There has never been a better moment or need for companies to consider the next phase in their DE&I and talent strategies. Talent scarcity, accelerated transformations due to the global pandemic, the need for innovative thinkers, and new ways to solve increasingly complex problems…the next few years will be the years of fruition for neurodiverse talent.

This article is authored by Laurent Poujol, Sales Director Mid Markets, LHH France, and Jessica Conser, Ph.D., SVP, Product and Innovation, LHH.

For many years, companies have been overlooking a key section of their Diversity, Equity & Inclusion policies: Neurodiverse Workers.

Science has shown no two brains are alike, and that means that each worker processes information, learns, and engages with their work in different ways. These neurological differences are just a part of the way the brain is wired to function. But these differences can be seen as an important part of the organizational growth strategy, allowing companies to harness each workers’ strengths and hidden talents.

There has never been a better moment or need for companies to consider the next phase in their DE&I and talent strategies. Talent scarcity accelerated transformations due to the global pandemic, the need for innovation, and new ways to solve increasingly complex problems, have created a perfect storm. We believe the next few years will be the years of fruition for neurodiverse talent.

When companies ignore neurodiverse workers, they are sending the message to all of their stakeholders that they don’t value those differences, and that those workers are deficient in some way. That’s why it is so important that organizations take another look at their DE&I policies to build a better work environment for everyone.

Companies that go the extra mile in their recruitment, development, and accommodation efforts can nurture neurodivergent workers and gain a competitive edge in their skills profiles, approaches to decision making, problem solving, and innovation.

Understanding neurodiversity in the world of work

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) policies are not just about people of color, race, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and physical disability. Neurodiversity is included in those policies, too.

Neurodiversity commonly refers to the variation in human brain functioning, behavioral traits and preferences, such as learning, sociability, attention, mood, and other mental health conditions. However, like religious or philosophical preferences, neurodiversity is often less visible, making its identification or diagnosis challenging. A lack of awareness about this source of diversity often results in colleagues, leaders, or other professional collaborators not understanding the unique requirements and abilities of this population of talents – and ultimately, missing out on new ways of advancing the organisation.

While estimates vary for different types of neurodiversity, including with age groups, regions, and geographies, it’s estimated that anywhere between 20% to 40% of the population is considered neurodivergent. That’s a significant number to go misunderstood, unappreciated, and underutilized.

Neurodiverse workers in the corporate world

Do you know many neurodiverse colleagues in your workplace? It’s possible that a number of your colleagues may be neurodivergent but may not feel comfortable bringing their full selves into work each day. In recent years, some business leaders have started identifying as neurodiverse – and/or making space for neurodiverse workers to flourish.

John Chambers, Cisco’s former CEO, states that “25% of CEOs are dyslexic, but many don’t want to talk about it.”

Opening the channels of communication can be a great place to start. This way, anyone who wants to come forward and talk can do so in a safe space. Leaders and managers should take proactive steps to enhance their approach to talent management by:

  • understanding and valuing each employee’s contributions, strengths, challenges, and needs

  • ensuring clarity of roles and responsibilities that drive both business results and employee motivation

  • providing and receiving ongoing feedback about what’s working and what can be improved

  • co-designing a career development plan that supports the individual differences

  • and ultimately being accountable for a neurodiverse talent management approach for their team

Having leaders that champion neurodiverse approaches and opportunities, appreciate what makes these talents special – helps those in the organisation feel more comfortable about their giftedness and enables more workers to perform at their greatest potential.

The great thing about neurodivergent talents is that they are well suited for today’s business challenges. They often see solutions to complex problems that most neurotypical employees don’t consider. They have unique innovation capabilities and may be gifted in some skills that are essential in today’s complex environment, for example:

  • People with autism are said to be highly creative with exceptional concentration, logic, imagination, and visual thought. They also tend to be systematic, meticulous, and highly detailed. They share unique insights and perspectives in problem-solving.

  • People with ADHD have great imaginations and often score high on creativity tests. They have a rare capacity to hyperfocus; certain environments, such as video games, take less effort for them.

  • People with dyslexia demonstrate incredible abilities to think outside the box. They are stronger than average in reasoning, especially in understanding patterns, evaluating possibilities, and making decisions. It is commonly acknowledged that those with dyslexia have invaluable competence when it comes to viewing aspects from a broader perspective and assessing situations from multiple views.

Imagine some of the situations -- business transformations, strategic reviews, task forces, hackathons, or leadership summits -- in which having diverse perspectives and unique super skills would be beneficial.

Companies should think about neurodiversity as a mean to hack their toughest challenges, creating small groups of creative thinkers to bring fresh perspectives, and probably different ones too, where leaders and consultants often get stuck in classic ways of thinking using the same systems, the same concepts, the same tools to investigate and design the solutions.

Recently, Philippe Bazin, the CEO of Accor Hotels Group, launched a new initiative: to create a « shadow leadership team ». Each member of the Executive Committee (ExCo) was asked to nominate a young talent below 35 that would shadow the ExCo. The shadow team was asked to look at the company’s ExCo decisions, challenges, and investment opportunities -- and based upon their perspectives and experience, to challenge them. This initiative is all about leveraging special talents, a wonderful way to show leaders just how important it is for executives to explore new perspectives and have a fresh look at the company.

How can leaders embrace the neurodiverse workforce as a disruptive advantage?

It’s a real asset for an organization to have people who can help think outside the box.

For a number of years, organisations have invested in various programs designed to support and unleash the hidden talent of their employees. While most of these programs were created with the neurotypical in mind, some companies saw the unique value in neurodivergence.

Some recent examples include:

  • Charlotte Valeur, ex-CEO of the UK’s Institute of Directors has established an institute to influence business, after coming out as a person with autism.

  • Dan Harris of Deloitte has spearheaded Deloitte’s commitment to Neurodiversity following his experience of parenting a child with Autism.

  • Sir Richard Branson, who has dyslexia, has worked for years to change the stigma around dyslexia.

  • Jamell Mitchell has been a neurodiversity advocate at EY for more than 6 years. Currently, he oversees the Neurodiversity Center of Excellence which has generated numerous job opportunities for neurodiverse individuals and proven to be a tremendous value engine for EY.

  • Christian Charlier founded a Gifted Network at AIRBUS.

  • Recently, Google Cloud launched an Austism Career Program in partnership with the Stanford Neurodiversity Project aimed to hire and support more talented autistic individuals in the rapidly growing cloud industry.

  • Microsoft created a Neurodiversity Hiring Program in 2015 that is still going strong today.

  • Goldman Sachs followed their tracks and in 2019 launched a Neurodiversity Hiring Initiative, offering an eight-week paid internship program for neurodivergent people.

While these may seem like progressive indicators of success, a poll by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 2018 concluded that 72% of HR professionals do not consider neurodiversity in their people management practices. That’s why we believe there is still room for improvement in this space.

Key Takeaways

More and more companies are enabling clubs and networks where people can come together, build trust, and connect with others who may not otherwise do so. Other companies structure their initiatives through formal DE&I programs or Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence like EY. Broad scale neurodiversity policies are a good CSR practice to have in place, but it’s okay to start small.

Leaders and managers must aim to create a safe place for people to raise their voices and share their exceptional abilities, free from the consequences such action might have. Open communication about the unique value that neurodiverse talents bring to the organisation, around the challenges and struggles these workers may face, and how best to create a supportive, adaptive workplace – will make everyone feel more connected and engaged to their work.

The sooner companies tap into the hidden, unique talents of their neurodiverse workforce, the sooner they will recognize the value from these differences.

How are you shaping your talent and DE&I strategies including neurodiversity to be ready for the Future World of Work?

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