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Henley Leadership Group Blog

Neurodiversity: A Few Key Changes Can Help Your Whole Team Thrive


“Dyslexia was the last puzzle part in a tremendous mystery that I’ve kept to myself all these years. Remember! You are not alone, and while you will have dyslexia for the rest of your life, you can dart between the raindrops to get where you want to go. It will not hold you back.” — Steven Spielberg, American Filmmaker

If you’ve read anything in the news these past few months, chances are you have seen the term “neurodiversity”.  What is it and why, as a leader, should you care about it? 

As the prefix “neuro” implies, neurodiversity is a term that clarifies the diverse and distinct ways people's brains can work. While most people’s brains develop comparably, no two brains function exactly alike. Being neurodivergent means having a brain that works differently from the average “neurotypical” person. Considering all the ways that brains function differently, that might describe quite a few of us!

Judy Singer, a sociologist who has autism, started using the term neurodiversity in the late 1990s. According to WebMD, the term neurodivergent “refers to the concept that certain developmental disorders are normal variations in the brain. And people who have these features also have certain strengths.”

Let me give you an example from real people on my team. 

Recently, my team met remotely for a learning session. The team’s first exercise was to review a list of ground rules and agreements to set the stage for a productive discussion to follow. They divided into groups and were tasked with organizing ten agreements, under three broad headings. Each group shared their newly organized list and their reasoning for sorting it, deepening our understanding of each agreement. 

During the debriefing, one of our neurodiverse team members questioned the need for ten agreements. She suggested that ten would be difficult for her (and others) to remember while also integrating a complex subject. She advocated for simplicity. 

This is neurodiversity in action. She spoke up and challenged the group to consider a new perspective — her need for simplicity with the team agreements — that would likely make it easier for all team members. 

According to the World Economic Forum May 2, 2023, organizations now see neurodiversity as a strength in the workplace. 

  • 10-20% of the world’s population is estimated to be neurodivergent. Common neurodiverse conditions include autism, ADHD, dyslexia and Tourette’s syndrome.
  • Workplaces with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be as much as 30% more productive.
  • Abilities such as visual thinking, attention to detail, pattern recognition, visual memory and creative thinking can help illuminate ideas or opportunities teams might otherwise have missed.
  • Many of the world’s largest companies are now actively recruiting neurodiverse workers in order to benefit from their unique skills and abilities.

What this means for you is that you need to take a step back and look with fresh eyes at your team and at the way work happens. Think more creatively about all the ways work tasks can be done. For example, people with ADHD may have trouble with time management. But they often show high levels of passion, drive and creative thinking. How can you and your team productively work with this?

Think about meetings and your physical space. Make use of tools, processes and structures like agendas given out ahead of time, clear communication and scheduling ample time to transition between meetings, with follow up afterwards. Invite your team’s input and suggestions for making things better. Then, take action. 

It’s time to broaden our perspective of “normal” and include more people, more perspectives, more unique contributions. This is the game of leadership. To continue growing and expanding always. I know we can do this.

Previously published on Forbes