Guidance for Managers – Supporting Neurodiversity Trailblazers Throughout the Work Lifecycle

As an understanding that our brains are naturally different becomes more established and accepted, there will be more questions than immediate answers to the central question of how best to work with neurodivergent colleagues.  In the discussions that inevitably emerge on what can be negotiated and adapted and where the boundaries need to lie, an evolution and revolution in communication is taking place. Such topics feature in conversations in Human Catalyst huddles: https://humancatalysthub.com/about/

Effective communication depends on context, people, and the situation.   The only way through successfully is to be equipped with some essential knowledge on Neurodivergent lived experience, and to clarify the reality for the people you encounter. In simple terms, aim to be curious and skillfully ask great questions.   These questions will allow you to establish the key factors at play through the stages of employment (the employee life-cycle).  Each stage, Attraction/Recruitment, Learning and Development, Retention, and Moving On will present different triggers and opportunities.  Your aim is to meet people where they are at whilst holding the organisational and leadership agenda.

Early in 2024 Jess Meredith and I represented the neurodiverse tribe at the Kings Fund Top Managers Programme for topflight leaders in health and social care.  We were part of a carefully thought-through programme to help develop more enlightened change and high-quality, thoughtful leadership.  Conversations took place that were real and sometimes edgy. It makes a great difference when the leader is fully present to understand the whole story and get under the skin of difficult topics. The creation of a safe environment committed to transparent communication, learning and change set the scene for healthy collaboration.

In current times Neurodivergent talent is likely to be going through their own personal ‘revolution’ as social awareness and attitudes are resetting post pandemic.  The topic is gathering extensive media interest but of the 15-20 % mooted as being neurodivergent, only a tiny proportion are confirmed with a diagnosis according to Dr Nancy Doyle of Genius Within .  Therefore, the uncertainty and noise will intensify as people strive to find solutions in the interim of gaining clarity on the best way to move forward.   Many clients I encounter take the pragmatic route of beginning sensible strategies now. After all, we are the ultimate expert on our mind as many meditators will confirm. 

Nevertheless, we have heard many stories of the psychological lift that people get from a diagnosis: The mystery of why professional life hasn’t gone smoothly is typically settled with relief.  Clarity of a diagnosis can also be helpful in terms of which of the plethora of strategies available might help most.   I always encourage that more self-awareness is helpful especially when it comes to the mysteries of how we think and function.  It can fuel conviction for a more satisfying career direction. For others, in a minority of cases, across the dozens of people I work with now, who have recently received a diagnosis of autism or ADH,  the new identity can be destabilising. It all depends on the individual and often the experience of levels of acceptance that stem from childhood and in current life.

We often hear poignant stories from neurodivergent people who may have experienced years of masking their alternative way of thinking (sometimes unconsciously) to thrive as an all-rounder. Family expectations can be an issue here. Some readers (who if assessed may be able to perform around the average level of attainment for key neuroprocessing functions) will be unfamiliar with the experience of knowing you are different, and that your way of communicating doesn’t hit the spot.   A neurodivergent team member may know they have something valuable to share that can move the team forward, but they say nothing because of many past examples of rejection in their wider whole life story.  They decide not to rock the boat because after all, we have an instinct to fit in that is well established for our very survival.  In many cases, the journey to claiming your neurodivergent identity is not a smooth path and can kick up trauma that might even go back to early school years.

On the other hand, the manager Is faced with the dilemmas of attending to the needs of their whole team, not just isolated individuals.   A number of ‘red-mist-short-circuits’ can occur which if not addressed can magnify and create dysfunction over time due to misunderstandings as people hold on tightly to their view.  We know this can occur, within Neurotypical and Neurodivergent team members alike, when buttons are pushed, and our views are simply not validated.    Some members of the team may genuinely be spiralling downwards, avoiding contact with each other, due to perceived boundaries not being respected.  The manager may be left with the sense that compromise will be short-lived, especially now that an awareness of different brains is rapidly changing the goal posts, and on top of that, they may be getting to grips with their own brain and its quirks.

So how can organisations break down the task of optimising the employee life cycle, when there is so much to understand and adapt to?

At each stage of employee development, there are conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that apply.    These are shaped over time in reaction to our experiences and are closely linked to our identity and sense of belonging.  A crucial point to make here is that the first step is for you to recognise the factors that make you you and how this may be affecting your filters and biases on the world.  By calling these out consciously, you can be more on the alert for biased filters not to trip you up unconsciously.  Chances are your biases about a person if not checked will accompany them throughout their career with you regardless of the strides they make.  Neurodivergent colleagues are likely to be on an intense career path.  This can also be emotional as many of put all of themselves into work.  Work can be our jam (or marmite, peanut butter etc); a delicious spread we genuinely enjoy in life.  Be prepared for your neurodivergent talent to surprise you when this happens. The seemingly impossible may be possible, you just can’t see it yet but you can be assured that when we are engaged, quitting isn’t in our vocabulary.

If looking to hire neurodivergent talent, take a moment to question if the interview questions will allow you to get to their strengths.  Is your thinking too rigid about prior conventional education, work history and competency models?  Just because someone may appear nervous and awkward, doesn’t mean they don’t have talents to do the job you require.  Some may have struggled at school and in life and their career  because their Neurodivergence wasn’t properly understood.  Often, there is huge performance anxiety around interviews as the habit is to blame themselves for a past failure rather than see the experience in a resilient way as a learning opportunity.  Organisations fortunately are starting to loosen up on the traditional rigid protocols around performance interviews which fail to get to the root of the who the person is and who they can become.

Once in a role the development path may be littered with barriers. Problems arise when we don’t stop to reflect on the new habits required to work effectively in the team.   Habits may have unconsciously formed and simply needs to be identified in the language that resonates.  For example, when done well, the usual performance cycle of review and consciously resetting behaviours will be sufficient.  However, the performance management process may not adequately meet the needs of neurodivergent employees whose exceptional talents may be off the charts in some areas and yet needing different alternatives in other areas.  The manager has to play a skilful role in navigating the gap between the organisation and the flexibility required for individuals.

Throughout organisational life, the employee will experience a journey where the manager serves as a crucial focal point. I am always mindful of the phrase “people join organisations but leave managers” being especially poignant when we look at the Manager as a crucial lever of employee engagement.  Given that Neurodivergent talent often feel they are the outsiders of organisational life, the manager can play a crucial role in giving perspective on how situations may be viewed, and focus may be tuned accordingly. Organisational dynamics can be a quagmire; each case likely needing to be taken on its individual context.  In one case, I know of a manager of an autistic client who in their enthusiasm to involve the individual, is triggering their burnout.  More commonly, in many organisations there will be gaps in the socialisation of neurodivergent people as it misses the step to adjust and patiently engage neurodivergent people with the organisational culture, specific teams, organisational processes and suitable mentors. 

As the learning and development of talent gains momentum, it becomes evident how fit for purpose and engaging the methods used are for learners of diverse thinking approaches.  Often the pressure on budgets will limit the options offered through formal courses.  If development isn’t offered on the job with well devised advancement and support, top talent may choose to vote with their feet leaving for a new manager and organisation that are able to tailor their career path more to their unique needs and strengths. For the managers and organisations that are on the case, it will be extremely hard to entice the star player away.  The power of investing in a culture of belonging for Neuro minorities cannot be underestimated.  That an organisation will go the extra mile for all employees to be comfortable in their own skin counts for a great deal.  Wise management is required, however, for success as newly liberated ND profiles have the potential to clash!

The manager as advisor on how best to navigate the diversity of the organisation, is a modern departure from the traditional command and control or micromanagement styles typical in a large organisation.  A mindset of high levels of self-awareness and an aptitude for building partnerships around the organisational environment will be assets.  It may be helpful if t these instincts can be passed on to others who may struggle in the interpersonal aspects of organisational life.  Conversely, alternative strategies can be incorporated in anticipation of challenging situations such as: knowing when to seek guidance on known blind spot areas, restructuring work to play to Strengths, or practising scenarios ofmore versatility in certain types of communication.

A new approach to working with neurodivergent thinkers is to engage in a conscious relations aspect to communication.  This method systematically works with embodied emotions and thoughts.  We are currently developing the method for use in individual coaching and team building.

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