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How can we embrace neurodiversity in the workplace?
Find out more in this episode.
Why do businesses exist? To earn profit or to serve a purpose? For shareholders or for society, customers, employees and the environment? Well, the conventional view is: exclusively to earn profit and that's not as narrow-minded as it sounds, because to earn profit, a company is forced to care about society; it has to make high-quality products or customers will stop buying; it has to treat its workers well or they'll leave; and it can't pollute the environment or its brand will be hurt.
That was the voice of London Business School finance professor Alex Edmans back in 2015, making the business case for companies to treat their employees well. At the time, shareholder primacy – in other words profit above all else - remained the orthodox view for mainstream economists, investors and companies.
But Edman’s research, documented in his 2020 book, Grow the Pie, shows that by investing in stakeholders, a company doesn’t reduce investors’ slice of the pie. It grows the pie, ultimately benefiting shareholders. A company may improve working conditions out of genuine concern for its employees, but these employees will become more motivated and productive as a result.
Making a workplace more diverse and inclusive to harness diversity of thought is a textbook example. Companies that do the right thing for their employees can also benefit from stronger risk management, more innovation, and better representing their client base.
Neurodiversity is a vital piece of the diversity and inclusion puzzle, but in many companies, it is barely mentioned, and often misunderstood.
But what exactly is neurodiversity, what are some of the benefits, why do companies find it so difficult to be neuroinclusive and what can they do about it?
In my day job as an HR director, I had a couple of cases where I was asked to dismiss people who had been so-called disruptive or disobedient in work, and in two cases, it turned out they were people who were on the spectrum and actually, they weren't trying to be disrespectful or unhelpful. On the contrary, they thought they were being helpful by being very clear and very specific in terms of pointing out the mistakes that their manager had made. They just did it in front of everybody else, and that was not considered the social norm way of doing it. That just made me realise that, as an organisation, we hadn't trained managers to cope with managing neurodiverse people.
That was Ian Iceton, Diversity Project ambassador, who is also writing a PhD thesis on the recruitment and retention of autistic people in the workplace. He says the lack of awareness of how to manage neurodivergent people in organisations was one of the triggers for his interest in the subject. So what is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity covers a wide range of conditions, from autism to dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (also called ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as tics and Tourette’s. Essentially, neurodivergent people experience the world and process information differently from most people.
Adopting an inclusive work culture allows firms to create a safe working environment for them, and they typically become more engaged and loyal. It also leads to an uplift in performance and productivity across the firm, which is more representative of its client base, and better placed to design its products and services with the full range of potential customers in mind.
And as they learn to manage neurodiverse employees, people also become better managers for all their team members.
In learning to manage neurodiversity, the managers have to become much better managers for all their people, because actually what you need to do to be good at managing an autistic person benefits all of their employees, so you actually get much better managers across the organisation.
Steve Farrall, chief risk officer and executive champion for neurodiversity at Aviva Investors, says there is a push for greater neuroinclusion, driven by wanting to do the right thing, combined with the fact it makes business sense. Here he is.
With a neurodiverse working culture, again, you've got the social benefits of allowing all people to contribute to the best of their abilities.
I come back to the fact that, if you get a neurodiverse workforce, you will get a different range of opinions that are going into decision making, and that typically improves decision making. You get a more rounded outcome, you certainly avoid groupthink and, again, the financial services sector really needs to pay attention to this because when you look at financial crises, they typically arise because of groupthink: everybody piles into the same thing, you get that boom-and-bust mentality. If, with neurodiverse workforces you've got more people who are going to call that out, asking, “Why are you doing that? This doesn't feel right to me.” That's vital, that's important information that can be provided. That's clearly of interest to me as a chief risk officer.
But while seeing the world through a different lens has many advantages – especially for companies wanting to promote a culture where diversity of thought is a virtue – it can be harder for some neurodivergent individuals to adapt to a workplace made for people who are largely ‘neurotypical’.
According to an article in The Actuary by Aviva’s Chika Aghadiuno, approximately one in seven people in the UK are neurodivergent. That is a large talent pool that companies aren’t fully tapping into.
But to tap into that pool and reap the rewards, there are several challenges to overcome. The first is to develop awareness and understanding of neurodiversity. Here is Meike Bliebenicht, neurodiversity workstream lead at the Diversity Project.
Until recently, there has not been a very good understanding of neurodiversity overall. I think a lot of people are still under the impression that neurodiversity only affects a very small proportion of their workforce and sometimes there’s the impression neurodiversity can be addressed at a later stage, after gender and ethnicity.
Another common problem is the pressure on neurodivergent individuals to conform to ‘conventional’ ways of doing things. And it is hard to get companies to change because, over time, they have set up standardised processes to recruit, assess and promote people. Those might well for the majority, although that assumption is certainly open to challenge, they set up barriers for neurodivergent people.
Sometimes job descriptions are drafted by describing the process you would expect the jobholder to use, and not by the outcome you would expect them to deliver.
For example, when you say you would expect someone to read through industry white papers and new regulations and form their view and provide recommendations of next steps, in that case you have described that you would want them to read through a huge pile of paper. Instead, just describe the result you are looking for, so for example being aware of what changes are resulting from new regulation, and being able to assess what needs to change in our processes to ensure we remain in line with regulation. Because if you tell them as part of the job description you would expect them to sit there and read, then this would probably discourage people with dyslexia and also ADHD from even applying. There are different ways of acquiring information into the brain. Reading is one of them; listening is another one, and there may be many others too.
The interview process can also be a barrier. Let’s hear Joseph Riddle, director of the Philadelphia-based non-profit organisation Neurodiversity in the Workplace.
We often judge people in an interview based off of human intuition, and human intuition is remarkably unqualified to assess whether someone would do well in a role.
People hire on their intuition someone who's just like them or very close to them, but also in an interview setting a lot of neurotypical people often will mirror what that person is like and so it becomes this never-ending system.
The same issue comes up in staff evaluations and promotion processes, where either unnecessary skills are required or unwritten rules apply.
If you speak to people with neuro-differences within our industry, most of them would have an experience to share where they struggled with promotion processes. Quite often, they are absolutely brilliant at doing their actual job, but it wouldn’t occur to them that they needed to network as well, and that, to a certain extent, they need to also promote their work and let others know about it.
I recently spoke to a friend who is on the autism spectrum about this, and I found this extremely frustrating, because you do everything you’ve been asked to do, you do it brilliantly, you deliver and you’ve really done your job, you’ve ticked all the boxes, and then the feedback is, “Yes, but nobody has heard about it. You didn’t talk about it enough.” And she responded, “Yes, that happened to me too, and I never really understood why. Small talk was not part of my job description.”
Faced with a working environment that is often not set up for neuroinclusion, many neurodiverse employees don’t feel comfortable enough to disclose their condition. They fear being labelled or even discriminated against, often justifiably. Here’s Ian Iceton and Meike Bliebenicht again.
So, it's a real dilemma and a real challenge in terms of how you create a culture that makes applicants feel confident enough to be able to disclose through that process, and there's quite a bit of research that shows most neurodiverse people prefer not to disclose until at least after they've been recruited. They're very reticent to disclose during interview process. That means your recruitment processes have to be very good, or else you might be missing people out without realising because they haven’t told you.
The other thing is that most people with neuro-differences are very good at masking their different thinking skills because, growing up, they sensed that they were different from their peers, and growing up being different from everyone else isn’t easy, so most of us will have trained ourselves up to be able to pretend that we’re like everyone else, to fit in if need be. And at work, if you are not totally comfortable that you can be who you are, and that you are accepted for who you are, people can very quickly switch back and operate in this ‘covering up’ mode, masking their divergent thinking skills and say, “Oh yes, sure I’m thinking exactly what so-and-so thinks” – even though they may have had a totally different and potentially brilliant idea, but if you’re just not comfortable enough that it would be considered beneficial if you brought it up, you may prefer to not articulate it.
This can hinder employees’ productivity and wellbeing, with mental health a particular problem.
My evidence and other research shows that people who are neurodiverse have a much higher likelihood of having mental health issues as well. Because they are often having to cope with it in a world that doesn't understand them. And if they're also masking, either deliberately or even just unintentionally to try and fit in, their brain is having to work so much harder to cope with their situation. […]
I spoke to a number of people directly in my research who went home every night and were mentally shattered and could not do anything other than go to bed because they had used all their mental energy, and I think, again, as an employer, as organisations, as HR people, we underestimate at our peril the mental health issues that neurodiverse people are coping with.
So, we’ve heard about the challenges. So what can companies do about it? The main change that would benefit the neurodiverse community is to stop imposing ‘normal’. Businesses need to acknowledge that everyone is different and will have different needs.
That means being more inclusive in job descriptions, not asking for ‘influencing skills’ or to be ‘good at teamwork’ when they’re not fundamental to the role. It also means adopting a skills-based approach to assessing prospective candidates and employees. Here’s Joe Riddle from Neurodiversity in the Workplace again.
We're looking at how recruiters hold conversations with people, giving them training and guidance and some actual tools to signify how they can help someone get through the interview process better.
And looking at specific examples and tools that we can provide to any interview that would allow candidates to utilise a skill-based approach, so simple things like very simple projects that people can demonstrate, or the use of a technical portfolio, are really great ways to showcase those skills.
Inside the workplace, neuroinclusion also means avoiding micromanagement and allowing people to play to their strengths, taking a strengths-based approach to employee assessments and providing career support. Bliebenicht says neuroinclusive leaders are typically focused on results over process.
They give their team members enough room to apply the approach which works best for them to then achieve the best results, and they trust them to be able to identify issues and raise them early – as any good leader would.
They encourage a work culture of open feedback and open discussion of challenges and an environment of psychological safety where it’s ok to say, ‘I can’t do this’ and where people are not afraid to ask for help. Also, I think if someone has a particular talent or a particular passion for a certain task, they ensure that these people are going to work on projects that play to these strengths.
Making small adjustments can yield big results, like being clear in instructions, managing sensory sensitivities, and considering other ways of communication.
Making our workplaces a bit more flexible to be able to accommodate this, clear communication of expectations and deadlines, being open to feedback and being more flexible with small things. For example, allowing everyone to wear headphones in the office to be able to withdraw from the traffic in the corridor and the noise in the kitchen and so on. These are small things. They benefit everyone, and they just benefit someone who is autistic or somebody who is easily distracted like an ADHD brain, they benefit those individuals even more.
As Steve Farrall explains, being more accommodative of individuals and adapting to their needs and likes is a difficult thing for companies and managers to do.
So, there's that whole aspect about “how is the workplace structured? And are there things that we do or that just occur because that's the way we've always done it, whereas if we tweaked them, suddenly it would be a more accommodating atmosphere?”
If you look at other aspects – I know from talking to the neurodiversity working group at Aviva Investors that there are people who are there because they find it difficult in terms of maybe report writing and so on, dyslexia, where the individual has incredibly valuable force, but from school onwards, this isn't the best way for them to express themselves and they find it stressful. Therefore, you know, we have to think about how we get the best output from people and ask if it is always a formal written report.
Many neurodiverse people will be diverse in other ways too, whether they are women, from an ethnic minority or LGBT+ – or several at once. Individuals should be taken in all their richness and variety, so their particular challenges and skills are not overlooked or put into a convenient but ill-fitting box.
Essentially, neurodiversity – like other forms of diversity – is a talent issue, and companies should find ways to tap into this large, untapped pool of skills. To use Alex Edman’s expression, only then can they ‘grow the pie’ and benefit their stakeholders sustainably - or rather, doing well by doing good.
Thank you for listening to the AIQ podcast. Read our full article on embracing neurodiversity at work on our website, at www.avivainvestors.com.
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