When I first met my former colleague Alex he told me he had difficulty writing and reading owing to his dyslexia. As his manager, I searched the internet for how to help the dyslexic workforce.
It was a mistake – I was focusing on his weakness. After some months, I discovered Alex has above-average capabilities in reasoning and that, in all likelihood, these are related to his dyslexia.
As explained in a previous World Economic Forum article, we all carry with us a wealth of life experience, a kind of book of stories, which we consult to make sense of the world. Our identity (gender, race, age, origin), neurological differences, our studies and our experiences influence the content of that book directly and, therefore, the way we reason.
Neurodiversity is the term that describes those neurological differences. The books of neurodiverse people contain unique information that makes them see the world from a different perspective. It is manifested in conditions such as autism, ADHD or dyslexia.
In the digital workplace and specifically in the tech industry, we need to solve complex problems, constantly innovate and think creatively to face our next cybersecurity or artificial intelligence (AI) challenge. We need more people who reason differently because this is the way to come up with new ideas and overcome biases. Neurodiverse colleagues provide a unique set of skills. Unfortunately, as was the case with my conversation with Alex, the emphasis is usually on their challenges. It’s time to change this; let’s talk about the unique contributions they can make.
Looking into it from a general perspective, neurodiverse people are gifted in some skills that are essential in the digital age, for example:
These conditions also bring an added value to the digital workplace. While most of us are easily distracted by constant digital interruptions (emails, instant messages, notifications), neurodiverse brains are better at maintaining focus on a task. They are also, in general, more keen on holding on routine tasks, which can also be very valuable in our environment where we tend to jump from one assignment to the next too quickly. Those traits make those people with such brains a very productive workforce.
I have talked many times with Alex about his capabilities and how those unique gifts are not only invisible, but often obscured by a misperception by other colleagues who expect another kind of interaction via email. This could result in a loss of productivity and capabilities. How can organizations attract and retain this untapped talent instead?
A recent study of neurodiversity in the workforce gives us guidance on how to support these workers:
While these approaches are similar to other diversity programmes, they are still not as common as, for example, gender initiatives. Fortunately, some of the big IT corporations are taking the lead in attracting neurodiverse talent: Microsoft has been the first company to sign a global pledge to help people with dyslexia and has an autism hiring programme; SAP also has an Autism at Work programme. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that more and more companies are looking for people on the autism spectrum to grow their AI talent pool. We are just at the beginning of the neurodiversity revolution.
Organizations in the digital age have a talent challenge, and neurodiversity provides a new perspective and an untapped set of skills. With more cognitive diversity in our lives and workplaces, we want organizations to successfully face new challenges and become more creative and competitive.
I have been discussing our journey together with Alex. He recognized the need to share the experience and our findings but said he would struggle to write an article around it. This is article is for you, Alex, and for all the people with invisible gifts.
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