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Ivey Academy livestream showcases how to unlock the potential of neurodiversity

Mar 31, 2023

Wooden Blocks Aligned In A Circle

L-r: Rob Austin, Charlotte Valeur, Neil Barnett.

Hiring employees who identify as neurodivergent isn’t just the right thing to do, it can also help your organization to innovate and creatively approach problems because you get a window into the unique ways that neurodiverse individuals experience the world.

For the Ivey Academy livestream, Leading People as Individuals: Unlocking the Potential of Neurodiversity, a panel of experts on incorporating neurodiversity at work discussed how to build inclusive work environments where neurodiverse individuals can thrive. Panellists included Rob Austin, a professor of Information Systems at Ivey; Charlotte Valeur, Chief Executive of Global Governance Group; and Neil Barnett, Director of Inclusive Hiring and Accessibility at Microsoft. The discussion was moderated by Bryan Benjamin, Executive Director of The Ivey Academy.

Noting that neurodiversity initially referred to individuals with specific neurological conditions such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Austin said it now often includes any issue that might mask talent, such as social anxiety disorder. And while the concept of neurodiversity comes from the medical field, he said there has been pushback, due to the medical model’s focus on diagnosing and treating, to move it into a social model.

“The medical model says there is something that needs to be fixed in the person, whereas the social model says that’s not where the problem is – it's with the structures and institutions that don’t embrace the difference or do not include the difference,” he said.

The benefits of harnessing neurodiverse talent

Companies such as Microsoft have seen how embracing such differences can bolster organizational talent. Barnett told how thousands of neurodiverse Microsoft employees have had successful careers and grown with the company as a result of Microsoft’s focus on recruiting and developing neurodiverse staff. He said even small changes, such as simplifying job descriptions and allowing time to regroup between back-to-back interviews, can be helpful for neurodivergent applicants.

“We see neurodiversity as talent and we’ve really leaned into this. It’s all about finding talent, ensuring that our interview processes are as inclusive as possible, and then making sure once people are at the company, that they can have a productive career,” he said. “You don’t even need to have a dedicated hiring program to make an impact.”

Barnett said some of Microsoft’s best practices for neurodiverse employees have been beneficial for all staff. Examples include providing transcripts of meeting discussions, remote work options, and more feedback.

Inspiring innovation

Such benefits are no surprise to Austin, who has been doing research on organizations that are incorporating neurodiversity. He said organizations with neurodiverse employees often experience greater levels of innovation and better business results.

“One of the things that companies and people are not especially good at is coming up with ideas that aren't like ideas they've come up with in the past, and recognizing value in ideas that are not like those in the past. The cure for that is a different perspective – somebody who sees things in a different way,” he said. “One of the characteristics of people with certain neurodivergent conditions is that they're outspoken … They not only see a problem or a way a thing could be improved, but they are actually willing to say it.”

Austin said there can also be spillover benefits related to reputation, employee engagement, and leadership skills for organizations that embrace neurodiversity.

“People will tell us that working as a manager in this program has made me a better manager … When we create a solution in support of this kind of inclusion, we discover that the solution actually works better for everybody in the company,” Austin said.

Supporting neurodiverse employees

And while neurodiversity hiring programs can help, Valeur said such programs should be combined with other support initiatives and potentially neurodiversity training. After learning 10 years ago that she is autistic and has ADHD, Valeur said she had nowhere to turn for support. She went public with her diagnosis while doing a campaign for a charity and received hundreds of emails and texts from around the world. That inspired her to create the Institute of Neurodiversity (ION), a global community of neurodivergent people and allies that celebrates the contributions of neurodivergent people and advocates for policy changes.

“Hiring us is not enough because we will come in and it will be a struggle potentially. The big issue that we have in many places in xenophobia, or fear of differences … If we can't have a culture that is low on fear of differences, we are going to have a problem,” she said. “When people are not the same as you, you achieve true diversity. When people disagree with you, you have an opportunity to learn and grow. And that's what we should all lean more into, in my view.”

There’s no one size-fits-all approach to leadership

The panellists all stressed the importance of leading people as individuals, rather than expecting people to conform to a role.

Valeur said a cornerstone of good leadership is understanding what environments will make other people successful and then creating those environments.

“A leader that leads at that level will have curiosity, respect, interest, and will understand what it is that will make people successful. When you are leading at that level, it comes automatically because your interest is other people's success, not your own,” she said.

Noting how Twitter CEO Elon Musk has revealed that he has Asperger's syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder, Valeur said she hopes more leaders who are neurodivergent will disclose so they can inspire further change.

We know that neurodivergent people exist at all levels. You can be successful and neurodivergent. We need the successful ones to actually stop being so hidden and allow themselves to be true leaders that can also lead through their own vulnerabilities. Then we open the door and allow other people to come along because it becomes more acceptable to expect people from the grassroots to do that.”
–Charlotte Valeur