Much has been said about creating workforces of people with diverse backgrounds, but hardly anything has been said about the value of workforces that include people who think differently.
For that reason, an article posted to the SFGate Website last week got my attention. In “Hiring neurodiversity in the workplace is smart business,” Kim Thompson notes the benefits of hiring people with conditions such as autism and Tourette’s Syndrome. “In the past, job candidates with neurological differences struggled to find a job—any job—where they could feel productive and valued. There is a new employer mindset emerging toward seeing strengths in diversity, not liabilities,” Thompson writes.
It sounds like savvy employers are starting to recognize the benefits to innovation of getting input from people whose brains work differently from most others’. When I was a child, I did poorly in school, despite scoring well on intelligence tests, and psychologists failed to diagnose me with a specific learning disability or difference. After much testing, they finally threw up their hands, and decided that I processed information differently from other people, though they were unable to pinpoint exactly what that difference was. Now it’s apparent that part of that difference—or maybe the whole of it—is that I’m a creative person.
The challenges of people with a condition such as autism or Tourette’s Syndrome are much steeper than my own, but they also can offer a value in creative thinking, or being able to point out angles of a situation that others are missing. For instance, not only could a person who processes information differently help you come up with a new product design or a new approach to marketing, they could also show you where a business strategy will fall short, despite conventional thinking.
Nine summers ago, when I worked briefly as a freelance copy editor and proofreader, I saw firsthand the impact of neurodiversity. In that case, the neurodiversity had nothing to do with a diagnosable condition—just the difference in how two people with very different brains, and ways of thinking, operate. To be honest, I didn’t find the two brains equally enjoyable. One of the brains was spreadsheet-loving and hyper-detail-oriented, while the other was more like me—wandering mind with a love of long, winding conversations. The one more like me told me how she was struggling to temporarily fill the shoes of the other employee while that employee was on vacation. She marveled at how differently they approached their jobs: “Her brain is just so different from mine. It’s a good brain, but different from mine.” I was impressed by how effortlessly accepting she was of neurological difference. I kept it to myself, but I wasn’t as accepting of that other brain—I found that employee endlessly annoying and tedious.
Most of us have been taught to be accepting of people with different backgrounds and experiences, but not many have been taught to also be open-minded about people whose brains work differently from our own. It’s one thing to say “be open-minded” about people with neurological “disabilities,” but another to accept a brain with no diagnosable condition that is simply very different from your own. And then, once that other kind of brain has been accepted, to be able to work with the owner of that brain to create better products and services for your company.
That’s something I’m still struggling with. I’m the odd woman out in my current work group. I’m a Myers-Briggs INFJ(introvert, intuition, feelings, judgment), and I suspect most of my co-workers are ESTJs (extrovert, sensory, thinking, judgment). I can see that they are challenged sometimes to understand my perspective, and I often feel irritated by approaches that come across to me as brusque and limited thinking. I’m often struck by how literal-minded they are, and how much more attuned to the one-dimensional and concrete they are than I am. Is there a learning program that could help us better understand the differences in how our brains work, and how we could use our neurological differences to do better as a work group?
Do the brains of the majority of your employees work in the same way? Is your company suffering from an overload of one particular type of brain? How do you bring more people into your company with brains that work differently, and then how do you integrate those brains with the other, majority brains?