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Understanding, Supporting & Succeeding with Neurodiverse Teams

Understanding, Supporting & Succeeding with Neurodiverse Teams

By Cara Hirst

Over the last few years, you have probably seen increasing discussion around Neurodiversity or “Diversity of Thought”. In particular, there have been many articles promoting the benefits of neurodiversity in organisations, with benefits including deeper focus, creativity, intense expertise, innovation, and lateral thinking. I for one would definitely agree with the benefits of hiring a neurodiverse team (admittedly as a dyslexic and autistic person this is not exactly an unbiased opinion!).

However, I would also stress the importance of really understanding neurodiversity and creating a constructive and inclusive environment if you want to see all the benefits these articles claim. Afterall, what is the point in hiring neurodiverse talent if you then place them in an unsupportive environment. So, in this article we will be focusing on how to effectively lead and support a neurodiverse team.

Understanding Neurodiversity

The first step in leading neurodiverse teams is to understand neurodiversity. Please don’t panic, no one is expecting you to be an expert but there are some key points that would be good to know.

Neurodiversity includes everyone and covers the entire spectrum from neurotypical to neurodivergent individuals. Neurodivergence is an umbrella term that covers multiple neurocognitive differences including:

ASD/C (autism spectrum disorder/condition), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia, dyscalculia, Tourette’s, anxiety, OCD, depression, bipolar, intellectual disabilities, and schizophrenia. Between 10-20% of people are neurodivergent, the range on this is so large because many neurodivergent individuals go undiagnosed.

Even within one diagnostic category the spectrum of neurodivergence is incredibly varied, so while it is important to understand the range of diagnostic groups that make up the neurodivergent framework it is more important to understand your own neurodiverse team or potential team members on an individual basis and not a diagnostic category, and that means having conversations with your team!

Starting the Conversation

As a leader you will want to have these conversations, although obviously I don’t mean to go round your team asking your more fastidious employee if they have OCD or the person who keeps making typos in their emails if they are dyslexic, or your colleague who has been fidgeting all day if they have ADHD – chances are they are just on their fifth cup of coffee! Instead, I mean how you can open conversations about preferences, accommodations, and support for each team member-especially as many neurodivergent individuals may be uncomfortable asking for accommodations. By initiating these conversations, you are showing neurodivergent and neurotypical people alike a willingness to accommodate and support them.

…but don’t close the conversation

I have seen some articles suggesting holding a ‘neurodiversity day’ to open conversations or suggest reading lists for people to learn about neurodiversity. But the problem with these ‘diversity holidays’ is that what should be about starting a conversation also closes that conversation on the same day. We are not neurodivergent for a day so please do not restrict the conversations to one day!

Needs Vs Preferences

While many articles talk about accommodating the needs of neurodiverse individuals, I instead argue that the key is understanding and accommodating their preferences. Many neurodiverse people have already adapted to working in neurotypical environments, and this combined with the stigma or misunderstandings around neurodiversity mean that many people may not be comfortable expressing their needs. However, by focussing on preferences it shows you are willing to accommodate and support individuals without suggesting a problem or difficulty. It also allows people to go beyond what they strictly need in a workplace and instead consider in what sort of environment they would thrive.

There is a huge spectrum in behaviours or preferences that you might see among neurodivergent and neurotypical people, and being aware of and supportive of these preferences will help you as a leader across all groups. Here are a few common preferences among neurodivergent individuals to help you structure or prepare for these conversations:

  • Writing in bullet points: Many neurodiverse people prefer communicating in bullet points as it provides a clear concise writing medium, separates out information and reduces confusion.
  • Limiting notifications: Constant notifications or messages interrupt workflow and drains productivity but can also increase stress and anxiety due to increased sensory stimulation by forcing someone to shift frequently from one type of work to another.
  • Communication preferences: Some individuals may prefer to communicate directly face-to-face rather than in written format as they may struggle getting their meaning across or struggle with tone or nuance in written communication. Others prefer written communication as it allows time for information processing and structuring a response.
  • Sending agendas in advance: This might not need to be a full agenda but even a sentence on the topic of the meeting can help neurodivergent individuals to prepare themselves, and even if you don’t think preparation is needed it can help reduce anxiety and make sure they are fully engaged, productive and attentive.
  • Consistency in workplace and routine: For many neurodivergent individuals, uncertainty and sudden changes trigger anxiety and stress. Consistency offers a predictable routine and environment allowing individuals to better anticipate and prepare, thereby reducing stress and anxiety and allowing them to be more focussed, productive, and creative.
  • Wearing headphones: Sensory overload is a common trait among neurodiverse individuals and wearing headphones or noise reducing ear plugs can help to reduce the stress and anxiety associated with sensory overload and help people remain focussed.
  • Confirming expectations: Being clear about expectations, as specific as possible can prevent uncertainty and misunderstandings and reduce the anxiety that uncertainty can cause. The same goes for when you need a task completed by a certain deadline – everyone has a different understanding of ‘urgent’ and prioritising three different peoples’ urgent tasks can create stress.
  • Working from home or in a quiet space: Offering a more comfortable and accommodating work environment will help with focus and performance.

Understanding and managing individual challenges

It really isn’t possible to overestimate the importance of communication and understanding. If you see one of your colleagues or team members struggling with certain tasks, whether that is written communication, time management or presenting ideas, rather than just flag this as an area for improvement ask them why they are struggling. Is this something they have previously struggled with? Is there any support or accommodations that can be provided to help them?

Leveraging strengths

Whilst it is important to pinpoint challenges or areas of struggle, it is also vital to leverage the strengths of neurodivergent individuals. Balance conversations about challenges with understanding where someone’s strengths lie and seek to emphasise opportunities for them to utilise those strengths. These strengths might include creativity, innovation, problem solving, deep focus, seeing the bigger picture or three-dimensional thinking.

Promoting empathy across teams

By cultivating and promoting a culture of empathy, neurodivergent individuals are more likely to feel supported, empowered, and comfortable discussing their needs and preferences as well as sharing their strengths and insights. 

Creating an Inclusive Work Environment

Since 2020 the rise of flexible and remote working has been a game changer for the neurodivergent and disabled workforce allowing them to gain control over their personal work environment and as a result, maximising their strengths and reducing stress and anxiety.

Supporting Neurodiverse Talent

As mentioned, you can hire amazing creative neurodivergent talent but without first creating an environment for them to thrive in, you are not going to see all these benefits because you will just have a team overly stressed, with anxious individuals spending all their energy on masking and tolerating restrictive environments. No matter how brilliant you are as a leader there are some things that need to be tackled company wide and approaches to neurodiversity is definitely one of those. Being aware of neurodivergent individual’s needs, preferences and strengths can help you support your neurodivergent colleagues as a leader within the company.

Key Takeaways

If there is one thing to take away from this article, I hope it is to be open minded and be willing to start a conversation about neurodiversity. While it might seem like an intimidating topic, no one is expecting you to be an expert, and today is a great day to start that conversation with your team!

About Greenbank

Greenbank are an innovative, ‘boutique’ consultancy delivering completely tailored leadership, negotiation and sales development programmes to clients ranging from top 5 global firms to tech start-ups.

We are now delighted to be running truly blended programmes, which make the most of both virtual platforms and interactive face-to-face workshops, to deliver motivational, cost-effective development.

We also have our own industry-leading, multi-lingual, 360° assessment platform, Navigator360 which provides our clients and other training providers with a completely flexible approach to gathering powerful confidential feedback.

If you would like to discuss how we can help your own sales or leadership teams, then we would be delighted to have a relaxed conversation – please contact Ian Hirst or (+44) 7812 074359.