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Can neurodiversity bring competitive advantage to technology companies such as ours?

Published on 5 mins Last updated

Growing up, Dyslexia was somewhat taboo. Ok, maybe that's a bit strong. Let's just say, it wasn't something parents shouted about in the school playground. But now (I'm happy to say) things have moved on, and we now have a host of well-known Dyslexic celebrities (Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, CISCO CEO John Chambers, and Hewlett Packard co-Founder Bill Hewlett to name but a few!). We also now understand much more about it, with Dyslexics very much in demand in the workplace due to their creativity, ability to connect with others, strong visual memory, and excellent problem-solving skills.

But is Dyslexia a particular advantage for those working in IT roles? What about other types of neurodiversity? What prevents neurodiverse candidates from declaring these traits during the recruitment process? And where do we stand on the issue of neurodiversity?

Types of neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is the notion that we all experience and interact with the world around us in very different ways, meaning there is no one "right" way of thinking or behaving. More commonly however neurodiversity is a term used to refer to people with brain function and behavioural diversity such as Autism, ADHD, and Dyslexia. Historically these differences may have been viewed by society as "deficits" but, thankfully, as our understanding of these conditions has grown, we have been able to more effectively discern and harness the strengths of these individuals.

Now I know what you're thinking...Each of these neurodivergent labels encompasses such a broad range of abilities. For example, my non-verbal Autistic nephew has a very different set of abilities from a high-functioning Autistic savant at the other end of the Spectrum - yet both could be labelled "Autistic".

But let's assume, for the purposes of this blog, that I'm referring to high-functioning individuals that you wouldn't normally know are "neurodiverse," unless they choose to share that personal information with you. Indeed, statistically speaking, it's highly likely that at least one person in your team has some formally identifiable "neurodiversity" without you realizing it....

The benefits of neurodiversity for Technology companies

So can the unique skills of these neurodivergent superstars be leveraged for competitive advantage? Let's look at neurodiversity in the Technology industry in particular...

  • Dyslexia - You won't be surprised to hear that Dyslexics make great coders and software designers. According to the science this is because they're good at developing 'mind maps' that allows them to visualize a problem at one moment in time, giving them exceptional visuospatial skills.
  • ADHD - Research shows that people with ADHD are likely to thrive in technology jobs where they are required to repeat technical procedures over and over, and follow checklists. This is because they enjoy highly structured and defined tasks, as well as specific routines and workflows.
  • Autism - Autistic adults are typically strong coders and programmers, with visual learning and logical thinking. The data bears this out, with their thought processes thought to lend themselves to more easily collect and organize large amounts of data.  

Neurodiversity is clearly a great asset for Technology companies. So much so, that many are now embracing it as part of their recruitment process, with Dell and Microsoft actively targeting these candidates in the belief it can bring competitive advantage.

But if neurodiversity is such an asset, why then do 40% of employees in the tech industry not disclose their neurodivergent traits...?

What's in a name?

Many are understandably reluctant to publicize their neurodivergent traits, and still more companies fail to ask candidates to declare this. So should we actively encourage more education around neurodiversity?

Well, first off, if we can't measure neurodiversity it's hard to understand what's working/not working for this group. However, with half of managers apparently uncomfortable employing those with neurodivergent traits, it's no wonder candidates are reluctant to announce this!

So how can we change the narrative?

  • Training - Unconscious bias is something we are all guilty of. But without acknowledging this and providing training to minimize its impact, managers are likely to make snap judgements which may ultimately undermine the skills sets within the team. Should a candidate really be discounted because they are uncomfortable making small talk, for example, when they meet and exceed the requirements of the role itself? Of course not.
  • Accommodating others - How many of us have sat in the office struggling to concentrate when a colleague has loudly shared a conversation right next to our desk without due consideration for others? Right. Think how much more challenging this must be for neurodiverse people with an aversion to too much sensory stimulation. So for some this might mean making small changes in seating arrangements, or changing the way meetings are conducted (i.e. less round tables with multiple views expressed at the same time).
  • Permission to focus on one thing at a time - Neurodiverse people may find interruptions such as constant email notifications very distracting and hard to ignore, breaking their focus and concentration. Giving them permission to get their 'head down' and focus on a single task for a portion of the day without fear of recriminations can make a big difference.

Do technology companies need to change the way they recruit?

Let's be honest. Many recruitment processes disadvantage neurodiverse candidates, however (regardless of whether or not they choose to disclose their neurodivergent traits) there are a few simple things that all Technology companies can do to change this.

For example:

  1. Provide candidates with certainty by letting them know ahead of time what will be expected of them at every stage of the selection process.
  2. Make sure interview questions are structured and based on the skills outlined in the job description, rather than a general chat to "get a feel" for the candidate.
  3. Focus on what the candidate is saying, rather than their body language. For example, some Autistic adults may find small talk, and prolonged, direct eye contact difficult. This is does not mean however that they're unable to perform their role.

The list goes on....

So does neurodiversity bring competitive advantage to tech companies? Yes. Are they good at accommodating neurodiverse employees? No. And until we challenge some of the workplace stigma, most will prefer not to disclose this, meaning we have no clue how diverse our teams truly are.

Where does stand on the issue of neurodiversity?

We would very much argue that neurodiversity (and indeed any other form of workplace diversity) makes us stronger - much stronger - as an organization, because it allows us to approach problems in new ways, producing more innovate solutions for our customers. It allows us to better assist customers with an extremely varied list of priorities and pain points, thereby delivering competitive advantage.

At our culture is very much about playing devils advocate, and exploring all options on the table, before then determining what's right for the unique customer we have in front of us. And from a product development point of view we definitely benefit from differing opinions and passionate debates! Indeed, how else can we push the envelope and continually challenge the status quo? We are not afraid to think differently, and believe that people who do so solve problems better than people who think alike.

On a personal level I feel incredibly lucky to work for a company that values the individual, and not only tolerates, but actively encourages divergent ways of thinking.

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