‘Neurodiversity’ refers to the unique ways people’s brains work and the wide variety in how people experience and interact with the world. While being neurodiverse means having a brain that works differently from the average or typical person, there is no one “right” way to think, learn or interpret the world.
As with other forms of diversity, people whose brains work differently can often bring new skills, experiences and perspectives to an organisation when they are given the support and encouragement to do so. When workplace cultures do not appreciate or allow for such differences, neurodiverse people often end up excluded and their contributions lost.
The concept of neurodiversity is often used in the context of people who have autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but in reality reflects all kinds of neurological differences. Fortunately, we have a growing understanding today that diversity in all forms can increase organisation performance when properly supported and channelled. In addition to being the right thing to do, expanding opportunities for marginalised and underrepresented people is also the business-savvy thing to do.
Research consistently shows that diverse workplaces, when they create a culture of inclusion, experience greater innovation and drive stronger engagement, retention and revenue. Neurodiversity can drive many of the same benefits, but senior leaders and managers must educate themselves to help their organisations reap those rewards.
Educate your senior teams
DEI coaching around neurodiversity, or any form of diversity, is not something that should be approached casually. That can do more harm than good. DEI coaches and consultants are highly trained, and have been among the most sought-after workplace professionals in recent years. These individuals can help to educate leaders around neurodiversity so that they can take the right steps towards building an inclusive workplace and culture and a long-term strategy that ensures that initiatives do not fall by the wayside. Without a sound foundation of knowledge, even plans developed with the best intentions risk failing or causing harm.
Develop a tailored approach
A critical component of effective DEI plans that address varied communities is tailoring them to the unique needs of the people involved and the specific workplace. What is needed in one workplace, or even on a team within an organisation, may be very different from what is needed or what worked elsewhere. Listening is always a good first step. Ask questions to identify where the greatest barriers to belonging are, what specific support will help people increase their contributions and engagement, and how best to create a workplace where everyone feels included. Leaders who are serious about embracing neurodiversity may need to step back and make space. That means investing in creating physical space, but it also means offering flexible working options, installing accessible facilities, and creating a means by which neurodiverse people can confidentially disclose any requirements they might have or any support they might need – through anonymous surveys, for example.
Challenge your assumptions
When leaders listen first, they gain an important opportunity to challenge their own assumptions, learn more about someone else’s lived experiences and how they interpret the world, and are better able to replace exclusionary practices and policies with those that make room for all team members. With these new insights, companies are now rethinking how they communicate and the language they use in everything from LinkedIn posts to job ads and internal memos. Senior leaders need to get into the habit of asking themselves the question: What assumptions lie beneath what I’m saying? Could those assumptions exclude neurodiverse people? Could our words or actions be causing harm even without intending to?
Job interviews are one area where significant improvements are often needed to create greater opportunities for neurodiverse candidates. That includes revisiting assumptions around judgments often made based on social cues, body language, eye contact and confidence, even in roles that rely more on specific expertise and are not public facing. Expanding your ideas about the diversity of interactions and styles that are comfortable for others can expand your talent pool of strong candidates. Recruitment, hiring, evaluation and promotion practices are a good place to start to assess your organisation’s efforts around neurodiversity.
Don’t stop learning
People are endlessly complex, and each of us interpret the world in our own fascinating way. We’re learning new things about one other all the time and must continue to do so to maximise the benefits of a diverse talent pool. The most progressive workplaces today look radically different from those of even 10 years ago, and they’ll keep changing as we get wiser. Successful DEI efforts rest on an ongoing commitment to understanding people and to designing environments in which they can thrive. Keep asking vulnerable questions and having conversations in a spirit of humility that will help you better understand other perspectives and create truly inclusive work environments where all team members feel they belong and can contribute fully.