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Leading Neurodiverse Teams -- Creating Space for Thinking, Differently

Everything we teach at #HumanIntelligence about generating better critical thinking, creative thinking, and collaboration depends on teammates feeling safe enough to express themselves, including the diverse perspectives they bring. Recently, I’ve spent more time working to understand how to lead a team with inclusive practices that allow for neuro-diversity in addition to the more common forms of diversity we normally consider.


You don’t have anyone neurodiverse on your team? I wouldn’t be so sure. According to some definitions, neurodiverse people make up 30%-40% of the adult population, and many (rightly) fear discrimination for disclosing they are autistic or have an ADHD, dyslexia, PTSD, or other diagnosis. Other teammates may have no diagnosis at all but exhibit some traits that fall outside the neurotypical standard.


Even if none of your teammates are neurodiverse, you can bet you have customers, suppliers, or colleagues in your network who are. Understanding how to ensure you aren’t one of the barriers they have to overcome is, very literally, the least you can do.


Here’s the best part…#HumanIntelligence mostly works with knowledge workers and problem solvers, and many of the best practices we recommend for inclusive leaders are also simply good practices for leading in an age of increased distractions, work from home, and complex problem solving.


These are the Top 5 neuro-inclusive leadership practices we are adopting for our workshops and teams:


1. Double down on trust – While humanity exists on a spectrum, the further from the center you may be the riskier the world may seem. Neuro-diverse teammates in the workplace are particularly vulnerable with unemployment rates as high as 80%. When leaders purposefully develop a culture where differences are celebrated and good intentions can be assumed, everyone is better able to play to their strengths, seek support for their weaknesses, and contribute to collective success. Leaders set the example here by leading with selfless vulnerability, admitting failures, and seeking advice from team members.


2. Practice explicit turn-taking – This is one of the easiest, but most powerful, small habits leaders can adopt. In high-energy teams, it can be difficult for anyone to know when it’s time to inject their ideas. You want to make sure you don’t interrupt anyone, and you want to time your comment to continue the theme of the conversation rather than making a sharp turn. This, however, requires skillfully reading social cues and is even more challenging when operating on Zoom. When a leader makes sure to separately invite each person to contribute, the burden is eased.


I used to view this as putting someone on “the hot seat”, but when I do it in an environment based on #1 above, teammates know I am giving space for everyone rather than looking for a chance to create a stressful situation.


3. Break complex projects down into clear pieces – Teams using Agile or Scrum practices are already doing this well. The big picture can be overwhelming for anyone. Where do I start? How do I know if I am making progress on this giant problem? When leaders instill a shared vision of the end goal while making short-term steps clear and explicit, the problem is more manageable. This can be especially helpful for ADHD team members who may find it easy to be distracted onto other parts of the problem and lose focus on the details.


4. Use more video – This one is deceptively simple. Almost everyone carries a high-quality video camera in their pocket today, yet every day in millions of teams across the world, people leave meetings and forget important parts of the conversation. Memory issues impact everyone from time-to-time, but can be particularly acute for people with ADHD or PTSD. Being able to literally replay the conversation can be a better reminder than notes alone. Zoom meetings make this easier than ever before. Exchanging videos rather than lengthy email chains can be a more effective and more efficient communication practice.


5. Limit interruptions – I’ve had many bosses who viewed my time as their resource to spend. The drop-in, the quick call, the urgent email may seem important in the moment, but when it becomes a habit, it brings deep-thinking work to a standstill. Autistic teammates could be especially disrupted by the interruption and struggle to switch gears. ADHD teammates who have been focused on a task may quickly lose their way. For everyone, getting back to a line of thinking takes time. Inclusive leaders can choose to hold onto non-urgent tasks until a specified time people can plan toward rather than slow-leaking them across the day.


For teams focused on solving problems, neuro-divergent thinkers are a tremendous resource with a natural ability to see problems from unique perspectives and contribute solutions neuro-typical teammates may miss. With a few thoughtful practices, neuro-inclusive leaders can ensure everyone contributes the team’s shared goals.


For more advice on leading neurodiverse teams, sign up for one of our workshops.

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