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Discover Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Giftedness, high sensitivity, AD(H)D, Dyslexia and other learning difficulties (dys), Autism, ... You have probably already heard some of these terms and abbreviations, which all describe particularities belonging to neurodiversity. First heard in the 90's, the neurodiversity movement is gaining more and more awareness through research, publications and more people working on increasing awareness in organizations. Finally! A 2018 Deloitte study showed, among other things, that companies with an inclusive policy, which inclusion of neuroatypical profiles is part of, would be six times more innovative and agile.

So, what is neurodiversity? How does it affect the workplace and how can it benefit from it? Let’s get into that in this article!

An attempt to define neurodiversity

The neurodiversity movement is attributed to Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist who worked on the subject as part of her thesis in the late 1990s. What was initially about the autism spectrum, was later extended to any variations of how the brain works, as opposed to what is considered being the norm. Among others: giftedness, attention disorders, learning difficulties, high sensitivity or Tourette's syndrome*. We refer to anybody whose brain functions differently as "neurodivergent" or "neuroatypical".

Neurodiversity experts advocate the acceptance of different brain functioning modes and invite us to focus on the strengths of neurodivergent profiles rather than looking for a definition on the pathological side. In that sense American writer Harvey Blume, who helped democratizing the concept, describes neurodiversity being "as essential to the human species as biodiversity is to life in general."

Although estimates vary, it would appear that at least 20% of the population is considered neurodivergent. This is why it is so important for companies to raise awareness of neurodiversity and to support employees and managers in this process!

The stakes of neurodiversity in the workplace

When we talk about neurodiversity in a business context, many people either think of the related challenges or of a form of disability. I will not dwell on disability, which does not fall within my competences. However, I would like to emphasize the fact that we are all unique. Neurodivergent or not, we all bring our own color through our personality, our talents and skills, our value system. Each of us, in our own way, can be an asset to our team.

As a matter of fact, ensuring skills diversity is essential to ensure the success of a team, a project or a company. We, and especially my dear friend and colleague Natascha, often work with the Team Management System®"**, based on exactly this theory of the need of a skill set and which has proven to deliver great results. From that perspective, we believe that including neurodiversity is one of the ingredient to a successful company culture.

In fact, according to recent studies, companies that support neurodiversity seem to be more productive and innovative, and see the benefits in terms of culture and talent retention. Also often mentioned are a greater collective intelligence, a better management of challenges and more relevant decision-making.

Some keys to work with neurodiverse teams

As you can see, neurodiversity is an asset for organizations and can also be challenging when you don't have the keys to cope with it.

Let's remember that the goal of neurodiversity is to take into account the uniqueness of the individual, with their own needs. This is exactly what certain trends such as New Work or Leadership 4.0 sugggest. It is true for everyone, so the principles remain the same for neurodivergent and neurotypical employees.

Apply these principles and you will quickly see results:

  • Create a caring and open-minded environment, in which your employees feel safe enough to discuss their challenges and ideas. Remember, many neurodivergent personalities have tons of ideas worth hearing!

  • Understand your employees’ needs and adapt the office space as well as the working time to suit their needs. Because many neurodivergents are highly sensitive, it is important to reduce the number and/or the intensity of stimuli (noise, light, crowds, etc.). This includes allowing home office, providing a quiet space and/or more regular breaks, adapting communication if necessary, etc.

  • Get trained about neurodiversity and the possibilities of supporting your neurodivergent employees. This will make it easier for you to understand the origin of certain behaviors and to develop strategies that are useful for everyone. You are neurodivergent yourself? It is a great opportunity for you to get to know yourself and grow.

  • Please also include your other employees in this process! These keys are just as effective with your neurotypical teams as they are with your neurodivergent ones.

Let's talk about talents

Global vision, creativity, problem solving, these are common strengths of many neurodivergent profiles. To illustrate my explanations, I suggest you discover some real examples of neuro-divergent profiles:

  • The highly sensitive and multi-potential IT project manager who knows how to develop project vision, makes unexpected connections between several aspects and creates innovative solutions in collaboration with her teams. She keeps an overview of the tasks and effectively dispatches them. Thanks to her sensitivity, empathy and humor she is greatly appreciated by her team and is considered an important team player. 

  • The Special Educator with ADHD who thrives on working with elementary school children. He has the energy and creativity required. Moreover, he is himself aware of the specificities of neurodivergent kids and can best accompany them.

  • The gifted product designer who develops innovative products thanks to her great creativity. Her biggest strength is to identify potential problems before others and finding effective solutions very quickly. Her curiosity and knowledge in different fields allow her to work efficiently with multi-disciplinary teams, whatever the type of product.

  • The dyspraxic manager whose ability to develop a global vision of a situation is of great use in the strategic work required in his position. He is often able to delegate very well (he needed to learn it very early on) and to involve his team in his projects in a judicious way. In addition, his strong empathy, sensitivity and listening skills make him an ideal manager. 

The ball is on your side of the field!

I doubt there is a one-size-fits-all approach to neurodiversity in the workplace. In this process, understanding neurodiversity, as well as its stakes, is essential. Beyond that, it is a human, open-minded and inclusive approach that will, among other things, create a positive environment for all. An environment in which the talents of neurodivergent and neurotypical people are complementary. A healthy work environment where personal and professional growth goes hand in hand with the success of organizations.

* It is an open debate whether certain mental illnesses such as bipolar or obsessive compulsive disorder, among others, are part of neurodiversity.

** TMS® has divided the skills needed for a successful project or organization into 8 types of "talents" and assumes that these 8 categories must be represented in a team to ensure its success.

Want to learn more? Here are a few interesting resources :

  • Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, Steve Silberman

  • Neurodiversity at Work, Theo Smith and Amanda Kirby

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