Late last year I co-authored an article with my colleague and University of Sydney Coaching Masters student Rebecca Kornmehl on Coaching for Neurodiversity: Part 1. We had a really positive response to this article (which you can read here) and we’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who commented, provided feedback and/or shared our article. This gave us the impetus to continue onto Part 2 where I now quiz Rebecca on the role of neurodiversity in the workplace.
Our mission at The Positivity Institute is to help create flourishing workplaces and a flourishing world. As such, I’m particularly interested to explore how neurodiversity can contribute to organisational flourishing or what emerging science refers to as “thriving organisations”. From my understanding of this evolving area, it appears that neurodiversity currently falls inside the remit of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) – or wellbeing, inclusion, diversity and equity (WIDE), as I recently heard it dubbed. Indeed, a key takeaway from our first article was the perspective that human systems, just like ecological systems, flourish with diversity. So, let’s explore how this specific type of diversity, ‘neurodiversity’, can help us create thriving organisations.
Suzy: Rebecca, what evidence is there that neurodiversity helps organisations thrive?
Rebecca: First off, I think it’s important to agree on a definition of organisational thriving. From a management perspective, Drucker (2012) suggests that thriving businesses move efficiently towards their goals and commit to continued growth and improvement. From an organisational psychology perspective, Spreitzer et al. (2005) submit that thriving organisations offer their people opportunities to enhance meaning, learning and vitality. Research in the neurodiversity space suggests that neurodiversity enhances both these aspects of thriving, namely the performance and social experience associated with an organisation. For example:
- Hyland & Connolly (2018) found that “companies with differently-abled employees outperform their competitors, averaging 28% higher revenue plus higher shareholder returns” (Coplan et al., 2021, p. 21).
- A number of researchers highlight the unique talents of neurodivergent professionals, including abilities that are “off the charts” (Austin & Pisano, 2017, p. 100), divergent perspectives that are conducive to innovation (Austin & Pisano, 2017) and a tendency to increase the “group’s ability to find patterns in data and develop creative solutions to problems that might otherwise go unnoticed” (Coplan et al., 2021, p. 22).
- Managers in neuroaffirmative organisations posit that “perceptions that a company is ‘doing good’” translate into public relations and marketing advantages along with higher employee engagement (Krzeminska et al., 2019, p. 455).
- Working alongside disabled* people offers learning and development opportunities for abled colleagues, who are prompted to question their assumptions around the value of people who are different to them, leading to more inclusive attitudes and behaviour at work (Stone & Colella, 1996; Popovich, Scherbaum, Scherbaum, & Polinko, 2003; Nelissen, Hülsheger, van Ruitenbeek, & Zijlstra, 2016 in Remington & Pellicano, 2019).
In addition to these individual, team and organisational benefits, we see a neuroaffirmative approach yielding positive societal results. Namely, as neuroaffirmative practices become more common in organisations, employment opportunities will increase for historically underemployed minority groups, creating positive societal impacts related to higher employment rates (Krzeminska, 2019).
* It’s worth considering Dr Luke Beardon’s (2021) view that neurominorities are not inherently disabled; rather it is their environment that is disabling due to a misfit with the neurodivergent individual’s natural way of processing, communicating and experiencing the world. A neuroaffirmative approach seeks to make socio-environmental adjustments that en-able, rather than dis-able, neurominorities.
Suzy: Which organisations are currently taking a successful neuroaffirmative approach?
Rebecca: Prominent companies that have already implemented more neuroinclusive employment practices include DXC Technology, EY, Ford, Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE), JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft and SAP (Krzeminska, 2019). These organisations are designing jobs around individuals’ unique strengths, modifying recruitment practices to tap neurodivergent talent and tailoring training initiatives to help develop exceptional abilities, even those related to unforeseeable projects (Austin & Sonne, 2014). SAP is credited with the longest running neurodiversity recruitment programme and cites “productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and broad increases in employee engagement’. This was echoed by preliminary results from HPE’s programme, which “suggest that the organization’s neurodiverse testing teams are 30% more productive than the others” (Austin & Pisano, 2017, p.99).
Through my own research and conversations with grassroots activists, I am aware of other Neurodiversity Employee Resource Groups that are driving this change in collaboration with an array of stakeholders, including at Deutsche Bank and Philips. According to Remington & Pellicano (2019, p. 256), Deutsche Bank’s autistic graduate internship programme provided a positive, meaningful experience for young professionals who “felt they had learnt quickly and contributed well to various projects and that their individual skills were taken into consideration, allowing them to perform at their best”. At Philips, change-agents are leveraging the post-Covid hot topic of flexible working arrangements to explore how we can better accommodate people’s unique needs for structure vs flexibility, in-person vs digital communication and a more vs less stimulating work environment. Considering how to accommodate a variety of preferences is relevant for all of us, but especially neurominorities.
Suzy: Who drives neurodiversity-related change in organisations? What is the role of Senior Leadership and Boards, and is there a connection to ESG reporting?
Rebecca: It is my belief that leaders who embody the principles of authentic and transformational leadership will be the most effective drivers of change. Known for leading with empathy and integrity (George et al., 2007), authentic leaders display a willingness to listen, understand and respect the people they work with, irrespective of differences – so this style would be perfect for nurturing neurodiversity. For comparison, transformational leaders are defined by their capacity to empower and inspire others to embrace their own leadership potential (Bass & Riggio, 2006). Again, this style holds promise for helping neurodivergent individuals to rise above current constraints. And Suzy, as you have pointed out, both these forms of leadership can be seen to fall under the umbrella term of “Positive Leadership” (Cameron, 2018), which is concerned with sustainable wellbeing and performance. Interestingly, a pioneering research report released recently, Neurodiversity at Work 2023, found that the three most important influences on an ND employee’s wellbeing and decision to stay/leave an organisation included a “boss’s support, psychological safety and career satisfaction” (McDowall et al., 2023, p. 31). All three of these influences are strongly shaped by leadership style.
On a more pragmatic note, yes, it’s likely that Boards and Senior Leadership will need to take a more proactive role in driving neurodiversity change to fulfil evolving Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) expectations. As noted by a PwC survey into human capital disclosures, regulatory bodies around the world are requiring greater disclosure on “board diversity representation and DEI program objectives” in the face of “increased scrutiny from stakeholders about how companies attract, train and retain top talent”. There is a real opportunity for Boards and Senior Leadership teams to minimise ESG risk by getting on the front foot here.
Suzy: Do many organisations create specific strategies around neurodiversity or is it part of a broader DEI strategy?
Rebecca: I don’t think we’re at a point where we can say that ‘many’ organisations create specific strategies around neurodiversity or even explicitly consider neurodiversity inside their broader DEI strategy. Despite Doyle’s (2020) finding that 15-20% of the global population is neurodivergent, Ott et al. (2022, p. 1) note that “neurodiversity receives far less attention than other diversities within the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) agendas of multinational corporations.” Even a decade or so after tech companies began designing recruitment drives to tap autistic talent in cyber-security, software development and software testing (Austin & Pisano, 2017), we are still in the early stages of taking a neuroaffirmative approach to work. It’s worth noting that, while these early initiatives focused on increasing the ‘D’ in DEI (Thomson, 2023), current neurodiversity initiatives tend to be employee-led and are more oriented to improving the ‘E’ & ‘I’ in DEI. This is an important shift if we want to mitigate the risk of inadvertently equating an individual’s productivity with their value as a human being.
Suzy: How can coaches support change agents to shape a neuroaffirmative culture and thereby help organisations to flourish?
Rebecca: Coaches can work with internal change agents to help organisations flourish by:
- developing authentic and transformational leaders (positive leadership)
- nurturing the capacity of neurodivergent professionals to build self-awareness, self-advocate and manage spiky profiles
- promoting a unified, high trust culture that supports basic psychological needs, psychological safety and thus high-quality motivation, performance and wellbeing.
These suggestions are also supported by the research report Neurodiversity at Work 2023, which calls for higher quality psychoeducation from a blend of external experts and people with lived experience “because support without knowledge could potentially have unintended harmful consequences” (McDowell et al, 2023, p. 25). This report also emphasises the need to set benchmarks for effective neuroinclusion so that practice and policy can be effectively evaluated.
It’s our intention to continue this article series onto Part 3 with a deeper dive into how coaches can support neurodivergent individuals.
In the meantime, we’d love to hear your continued comments or questions below, in particular if you have any additional examples and/or research on the emergence of neurodiversity within DEI initiatives. You may also like to message us directly to learn more about our approach to neurodiversity at work.
Austin, R. D., & Sonne, T. (2014). The Dandelion Principle: Redesigning work for the innovation economy. MIT Sloan Management Review.
Austin, R. D., & Pisano, G. P. (2017). Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage. Harvard Business Review.
Bass, B. M., & Riggio, R. E. (2006). Transformational leadership (Second edition.). L. Erlbaum Associates. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781410617095
Beardon, L. (2021). Avoiding anxiety in autistic adults: a guide for autistic wellbeing. Sheldon Press.
Coplan, J., Crocker, L., Landin, J., & Stenn, T. (2021). Building Supportive, Inclusive Workplaces Where Neurodivergent Thinkers Thrive: Approaches in Managing Diversity, Inclusion, and Building Entrepreneurship in the Workplace. S.A.M. Advanced Management Journal (1984), 86(1), 21–30. https://doi.org/10.52770/XTBM1097
Doyle, N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British Medical Bulletin, 135(1), 108. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7732033/pdf/ldaa021.pdf
Drucker, P. (2012). Chapter 6 What is Our Business – and What Should it Be? The Practice of Management. Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780080942360
George, B. Gergen, D. & Sims, P. (2007). True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. Jossey-Bass.
Krzeminska, A., Austin, R. D., Bruyère, S. M., & Hedley, D. (2019). The advantages and challenges of neurodiversity employment in organizations. Journal of Management & Organization, 25(4), 453–463. https://doi.org/10.1017/jmo.2019.58
McDowall, A., Doyle, N., & Kiseleva, M. (2023). Neurodiversity at work: demand, supply and a gap analysis.
Ott, D. L., Russo, E., & Moeller, M. (2022). Neurodiversity, equity, and inclusion in MNCs. AIB Insights, 22(3), 1-5.
Remington, A., & Pellicano, E. (2019). “Sometimes you just need someone to take a chance on you”: An internship programme for autistic graduates at Deutsche Bank, UK. Journal of Management & Organization, 25(4), 516–534. https://doi.org/10.1017/jmo.2018.66
Spreitzer, G., Sutcliffe, K., Dutton, J., Sonenshein, S., & Grant, A. M. (2005). A Socially Embedded Model of Thriving at Work. Organization Science (Providence, R.I.), 16(5), 537–549. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1050.0153
Thomson, E. (2023) www.uptimize.com/neurodiversity-work-fits-diversity-equity-inclusion/