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Supporting Neurodiversity in The Workplace

Worldwide, 20% of people are neurodiverse. However, neurodiverse talent within organisations still needs to be higher - approximately 80% of neurodiverse individuals are unemployed.

But, as Deloitte shares, organisations that include neurodiverse individuals within their top talent are more productive, have increased team morale, and have different ways of working.

Additional research highlights a growing movement to support neurodiversity in the workplace. This is because neurodiverse individuals often have unique strengths and abilities that can be an asset to any organisation. Additionally, neurodiversity is an integral part of workplace diversity and inclusion.

If you’re hoping to learn more about supporting neurodiversity in the workplace, leadership coach Ian shares his thoughts and tips in this blog.

Tips For Supporting Neurodiversity in The Workplace

When it comes to supporting neurodiversity in the workplace, we need to create an inclusive organisational culture that removes barriers to those who are neurodiverse.

Within our organisations, those living with autism, ADHD, ADD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette’s, epilepsy, and mental health, for example, can progress into leadership roles far easier when they work within an environment that fully supports them and embodies inclusion and equity.

But how can your organisation support neurodiversity in the workplace? Leadership coach Ian shares his thoughts below.


Two people watching over a computer talking about neurodiversity in the workplace

1. Encourage a quiet environment and/or times of silence

Neurodivergent employees may find it challenging to focus in an environment with too many stimuli, such as noise.

For example, people talking loudly, phone calls, team calls in an open office, booming voices, and some types of music prevent concentration and can also be experienced as mind pain.

For this reason, Ian shares that when supporting neurodiversity in the workplace, it’s worth considering the impact of open office working and the impact of specific colour schemes, lighting, artwork, or smells.

If you require your people to work from the office or offer a hybrid structure, you could ask employees to use noise-cancelling headphones or take calls in separate break-out rooms or closed spaces. Alternatively, you could create designated quiet or silence times during the day to allow people to recover.

Within a loud or highly stimulating environment, people who are neurodiverse may struggle to grow, develop, or thrive and therefore are less likely to progress into leadership positions. This has various levels of impact on different people.

2. Be aware of potential cognitive overload

Cognitive overload is when the relatively small and limited working memory and processing parts of our brains get full and then overloaded. Once overloaded, our brains struggle to cope with additional information and information we already have.

This can be seen when we present the same information simultaneously through different senses, such as talking over a PowerPoint presentation where multiple visual and aural information may be delivered together. Or where we ask for complex thinking and processing whilst explaining and describing.

For many people who are neurodiverse, this stage of cognitive overload happens much earlier and can lead to distraction, ‘drifting’, frustration, and disengagement. The energy it takes to concentrate for significant periods can be exhausting and overwhelming.

To reduce cognitive overload, Ian recommends considering elements such as:

  • Discussing one topic at a time and not allowing people to ‘flit’ around in meetings

  • Allowing uninterrupted thinking time.

  • Repeating complex information at least two or three times

  • Having more but shorter meetings

  • Keeping the number of different senses involved in information communication as low as possible, preferably to one, visual or aural, but not both.

3. Ask people what works for them

Neurodiversity is a starting point that can help us to understand each other in a much greater depth. But it is only that - a starting point. Some people may prefer not to be diagnosed so as not to be labelled or may be waiting for a diagnosis.

Likewise, someone may want or have a diagnosis, but everyone is unique. For example, two people who have ADHD may have very different experiences that contribute to and inform feelings of belonging and inclusion.

This is why it is important not to focus too much on labels but on inclusion and belonging. Instead, Ian shares that we must create a culture where openness and vulnerability are safe and where people can talk about what they need to thrive in our teams and organisations.

To do this, don’t be afraid to ask your neurodiverse employees what works for them. For example, you could ask questions like:

  • How do you prefer to receive feedback?

  • Are there certain times of the day that you prefer to work?

  • Are there certain times of the day when you feel most productive and able to get your best work done?

  • Do you need any accommodations to help you perform at your best?

  • How do you prefer to communicate with your peers and managers?

It’s important to remember that the answers to these questions may vary from person to person and even within the same person at different times. So stay open-minded and flexible as you work to create an inclusive and supportive workplace culture for all employees, including those who are neurodiverse.

By understanding what works best for each person, you can prevent and decrease the number of people within your organisation who feel they can’t bring their unique selves to work and need to mask their traits and core motivators to fit in.

4. Adapt your talent matrix and leadership competencies

Most organisations have some form of talent matrix together with a set of leadership characteristics or competencies.

These tend to be limiting because leadership is very contextual, and leaders have a symbiotic relationship with their teams. The same highly effective leader in a different business area or with a different group may no longer be identified as highly effective.

This is especially true of people who are neurodiverse and who may never tick the boxes to be identified as ‘talent’ or demonstrate leadership competencies.

Therefore, it’s important to question if your talent and leadership measures are process-orientated or employee-orientated.

If your measures are process-oriented, adapting your talent matrix and leadership competencies to accommodate neurodiversity and contextual differences is essential. You can begin to achieve this by:

  1. Including a broader range of characteristics and competencies that reflect the diversity of leadership styles and behaviours.

  2. Being more flexible in how talent is identified and assessed, considering different strengths and abilities that may not fit into traditional, narrow definitions of talent.

  3. Fostering a culture that values diversity and encourages individuals to bring their unique perspectives and talents.

  4. Providing support and accommodations for neurodiverse individuals to enable them to thrive in leadership roles.

By adopting the talent matrix and leadership competencies to reflect the realities of modern businesses and the diversity within them, you can unlock the full potential of your workforce and create more inclusive and effective leadership teams.

5. Review your recruitment processes

When was the last time you reviewed your recruitment process? If not recently, it may be the time to. Neurodivergent individuals can sometimes find interviews and recruitment processes overwhelming. This can be particularly true when it comes to internal appointments as well as those appointments that are advertised externally.

For this reason, it’s important to review any materials that candidates receive before an interview. This could include the job description and list of essential characteristics. Research shows that women, in particular, tend to look at role requirements and underestimate their capabilities and experience, whereas men tend to overestimate theirs.

This is also true of people who are neurodiverse, where requirements to write long reports (dyslexia) or absorb large amounts of information (ADHD) or network (Autism) may put some people off from applying. But these requirements may not reflect the role, only form a small part of the role, or be easily overcome with some support or adjustments.

In addition to considering your recruitment process, take a moment to think about your recruitment materials. Do they encourage diversity? Or do they limit diversity? How clear are you in the inclusive nature of your recruitment processes?

6. Ask yourself questions

When we try to bring down barriers and become more inclusive, people become much more open to speaking up and bringing their authentic selves to work.

In addition to the above, asking yourself questions will help you recognise what you need to do more of to support neurodiversity in the workplace. To get started, here are a few questions to consider:

  • How inclusive is our culture?

  • Would someone feel embarrassed wearing noise-cancelling headphones, for example?

  • How do we know how inclusive our culture is?

  • Who is ‘masking’ their true traits and identity in our organisation to fit our cultural norms?

  • What are people who are neurotypical in our organisation doing to raise their own awareness of the needs of people who are neurodiverse?

To Conclude

Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace is paramount. Not only does doing so ensure that everyone – regardless of whether they live with a neurodiverse condition – has the same opportunities, but it guarantees that your current workforce also adapts and understands how to work with those who are neurodiverse.

As leadership coach Ian shares, supporting neurodiversity starts with you, the leader. By encouraging a quiet environment and/or times of silence, being aware of potential cognitive overload, asking people what works for them, adapting your talent matrix and leadership competencies, and reviewing your recruitment process, you can begin to support neurodiverse individuals in the workplace.

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