Callum (not his real name) is energetic and dynamic if not slightly chaotic. He is great at seeing the big picture and has a plethora of ideas that spill forth. Yet despite his ebullient nature, Callum feels held back professionally as others struggle to see his visions and join him bringing them to fruition. Whilst he is universally liked and his excitable nature is infectious, feedback indicates that he doesn’t see things through and lacks attention to detail. With all the potential in the world, Callum is not realising his full self. Why?
Callum is neurodivergent which is to say he has Attention Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. Despite possessing the knowledge and skills, his neurodiversity means he struggles to focus on tasks and stay the course. It is not that he can’t see things through to the end but that he struggles with the constraints of the corporate process and he is not alone (Honeybourne, 2019, p. 59).
Callum is a close friend. With insight into Callum’s journey within the larger context of the ‘Great Resignation’ and desire for employers to include diverse talent, I see an opportunity to create new pathways for those like him (Hume, 2022; Zheng, 2022).
However, what is neurodiversity?
“Neurodiversity (a term coined by Judy Singer in the 1990s and short for ‘neurological diversity’) simply means that there is a range, or diversity, of ways in which human brains function, a range of ways in which we think, learn and relate to others. We do not all think, learn and process information in the same way.” (Honeybourne, 2019, p. 13)
Those with neurodiversity often have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Tourette syndrome and / or Dyslexia (Coplan et al., 2021). For the purposes of this article, I will focus predominantly on ASD and ADHD.
Aside from my obvious personal interest and motivation, there is significant research and literature to show that employing people with neurodivergence can present a strategic advantage. In fact, research conducted by Accenture Consultants, Hyland and Connolly, showed that those with neurodiverse workforces earned 28% more revenue, had 30% higher profit margins and double the net income of their competitors (2018, para. 3). Other research into Australian software testers showed those with neurodivergence to be 30% more effective than neurotypical testers because of their cognitive difference (Coplan et al., 2021).
Without wishing to generalise out the individual, there are certain skills and traits that, when managed and utilised correctly, lend themselves perfectly to certain job functions. In so doing, a mutually beneficial environment is created in which the individual can comfortably be themselves and the company can leverage these unique skills.
For instance, those with ASD are known for their attention to detail, computational skills and accuracy; skills companies such as SAP, Westpac and DXC have actively pursued to deliver results that formally eluded them (Austin, 2014; Carrero et al., 2019; Hume, 2022). For SAP, the program is not altruistic yet fundamental to its innovation strategy. When launched, the head of the program, Anka Wittenberg, stated “the foundation of innovation is a diverse workforce, and the most creative ideas can come from unexpected places” (SAP News, 2014).
Conversely, those with ADHD are creative, dreamers, high energy, intuitive and innovative (Wares, 2022). Thus it is not surprising that comprehensive, quantitative research showed a strong correlation between ADHD and entrepreneurial intent and action (Lerner et al., 2019). As a result, ADHD alumni are 6% more likely to be entrepreneurial and start their own business (Williams, 2021) in part because they thrive in action-orientated, highly intense environments (Coplan et al., 2021; Wiklund et al., 2017). Sir Richard Branson has revealed his own ADHD and dyslexia diagnoses and he is not alone with many well-known entrepreneurs with similar conditions (Archer, 2014). Furthermore, Virgin’s founder is an advocate for the neurodivergent intrapreneurs citing the innovation which naturally abounds from this predominantly untapped workforce (Wares, 2022).
The research, literature and articles on the benefits are plentiful, if not overwhelming in their number, so it is challenging to watch Callum’s experience and to learn that as of 2018, 34.1% of autistic Australians are unemployed. Globally, people with a disability are twice as likely to be unemployed (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2019; Krzeminska et al., 2019).
It is clear my motivation is very personal. Not only do I have a friend currently navigating career development, however, I also have a daughter who lives with Down syndrome, who will eventually enter the workforce. My hope and driving force are that the march towards diverse workplaces will extend beyond current markers to include neurodiversity and cognitive delay.
Setting aside the emotional motivators, Australia is experiencing one of the lowest unemployment rates in living history at 3.5% and industry is clamouring for talent as a third of all Australian businesses experience skills shortages (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2023; Kwan, 2022). Whilst some look to international migration in a post-COVID-19 world as the longer-term, slower-moving answer, others are seeking the often overlooked, untapped resource of neurodivergent Australians to fill the gaps (Chang, 2022; Pupazzoni, 2023).
A Strategic Human Resources Approach
Labour market conditions have forced organisations to reinvent their recruitment strategy and channels to capture a more diverse talent pool. Now horizontal HR practices must be imbued with vertical strategic intent in order to leverage that talent for value creation to achieve business goals (Youndt et al., 1996). It is the scenario that Wright and McMahon theorised, in 1992, was the definition of strategic human resource management (pp. 297–299). Why purposefully manage an organisation’s human resources ‘assets’, like any other financial asset, if not to achieve strategic goals (Storey et al., 2019, p. 2)? Arguably, it is only the presence of a strategic imperative that makes HR initiatives and practices successful (Podolsky, 2018; Wright & McMahan, 1992, p. 299). Furthermore, from the moral or ethical perspective, the absence of a strategic impetus to an initiative on neurodivergence specifically would amount to nothing more than tokenism, which neither serves human resources nor diversity and inclusion.
Within this tight labour market, my employer is pursuing a strategy of innovation and operational excellence. Critical to the successful implementation is a pool of talent who can be innovative within the resource and infrastructure confines of the company and in a manner that is consistent, repeatable and efficient. It is not a stretch to see how aligning the company’s strategy with neurodiverse talent may well provide a competitive advantage.
So, assuming that my motivations are congruous with my employer’s and within a macroeconomic environment that forces us both to solve the skill shortages and achieve our expressed strategic goals, it is now a matter of how.
Implementing a Neurodivergent Strategy
If strategic human resource management (SHRM) is the why then human resource (HR) practices are the how. These practices are all-encompassing and take a lifecycle approach including foundation policies, organisational and job design, recruitment and onboarding, remuneration and incentives, career management and development, and the eventual departure from the organisation (Storey et al., 2019, p. 27).
It may seem obvious to say yet, the two need to reflect each other particularly when integrating neurodivergent professionals into the workplace. To explicitly state a welcoming of the skills, traits and capabilities of neurodivergent talent to add value to strategic goals yet, rely on HR practices that don’t accommodate those individual’s specific needs throughout the employment journey, would only serve to undermine the strategy in the first place. It requires a wholistic, thoughtful approach.
To work towards a workplace welcoming of the neurodiverse in all its facets, I propose there are three key elements. This is not a comprehensive list however it sets the fundamental spines on which the HR practice will be built in symbiosis.
Many guides to creating a neurodiverse workplace focus heavily on the business case and recruitment practices, or even legal obligations, for new talent (Honeybourne, 2019; Kirby & Smith, 2021; Walkowiak, 2021). Whilst this is important along with considerations for the physical workplace, policy and initiatives which encircle the individual, I would argue beginning by creating a heightened sense of psychological safety for existing neurodiverse talent would yield better long term results (Jameson, 2021).
Consider this, if roughly 15-20% of the world’s population is neurodivergent then, at best, there could be between 80 and 106 neurodivergent people currently working within my organisation (Doyle, 2020, p. 112). Factoring in the higher unemployment rate for this group of people, it would more likely be 55 to 73 people. Creating a culture and safe environment in which they could self-identify would open up great insight into the challenges and, most importantly, strengths of those 70-odd people who identify as neurodivergent already in the organisation (Kirby & Smith, 2021, pp. 227–228).
Daniel Coyle’s research into high-functioning teams showed that psychological safety which allowed for vulnerability and the creation of shared stories were the determining factors underpinning cultures that produced great success and innovation (Regenold, 2019). For a group of people who have worn the slight of ‘atypical’ for too long, an emphasis on psychological safety and demonstrated vulnerability without consequence would open a whole new world and provide my organisation with a vibrant culture for everyone, regardless of their neuro status (Kirby & Smith, 2021, pp. 1–9).
A Leadership Consideration
To foster such a culture would require a leader who possessed exceptional listening skills, an empathetic nature, gravitas or seniority in the organisation and, potentially, some lived experience with neurodiversity (Kirby & Smith, 2021, pp. 224–225, 235). Such a senior figure would signal throughout the company not only the seriousness of the strategy yet the appreciation of the personal risks of revealing a diagnosis to an employer. They would embody the traits of Goleman’s Affiliate Leadership style if not also Coaching for the longer-term development of this cohort (Goleman, 2000, p. 83). If those already within the organisation are reluctant to openly discuss their neurodivergence, not knowing if it will be handled with care, empathy and openness, then what hope would there be to prospective employees to do so within the interviewing process?
If we were to stop there with psychological safety through empathic leadership, then it could still be classified as a success. Diversity of thought and talent forged from psychological safety would only add to my company’s dogged determination for innovation and replicable excellence, nounlike Clark’s model of “high intellectual friction and low social friction” for positive change (2020, p. Preface).
Furthermore, all members of the company would on some level recognise or feel the empathy exhibited by the leader and potentially feel more at ease at revealing whatever intersectional diversity may apply to them. Now, with insight from an existing workforce, the next step would be to boil the company’s strategy down to skills, tasks and job function and match them to traits of the neurodivergent to create value.
Culture to Action
The next challenge is to turn culture into action and it is here where Mark Podolsky’s research into activity-based human resource identifies a strategic pathway for the neurodivergent (2005; 2018). If my company creates a psychologically safe culture that values diversity as an avenue to innovation, then Podolsky asserts that this act will attract and retain talent who also value diversity and innovation and, therefore, be primed to achieve strategic goals (Podolsky, 2018, p. 18). He then argues a focus on how these values are supported, guided and encouraged through HR practices into strategic activities (rather than resources) creates value for the organisation and the individual (2018, p. 19).
In short, culture breeds shared values and values inform activities and behaviours. To achieve strategic outcomes, the culture must be congruous with the strategic activity performed by talent and desired by the company. It takes the emphasis off the individual and places it on actions, behaviours and activities. If a neurodivergent person shares the strategic vision and acts accordingly, then their work will be valued by the organisation at a deeper, more critical level. In a utopian world, they would cease to be a diversity hire and just be the right person for the job.
It may seem a complex and detailed approach, yet it is within this myopic view we will best see if the neurodivergent will thrive in certain positions. It may be quicker, easier and more generalised to encourage those with ASD to apply for technical or quality assurance roles and those with ADHD to engage in product development yet that does not show the strategic, institutional intent to make it work.
But what about Callum?
Fortunately for Callum, his manager not only understands his requirements but is able to harness his talents and, on a team level, implemented a great deal of what is discussed here. His manager analysed the team, in a broader organisational context, and found an intrapreneurial A Position (Huselid et al., 2005, p. 115) which perfectly matched his creativity, energy and blue-sky thinking. Unlike those who have held the position previously, Cullaum’s ADHD has seen him add huge value by seeing opportunity where others couldn’t and, through an empathetic boss, has support and structure to see these ideas through to their fullest. He works at what he does best and whatever safety he feels more likely comes from a connection to his manager and surrounding team than a concerted organisational effort to recognise and celebrate difference.
It is my firm belief, only further entrenched by the endless repository of information, literature and research readily available, that neurodiverse talent offers a great deal of value to the working world. For a group of people in the vulnerable position of disclosure, it is morally, and increasingly legally (Maikousis & Newton, 2022; Slow, 2022), incumbent on empathetic leaders to create emotionally safe workplaces which are open to diversity of talent. By understanding exactly what strategy an organisation pursues, it must work hard to create a culture that embodies that vision and support it with HR practices that encourage congruous activities from its labour force, however they identify.
In my daughter’s future, I hope that the world has progressed to simply appreciate what she has to offer.
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