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Taking a fresh angle: promoting cognitive diversity in the workplace



October 10, 2023

As business leaders increasingly acknowledge the wide-ranging benefits of creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces, DE&I has become a core staple on the corporate agenda.

But the trend for greater inclusivity hasn’t impacted all underrepresented groups equally, leaving those with neurological differences as outliers in a debate dominated by issues relating to gender, ethnicity and age.

Embracing cognitive diversity

Cognitive diversity spans a broad spectrum of perspective and information-processing styles that fall outside the purview of neurotypical cognition – including Autism (ASD), ADHD, Dyslexia/ Dyscalculia and Tourette’s. It’s more prevalent than previously thought; experts estimate that around 20 percent of our population could be described as neurodiverse.

However, even those with exceptional talents may struggle to find employment, possibly because the behaviours commonly valued by recruiters mean that neurodiverse candidates are screened out at an early stage. Employers may also, possibly subconsciously, favour people who think (and express themselves) in similar ways, resulting in teams with greater cognitive similarity.

They could be missing a trick, though. By harnessing alternative approaches to problem solving, organisations have a unique opportunity to apply fresh insights and unlock innovation in the workplace.

Hiring neurodiverse employees can boost the bottom line while enhancing workplace culture for the benefit of all. In fact, employers consistently report that teams with neurodiverse members are more effective and productive than their neurotypical counterparts.

As part of their studies into how diversity impacts performance, researchers at Harvard Business Review found ‘a significant correlation between high cognitive diversity and high performance’ – a correlation that wasn’t as significant among neurotypical groups, regardless of their diversity in other areas.

Optimising the workplace for neurodiverse employees

Workplaces can be tricky to navigate for neurodiverse people who may struggle to realise their potential in conditions optimised for a neurotypical workforce. Here are some qpeople tips for creating a more neuroinclusive environment:

1.      Start as you mean to go on

Traditional interview protocols favour the kind of ‘people’ skills that are believed to foster workplace harmony: ‘fitting in’ with the established company culture or demonstrating an aptitude for teamwork and good communication skills, for instance. But this can disadvantage neurodiverse candidates who may find the process – especially in longer, intense interview sessions – overwhelming.

Breaking interviews into shorter sessions, or even spreading virtual meetings over a number of days, can help to avoid overstimulation and reduce anxiety. Similarly, offering interview ‘assignments’ to be completed before and after the session, will help relieve the pressure of a high-stakes on-the-spot Q&A or evaluation exercise.  Giving candidates the opportunity to reflect on their experience and contemplate responses to questions could make all the difference for those who struggle with the quick-fire nature of interviews.

2.      Get the work-life balance right

Creating the right professional environment is key to supporting a neurodiverse workforce – and to facilitating a more inclusive workplace for all staff. Establishing a culture that encourages a healthy work-life balance is one of the foundation stones of any forward-thinking company but is critical for neurodiverse employees who may be committed to the point of overwork.

This balance can be modelled through clearly defined working hours and expected response times; promoting time off is important. Encourage opportunities for greater productivity by limiting meetings and normalising ‘do-not-disturb’ working sessions for employees – you may find that lowering sensory stimulation can be a benefit for all.

It’s likely that all employees would benefit from reflecting on their strengths and challenges in the workplace, and how they can best work with their team members. However, when discussing neurodiversity, leaders, teams and colleagues need to look further than the individual. Self-awareness, in combination with Empathetic Leadership, flexible working conditions and authentic listening is more likely to result in optimal personal and team performance and a greater level of understanding and compassion from colleagues.

Integrating this holistic, practical and human approach to self-awareness and team awareness enables leaders to better communicate with and support their teams. In fact, implementing a tailored L&D strategy that empowers leaders to value and accommodate neurodiversion, is crucial to creating a neuroinclusive workplace.

Reaping the rewards of neuroinclusion

Championing cognitive diversity is part of a much broader conversation about inclusion – one that challenges established perceptions about neurological differences and re-evaluates them as opportunities to enrich company culture. Rather than entrenching these differences, modelling employees’ unique talents and behaviours can, instead, reinforce belonging and purpose – a strategy that has the power to positively impact the wider workforce.

Indeed, by committing to building a culture of equal opportunities, businesses can define themselves as an employer of choice in the broader professional landscape. Research from Work Human just last year found than almost three-quarters of respondents listed DEI as a key factor in their loyalty to a company.

Viewing neurodiversity as a quality to embrace as opposed to a problem to avoid allows companies to relinquish the presumption of conformity as a prerequisite for success and to build new ways of working that enable everyone to thrive. A recent CIPD study found that many common adjustments – like facilitating flexible working hours or offering assistive tech – cost little, while helping to significantly optimise performance for neurodiverse employees.

Celebrating individual employees’ positive contributions is a rising tide that lifts all boats. Organisational diversity adds value – businesses that embrace cognitive diversity are, by default, modelling the practices that work for the good of all.

If you’d like to learn more about how qpeople can assist your organisation in building a culture of equal opportunities, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.







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