Best Practices for Leading Neurodiverse Teams
In an era where technology is as diverse as the people creating it, leaders are increasingly recognizing the importance of neurodiversity in the workplace. A Harvard Business Review article outlines the competitive advantage of neurodiverse teams, highlighting their unique problem-solving skills and innovative insights. After nearly a decade managing teams that include both neurodivergent and non-neurodivergent technologists, it's clear to me that fostering an inclusive environment isn't just a moral imperative—it's a strategic one. I’m excited to share with you the best practices I’ve learned for leading neurodiverse teams.
Create an Understanding Culture
Awareness First: Understanding what neurodiversity means is essential. Recognizing that people experience and interact with the world differently is the first step for more inclusive interactions. We can begin by focusing on education and training, tapping into the most recent research, and reaching out to specialists in the field.
Promote Acceptance: Creating an environment where differences are acknowledged and accepted is vital. An accepting environment nurtures compassion and bolsters a unified team atmosphere. By cultivating a workplace that values neurodiversity, you not only improve your organization but also, according to research reported in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, advance the well-being of every member of your workforce.
Adapt Communication Strategies
Diverse Means of Communication: Everyone has their own communication preferences. Some may prefer detailed emails, while others thrive with quick bullet points or face-to-face discussions. Encouraging multiple communication channels ensures that everyone's voice can be heard in a way that suits them best. In addition, allow flexibility to be on or off camera during video meetings as it can be overwhelming for some.
Clear, Concise, Consistent: Clarity is key. It will help your neurodivergent colleagues better understand their work assignments, as well as the often ambiguous and unwritten rules of the workplace. Always provide clear directions, expectations, and deadlines to avoid confusion. Repeating the information in different communication channels—for example, in meetings and via email—can aid in making sure everyone understands. Managers should also hold regular and direct feedback sessions with each employee.
Personalize the Approach
Individual Strengths and Challenges: When leading a neurodiverse team, it’s essential to recognize and accommodate both the strengths and challenges of each team member. This includes recognizing each person’s communication preferences (see above) and their stress coping mechanisms. Using the distinct skills of each person on a project not only enhances quality, productivity, and efficiency, but also increases their job satisfaction. And being aware of individual challenges allows leaders to offer customized assistance and chances for growth.
Flexible Work Arrangements: A healthy work-life balance can reduce stress and prevent burnout. Thus, flexibility in scheduling is a key way to accommodate individual needs and produce better outcomes for all employees. As a mother of two young children, flexibility enables me to take care of my personal responsibilities alongside managing my work commitments.
In addition, remote work gives employees more control over their work environment. This can be especially important for neurodivergent individuals, who might be particularly sensitive to sensory stimuli in offices such as noise, bright lighting, or crowded spaces. Remote work enables them to work in settings that minimize discomfort, which can significantly boost concentration, efficiency, and well-being.
Invest in the Right Tools
Technology as an Enabler: Use assistive technologies and tools that can help employees manage their daily tasks more effectively. Examples include time management applications, project tracking systems, communication platforms like Slack or Teams for text-based conversations, transcription services, and AI solutions such as ChatGPT and Bard for improved communication.
Additionally, consider using calendar scheduling software to organize meetings; task management apps like Asana, Trello, or Jira for organizing workflows; and note-taking apps that synchronize across devices to keep important information readily available.
Accessible Resources: Ensure that resources are accessible to everyone. This involves making sure every team member is aware of how to locate and understand the information provided. Such accessibility is a key element in fostering an inclusive atmosphere where every employee has the same chance to thrive.
Establish Inclusive Policies
Recruitment and Advancement: To become truly inclusive of neurodivergent employees, a company must assess and update its policies and practices across the entire employee lifecycle. Neuroinclusive hiring practices level the playing field for neurodivergent candidates to show their skills and join your team, but that’s just the beginning.
Inclusion must continue through onboarding, the accommodations process, daily communication and management, reviews, professional development opportunities, and path for career advancement. auticon’s Neuroinclusion Services can guide your company through this process, tailored to your specific needs and goals.
Mental Health Support: Integrating mental health and wellness into your organization's values and work environment can greatly enhance employee involvement and satisfaction, which in turn can lead to better performance and lower staff turnover. Initiating these practices can be as simple as offering flexible break times and making counseling services or resources readily available. At auticon, this commitment is exemplified by our job coaches, who provide individualized support for our autistic technologists in their roles at client companies.
Encourage Neurodiverse Leadership
Finally, leaders of neurodiverse teams should also encourage and mentor neurodivergent employees to take on leadership roles themselves. Different perspectives and insights are always valuable, and it’s important to show that neurodivergence is not a barrier to success, but rather an asset.
In my almost ten years of leading diverse teams, I've witnessed the powerful impact of these practices. They not only boost innovation and productivity but also nurture a workplace culture that values every employee's unique contribution. The most successful companies of the future will be those that recognize the strategic advantage of neurodiverse teams and know how to harness their full potential.
About the Author
Isha Dash is Chief Customer Officer at auticon US. Isha has over 20 years of business and technology experience across various domains including media, entertainment, finance, utilities, and biomedicine. In her role as Chief Customer Officer, Isha is responsible for career development of autistic technologists and enabling customers to achieve their business outcomes by utilizing auticon’s autistic talents.