The need for creativity and innovation seems more important than ever, particularly in light of the persistent productivity gap that the UK has with its international competitors. As the CBI’s ‘Be More Magpie’ campaign extols, it is surely time that the majority of businesses who are lagging behind start to borrow some ideas from the pioneers who are charging ahead.
But who are these pioneers and where can we find them? According to Siena Castellon, the sixteen year old who created ‘Neurodiversity Celebration Week’, we are not making the most of the skills and creativity of a huge section of our society. Some leading brands agree - Microsoft, JPMorgan, Google, GCHQ and Ford are all running or developing neurodiversity-at-work initiatives to capitalise on the competitive advantage that thinking differently can bring.
Neurodiversity refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information. It reminds us that people naturally think about things differently. As newly published Acas guidance states, “we have different interests and motivations, and are naturally better at some things and poorer at others”.
The difference here is key – understanding it and making the most of what it has to offer. For years, campaigners have brought attention to the clear benefits of a neurodiverse workforce, highlighting that:
- People with ADHD can often be good at completing urgent, or physically demanding tasks, pushing on through set-backs and showing a passion for their work
- People on the autistic spectrum are often very thorough in their work, punctual and rule observant. Many autistic people hold high levels of expertise in specialist subject areas
- People with dyslexia can often be very good at creative thinking and problem solving, story-telling and verbal communication
- People with dyspraxia often have good literacy skills and can be very good at creative, holistic, and strategic thinking.
So what is holding back an estimated one in seven people in the UK (more than 15%) from fulfilling their potential? It may have something to do with what we consider is ‘normal’.
It can be far too easy to think of yourself as simply ‘neurotypical’, and close your mind to those who think differently. As my colleague Andrew Sutherland said in a recent article, workplaces often “reflect and even amplify our wider culture, with its emphasis on certain standardised forms of behaviour”.
Andrew gives the example of the current corporate fixation on ‘emotional intelligence’, which doesn’t fit so comfortably, for example, alongside the interpersonal communication challenges that many autistic people often face. This doesn’t mean that emotional intelligence is not of great value, quite the contrary – particularly for senior leaders. But emotional intelligence is just one of many skills and qualities that workplaces should celebrate.
At Acas, we have talked to and worked with a range of workplaces who are thinking a little differently about how to think differently.
We heard from staff at Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust whose attitude to their own difference had changed from shame to pride. Through a mix of often simple adjustments and clear conversations with line managers, they were able to excel in their jobs and bring unique strengths.
We spoke to InterContinental Hotels Group, whose early experience of recruiting neurodivergent staff through Leonard Cheshire’s Change 100 programme is challenging the stigma that often prevents workplaces from embracing neurodiversity.
Diverse workplaces, from charities to tech consultancies are seeing the fruits of this inclusivity. According to James Mahoney, head of JPMorgan’s Autism at Work programme, “After three to six months working in the Mortgage Banking Technology division, autistic workers were doing the work of people who took three years to ramp up —and were even 50 percent more productive.”
Let’s stop seeing difference as a problem. The deficit model, that views people in terms of what they cannot do, has run its course. Let’s embrace a strength model that sees everyone in terms of what they can do and the ways in which they can make a positive contribution to our working lives.