The importance of neurodiverse leadership
According to The Office for National Statistics, currently, there are only 22 percent of people with autism in the UK in full- or part-time work. Institutional discrimination is considered a significant contributor.
There is a common misconception that neurodivergent individuals, e.g., those with learning differences, autism, or ADHD, can’t have a successful career, and examples of inspiring leaders such as Richard Branson, who has ADHD and dyslexia or Elon Musk who is on the spectrum, are often explained as rare exceptions.
Bias against neuro minorities in the workplace is significant, with 50 percent of UK managers stating that they would not hire neurodivergent talent. However, research suggests that autistic professionals can be up to 140 percent more productive than average employees and that neurodivergent traits are associated with originality of ideas and innovation. But organisations still shun neurodivergent talent, even while struggling with talent shortages.
Leading a neurodiverse team
Ultimately, it’s the leader’s role to create an environment where employees can perform their best and an increased understanding of neurodiversity can bring new perspectives, including tailored attention to individual employee needs. Given that employees may not disclose, or even realise that they are neurodivergent, it’s important for leaders to ensure clarity of communication and to take responsibility for neurodiversity at work. Leading neurodivergent employees often forces a better understanding of the individual, which in return creates better leaders.
The growing amount of data surrounding autism, dyslexia, and ADHD has increased global awareness of neurodiversity. Research reveals a significant lack of understanding and awareness of neurodivergents in the workplace despite an estimated one in seven people being neurodivergent. Improving awareness at the top of organisations can be an important change driver. When the senior leadership team champions neurodiversity and makes it clear the organisation takes neurodiversity seriously, it sends a positive signal both internally and externally. This could include openly speaking up or sponsoring neurodiversity initiatives in the workplace. Some leaders may also have their own direct personal connection to neurodiversity, which can make them a particularly strong advocate and supporter of their own organisation’s initiatives in this area.
The full benefits of neurodiversity inclusion are still being explored, but it’s increasingly clear that there is an advantage in attracting new talent that has been substantially overlooked. The traits of neurodivergent talent include the ability to focus for extended periods and being calm under pressure, as well as think outside the box – often a much-desired quality of an employee. Autistic people are also proven to be successful in a variety of roles, often bringing strengths to their work such as analytical thinking, focus, and attention to detail.
CIPD’s research on performance management suggests that organisations seeking to become more inclusive and get the best out of an increasingly diverse workforce, need to focus much more on people’s strengths and what they do well, instead of what they can’t do or aren’t very good at. Organisations that rely too much on rigid competency frameworks could risk excluding or disadvantaging neurodivergent individuals and others who may excel on some competency measures but score very poorly on others.
To be neurodiversity smart, leaders need to develop a language and acceptance of neuro-difference and to celebrate and leverage neurodiverse strengths while taking steps to accommodate any specific challenges that an individual may face. Neurodivergent employees may appreciate instructions in multiple formats, and leaders could consider providing tools such as mind maps to help them prioritise work and meet deadlines. Because even with the best communication processes in place tasks can often be communicated in a rush, which can lead to confusion, stress, and anxiety - and lost productivity as a result.
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