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“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind.”
Harvey Blume, Journalist & Autism Advocate
We all know diverse teams perform better. It’s been well documented since Carnegie-Mellon’s Collective Intelligence work was released years ago.
And now a recent article in Harvard Business Review has explained how the next level of diversity–neurodiversity–provides competitive advantage.
Neurodiversity includes conditions such as autism (including Asperger’s syndrome), dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and ADHD. The goal of the term’s creation was to shift the focus from the negative connotation of these conditions toward the positive. Neurodiversity is an idea which: asserts that atypical (neurodivergent) neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be recognized and respected as any other human variation.
According to Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano’s article in HBR, “Most managers are familiar with the advantages organizations can gain from diversity in the backgrounds, disciplinary training, gender, culture, and other individual qualities of employees. Benefits from neurodiversity are similar but more direct. Because neurodiverse people are wired differently from ‘neurotypical’ people, they may bring new perspectives to a company’s efforts to create or recognize value.” I agree.
Neurodiversity Talent Opportunities
A report by Drexel University found that 58% of young adults (early 20s) with autism are unemployed. This is a huge pool of Generation Zers! We’ve done a deep dive into what is compelling to Generation Z in the workplace. How can we adapt this to those that fall in the spectrum of neurodiversity?
First, let’s look at a few of the skill sets that can benefit your organization.
- Autism Spectrum: gift for detail, enhanced perceptual functioning, high levels of concentration, reliability, technical ability
- Dyslexia: often strong in spatial intelligence, many are 3-D thinkers, holistic thinkers, mechanical aptitude, and have entrepreneurial proclivities
- ADHD: hyperfocused, creative, inventive, spontaneous, energetic
All of those skills are qualities and traits that we want within different divisions of our organizations.
An individual who falls in the neurodiversity spectrum often finds getting in the front door a challenge. How can we, as organizations, make this first step easier for this untapped workforce?
Keys To Hiring & Onboarding Success
The hiring and onboarding process for individuals on the spectrum isn’t that different from the status quo. A few simple adaptations in the following areas are needed.
- Impact Descriptions: Include a space for applicants to highlight any support adjustments they may need at the interview.
- Interview: While the interview is the rock star moment for the candidate, it can be challenging for those on the neurodiversity spectrum. They may have challenges making eye contact, starting or maintaining the conversation or thinking in abstract ways. You can adjust by asking closed questions, asking questions based on their real life experiences, and prompting the candidate in order to obtain all of the information that you need.
- Successful onboarding follows a similar path to what we’ve discussed previously. One of the adaptations can be made during training. Northwestern University in Chicago found that when using virtual training, 8 out of the 15 people who received virtual training found a job or volunteer position within six months, compared with 2 of the 8 who were not trained. According to Paul Wehman, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, even people with severe autism who might not seem like good candidates for the workplace can do well if given enough initial support. Virtual training may be something that your organization wants to consider for your new team member.
After the onboarding period, the path to successful new employee engagement is:
- Clear Communication: explicit communication about expectations (written and unwritten). Be concise, specific, supported and honored.
- Performance Reviews: on a regular basis and keep them brief
- Feedback: sensitive but direct and provide reassurance in stressful situations
- Office Accommodations: These may include accommodating sensory needs, keeping office doors closed or moving their office to low traffic areas.
It’s amazing how when we explore our differences, we usually learn something about ourselves. When we can value and accept our own brain, we will more easily accept and value the unique brains of our team. Diversity is always achieved by inclusion.
Hewlett-Packard Australia, SAP, Microsoft all have initiatives to hire more people on the neurodiversity spectrum. One of the coolest stories I came across was that of ULTRA. ULTRA has roughly 32 employees and three-quarters of them have autism. They found that tapping into this overlooked talent pool is hugely successful. They have little turnover and they feel their testers outperform those at other companies.
EY (formally Ernst & Young) started a pilot program in 2016 with the goal of employing people with autism in order to explore the benefits of having workers of different cognitive abilities, such as greater productivity and building a more talented workforce. They recruited candidates and adjusted their training and onboarding processes. Then a really cool thing happened: the company’s managers started to reflect more deeply and stretch to make sure they were communicating in a more effective manner.