When I was a young child, I was put through a lot of testing to determine why a child, who was apparently intelligent, performed so poorly at school. No specific diagnosis was made except that I “processed information differently from other people.” Now I look back at that and laugh. It sounds like a definition of creativity—the ability to take the same information presented to other people and see things in it that they can’t see. I excelled at school as an older child, eventually even getting a Master’s Degree, so I don’t worry about it.
The term, “neurodiversity,” didn’t exist back then. If it had, some may have said my school wasn’t understanding and tolerant of people who had good brains, but who saw and interpreted the world differently from others. Today, the term has become well-known enough that it is applied to people with everything from Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder to Asperger Syndrome. When Elon Musk hosted Saturday Night Live, many were excited to hear him openly discuss how his brain works differently from others due in part to his Asperger’s.
I came across an article by Marie Dealessandri on a site called Gamesindustry.biz that offers guidance to organizations to enhance neurodiversity. For example, the piece points readers to the Reasonable Adjustments Toolkit. It includes a list of adjustments employers can make to accommodate employees with brains that work differently than many other people’s and to facilitate conversations between employees and managers.
People don’t need a diagnosable condition to have trouble relating to managers and colleagues. Sometimes all it takes is two brains—which both may be “normal”—that just work extremely differently. I once had a manager who reveled in process. When faced with a project that needed to be completed, he saw it in terms of a process. Whether that process ever led anywhere appeared to be beside the point for him. It was a workplace corollary of the person who believes the journey on a trip is more important than the destination. A colleague and I also suspected that this work perspective came with a touch of attention deficit disorder. He would jump from task to task within his “process,” often leaving work incomplete. He was a strong public speaker and “people person,” but his brain was not attuned to efficiently completing work. When I tried to find ways of expediting the work by finding simple solutions, he would make references to my “flippant” attitude. I wasn’t willing to put in the amount of serious work required for each step of the process. Looking back, I can see we were a mismatch, and that he was not in the right job for his strengths.
A workplace filled with brains that work in an array of ways is a good thing as long as colleagues are well-matched and each individual is in a job that complements the way their brain works. For example, my manager would have been happier, and served the company better, as an adjunct to the advertising sales team. He could have been an editorial-advertising liaison, who served as a kind of ambassador for the editors, who typically do not love glad-handing and schmoozing. There should have been an acknowledgment that completing written deliverables on time was not his strong suit, even if he was professionally known as an “editor.”
Similarly, years before the experience with that editor, I worked with a woman who was not expressive—at least not with me. I could be telling her anything, and she would look back at me with an implacable stone face. She did this during my interview for the job. I interviewed first with the editor-in-chief, who seemed to love me, and then with this woman, who served as the managing editor. She did not seem to love me, and, as managing editor she would be the one working the most with me one-on-one. I would not have been surprised if I hadn’t been hired, but I was. It was not a good match of employee and supervisor. Our personalities were different, but our brains were, too. My brain thought in waves and hers thought in straight lines. When I did a “Day in the Life” story, I wrote it in a flowing, whimsical narrative form. She edited it so every paragraph was timestamped. I’m grateful that job gave me my first real professional start after college, but I can see now that I should not have been hired.
Neurodiversity requires an open-minded, accommodating company, but it also requires smart hiring practices. It requires hiring managers and Human Resources professionals trained to recognize differences in personality, as well as differences in thought processing. You can have a neurodiverse company without forcing every brain into every position. The qualities that infuriated that managing editor may have suited another editor perfectly. Aim to create a company that’s neurodiverse and savvy about how it uses each of the many different brains it hires.
Do you discuss the value of neurodiversity at your company? How does an understanding and appreciation of neurodiversity impact how you hire and develop employees?