One area that leaders are turning their collective attention to in 2023 is neurodiversity. Approximately two out of ten people Around the world they are neurodivergent versus neurotypical, a term for people with variations in mental functions such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. Unfortunately, a lot of neurodiversity is lost because it is not always obvious, creating more hidden workers that companies already struggled to nurture.
Because neurodivergence is so prevalent in society, failing to accommodate people with this status is a missed opportunity on the path to creating more equitable, inclusive, and diverse workplaces. As we look to the future of work, leaders need to prioritize interacting with neurodivergent people. Leaders can follow five key principles to embrace neurodiversity inclusion well.
Think about the difference, not the deficit
Neurodiversity is not always visible. Consider the coworker who initiates a quiet, independent job free of distractions versus one who thrives on chaos, noisy environments, and ambiguity. In a world that prizes extroversion and a hustle culture, the first coworker may be seen as different — the source may be your job preferences, signs of neurodivergence, or even a diagnosed disability.
As is common with a physical disability, there is a distinction in the medical and social conversations surrounding neurodivergence. The medical model emphasizes the individual and her challenges, which can often be stigmatizing. However, the social discussion puts the responsibility for change back on societal systems, workplaces and, ultimately, on leaders. The neurodiversity movement recognizes that there is no such thing as ‘normal’ and that we are all different. Leaders need to think differently about their perceptions of success and how they can best leverage the strengths of their workforce. Everyone’s brainpower is unique, and current defaults in systems and processes can and should be improved to improve accessibility for everyone.
Adjust the system, no to the system
Creating neurodiversity-inclusive workplaces and practices is about more than hoping that neurodivergent people fit into traditional cultures and ways of working that have typically been shaped by people from neurotypical backgrounds. Instead, leaders must emphasize systemic change.
Tuning the system requires a few key elements, not the least of which is a willingness to critically look at social norms and how they hurt people who think or process differently than neurotypical people. For example, if a neurodivergent person needs a quieter space to work and is less present in an office-like environment, does this affect their ability to be ‘seen’ and get ahead? Change cannot be achieved without collaborating with those who are neurodivergent, and any organizational change will be more sustainable and effective if it is informed by neurodivergent viewpoints from the start. Inclusion is about designing for difference, not forcing assimilation.
Go beyond the business case
If you use closed captioning, texting, or noise-cancelling headphones, or have pushed a stroller or ridden a bike on ramps at the end of sidewalks/curbs (see the curb cutting effect), benefited from a design that prioritized users who had these needs, but aren’t the desirable “majority” for whom many products were designed. Designing for difference enables innovation and productivity while setting up a business to be successful and future-proof. While these are crucial benefits, organizations that focus exclusively on the business results of neurodiversity inclusion to drive action are limiting themselves, as these changes should not be implemented just to improve the bottom line. Creating equitable and inclusive workplaces must be part of an organization’s responsibility to its people and society.
To get beyond the business case, organizational leaders must truly understand the needs of their people. Moving from the business case to the people case for neurodiversity means building personal connections with team members so they can better enable them for success. This can also open up opportunities for leaders who are neurodivergent to share their personal neurodiversity experiences, allowing them to unlock more meaningful, deeply rooted, and beneficial relationships.
Ask, don’t assume
Neurodivergence manifests itself differently for everyone affected, both on and off the job. Because of this, leaders must take a human-centered approach, stressing the need to be sensitive and curious about what helps people thrive while remaining aware of the obstacles that may get in their way. Simply and clearly describing the recruitment process for job candidates, for example, and asking them what the organization can do to ensure they present themselves in the best light possible can demonstrate this human-centred approach. In one case, a candidate asked if she could sit facing the wall during the interview because it helps her focus and reduces stress; By doing this, the organization provided her with a way to show the best of herself. However, as they build on this human-centered approach, leaders must consider the risk that well-intentioned programs to welcome neurodivergent people may create stereotypes and pigeonhole people into limiting experiences and roles. Therefore, leaders must challenge actions that are based on such generalizations or stereotypes and allow for flexibility by asking, not just assuming, what neurodivergent people really need.
Unlock individual experience through intersectionality
Each person has various components of their identity, which is why we need to look at the intersection between neurodiversity and demographics such as race, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Contemporary research suggests that previous stereotypes about some types of neurodivergence, such as ADHD and autism, being more common in men, are not always accurate, as these conditions may be underdiagnosed in groups, such as women, with whom they are not commonly associated . This research highlights the importance of not assuming how neurodivergence manifests itself. It also reinforces the need to focus on how different structural barriers intersect to enable or disable the development of a specific individual.
Redesign and connect
While neurodiversity may be invisible, it is certainly present in every organization. When it comes to the role of a leader, there is a fine balance between being human-centered and avoiding stereotypes while acknowledging the real systemic barriers neurodivergent people face. For leaders, this presents an opportunity to redesign work processes to make them accessible and create psychologically safe spaces where everyone can thrive. Doing so benefits those who identify as neurodivergent, but it also leaves room in organizations for different ways of thinking and interacting, which is vital for innovation and change.
Imagine what would be different if you could ask, not assume, and find ways to unlock the strengths of neurodiversity, proactively seek out and include hidden workers, taking an intersectional and inclusive lens that can cause sustained systemic change.
melanie (mel) green is a leadership analysis consultant at YSC Consulting, a leadership consulting firm owned by Accenture. Prior to joining YSC last year, Mel worked in people operations and research functions for consultancies, technology startups, and professional membership bodies. He has recently published research on neurodiversity and the incorporation of DEI initiatives within organizations.
Aarti Shyamsunder is the global head of DEI) in YSC Consulting, an Accenture-owned leadership consulting firm, and is responsible for creating impactful, research-based, distinctive client solutions and thought leadership in the DEI space. Prior to YSC, Aarti ran her own research and consulting practice, where her work focused on applying evidence-based solutions to organizational talent management problems, such as DEI and leadership development and assessment.