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Why Employers Need to Embrace Neurodiversity or Risk Falling Behind

published11 months ago
5 min read

For this week’s newsletter, I interviewed my good friend Peter Shankman. Peter is a serial entrepreneur and author of multiple bestselling books, including his latest, “Faster Than Normal: Turbocharge Your Focus, Productivity, and Success with the Secrets of the ADHD Brain.” Peter has delivered keynote speeches to more than 4,000 audiences, speaking and consulting on neurodiversity, customer experience, social media, ADHD, and the future of the customer-centric economy.

You’ve predicted that close to 15% of the workforce will identify as "neurodiverse" in the next ten years. Can you define what this term means, and describe the unique characteristics and skillsets that neurodiverse individuals bring to the workplace?

Neurodiverse is a relatively new term that encompasses anyone with a “different” or “faster” brain. The neurodiverse universe is made up of those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD,) Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), some levels of the autism spectrum, those with Executive Function Disorder (EFD) Asperger’s, and other subtle brain differences.

In the past, these different brains were all characterized as “disorders,” which is a damning and often negative judgement. Someone who is highly creative, exceptionally motivated, and thinks in new, radical and usually quite beneficial ways should never be labeled as having a disorder. Yet every single day, hundreds of kids in schools across the country and around the world are “diagnosed” with different ways of thinking as opposed to their peers.

The problem with this line of thought, of course, is that it tends to negatively label the child as “broken,” a stigma that they can easily carry with them for life. This robs them of the reality that’s becoming more well-documented by the day: that those with “faster than normal” brains are often more creative, better problem solvers, and unique thinkers when compared with their “normal-brained” peers.

Companies live and die on creativity and new ideas, and creativity and new ideas are usually birthed by those with “different” brains. The neurodiverse connect the dots in new and exciting ways, seeing patterns before they’re visible to the masses, and capitalizing on that information to lead their companies to the forefront of the market. Without allowing the neurodiverse to lead you to those new heights, you’ll consistently be playing catch-up as those companies who embrace the neurodiverse leave you in the dust.

What can employers do to attract and retain these uniquely talented and creative people? How should they work with "faster than normal" brains to integrate them into their company?

As more and more neurodiverse employees enter the workforce, employers have a unique opportunity to target these creative and talented people and recruit them from a place of strength. This is a place that says, “We understand and welcome your differences, because we know they’re not negative attributes. Rather, they’re part of your unique abilities you can bring to us that will help grow our organization.”

However, with creative brains come unique challenges for an organization. With ADHD, for example, the distraction effect is very real. Those who have learned to use their ADHD to their advantage will benefit from the freedom to work part of the time on their own, away from others and the distractions they bring. With this in mind, companies can offer flexible work plans, where those employees who thrive in that “deep work” mode away from distractions can do so.

What works best for each individual will vary. Some may be night owls, grinding away until the wee hours of the morning. Others may embrace exercise in the middle of the day to keep them sharp in the afternoon. This is because exercise produces dopamine, which promotes focus, attention, and creativity — an ingredient that many with ADHD lack compared to their non-ADHD counterparts.

The goal here is flexibility. The concept of a business doing something that doesn’t work anymore for the simple reason that “it’s the way we’ve always done it” won’t fly, and those businesses who refuse to adapt will find their talent pool several feet below the fill line.

How were neurodiverse people affected by the sudden shift to remote work brought on by the pandemic? Did this experience allow them to shine or was it detrimental to their overall effectiveness at work?

It depends on who you ask. For many in the neurodiverse world, unexpected change can throw a wrench into the middle of the finely tuned routines we’ve crafted for ourselves. If we work in the office from 9-6, our schedules are set in stone: wake up at this time, gym at this time, go to work at this time, etc. For many of us, that was upended by the pandemic, and the neurodiverse were scrambling to find new routines.

However, the greatly feared “lack of focus,” in many instances, never materialized. While change is scary for anyone, the pandemic allowed the entire world to learn to work in a “way that worked for you” mentality. For those in the neurodiverse world, it allowed employees to use their talents in a whole new environment — one that, in countless cases, led to higher levels of productivity.

Gone were the one-hour staff meetings that interrupted the brain-flow of the neurodiverse. Instead, the employee now had the option of working almost entirely in a way that worked for them, not in a way that the company demanded. And productivity levels increased because of it. The smart managers noticed this, and they’ll encourage the change to continue long after the pandemic is in our rear view mirrors.

Many organizations are shifting to a hybrid model of work, but there are a variety of approaches within this model. For the neurodiverse members of the workforce, what does the ideal post-pandemic workplace experience look like?

It varies, but the overwhelming school of thought that I’ve been hearing — not only from those with faster brains, but from the many companies to whom I speak and advise on the neurodiverse environment — is that companies should ask their employees what’s working for them and what they want their hybrid experience to look like.

Employers that build a hybrid model that takes the employees wishes into account are not only faring better, but also having an easier time hiring new employees. That’s because new hires are coming in on the recommendation of those who already work there. And as we all know from the PR and Marketing world, no one believes how great you are if you have to tell them, but if a friend tells them, they’ll believe it.

Focus on understanding what your employees are doing well and what’s working — what they’re using to their advantage in this new world, as well as what’s not been so helpful. Find the combination that works for them and for you. No one is saying every employee needs to be 100% remote forever. But there’s a middle ground that will not only benefit the company and the neurodiverse employees, but all employees as a whole. And happy employees lead to a happier company.

Why will hiring neurodiverse talent be critical in the aftermath of the pandemic? What does the future hold for neurodiversity in the workplace?

As we’ve seen over the past 16 months, nothing ever stays the same, and those who refuse to adapt will be quickly eliminated. The pandemic fast forwarded the need for a neurodiverse talent pool by 10 to 15 years, and those neurodiverse employees who feel respected, protected, and nurtured will be loyal to the end. If you don’t embrace the neurodiverse talent pool, you’ll be missing out on a key way to boost creativity, growth, and your company’s ability to adapt, which could leave you at the back of the pack for decades to come.