Neurodiversity; all in the Brain

The Cognitive Diverse Manager

Soraya Shaw

10/23/20237 min read

The Cognitive Diverse Manager: “a people leader… but not a people person.”

During this article, I will focus on the concept of the cognitive diverse manager with a special thanks to Ruby Dinsmore, Partner Employment Department Penningtons Manches Cooper, whom I recently spoke with on the increasingly important area of cognitive diversity within companies.

Now you are a People Manager

Moving up the ranks to a people-managing role can be anxiety-inducing as you now find yourself in a position that demands different cognitive skills to those you’ve been using in the past and which got you promoted. You are also having to consider the cognitive diversity that exists in teams or indeed your thinking and learning preference and how to get the best from everyone!

But help is at hand, as what is now well-known from evidenced neuroscience is the brain's ability through new learning and experiences, to reshape through its neuroplasticity. Meaning that all our brains are unique and whilst we all view the world through our lens key is the quality of our relationships and a shared sense of purpose that creates connectivity between us.

What is Cognitive or Neurodiversity?

Not everyone understands. I dare say few understand what is meant by cognitively diverse or, to use a term that is being used, “Neurodiversity”. It was a term coined in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer and can be explained as the range between the “neurotypical” and the “neurodiverse”. The “neurodiversity” category includes those with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and dyspraxia.

To quote Judy Singer “Neurodiversity names a biological reality, the virtually infinite neuro-cognitive variability within Earth’s human population. It points to the fact that every human has a unique nervous system with a unique combination of abilities and needs. That is all”.

The “neurotypical” group comprises those with skills and characteristics that, probably until quite recently, let’s face it, may have been considered “normal”. But of course, “normal” is a word that has, for good reason, been challenged and is probably now a misnomer and bordering on meaningless.

Growing recognition and understanding of the benefits of neurodiversity are fast driving such views of “normal” to obsoletion.

As Ruby points out “Neurodiversity refers to the cognitive diversity in all humans.

Environmental Impact

Within the workplace, it is an increasingly important topic. Employers are recognising the different make-up of employees and the benefits of different perspectives in an organisation. This has led to a focus on and commitment to addressing the needs and harnessing the skillsets of the neurodiverse workforce”.

From a neuroscience perspective, an evolutionary critique is that neurodiversity has evolved within a spectrum of human experience and mental characteristics, making it natural and useful to have a proportion of the population with specialist rather than generalist abilities. This is crucial in the environment we find ourselves in, one that is constantly changing, requiring more innovative and creative ways to look at situations.

Legal Protections

I asked Ruby what the legal considerations are as “Neurodiversity” is not just a talking point or a societal change in its perception of individuals, it is also increasingly an employment law issue. The Equality Act 2010’s definition of “disability” encompasses many of those who are neurodiverse. Neurodiverse conditions are often “invisible” however, in some cases, the adverse impact the condition can have on an individual can result in them being protected under disability legislation”.

Sadly, due to a lack of understanding and knowledge, Ruby is seeing an increase in Neurodiverse-related discrimination claims.

Political responsiveness is also on the up; earlier this year, a new industry forum, Neurodiversity in Business, was launched to support the 15-20% of the population estimated to be neurodiverse. Such increased awareness is essential. Recent research by Willis Towers Watson has shown that 70% of neurodiverse employees of mid to large companies experience stress and anxiety, as workspaces and practices haven’t taken into consideration how one size fits all doesn’t work and is limiting the potential abilities of each person.

Ruby makes the point that she has recently noticed that most of the existing literature on neurodiversity in the workplace offers solutions to an employer/HR audience on how best to manage neurodiverse employees but side-steps the issue of what senior executives can do if they are cognitively diverse, or what individuals can do.

The Neurodiverse Manager

People that are neurodiverse have talents, perspectives and skills that are very beneficial in the work environment especially as we are no longer in a ‘normal’ world post-COVID coupled with the world economic turbulence. High-flying employees with exceptional technical abilities are often promoted quickly, as they are dedicated, focused, and detailed oriented.

As I have seen within my consulting & facilitation practice there is ample evidence that shows that companies with neurodiverse talent are more productive, with better performance, which ultimately means better business, that benefits by having people with thinking and learning differences. In today’s world, we can’t rely on “we’ve always done it this way”. This suggests that they are companies that respect and value their talent and have created a thriving environment which we know gives a competitive advantage, that currently is vital!

Tapping into the Wide Variety of Ways your Employees think and Solve problems

As the needs of businesses change with a greater need for innovation, new products and problem-solving, having alternative ways of approaching situations and seeing the issues from a different point of view can only be an advantage. This is, of course, the main benefit of a diverse and inclusive workforce.

For example, senior positions can require social skills, presentation skills and the reading of progress reports, often in stark contrast to past responsibilities such as data analysis. The Asperge mathematician Daniel Tammet allegedly once said,

“I would play with numbers in a way that other kids would play with their friends”.

Having neurodivergent people in senior roles can give companies a competitive advantage, as a “non-typical” perspective can drive innovation.

Just look at the cognitive diverse brain’s impressive credentials in producing entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson, and Elon Musk. Scientific thinkers such as Alan Turin or Albert Einstein. And not to forget the arts with Emma Watson and Cara Delevingne, plus the many inspiring people within the creative industries whose innovative way of looking at the world is legendary, okay I know I’m biased! I expect many of those with a “non-typical” perspective would say they had to forge their path, as the well-trodden path (by neurotypicals) didn’t work for them.

The need for support is clear; the social enterprise ‘Genius Within’ receives over 1,000 referrals each year for people with a hidden disability, neuro minority or chronic cognitive condition struggling to transition into managerial or senior managerial positions.

Ruby points out that not all leaders are a people person. Blogger Hunter Hansen has opened up about his experiences as an autistic manager, having climbed the corporate ladder from its initial tech support agent rung to a senior position managing 125 employees over six supervisors.

I'm Promoted, Now What?

Following a series of promotions, he found himself suddenly “a people leader… but not a people person”.

I have also experienced this with senior executives on the autism spectrum, and, like Hansen, they have struggled with the soft skills needed for this role. Empathy, eye contact and the interpretation of sarcasm and irony are a walk in the park for many but can create a very confusing environment for those with Asperger’s for instance.

Ruby points out that talking of Asperger’s again, difficulty interpreting emotions and infrequent use of eye contact and facial expressions could confuse and offend colleagues. "At one extreme, it could even lead to employees raising grievances about their manager”.

Given the vast range of characteristics spanning the neurodiverse workforce (the clue is in the name), there is no single solution to ensuring those who are neurodiverse are supported and nurtured throughout their careers, plus are mindful of how their behaviours can impact others. It goes both ways.

What strategies can be put in place?

Ruby and I agreed that we would recommend discussing this with your employer and colleagues first and foremost.

People can’t help if they don’t know. Once informed, those you manage or who manage you, will be more understanding, accommodating and appreciate your honesty.

“Where you are protected under disability legislation, I advise senior executives to initiate an open discussion with their employer and colleagues. Knowledge is a critical determining factor in assessing whether discrimination has occurred, and it also triggers certain obligations on your employer to work with you to implement reasonable adjustments to help you manage within your cognitive diverse spectrum” Ruby notes.

Further Ruby points out, “there is no requirement to share your diagnosis with anyone, so work out what you are comfortable with". That said a recent poll suggested that over 78% of those that did were glad they had.

An important consideration here is that a company culture which demonstrates a value in honesty and integrity is crucial. As we know from Neuroscience a key function of the brain is to seek safety therefore if an individual doesn’t feel safe, they won’t open up.

Further adjustments to consider include:

• If you are a neurodivergent senior executive, share with your team your preferred way of working and make changes that work for the group.

• Always keep an open mind and explore the possibilities for further improvement.

• Technologies such as Grammarly can help dyslexic individuals.

• Those with ADHD can be restless and have difficulty concentrating due to a lack of Dopamine. Implementing further changes could aid their attention.

For optimum performance, our brains need to be able to focus and not chug through precious energy. So, if you struggle, discuss practical solutions with your company that fit a hybrid work environment – like moving to a quieter office or working flexibly. This suggestion applies to employees in any role. Those in senior positions should recognise the importance of managing yourself before managing others (put on your oxygen mask before helping your neighbour!).

As Ruby reiterates “A lack of understanding of the social impacts of conditions such as autism can negatively affect workplace relations”.

Social anxiety which promotes stress in the brain can be exacerbated and easily confused with rudeness which all too often can lead to conflicts. Proactiveness is vital in preventing these pitfalls and maintaining cohesion and trust in the workplace.

As Ruby points out “Transparency about the way you work, and feel will ward off any future complaints from disgruntled employees. It may be hard to believe, but people can be very understanding!”

Promotions do not have to be nerve-wracking. Honesty and openness with your seniors and those you manage can create a more understanding work environment and enable you to perform at your optimum level.

Our clients tell us how promoting the potential of all their talent is key especially as hybrid working becomes more common. We have delivered our ‘Mind your Brain’ training to many companies giving them an advantage and helping them find solutions that fit with their culture.