Let’s overcome bias and recognise the power of neurodiversity
In this guest article, Sam Page, CEO and Founder of 7DOTS, discusses why business leaders need to harness the potential of neurodiversity, which would involve reframing the perception of what a ‘normal’ employee is and evolving cultures, processes, and ways of working accordingly.
As a child, I was incredibly shy and I struggled at school. Despite appearing to be intelligent, the traditional style of learning through listening and using “words” to express my thoughts, just didn’t make sense to me. On the other hand, I was fortunate to have a supportive family, who always believed in me and encouraged me to follow my dreams and aspirations, to do big things and make a difference in the world.
One day, not long after computers started to appear in companies, my dad borrowed one and brought it home. I was fascinated from the moment I started tapping away on the keyboard. Suddenly code, language structured around logic, made sense where writing never had. Suddenly I could bring my ideas to life through the power of creative technology. And I could use this newfound power to make a difference and help others.
I’m dyslexic, I’m neurodiverse, and what was once my greatest weakness, I believe is my greatest strength. As a business leader, if you can embrace neurodiversity, it can be one of the greatest strengths of your organisation as well. So how to go about it?
Recognise neurodiversity starts with understanding everyone experiences the world distinctly
Everyone in the world is different. Whether they are neurotypical or neurodiverse. We all experience the world in a slightly different way – due to our genome, lifestyle, microbiome, diet, family, and neurology (how our brains are wired). So, in many ways what I am about to say applies to everyone.
However, what makes the situation more challenging for neurodiverse people is they only represent 15-20% of the total population. So they face a world designed for the neurotypical majority. We are the minority, and it just so happens we think and behave very differently. Why? Our brains are wired differently – both in terms of structure and function. This means we often have heightened or diminished sensory sensitivity. We have distinct cognitive strengths and challenges. We often have unusual perspectives and communicate and process information in different ways.
It’s quite easy to not understand these differences when we encounter them (we are taught little about them at school). Humans instinctively like to be around people that are like them. When we meet someone different, we tend to be wary. We like familiarity. At school and at work, it can feel like it’s breaking established systems put in place to work in a particular way.
We must listen and observe, rather than apply a one-size-fits-all approach
The good news is that we can overcome this. Both our unconscious bias, but also our instinctive fear of difference.
I don’t think it matters whether we are talking about neurodiversity, different cultures, beliefs, sexuality, or anything else. To make the world a better place, we need to start by listening and trying to better understand. And when I say “listening” I don’t mean just the words we are hearing, I mean “global” listening, whereby we are listening to all the signals available – behaviours, emotions, actions, words, and engagement within a particular environment.
We should seek to truly understand before we try to be understood, and we need to come from a place of humility and the acceptance that our past views may be wrong. If what we are hearing makes us uncomfortable, we should remember this is an opportunity to grow and learn, not turn the other way.
Once we start to truly listen and understand, we can start to accept that there isn’t one answer or one size that fits all, and that difference can be brilliant when embraced in the right way.
Shifting the conversation is crucial—neurodiversity should be an open dialogue, not a hidden issue
It’s going to take a lot more than a few people talking about this to make a difference. We need to make neurodiversity a common topic so that everyone is comfortable talking about it, and comfortable embracing neuro differences. This avoids it being a hidden, or taboo subject.
As the topic becomes more open and more discussed, it will be easier for everyone to embrace it – just like the shift we have seen in recent years around LGBTQI+ acceptance, gender equality, mental health awareness, and menopause.
What is the outcome of a neurodiverse workforce and the benefit to your business and them?
Neurodiversity in business leaders is already quite well-known and talked about. A proportionally high number of business founders are neurodiverse because they struggled through their early years, followed their true passions, and found different ways to overcome challenges. Then through a combination of these skills ended up founding and running very successful businesses (e.g. Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg) solving problems differently from the mainstream.
But not everyone is comfortable or able to start up a business. This is where your business can benefit. If you can create an environment to welcome, embrace and support neurodiversity, you can attract a diverse talent pool into your company, and achieve the same outcome.
You can have a workforce that is creating new ideas, solving problems in new ways, and that can have an intense focus on specific areas of the business. It is a competitive advantage against any company that isn’t embracing neurodiversity. Not only will your business be thriving, but your business is also going to be making a positive difference in the world, helping more individuals to thrive – both those within the company and those who use the progressive products and services that you deliver.
The evidence is compelling when you look at companies that have already started to see the success of embracing neurodiversity. Examples include the SAP “Autism at Work” programme, leading to innovation and productivity. Microsoft’s “Autism Hiring” programme which has led to employees excelling in data analysis and software testing. And IBM, which launched the “Neurodiversity Programme” which has led to significant improvements in identifying potential security threats in their software and systems.
So it’s time to shift the narrative and look to the huge positives that thinking differently can bring to businesses and the people in them. Let’s overcome bias and recognise the enormous power of neurodiversity.