How Embracing Neurodiversity Transforms Your Workforce

They say today HR priorities have become CEO priorities, and I saw this first hand as my boss at the time, the CEO of a tech company in London in the early 2010s, tasked me with creative ways of addressing the company’s talent challenges and building what he called a truly 21st century workforce.

We focused, largely, on apprenticeships, identifying and connecting with local young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who had an aptitude and passion for tech but who might otherwise not have been in a position to achieve conventional academic credentials.

Seeing these young people get an opportunity and take it was exhilarating, and often emotional: but, as my boss at the time had realized, the impact went beyond providing job opportunities to people who might otherwise have overlooked.

I was struck by the effect this diverse hiring, and the company’s commitment to making its new hires welcome and providing them a genuine career, made on the rest of the (existing) workforce. Existing teams were visibly energized: proud of the company, feeling a strong sense of purpose, and welcoming the fresh new perspectives of the new hires.

I became passionate about the dual social and business impact DEI can bring, and wanted to make this my complete focus. Having experienced a traumatic brain injury earlier in my career, and through conversations with neurodivergent relatives, I became interested in and passionate about what was then the incredibly embryonic “neurodiversity at work movement” (this was when I first heard the term) and what seemed the extraordinarily overlooked area of neurodiversity.

If organizations want great talent, to match their market in terms of representation, and to innovate through diverse perspectives… surely embracing neurodiversity was a no-brainer? But it was clear that to all but a tiny set of pioneers, that it wasn’t, yet… and I founded Uptimize to help change this.

Companies Begin to Engage with “Neurodiversity at Work”

Neurodiversity and disability-focused organizations have long highlighted inequities for neurodivergent people in employment. You may well have heard the oft-repeated (though hard to trace or verify) statistic that as many as 85% of autistic people in the US (and similar in other countries such as the UK) are unemployed. Research has shown that employment outcomes for neurodivergent people are even worse, typically, than for those in what are considered official (under disability rights legislation) disability categories.

A major breakthrough in this topic gaining prominence came in the mid 2010s, as talent-hungry tech companies (like my previous employer) searched for ways to win what was termed “the war for talent” in the high-employment world at the time. “Conventional” tech talent was becoming seen as too small of a pool, as tech teams ballooned in size across every industry – and offering perks such as ping pong and office refreshments wasn’t helping organizations avoid significant unfilled roles and high turnover costs.

The first “autism hiring programs”, supported by us in our earliest days at Uptimize, took the disability hiring program model that had been successful at companies like Walgreens and CVS and applied it to autistic tech talent. Though small, such programs drew significant press coverage – and they did feel significant: for the first time, top organizations were saying quite explicitly “we value neurodivergent talent” and were offering glamorous, highly-paid opportunities.

Press coverage, not surprisingly, honed in on the human interest stories – the stories of those autistic people who had struggled to secure meaningful employment, despite their talents, before being successfully hired through a deliberate autism employment program.

Neuroinclusion: Good for Everybody

Interestingly, though, many early program builders reported something beyond this: “Do you know what? This is actually proving to be good for everybody”.

They described managers and colleagues becoming more considerate – and effective – in their roles, and process changes to hiring practices or clarifying career development paths being welcomed by all staff. This has continued as organizations have matured to see and embrace neurodiversity at work far more holistically than (only) a hiring initiative, often driven by a wave of self-disclosure and advocacy from existing employees (many in Enterprise Resource Groups) insisting on attention to neuroinclusivity everywhere, not just in specific hiring efforts.

Embracing neurodiversity at work in this way – and recognizing its importance to all aspects of talent management and the employee experience – is based on a fundamental but overlooked truth: we (humans) don’t all think alike. This is what neurodiversity means and refers to: the neurological diversity of our species, and not, as some wrongly suggest, only to forms of neurodivergence such as autism, dyslexia and ADHD.

The reality, then, is that every organization and team is, by definition, neurodiverse (though many could be more neurodiverse through more inclusive hiring) and every interaction at work takes place between people who process information and experience the world differently.

As this has so rarely been acknowledged – nobody has been taught about neurodiversity in education – teams comfort and productivity and all key talent management goals are risked and affected by this ignorance and lack of consideration.

Neurodiversity Remains Critically Overlooked by Many Firms

At Uptimize we have interviewed many neurodivergent people across the world – professionals with a neuroidentity such as autistic or dyslexic, one that consciously marks them out as different from those with a more “neurotypical” profile.

Not surprisingly, it is people in these demographics who have found themselves particularly marginalized through neurodiversity being so overlooked: facing cultural ignorance and judgement from colleagues and managers (“you don’t look autistic”, and so on) and finding themselves disadvantaged by processes and technology designed without neurodiversity in mind.

The unintentional exclusion of neurodivergent people is often a hidden issue for organizations: many (as many as 90%, according to one study in 2021) choose not to disclose at work, fearful of negative ramifications, and find themselves instead facing the daily toll of “masking” or of pretending to be “neurotypical”. This, unsurprisingly, can lead to significantly reduced productivity. Others report their ideas not being welcomed. One professional I interviewed for my book A Hidden Force – Unlocking the Potential of Neurodiversity at Work described himself (without any arrogance) as coming up with 80-100 ideas for every single idea coming from one of his colleagues, such is the highly creative nature of his brain. yet often such ideas, sometimes presented bluntly, are shot down and never reach top management due to middle-management laziness or defensiveness.

Many neurodivergent professionals, also, sadly, describe themselves practically excluded by confusing and non-inclusive application processes, despite being more than qualified for such roles… while the employer in question may continue to believe such processes are a fair and effective way of filtering and identifying the most suitable talent.

Bringing neuroinclusion to an org as an urgent DEI topic allows us to address his marginalization: to help create teams without this stigma and judgement, to assist managers in providing tailored support, and to help inform process and workplace design with some of the major barriers described by neurodivergent professionals in mind.

Changing Your Workforce for the Better

But neuroinclusion means, too, that everybody benefits. Everybody has their own preferences: if you’re a manager, ask your team how they each like to communicate and problem-solve… you’ll get a bunch of different answers, and that’s neurodiversity in action. Our research has shown, not surprisingly, that while greater neuroinclusivity is often mission-critical for neurodivergent people, it’s welcomed by so-called neurotypicals, too – who wouldn’t enjoy a more open and empathetic workplace, where minor preferences around work style are enthusiastically accommodated for?

Importantly, too, the muddy nature of organizational neurodiversity means that neuroinclusion will always be limited in its effect if focused only on those who are neurodivergent and openly so: as mentioned, many neurodivergent people choose not to disclose, at least initially, and studies suggest many others (and especially women, and people from ethnic minorities) remain undiagnosed.

The most urgent need for neuroinclusion, then, is rightly in supporting those who are openly ND and asking for flexibility, assistance or accommodations. But neuroinclusion, done properly, goes deeper: it’s about fundamentally changing the nature of your teams.

Consider a team where, as sadly is all too common, there is no open conversation around these differences and preferences (and remember, this type of conversation does not require diagnostic labels or disclosure, just a willingness to recognize that while you’re bringing your own thinking style to work every day, so is everybody else…).

Then consider a team being led by a neuroinclusive manager who ensures individual preferences and well-being are attended to, regardless of neuroidentity, and where everybody interacts considerately to maximize each other’s contribution.

Embracing neurodiversity in business, then, is ultimately about empathy in collaboration, and making sure you put your colleagues or direct reports in a position to be most successful.

Commit to this journey, and scale this out as top organizations are doing, and you are on a path towards a fundamentally transformed workforce: one that can be a significant source of competitive advantage in the years ahead.

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To learn more about how Uptimize can help your organization with their neuroinclusion efforts, through our neurodiversity training and consulting solutions, please contact us to schedule an initial discovery call.

Ed Thompson Founder CEO Uptimize

Ed Thompson is the CEO and founder of Uptimize – a unique corporate training platform that helps organizations attract, hire and retain talent that thinks differently. Uptimize works globally with organizations like Salesforce, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte and IBM, building robust and impactful neurodiversity at work programs. Ed has also become a frequent speaker on the topic of neurodiversity in the workplace. His book, A Hidden Force, is available now.

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