Unlike gender, race or age, invisible diversity includes the many differences that are not readily seen and are often undisclosed. Being aware of invisible diversity reminds us not to make assumptions about others, even when they look like us.
Neurodiversity, also known as cognitive diversity, is one form of invisible diversity and is the core topic of this article. Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that refers to the natural variation in the "wiring" of the human brain and reflects "the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population.”
With active intention, it is possible to override the traditional hiring processes, workplace arrangements and norms that inhibit neurodiverse talent from entering and thriving in your organization. By engaging neurodivergent talent, businesses can benefit immensely from neurodiversity inclusion.
Understanding Invisible Diversity
An estimated 15% to 20% of the population are neurodivergent - including conditions such as autism, asperger syndrome, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, social anxiety disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, etc. The term ‘cognitive diversity’ also includes mental health conditions.
Neurodivergent individuals have particular strengths and challenges. Even those who share the same neurodivergent condition - such as autism - are vastly different to each other, requiring sensitivity to understanding and managing such individuals. Neurodivergent people are differently abled to neurotypical individuals: this include variations in how neurodivergent individuals concentrate, think, remember, process, problem-solve, learn, speak, and socialize.
While often having higher-than-average capabilities in many sought after skill sets in today’s workforce, neurodiverse individuals remain unemployed or underemployed. Only 16% of people with autism have full-time paid employment and 51% say their skill-level is above their current job requirements.
Business Benefits of Advancing Invisible Diversity
Major companies have recognized the business opportunity of becoming neurodiversity inclusive and have introduced neurodiversity hiring programs. Some of them have been pioneers in the field - such as SAP, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, EY, Deloitte, Ford, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, to mention a few.
Neurodiverse employees possess many unique strengths that offer a competitive talent and business advantage to companies who invest in inclusion:
- Disruptive Perspectives: Since they are wired differently and not as susceptible to groupthink or non-evidence based decision making, neurodivergent people will often challenge default and accepted workplace practices and approaches.
- Creativity: With novel ways of thinking, neurodivergent people can bolster creativity. Individuals with ADHD often have greater problem-solving, intuition and creative skills. Individuals with dyslexia are often creative thinkers and perform well at tasks that rely on visual thinking, pattern recognition and complex reasoning.
- Mathematics and Memory Skills: Some individuals with autism have been shown to have outstanding or exceptional skills in mathematics or memory.
- Processing Information: Autistic individuals have a greater ability to process information and detect critical information (and are over-represented in tech).
- Pattern Recognition Skills: Autistic individuals have superior pattern recognition (can often see what others do not see) and are gifted at spotting irregularities, which is being leveraged in cybersecurity in Australia.
- Productivity and Quality: JPMorgan Chase found individuals on the autism spectrum to be 90% to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees, depending on roles, and to make fewer errors. HPE found neurodiverse software testing teams to be 30% more productive. EY found neurodiverse employees excel at automating processes and found improvements that cut the time for technical training in half.
- Sustained Focus: Neurodivergent employees are often more able to hyperfocus on complex and repetitive tasks for sustained periods of time with strong sensitivity and attention to detail.
- Retention: SAP, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft and EY - the four largest US autism hiring programs - all have retention rates higher than 90%. Neurodivergent employees are also known for promptness, consistency and loyalty.
- Innovation: Neurodivergent employees help catalyze innovation. With the first neurodiversity program launched in 2013, SAP’s CEO said that teams that include individuals with autism had an increase in patent applications, product innovation, management skills and empathy. People with dyslexia are more likely to produce innovative and creative ideas.
- Empathy Building: Social interactions between neurodivergent and neurotypical team members can be more challenging because they have different expectations, but this can develop everyone’s abilities to communicate, increase empathy, bridge differences and reduce groupthink.
- Talent Pool: The unique skills of neurodivergent people are well-matched to help address the talent-shortage in STEM. Also, automation is shifting many things that people with dyslexia normally find challenging, while the new jobs and tasks are closely matched to their strengths profile - including innovation and creativity.
- Catalyzing Inclusion: Co-workers say the presence of neurodivergent employees helps to foster a culture of inclusion. As written in Harvard Business Review, organizations with strong neurodiversity inclusion programs have reported boosts in employee engagement that ripple out beyond neurodivergent individuals, partly because it changes how management regards individuals.
Creating a Supportive Workplace for Everyone
Neurodivergent individuals can often be misunderstood or misperceived when viewed through neurotypical expectations - and rejected too quickly for the wrong reasons. Neurodiverse people have different communication and working patterns. They often don’t meet the social expectations of interpersonal interaction such as small talk, eye contact and soft skills, which can disqualify them as a perceived cultural fit. Direct and unfiltered communication, common among neurodivergent individuals, is hugely valuable but can be abrasive to egos when the norm is socialized politeness. And neurodiverse people don’t always tick the box of what a good communicator, a team player, a persuasive salesperson, an emotionally intelligent manager or an adept networker would be like - traits that are overvalued in hiring, but not necessary for every position - and not always accurately assessed.
Many factors inhibit companies from hiring and supporting cognitively diverse talent. The traditional approaches to recruiting and hiring talent; the standardized ways of working and environments; and the lack of awareness to recognize or understand neurodivergence are some of them. Neurodiversity inclusion requires a proactive approach that challenges established processes. Companies that prioritize inclusion have begun specific neurodiversity programs designed to reduce barriers to hiring and supporting neurodivergent talent.
To become neurodiversity inclusive, an organization and its leaders must acknowledge, value, accommodate and celebrate the perspectives and contributions of neurodivergent individuals. Support is available from firms, such as Lexxic, who specialize in building workplaces supportive of neurodiverse talent.
Here are four key areas that matter in creating neurodiversity inclusive cultures:
1. Inclusive Recruitment and Hiring: Recruiting neurodiverse talent requires deviating from traditional interviewing and hiring processes that often rely heavily on social interaction or written tests. Many companies - such as EY and JP Morgan Chase - partner with organizations who specialize in neurodiverse recruitment to help source and support talent. They define clear recruitment intentions specific to particular needs and roles in the company, where extraordinary skills and talents can be best leveraged. Alternative hiring approaches often involve extended periods with less face-to-face conversation and more skills-based assessment in completing work-related tasks to meet the job’s specific needs, as well as customized onboarding.
2. Inclusive Workplace Accommodations: Neurodivergent individuals are often sensitive to and easily overwhelmed by factors such as lights and sounds that neurotypical people may find normal. Many prefer repetition, predictability and clear boundaries to provide safety and sense of orientation and control. Neurodivergent people often require basic, non-expensive workplace interventions to support their ability to focus and mitigate distractions - such as noise-canceling headphones, softer lighting and more private working spaces with more personal control over surrounding sensory stimulation.
3. Inclusive Ways of Working: Neurodivergent individuals often miss unspoken social cues and subtleties. They require direct and clear communications and expectations, consistent communication and explicit feedback. When it comes to time management, many thrive on predictability, consistency, routine and unstructured time breaks - and are more sensitive to abrupt and unexpected disruptions and schedule changes. Many prefer prioritization of focus over multitasking and may need schedule flexibility that optimizes to high-performing hours. Many neurodivergent individuals will not thrive in a large meeting setting with many people speaking out and participating. They may need regularly scheduled invitations to express themselves to managers and 1:1 relationships to build trust. Managing neurodivergent people within the workforce can actually sensitize managers to paying more attention to individual needs in general, to better leverage everyone’s talent, and can benefit everyone by encouraging more clarity, consistency and transparency.
4. Inclusive Culture: Creating a neurodiverse and inclusive culture requires cultivating positive awareness and understanding of cognitive diversity across the organization and leadership. It may require, such as SAP has done, training on the importance of soft skills to neurodivergent employees. Cultural interventions can include creating alternative structured socializing opportunities (such as presentation lunches for learning and socializing), affinity groups and workplace mentors. When disseminating information, organizations can provide the same content in different ways to address neurodiverse differences in processing.
Companies often report that when an organization becomes more neurodiversity inclusive and experiences the frictional influence of neurodivergent employees, the overall culture benefits from what is akin to an integrity upgrade: organizations become clearer and more direct in communication, question whether common problems must be inevitable and witness a greater level of awareness among manager and employees for individual differences and sensitivities.
Neurodiversity inclusion is not only good for both businesses and neurodivergent individuals, but it is also a way to catapult organizations towards a culture of inclusion for everyone, in all our invisible diversity.