There is, alarmingly, a huge amount of bias still faced by neurodiverse people across our workspaces, including in leadership positions.
Being a neurodiverse professional often means making the choice between being open about having a condition and potentially facing bias and stigma – or hiding it away, and masking, so that other peoples’ misconceptions do not impact how you are perceived or treated in daily interactions (which can in itself be exhausting).
15% of people across the UK are currently diagnosed with a neurodiverse condition, and lots more are undiagnosed, but living with the conditions associated with it. This means you are highly likely to be working alongside, above or beneath at least one person who is neurodiverse, and not even be aware of it. But if you were aware, would it change your perception and attitude towards them? Be honest.
According to a 2020 survey by the Institute of Leadership & Management, half of UK’s employers admit that they would not employ someone who had one or more neurodivergent conditions, mainly due to false stereotypes and discrimination. This is truly shocking.
Underrated traits and skill sets
Despite a plethora of misconceptions and outdated views, many neurodivergent people are highly intuitive, highly ethical and have valuable skills, including leadership skills, which contribute hugely to the success of a team or organisation. Many of the most successful entrepreneurs across the globe are neurodiverse. But even these positive qualities can be misconstrued as negative by others when seen through the lens of bias.
Fast Company highlights a recent study of moral behaviour in autistic vs. non-autistic people, whereby autistic participants were reported to act ethically regardless of whether or not they were observed, while “healthy controls” (meaning, the non-autistic people) were less ethical when not observed. The authors interpreted the consistently ethical behaviour of autistic participants as a “moral deficit”. After (frankly understandable) anger from the autistic community, the report’s wording was slightly modified, however, much of the pathologising language remains in the report to this day. There is also widespread bias across our media, which does nothing to help dispel the myths and misrepresentation of an ever-growing population of neurodiverse people.
Becoming aware of our biases is the first step to removing them. For example, realising that the person on your team who regularly spots opportunities, patterns and connections that may be invisible at first to others may well be a neurodivergent leader among your team. The person with exceptional maths and engineering skills or who creates outstanding design pieces for you may be the neurodivergent in your group or division. The person with the creative mindset who challenges the status quo with new ideas and outside the box perspectives may well be among the 15% and above with neurodiversity.
Or they may not show any outward differences to anyone else on the team at all, but may be battling internally with associated conditions such heightened sensitivity, loss of focus on specific tasks, acute anxiety, physical pains and discomforts, digestion issues, tics or OCD. All of these things or none of these things can be normal for a neurodiverse person to cope with on a daily basis.
The point is, everyone is unique, whether neurotypical or neurodiverse, and everyone has their own unique strengths, challenges and needs.
“The current fast-changing environment of reinventing work presents opportunities to improve the inclusion of neurodivergent people on all levels of organizations. However, in addition to debunking myths about neurodivergence, this would require debunking leadership myths.” – Ludmila Praslova, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP
In today’s transforming work environment, the data being gathered post-pandemic has upended traditional work patterns, behaviours and environments. Building an inclusive workforce and creating opportunities and optimal environments for employees with a diverse range of individual strengths and traits are producing the best overall outcomes and organisational success stories. And when the data shows the bottom line is positively impacted, we know it’s a ripe environment for change and transformation.
According to Kerry Drury, European Culture and Engagement strategist at O.C. Tanner, building a truly inclusive culture means going beyond just improving diversity numbers in recruiting or ensuring equal pay. It’s about building inclusion into the everyday employee experience and benefits strategy (Why diversity, equity and inclusion is critical to a successful reward and benefits strategy).
In other words, diversity brings dividends when strategy is executed is the right way, and not simpy a tick box excercise. We have to get past the outdated biases and misconceptions about neurodiverse people that serve little purpose in today’s modern work world. Our current and future success absolutely depends on it.