Think Different: Embrace Neurodiversity
December 3, 2018 Dorene Ocamb
Think Different. It’s more than just the slogan that Steve Jobs used to sell computers. It was his corporate philosophy – and it’s no accident that some of the biggest technological advancements in the past 20 years came from Apple. Embracing, and more importantly supporting, people’s cognitive differences creates a culture where innovation thrives and group think dies.
Fortune 400 companies are beginning to embrace and set up programs to help neurodiverse individuals succeed. It is time for the nonprofit industry to follow suit.
Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences are the result of normal, natural variations in the human genome. They do not need to be cured. Instead they need help and accommodation. Organizations where leaders make such accommodations reap tremendous benefits.
Common disorders that fall into this category include: autistic spectrum disorders; dyspraxia; dyslexia; and, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among others. Many people with these disorders have higher-than-average abilities. Research shows that some individuals with neurodiverse conditions, including autism and dyslexia, might have advanced skills in pattern recognition, memory or mathematics.
The truth is the archetype of the prototypical fundraiser has changed during the past decade. Gone are the days where the development team is made up of Type A extroverts. With data in the driver’s seat, there is tremendous opportunity to leverage neurodiverse individuals’ above average abilities if leaders are willing to re-think how these individuals are hired and managed.
For organizations to truly embrace diversity, it first requires a mindset shift that values diversity as an asset versus an initiative. This means creating a more inclusive environment not because it’s part of a diversity program or to check a box. It is because your organization recognizes that people who don’t fit a specific mold can enhance performance by challenging norms that might be holding your organization back.
Second, your organization likely also needs a vocabulary change. Rather than striving for equality, leaders need to instead work towards equity. Equality is treating everyone the same. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Managers need to be willing to meet people where they are rather than forcing them to conform to a work style.
What can your organization do today to create an organizational culture that values neurodiversity as an asset and a commitment to equity? Begin with a focus on your recruitment policies and accommodations once hired.
By nature, neurodiverse individuals struggle with the interview process, especially in organizations that rely on behavioral analytic tools. Companies interested in tapping into this valuable population might need to adjust recruitment, selection, and career development policies to reflect a broader definition of talent.
Consider virtual interviews and don’t negatively judge a lack of eye contact. Rethink the dreaded panel interview and make in-person interviews one-on-one in a more casual environment such as a coffeehouse or restaurant. Don’t ask vague, open-ended questions. Instead, ask the candidate concrete questions, such as to describe how they have previously contributed to a successful project.
Once hired, your focus needs to shift to creating an environment where these individuals can work and thrive. This can’t happen overnight. It starts by working to build a company-wide culture that respects and understands all forms of diversity – be it neuro, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, etc. For diverse people to succeed they have to genuinely see, feel and believe that the way they think, the way they act, and the way they approach problems is valued. This means being open to tackling tough topics and embracing different work and communications styles.
As your neurodiverse workforce grows, you should also consider creating opportunities for these employees to meet and connect with others. Many companies have created Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that allow people who share a certain experience to get together and discuss the things that bring them together.
Some examples of these groups include women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. These can be safe forums in which people with shared experiences can talk openly about those experiences.
That being said, some neurodiverse people are uncomfortable in social settings. It is also good to consider a mentorship program to provide an opportunity to connect more one-on-one.
Steve Jobs got many things wrong in his life, but his success is undisputed. He very likely didn’t intend to make a bold statement about neurodiversity when he rolled out that tagline in 1997, yet its application is undeniable. Teams with cognitive diversity produce better results because you have more people weigh in and analyze a problem through different lenses.
“Build a company-wide culture that respects and understands all forms of diversity”
To quote the now famous iMac ad that launched the campaign: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently… And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Sector leaders need to be bold enough to challenge their own biases and create spaces where these valuable individuals can contribute and thrive if nonprofits are to change the world
Dorene Ocamb is senior director of integrated marketing at the national office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Irving, Texas. Her email is Dorene.Ocamb@madd.org
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