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How to manage a cognitively diverse team

How to manage a cognitively diverse team

I am sure I am not alone in loving the advert which appears on Channel 4 featuring the Paralympians (especially the audio-defined version) set to the pulsating tune from the old Bugsy Malone movie “So you wanna be a boxer”. Ending with the slow drawl of “let me have him, Joe!”.

The courage, strength, and tenacity of these warriors are plain to see however unfortunately it is the inconsideration of “Joe Public” that creates their biggest barriers.

What strikes me nowadays, in comparison to when I went through education is that I seldomly knowingly come across employees with physical disabilities and hidden learning difficulties. I appreciate that those who are neurodivergent may be reluctant to reveal if they have Autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or ADHD.

However, I have noticed a change in the drive for their inclusion in the workplace. The drive for hybrid working coupled with recent adaptions in assistive software such as speech-to-text programmes may offer more opptunities for some neurodivergent employees.

There is now a greater recognition of the business benefits of embracing diversity and an increasing appetite to enable employees to bring their authentic selves to work.

Do we lean too much on the remarkable, talented, super-heroic narrative when thinking about employees with disabilities or who are neurodivergent? I am sure this is preferable to the traditionally negative attitudes that used to dominate the thought processes of many employers who would mentally “write off” disabled employees. However, I wonder if it means now that we will only consider neurodivergent employees with super strengths.

There has been a recent trend in organisations such as EY; Microsoft; SAP and Chase Morgan to actively seek neurodivergent employees such as those with autism spectrum disorder or dyslexia to work within IT or technical fields as there is evidence that these employees may have a higher level of performance in activities involving mathematics, and pattern recognition. Whilst this may be true in many cases it is important to bear in mind the idiosyncratic nature of neurodivergent employees and indeed neurotypical employees too.

So, whilst it is right and proper to explore reasonable adjustments which could be made for employees with additional needs, such as adjustments in the working environment for light, brightness, and noise. The use of genuine dialogue, based on trust and a thirst for organisational learning remains a powerful mechanism for understanding the needs of the neurodivergent employees in the workplace.

Often senior management teams use personality assessment profiling to investigate if they have divergent thinking styles and different areas of emphasis to help to secure a sustainable advantage in the dynamic world of business. Employing a neurodivergent employee or manager offers a genuine opportunity to look at challenges differently.

So, what would help to enable cognitively diverse teams?

Positive support from those in leadership roles in tandem with their talent acquisition teams, to actively think more divergently about the way that interviews and assessments are carried out to fully maximize this seemingly growing pool of talent.

Offering customised induction programmes – bearing in mind some of the adaptions you may make to your induction process could also benefit neurotypical employees such as simple changes to the communication style and appearance of work procedures.

Providing awareness training – the more people understand each other’s differences and how these may influence how we think, communicate or perform a task, the quicker misconceptions can be challenged and dispensed with. Indeed, the same thing is true for organisations that cut across different national cultures notwithstanding the broad variety of cultures within a national culture.

There is an ever-present need for conflict management and exploring communication challenges within diverse teams. There may be instances when collaboration requires constructive conflict which needs to be handled sensitively whilst maintaining a focus on innovative steps forward. Therefore, there needs to be some exploration of the preferred medium for communication and the time allotted to providing feedback and suggestions to accommodate different response styles linked to neurodiversity.

Linked to this the arrangement of mentoring or buddying schemes can ensure that employees have a platform to surface any misunderstandings and receive coaching support for any issues they may come across such as those linked to their different communication styles.

Regular 1:1 performance conversations can also provide practical help around the career progression for neurodivergent employees and managers. The formation of career pathways and considering how roles and teams can be crafted around talented employees is advisable. Managers should consider an emphasis on strength-based performance management rather than the use of universal competency frameworks fashioned on neurotypical employees.

The formation of Employee Reference Groups or advocacy groups would be beneficial to ensure the neurodivergent employees have a genuine voice and can influence others to implement refinements that would increase their effectiveness in the workplace. This in turn should increase the confidence of employees to be more open about revealing aspects of their own neurodivergence, and further boost inclusion.

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