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the future of work for everyone, by everyone

Written by Kelly Dyer
May 6, 2021

How to embrace the superpowers of your neurodiverse employees

Image Credit: Rosie - Stephanie Johnson-Graves
Topic: Inclusion
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Hi I’m Kelly (the super motivated, organized and ‘on her game’ marketer who sits on the second floor) — and I have ADHD.

When I happen to let that slip (which isn’t often) — people immediately think I’m joking. Or lying. Or both.

On the outside, I’ve got it all together. I turn things in on time (sometimes early), am organized, thoughtful, detail-oriented and pay attention in meetings. I organize the surprise baby showers, keep track of team birthdays, remember everything our client said at yesterdays’ wine-filled lunch, and own the marketing teams’ massive, super complicated project management board. I even suggested we start it!

I couldn’t possibly have ADHD.

But I do.

After struggling pretty significantly at my first job out of college, I took it upon myself to get to the bottom of my ‘issues.’ I had always dreamed of an agency job exactly like the one I had, yet I was miserable, constantly struggling, and always falling behind. My ADHD diagnosis is a long story for another time, but when I realized it wasn’t actually ‘me’ — and I wasn’t horrible at my job or incompetent — my outlook on my career (and even my life as a whole) began to change significantly.

Things I’d been hiding for years, or working hard to ‘compensate’ for suddenly became things I found to be pretty useful. Instead of fighting tooth and nail to change who I was, I started to change the way I worked – turning my ‘weaknesses’ into innovation, wild creativity, and a constant desire to learn, grow, and tackle the next big project.

Sociologist Judy Singer coined the term ‘neurodiversity’ in the late 1990s, rejecting the idea that autistic people were disabled. Brain imaging studies have since demonstrated how the brains of the neurodiverse are truly ‘wired differently,’ — meaning they learn and think differently than their colleagues or peers. In the workplace, the concept of neurodiversity has recently expanded the definition of inclusivity to take neurological differences like ASD, ADHD, Dyslexia, Tourettes, and Dyspraxia into account when hiring, retaining and supporting talent. If you’re leading a team at work, there’s a high chance that some of your employees are neurodiverse. In fact, it’s probably a given. It’s estimated that 1 in 7 (15%) of people are considered neurodiverse — and according to some sources, that’s probably a conservative estimate.

While my experience with ADHD is fairly ‘typical’ — there are endless ways that neurodiverse people struggle in ‘normal’ work environments. Here are a handful of suggestions for how you can embrace the superpowers of all of your employees!

1. Don’t buy into negative stereotypes.

With conditions like ADHD, dyslexia, or anxiety, it’s easy to rely on stereotypes or anecdotal knowledge to understand the ‘problem.’ I’ve seen firsthand how many of the typical assumptions about people with ADHD simply don’t apply to me.

I carry around a meticulously organized, color-coded and indexed bullet journal, I can (and often do) finish books the same day I start them, and can focus on the same project for hours without leaving my desk until it’s done. Portrayals in popular culture may lead to the assumption that a team member with ADHD is going to be ‘a mess’ or super spacey — but assuming anything about their condition is dangerously simplifying what is most likely a pretty complex issue.

From Microsoft to Ernst & Young, many companies in recent years have concluded there is a competitive advantage to empowering neurodiversity in the workplace. Successfully doing this requires a more balanced valuation of neurodiverse employees needs and talents.

2. See something? Say something.

As someone who struggled silently for years, I know what it’s like to feel completely alone with a silent ‘disability.’ I think that if some of my past managers asked me about my ‘struggles’ instead of framing them as problems or weaknesses in our once yearly reviews — things could have gone very differently.

If you see a team member struggling and you have the ability to have a candid, open and empathetic conversation — just do it. You might not get everything right and it may feel awkward, but simply checking in can open the door for better collaboration, communication and overall success of your team – and can be as simple as — I’ve noticed you struggling with this project, is there anything I (or the team) can do differently to make it easier / more productive?

If someone does share an issue or struggle with something like ADHD or anxiety with you, make it clear that your employee isn’t alone. While you might not understand the ins and outs of their situation, your empathy and willingness to help them through it can go a long way.

3. Make room at the table for neurodiversity.

For reasons I’ll never understand, curiosity in corporate environments is sometimes frowned upon. It’s synonymous with asking questions that may not be on the agenda, getting involved in things that ‘aren’t your job’ — and potentially coloring outside of the lines. This halts innovation, encourages repetition and leaves little room for improvement.

Even companies that are including neurodiversity in their definition of capital D “Diversity” may need to do some work in Equity and Inclusion to ensure their neurodiverse employees can succeed and thrive. Empower them and “they’ll ask questions where others fear to tread.”

As someone with ADHD, I’ve always valued creativity, innovation and curiosity — the concept of ‘staying in your lane’ never really made sense to me. Think beyond ‘normal’ — no matter the industry, there is room on every team for different kinds of thinkers and workers.

4. Play to their strengths.

Not everyone on your team (even if they’re in the same role) is going to have the same strengths. Embrace that! Encourage your team to work together in complementary groups – have the ‘numbers people’ and ‘creative people’ work on something together, and see how it goes. Encourage cross-department collaboration if your team is lacking knowledge in a particular area.

Not everyone is going to have the right skills to work on every aspect of a project, and that’s okay. Make it an open conversation — so asking for help is seen as positive and completely acceptable, not as a sign of weakness.

5. The new normal is flexible

When I ‘work for myself’ (doing things like writing this article, marketing consulting, content creation etc.) — I am far happier, more productive, focused and creative. I’m somehow able to get a lot more done — in far less time! — when I don’t have to follow a schedule that doesn’t work for me.

COVID has forced us all to work differently, which has opened up cracks in the ways we think about ‘normal’ work schedules, places and habits. Many employers and managers are realizing that the office may not necessarily be the best place for everyone to be all of the time. If someone on your team with a neurodiversity like ADHD or Autism prefers the quiet of their own home, that flexibility may empower them to be far more productive.

Neurodiverse or not, I’d argue that the more autonomy you give your team members when it comes to working how and when they work best, the better they’ll perform.

6. Encourage healthy habits

Running is one of my biggest coping mechanisms, it helps me sort out my thoughts, and often allows me to ‘clear out the cobwebs’ in my brain. Taking an hour out of my day to go for a run ensures the second half of my day will be far more productive, and I think many other neurodiverse people would agree.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of allowing your employees to take a lunchtime workout break. Encourage your team to take breaks to get outside or hold walking meetings with your direct reports. Host a once a quarter (optional) yoga class, or set aside a small budget for a running or cycling club. Or even subsidizing a gym membership.

Staying active is a huge part of how I ensure I’m my best self — and I think many people (not just those with neurodivsities like mine) would benefit similarly with some simple incentives.

7. Mental health counts

One of the biggest issues that stemmed from my ADHD diagnosis was figuring out how to stop beating myself up for something I couldn’t really help.

While therapy has changed my life in the most positive, incredible ways, it also carries a pretty significant cost. I’ve never had insurance that has fully covered the therapy (or medication) I need, and I realize that I’m extremely lucky to be able to pay for these things myself. Offering access to discounted therapy, or even mental health-focused  apps such as Headspace can be powerful resources for those who may be quietly struggling.

While I can’t say what might be right for your team or workplace, I can say that keeping an open mind and a sense of empathy for the ‘invisible’ burdens we all might carry can go a long way.

8. Encourage structural change.

Even if you’re not in charge of hiring processes or larger company policies – discussing these situations with key stakeholders is extremely important. Use examples of things you’ve noticed with your own teams, and suggest ways that the hiring process can be improved for people with neurodiversities.

If there is one key takeaway from this piece, it’s that being ‘neurodiverse’ isn’t something your employees should have to hide. That kind of environment causes an immense amount of stress and shame — and I’d be willing to bet will lead to burnout, high employee turnover, and lower productivity.

Change at a higher level (including within the hiring process) can often be slow. But that doesn’t mean your hands are tied. Take matters into your own hands and discuss work styles, preferences and productivity with your team as part of their onboarding. You can start the conversation by sharing your own preferences such as “I’m a morning person” or Google Hangouts ‘face to face’ vs. Slack. Being open about ways of working is extremely important — and will be a major service to you and your team.

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Editor’s Socials – Joe Cole: LinkedIn, Twitter

Written by Kelly Dyer
Freelance marketer, strategist, & content creator | Formerly in NYC, currently in London