Understanding neurodiversity must be a leadership priority

I recently took a coaching brief for a C-Suite leader and the coachee informed me that he was viewed by many as 'not fitting in the box' and that he had to change to fit in. 

In life and in the workplace, we often speak about being ‘boxed in’ and thinking ‘outside the box’. We try to avoid being boxed in, while outside the box thinking is highly valued in organisations.  

As we marked Neurodiversity Celebration Week last week, this terminology started to get me to understand the interaction between neurodivergent individuals and the working environment. Too often, workplace structures will try and put neurodivergent people, who may have ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or dyspraxia, and naturally think ‘outside the bell curve’, into a box. Instead, we should create environments that build personalised and supportive boxes around neurodivergent employees.  

Before exploring the benefits to businesses and how, with the support of coaching, workplaces can be more neuroinclusive, it is important to evaluate the current state of play. According to ONS data, just 22% of autistic adults in the UK are in employment. Under a third of HR professionals would feel confident in identifying neurodivergent conditions and a similar figure (33%) would know how to support these employees in their workplace.  

Leadership is critical to addressing these overlapping challenges, so that businesses and neurodiverse individuals can reach their full potential. As it stands, many HR directors and CEOs do not know what they are missing out on – and coaching can support them to get there.  

The benefits of neurodiversity and neuroinclusion 

The benefits of diversity of all kinds for business are now widely acknowledged: attracting talent, incorporating a wider pool of ideas, supporting company reputation and brand. All of these apply to neurodiversity just as they do to race, background, gender, and sexual orientation. As businesses increasingly look for new ways to differentiate themselves, skills such as creative thinking and data analysis will be particularly highly prized – and are particularly prevalent amongst neurodiverse individuals.  

Given over 75% of autistic adults in the UK are not currently employed, there is also clearly a significant untapped talent pool, many of whom may help businesses to see difficult problems from a new angle. Tellingly, there are plenty of examples of neurodivergent business leaders, many of whom have created their own businesses rather than entering a more traditional business. Elon Musk is perhaps the highest profile example, having revealed his neurodivergence on US TV in 2021, but there are examples from across industries.   

As Gen-Z enter the workforce in greater numbers it also imperative that businesses demonstrate commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) that go beyond box-ticking and are embedded in the culture. Fundamentally, neuroinclusive policies and recruitment styles are the right thing to do, in addition to the tangible benefits they may bring.  

Why policy and recruitment changes are not enough (but are an important place to start) 

Once the benefits are understood, the next step is to bring about cultural and policy change to support neurodiverse employees into roles and throughout their employment. As we regularly find, a stated commitment to diversity and inclusion can be undermined if businesses opt just to host diversity seminars, and fail to change deeply ingrained behaviours across the workforce. While changes to the recruitment and hiring process may help, understanding that everyone in the organisation has a responsibility to create an inclusive culture will make a real difference.  

True leadership is also vital. If the necessary changes are simply mandated by a CEO, without an investment in awareness throughout the organisation, many of the hurdles for neurodiverse employees will remain unchanged. However, it is still helpful to evaluate each step of the recruitment process and make changes.  

Research by The Achievability Commission found that the majority of neurodivergent people do not disclose during selection processes, fearing discrimination. Even more damming is the finding that of those that had previously disclosed their condition, the majority then regreted it. The research recommends training programmes to raise awareness and the creation of a good practise guide, backed by Government.  

The conventional interview process also works against those who are neurodiverse, as what we tend to consider as key signs of a ‘successful interviewee’, things such as confidence, eye contact etc, may not feature with neurodiverse candidates, meaning they get screened out at this stage.  

Once within an organisation, many will face outdated and inflexible career progression models, in addition to a working environment that is not inclusive. Changes here may include assistive technology, assigned seating within a hot-desking space or more time for certain tasks. In each case, the approach must fit the individual and not be imposed upon them. Equally, to ensure neurodiverse people remain in employment, progression and performance management must be sensitive to their specific needs.  

So how does coaching fit in?  

Awareness is the first challenge in addressing the problem of low employment among neurodiverse individuals. Bespoke coaching solutions can help leaders to identify this lack, highlight the benefits neurodiversity may bring and spot the non-inclusive practices that may be holding the organisation back. 

Becoming comfortable with potential discomfort around this topic is the first hurdle for many leaders. This is an area where support from external coaching professionals can help, simply by offering a forum for conversation and signposting the issue, as well as fresh outside perspectives. Once this hurdle is overcome HR and leadership should be more confident discussing neurodiversity. Rather than placing the responsibility with neurodiverse employees, managers or HR can take the lead to bring about the practical and cultural changes needed to embed neuroinclusive behaviours. 

All too often, I see businesses and HR leaders viewing coaching as something to be applied to an individual. In this instance, perhaps a neurodiverse individual who is failing to fit ‘in the box’ in an organisation. Instead, coaching must be seen as a strategic resource, a contributor to organisational success, and to building inclusive workplace cultures that value and celebrate diversity in all its forms. 

To ensure we do this at Coaching Focus we have partnered with Ambitious about Autism to ensure not only do we understand Neurodiversity but that our team and coaches are trained in how to work with and coach neurodiverse individuals. 

If you would like to discuss what and how we are doing this then please do get in touch. 


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