouldn’t you invest in someone who can spot a unique way to solve problems, identify patterns, or visualise scenarios? Could embracing different cognitive styles lead to greater innovation? This is not to ignore the challenges associated with different conditions, as providing suitable, individualised support to enable people to perform at their best is vital.
Reasonable adjustments should be seriously considered and we are already seeing organisations reaping the benefits of doing so. “The prevalence of neurodiverse conditions suggests that for any organisation, this represents a significant portion of their applicant pool, existing staff, and customers,” says Thompson. Approximately 1 in 10 people are thought to have dyslexia. Around 1 in 100 people in the UK may be on the autism spectrum.
Neurodiverse people literally think differently and HR is in a unique position to help organisations welcome diverse talent into the workforce and support people to achieve their potential. However, it’s critical to understand how best to do this and to communicate that knowledge to the wider business.
This will involve assessing how well your organisation currently supports existing neurodiverse employees and making changes where necessary.
Make your people approaches inclusive
Inevitably, many processes and people management approaches have been designed for ‘neurotypicals’, meaning they can act as a blocker to entry and progression for neurodiverse individuals. We’re expecting neurodiverse people to operate in organisations that fail to accommodate different cognitive styles, then wondering why they are not reaching their potential. HR must help address this, and ensure line managers feel confident in managing a neurodiverse team.
For example, how neurodiversity smart is your firm’s hiring process, (from job description to the selection process) Some candidates may ask for adjustments, but others might not disclose a condition, so why not design a hiring process that works for everyone? Many workplace adjustments benefit everyone; for example, giving candidates (clear and concise) questions in advance to make interviews a test of knowledge and experience rather than of someone’s recall and articulation.
In terms of working environment, bright lighting and noise levels may distract some people, contributing to sensory overload. Such adjustments could benefit all staff.
Organisations actively promoting neurodiversity at work have told us about the benefits of doing so. However they’ve also emphasised the need to put in place appropriate support, through understanding individuals’ needs and developing an employee-centric response.
It shouldn’t be assumed that all neurodiverse employees have the same preferences at work.