Unlocking the Potential of Neurodiversity at Work at Ed Thompson

Reading Time: 14 Minutes

In this episode, Ed Thompson shares his insight into the neuroinclusivity movement’s growth and impact in the workplace.

Takeaways We Learned from Ed…

Embrace the power of conversation.

Start talking about neurodiversity in your organization and express curiosity. It’s a simple step that can set the ball rolling and lead to positive change.

Uncover hidden strengths.

Many entrepreneurs and successful businesspeople are neurodivergent, such as those with dyslexia. Recognize the creative and entrepreneurial potential of neurodivergent individuals.

Foster self-advocacy.

Encourage neurodivergent employees to share their suggestions, needs, and experiences. Embrace the talent you already have and create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued.

Recognize the prevalence of neurodiversity.

Neurodivergent individuals are more common than you may think, with estimates suggesting that around one in five people fall into this category. By acknowledging this fact, organizations can see the business imperative of neuro inclusivity.

Shift the focus to individual strengths and needs.

Rather than obsessing over demographic data, consider that every team and organization is neurodiverse by nature. Acknowledge and act upon the unique strengths, preferences, and needs of your team members.

Rethink the hiring process.

Modify your approach to attract and accommodate neurodivergent candidates. Ensure your website, career pages, and job descriptions convey a welcoming attitude towards different types of thinkers. Address confusion in application forms, psychometric tests, and interviews, focusing on core job skills rather than relying solely on social performance.

Avoid missing out on talent.

By recruiting in the same way you always have, you might be overlooking valuable neurodivergent individuals who can bring fresh perspectives and contributions to your business. Adapt your recruitment practices to create a more inclusive and diverse workforce.

Personality assessments can help.

This can help initiate conversations about differences and preferences within teams, but they should be used cautiously. Oversimplifying individuals’ traits with labels can limit understanding and hinder effective collaboration. Going beyond these tools and delving deeper into communication preferences, problem-solving approaches, and work styles can foster greater understanding and inclusion.

Implement diversity programs.

Organizations should ensure that they also address neurodiversity. Many people have limited knowledge about neurodiversity, and building awareness is the first step. Understanding the unique challenges and strengths of neurodivergent individuals helps mitigate biases and creates an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive.

About Ed Thompson

Ed Thompson is the founder and CEO of Uptimize, the leader in corporate neurodiversity training. He’s an expert in how organizations can embrace the talents of employees with autism, AHDH, dyslexia, and other forms of neurodivergence to improve their cultures and bottom lines.

Ed’s new book, A Hidden Force, makes a timely, apt, and critical contribution to today’s business world. Written for business leaders, talent management professionals, and neurodivergent employees, the book shows why and how creating a work environment that welcomes the full spectrum of talent benefits everyone.

Read the Transcript

Allison: Welcome back to the Deliberate Leaders podcast. I am your host and executive business coach Allison Dunn. Our episode topic today is unlocking the potential of neuro diversity at work. Our guest is Ed Thompson. He is the founder and CEO of optimize. He is which is the leader in corporate neuro diversity training. He is an experts on how organizations can embrace the talents of employees with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other forms of neuro divergence to improve their culture and their bottom lines. Ed, thank you so much for joining us here today. Great to be here. I love to kick these off with a deliberate conversation. What would be your number one leadership tip for our listeners?

Ed: Talk about neurodiversity. That’s it. The first thing most organizations don’t, everything good that happens starts with people talking about it. And you can talk about it without being an expert. You can talk about it in a way that expresses curiosity. If you’re a leader, you can say this is a journey I’d like to explore. Those are simple steps that can set the ball rolling.

Allison: I don’t think I’ve ever shared this on the podcast, but I will raise my hand I have dyslexia. And it has been an ongoing opportunity to be really careful about numbers that I use and how I read certain words. And I don’t think most people who know me would know that about me.

Ed: So thank you for sharing.

Allison: You bet. I don’t think I’ve ever shared that before. So that’s a first.

Ed: That’s a neuro divergence shared by many entrepreneurs.

Yeah, there was a study done about 15 years ago that said, around 30% of entrepreneurs are dyslexic. When compared to around 10%, of the general population, only around 1% of corporate managers.

So something interesting is going on there.

Allison: Wow, that is so fascinating. What do you think is the cause of that? discrepancy? Or difference? I guess?

Ed: Yeah, I think there’s push and pull stuff going on, if you like, I think dyslexic people, often very creative, and often very good at being entrepreneurs, but also experiencing a push from workplaces where they feel that they’re misunderstood, marginalized, and so on. And then I think there’s probably a disclosure factor or non factor amongst the corporate managers study a couple of years ago said that 90% of neurodivergent people don’t disclose at work. So I suspect the true number is, is far higher. But and we can look at those two things simultaneously, but it’s an interesting conversation point.

Allison: I find that fascinating. What do you think is behind the rapid growth of neuro inclusivity? Movements?

Ed: Are we talking in the workplace or?

Allison: Yes, I’m sorry? And yes, in the future of the workplace, for sure.

Ed: Right? Yeah. Well, I think we have to talk about both in a way, of course, because organizations exist within their societies. And nobody was talking about neurodiversity. 30 years ago, 40 years ago, the term was only coined in the late 90s. And of course, you know, corporate diversity and inclusion goes back to the 1960s. So you had decades of companies being fined because they were getting it wrong. And reports coming out in the 80s, saying, you know, let’s, how do we embrace the workforce of the future? Nobody said anything about neurodiversity. The way that started to change was you had some organizations with some quite successful disability hiring programs in the early 2000s. So really looking at you know, the skills that disabled people can bring people that they thought they might not otherwise have hired, and autistic people were part of that and then it really took off in the mid 2010s, when you had some really big famous employers do programs like that, but specifically for neurodivergent people, typically autistic people saying, you know, we recognize that these people have real value to our business and we want them in our, in our company.

What’s been interest thing then is that that sparked this whole movement of self advocacy within organizations that you never had before and the point of people not sharing it.

And so in those organizations, Microsoft, JP Morgan, and Google and so on, of course, people started to say, hey, what about me, I’m here already, you know, I may not be part of your disability, hiring cohort, eight air quotes, but I’m here already. And I’m neurodivergent. And I have some suggestions or needs, and so on. And so now, when people look at this topic, I think they realize that any organization is populated by all sorts of different thinkers, including neurodivergent people. And actually, there’s an opportunity to embrace the talent we already have, as well as attract in talent that we don’t have.

Allison: I’m curious Ed, what can we what insights can we draw from the data on the prevalence of specifically autism, autism, dyslexia and ADHD, in the population at large and then in the workforce?

Ed: Well, I think the conclusion has to be that neuro divergence is highly prevalent. And I think that recognition, as you say, in society at large is another reason why people are looking at neurodiversity and neuro inclusion, if you believe this to be a tiny fringe sliver of the population, it doesn’t feel like a business imperative, if you hear now estimates that maybe one in five people and neurodivergent and as I mentioned earlier, you see stories of the top business people of our times, and there’s a amazing correlation there with neuro divergence, I think you start taking it more, more seriously. So I think really, that’s the message, I would caution people and you know, caution leaders a little bit to obsess over demographic data here, because it is such a muddy picture.

Allison: You said, you encourage them to obsess over it?

Ed: No, I would. I would caution them. Because, yeah, I think people think about diversity and inclusion. And if you like, the diversity, part of that is kind of the pie chart, right? It’s like, how many people have we got who you know, identify as men or identify as women or whatever? And I think people want to know, sort of, you know, how diverse are we? Now that’s easy. If we’re talking about, say veterans, because I mean, look, you either fought in Afghanistan, or you didn’t like that’s a pretty simple line. Whereas with neuro divergence it is.

And again, most people who are in neurodivergent, don’t typically want to share it until they really feel comfortable. And many people who are neurodivergent may not have had access to a diagnosis.

So I never think that’s sort of the place to start.

I think it’s a better place to start to say, Well, look, every team, every organization is neurodiverse. By definition, there’s no one standard brain. And we know within that there’s all sorts of folks who may have particular strengths, but also maybe some particular preferences and needs, you know, let’s start acknowledging that. And let’s start acting like that’s a fact. And not I’m not ignoring it.

Allison: I mean, I, I’m exposed, obviously, conversations around diversity is a very strong topic of conversation typically focused around heritage or age or gender. Right. So neurodiversity, tying it back to what would you how would you encourage leaders to think about that in the hiring process? Differently than anything else? I mean, is there anything they should take into consideration when trying to find that in candidates?

Ed: Yes, absolutely. And we’ve done focus groups with neurodivergent professionals, job seekers around the world. And so we’ve learned a lot of this stuff from them, you know, where do you have challenges and people trot out statistics that look, you know, 80% of autistic people are underemployed and I think that sorts of data points always very hard to pin down, but we know people face challenges. We add optimize my company have seen cases of organizations hiring the best candidate only because they’ve done our training and admitting that they wouldn’t have hired them otherwise.

So we are losing talent if we don’t pay attention to this. Now, let’s think of a couple of examples. neurodivergent people like anybody else will look At a company’s website, they’ll look at their careers page, maybe their diversity page. Often they won’t see anything about an organization welcoming different types of thinkers. Right. So diversity page, it’s people of color, it’s gender, and so nothing about neurodiversity. So immediately, we’re kind of missing an opportunity to say, hey, yeah, we welcome people like you. And of course, some people think, well, they’re not going to welcome people like me, don’t even bother applying.

We’ve heard stories and I think had data around job descriptions that can be confusing.

There’s a there’s a stat that around 70% of hiring managers think that their job descriptions are clear, but only about 30% of candidates do.

So there’s a real discrepancy there. Application forms can be confusing, poorly formatted, timed to add stress, lots of problems with psychometric tests that can be confusing. And I haven’t even got to interviews yet. Now, of course, interviews are really a in themselves, they’re a bit of a test of social performance. And I think what people do is they over rely on interviews. And I think that’s a result of people not considering neurodiversity.

And it’s sort of the, perhaps the preference of the majority. And using interviews to test people for often for jobs, where those social skills are not really the core skills of the job. And in the end, we hire people who are good at presenting themselves in interviews, and not necessarily the people who are, you know, who are best at doing the job. So there’s all sorts of little friction points here that are very, very easy to remove. But I would very much again, stress that I think if you’re if you’re recruiting as you always have, you’re likely missing out on talent that could bring a lot to your business.

Allison: I am unfamiliar of exactly what percentage of the population has a neuro diversity diagnose, I don’t even know what the right word is. Is there anything you can share on that front?

Ed: Well, no, again, it’s very, it’s very muddy. So I mean, the estimates are that maybe one in five people are neurodivergent, in some way. But we know that, for example, women, people of color tend to have historically less access to diagnosis. We also again, know that it’s, I mean, again, the reality of humans is that humans have different brains. And in my book, I talk about the idea of kind of traits, like the sort of, you know, dials on a mixing board, and, you know, we all sort of fall somewhere on all sorts of these traits.

And, of course, you know, some people with certain combinations of traits, you know, that’s led them to having a, you know, a medical diagnosis and, or an identity and neuro identity as being different from, you know, the so called norm, although, again, the reality of sort of neurotypical candidacy, that given that everybody has a different brain is also, you know, very much contested, I know, of folks who have built a tool that does sort of cognitive profiling, and they’ve done over 100,000 profiles. And through that they’ve established as it were, what normal should look like, but they’ve never found anybody who hits it.

Allison: That’s interesting. Yeah. Is there? Is there any type of like, you know, our organization, you know, talking about strengths and motivators and learning styles and all of that we use, we use an assessment called a DISC assessment. Is there any tool that you were using in your training that allows for kind of an identification of that as an area to consider?

Ed:Not exactly. It could be something that that we, you know, look to develop more or CO develop, but I would say, and I sort of have a mixed view of some of the tools that do exist, because I think, at times, they can be a little trite in their summaries. And so for example, look, if you and I are working with each other Alli, you know, you say, Well, I’m an innovator and I say I’m a sort of a b, d y or something. You know, what I think it does is it helps the conversation It gets us into a zone where we start talking about these differences, but where I get nervous is putting too much into a sort of oversimplified label if you like that.

Okay, now I because you know, I’m a systemizer and you’re a creator, well, that’s really going to help us work together, you know? So another way of answering the question what we do at optimize, obviously, we like to practice what we preach, and we have a neurodivergent. Team, is we really, you know, almost go beyond those tools in having conversations about preferences. How do people like to communicate problem solve? Meetings? When did they like to work? All of that stuff really kind of tried to go deeper to, to the way they experienced this stuff? And I think that’s just kind of like that next, that next level that really ties it together?

Allison: Yeah. I love the body of work that you’re focusing on at a optimize? Could you explain kind of the part that we may be missing as an organization to not tap into neurodiversity? And how do you help teams, companies, organizations, individuals, through your work?

Ed: Yeah. So how I would frame it, if you like, is that again, I’ve said this several times, every team, every organization is neurodiverse.

Every candidate pool is neurodiverse, you are on a zoom call, and you see 10 other faces, everybody has a different brain, everybody is experiencing that call their daily work differently.

Now, what’s happening is because none of us have been told about this, that all of those interactions are happening, interviews, conversation with your boss meetings, and so on, without neurodiversity in mind, right? And therefore, a lot of the time, people are either finding that those norms don’t sort of fit them all. They’re finding themselves actively marginalized, because some of those norms don’t fit them. So let’s pause that for a second.

Let’s look at what are the priorities of leaders today, a lot of the priorities of leaders today are what used to be HR priorities, but now they’re CEO priorities. So you know, how do I find talent? How do I keep talent around, you know, one in three, potentially, folks leave jobs voluntarily every year to go somewhere that, you know, they would prefer? I think that’s a bit of a crisis. How do we innovate, we know the lifespan of companies has plummeted. I mean, these are the things that are keeping CEOs and leaders and I’m sure your audience up up at night. And really what we posit with some confidence is, we can draw a link here to say that a bunch of those things can be addressed, if we start considering the fact that we all have a different brain.

And so we look at awareness training, consulting, advisory services, live training sessions, and so on, to help everybody recognize that look, in their team, when they’re recruiting and so on. They’re doing it in this neurodiverse world, they bring their own thinking style as well, which is fine, but don’t assume that everybody else, you know, does things the same as you. What we find from that as we train everybody, we train managers we train HR we train recruiters is that you can start seeing an uplift in things like belonging in things like productivity and things like collaboration. And you know, we go and even stories of innovation, we can tie all of that back to how do we keep people around? How do we find people? How do we get the best out of it?

Allison: Wonderful, thank you. Thank you for kind of diving into that. If our listeners have a diversity program, what things should they consider to make sure that it doesn’t fall short to also include neurodiversity? Other than actually saying that?

Ed: Well, I think the fundamental reality and we see it when we’ve done surveys with learners and so on, is that most people don’t know anything about this. I mean, I think most we find 60% ish of early learners with us will put up their hand and say, either digitally or you know, or in person. They’ll say, I don’t know much about that. They don’t hide it. They say I don’t I don’t know what they don’t even know what that means. And then you’ll have about you know, maybe 20 30% who say they do know something about it, but you dig into that and it’s all my you know my nephew He’s autistic or something. So, you know, I sort of know what that is because I know my nephew. And, you know, I know what he struggles with, and I know what his strengths are, when in fact, you know, does that really position you to be a neuro inclusive leader?

I mean, probably more than somebody else, but not totally, really, you know, your nephew, right. And there’s the saying that, you know, you met you meet one neurodivergent person is you’ve met one neurodivergent person, so we have to address that. And otherwise your that’s going to be the elephant in the room. And otherwise, you’re going to have interviewers, interviewing candidates, and all sorts of biases are going to be running amok and you’re having punish people for having a flatter effect, you think we’re displacing really want the job? Or is maybe that’s just how they talk? Or for not making eye contact and so on? Or maybe somebody’s had a couple of years, under employed?

Oh, no, we don’t want we don’t want that. And actually, maybe that person was just, you know, finding it hard to find a near inclusive employee. So anyway, the point is, we have to start by building that awareness. And there is really no shortcut to that. But it can be done quickly, once we’ve done that we can start looking at okay, now we’ve energized everybody around this topic, how do we start building the same principles of neuro inclusivity whether it comes to you know, culture, communication processes, environments, and so on, into all of those different aspects of people management?

Allison: Wonderful, thank you. And what is the best way for people to connect with you?

Ed: Well, you do visit us@optimize.com. That’s op T I M ize. That’s our company page. You can also reach out to me at ed.thompson@optimize.com. And I alluded as well, that I’ve just released a book called The hidden Force. You can check that out at a hidden force.com or on any online book, distributing site like Amazon.

Allison: And listeners, I will include a link in our show notes to all three of those things. And thank you so much for joining us here on deliberate leaders.

Ed: Pleasure.

I'm Allison Dunn,

Your Business Executive Coach

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