Thinking differently: Researching neurodiversity in the workplace
We are all unique. Everybody experiences the world differently, and these differences are inherent in our neurology – in the ways our brains are wired to process and respond to information. Neurodiversity refers to the many different types of neurological differences in people with dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, and ADHD among others, where people quite literally think differently. Currently, there is a lack of attention and research regarding what neurologically accessible executive education could look like. Hult Research at Ashridge Executive Education aims to fill this gap with research investigating neurodiverse people’s experiences of management development.
What is important to remember is that neurodivergence effects people in ways which are unique to that individual, for instance ADHD can manifest as problems with short term memory for some, but by no means all.
Some employers are already starting to recognize the value of neurodiversity
Right now, there are a small but growing number of experts discussing the benefits of “thinking differently” who try to persuade businesses to recognize the value that neurodiverse people can bring as employees. For example, Forbes published a piece which highlights the “superpowers” of ADHD including the ability to focus for extended periods, multitasking, and keeping calm under pressure, all of these skills are valuable for busy working executives. CIPD’s report valuably presents the evidence and argument for businesses to amend their strategy and process to include those with neurodiverse characteristics.
This is a message that businesses are getting on board with. As part of the drive for more diverse and inclusive workplaces which has developed over the past two decades, a number of organizations are now taking notice and beginning amend their recruiting practices to make them more suitable for people who think differently. For example, Harvard and others mention that SAP, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Ford, and EY have begun to target neurodiverse talent and others including Deloitte, Dell, IBM, and JPMorgan Chase are scoping their strategies.
However, there is a lot more evidence of positive intention than there is of practical action. So far there are no details describing hands-on action that businesses have taken to attract and retain the neurodiverse, and we are yet to learn of any positive outcomes.
Therefore this research seeks to identify those businesses who have taken action towards including neurodiversity into their inclusion strategies, to collect examples of best practice, common challenges and the impact of the changes they have made. By gathering insight into those businesses who are role modeling the inclusion of neurodiversity, we can highlight not only why businesses should follow this example, but HOW they can do this in practice. Most importantly, we can establish whether this business change in tact actually improves the working lives of those who think differently.
How can Executive Education support this move towards inclusivity?
Creating more inclusive and accessible workplaces which cater for diverse ways of thinking and experiencing is not only a business responsibility. Executive education also has a role to play in improving the career progression of neurodiverse people. As businesses start to focus on attracting and retaining people with neurodiversity, it is important for businesses schools to understand how to best prepare and develop neurodiverse managers who work in these organizations.
Primary and secondary education have worked on making education more accessible for a number of years. Since the understanding of dyslexia and other learning differences became more widespread, schools and universities now have provisions for those who don’t learn so well through things like reading, writing, sitting still and listening for long periods of time and memorizing and recalling vast amounts of information. Things like assistive technology, voice recognition software and extra exam time help make education a little more accessible (though there is still work to be done).
Management education, however, has paid less attention to learning differences and the ways they can tailor teaching and content to a wider range of learners. There has been a focus on “learning styles” (REF) and how these might be important to consider, but neurological differences in brain functioning have never been a focus. What neurodiverse employees want and need from leadership or management development programmes is likely to look different from the ideals of the neurotypical. For instance notions of leadership which have highly emotional elements and emphasize interpersonal relationships might be difficult for people whose social skills and communication are affected by autism. Experiential learning techniques and role-playing which are popular executive development tools, might not benefit someone who processes sensory information differently. Since executive education is designed for the ‘typical’ brain, those with atypical brains are forced to learn in ways that are unnatural to them, resulting in them having to work hard to compromise their natural skills and tendencies.
To fill this gap our research investigates neurodiverse people’s experiences of management development. Through speaking with those who have been through some kind of leadership/executive development programme or course. We will ask them to lead us in identifying positive changes or additions to exec ed teaching and format which will facilitate new practices which complement and benefit from diverse ways of thinking. This will shine a light on how executive education can become an environment where rare minds can thrive rather than compromise.