Embracing neurodiversity in IT for competitive advantage

The term neurodiversity covers a range of conditions, as well as the various spectrums within each. So each neurodiverse professional’s experience is unique, but speaking for myself, being neurodiverse has been a huge competitive advantage in my technology career. The ability to pivot fast and hyperfocus are strengths, not weaknesses, and a leader that can do both effectively is an asset, not a liability.

Being nimble is a huge benefit in a CTO’s daily life, where back-to-back meetings can range from discussing budgets, to having 1:1s, to solving technical challenges. Conversely, the ability to hyperfocus and be completely absorbed in the task at hand allows one to be incredibly productive in ‌their individual work. If organizations can meet neurodiverse people where they are, the combination can be incredibly effective.

But doing so may require some changes in approach. It is important to create a safe environment and maintain an open dialogue about how neurodiversity can contribute to success. This becomes even more critical for early career hires who may not have discovered their own work styles and coping mechanisms yet.

I personally make it a point in new-hire meet and greets to let people know I am neurodiverse, so they know there’s someone else in the firm; it’s even better if they reach out to discuss tools and tips.

The future of work

There has been much discussion about how workplace environments are changing — and how organizations can change their cultures and policies to ensure they are relevant for the years ahead. These conversations should include discussions about how organizations can embrace neurodiversity by ‌playing to neurodiverse professionals’ strengths. Many people have a productivity cycle outside of the legacy 9 to 5 schedule, so offering a flexible work environment allows them to work when they are at their best. On the flip side, however, if one has yet to understand their productivity cycle, in an environment that isn’t conducive to individualized and focused work, the risk of distractions is high and will result in decreased efficiency.

Even for those who may not identify as neurodiverse, meeting time and work time look very different from one another. As social animals, there is always a need to come together and focus on a challenge, a design, or to build relationships with new colleagues. Individual work is a more isolated activity where concentration and fewer distractions provide optimal productivity. This enables one to clearly define when to be engaged with others, present in the moment and fully contributing, versus when doors need to be closed, music on, and total concentration. In the practical world, this means showing up in person to accomplish those meeting needs while then being able to work on the more focused tasks at home, without the headaches of commuting.

Shaping leadership

One of the most important steps for living with neurodiversity is to fully understand how it impacts your life and what coping tools you can use to excel. My career is somewhat atypical in that I’ve had many roles across many industries — the desire for new stimuli is a manifestation of the need to always be moving, contributing, and learning. Even while working at companies for multiple years, I’ve spent time in numerous functions, including application development, infrastructure, support, architecture, project management, and product development.

Getting immersed in a range of roles has allowed me to tap into a broad spectrum of experiences and see the whole picture, ensuring that teams are not left out or brought in late. This directly impacts my leadership style of encouraging larger kickoff meetings that have multiple levels of people from the organization, so everyone can understand the “why.” I find that when a team truly understands the why, and is also empowered to craft the “how,” they are more successful and feel a greater sense of ownership and engagement.

Neurodiversity and organizational success

There has been a noticeable uptick in the number of company-backed programs raising awareness and teaching teams how to be inclusive of those with neurodiversity. At the same time, at least here in the US, mental health and diversity, neuro or otherwise, have seen a massive increase in education for both managers and employees. The reality is that neurodiversity can’t always be seen from the outside, and there’s likely a fair number of people who don’t even realize they are neurodiverse. Perhaps those individuals have never done well in school, or they struggle taking tests, or get impatient quickly; but because they’ve not spoken with a professional, they may not even be aware.

Encouraging employees to explore their own neurodiversity must begin with fostering a culture of acceptance. DEI programs must be open to all variations of diversity, including those who are not neurotypical. It’s not necessary to label everyone and match them to a category. Instead, provide a safe environment where everyone can bring their whole selves to work. Leaders should be trained to listen and appreciate someone with a background different than their own, and to collaborate on processes and manage expectations.

Every engagement survey I’ve seen in the last 30 years has indicated that it is the direct supervisor and their relationship with their team that drives culture, belonging, and success. Pairing emotional intelligence models with a coaching mindset requires us to move past labels and understand the person, often forcing us to better understand ourselves in the process. Those who create a culture of acceptance, where each employee can bring their whole self to work, will win in the race for talent, while simultaneously creating a better organization for the future.

The new corporate reality

In a post-COVID world, so much of what we expected in a professional working environment has changed:

Businesses are truly global, spanning multiple time zones, and yet the need to communicate effectively and timely remains.

Knowledge work can now be performed anywhere, at any time, on any device.

Asynchronous communication and delivery are now the norm and in-person 9 to 5 office schedules are the exception.

Successful organizations are measuring outcomes and individual contributions while moving away from the traditional time at desk/online measures of productivity.

Many employees value a firm’s vision, its stance on ESG principles, and its position on inclusion as much as compensation and benefits.

This is the new corporate reality. Many will adapt, but some will not. The fact remains that these new principles favor those who are neurodiverse. And while the headlines seem to focus on our differences, the reality is the silent majority value diversity in all aspects, within the confines of a safe space.

Neurodiversity does not define your success. It is merely an attribute describing a person, no different than eye color or hairstyle. Know yourself, hire for your company’s weaknesses, create a culture of inclusion, and build a safe space where people can bring their whole selves to work. Do this and your team will go on to do great things.

Diversity and Inclusion