Who has not dreamed of spending a day being invisible? Being able to go where you please, do what you want and uncover any number of secrets that you would otherwise know nothing about? Of course, it is not that simple, as the protagonists in any of the many films on the theme quickly find out. Sometimes you need to be seen, such as when you need help or even just want to get served in a restaurant. The advantages of being invisible are quickly overcome with the problems.
One scenario where you really need to be seen in order to progress is in the workplace. Yet many neurodivergent employees often find themselves facing all the problems of being invisible with none of the benefits. The problem is that many of the personality traits that get people noticed by decision makers in the workplace are those that neurodivergent employees may find most challenging. On top of this, many neurodivergent employees do not even tell their employer about their differences for fear of it being seen as a negative.
We have all worked with people that knew how to “play the game” incredibly well, and you knew instantly would progress rapidly almost regardless of their ability at the core work their role involved. They are quick to speak up in meetings with senior managers, embrace the latest trendy initiatives and are expert networkers in both work and informal situations. Research has borne out the feeling that good networkers are more likely to progress, but this can be a very hard skill for many neurodivergent people to master. In the workplace, it can often feel like you are in a world designed for extroverts, by extroverts.
Neurodivergent employees have so much to bring to the workplace and their employers, but often fail to make the progress or get the advancement they need to fulfil their potential. A big part of this is that many struggle in the areas that tend to get you noticed. Meetings are a good example. Many neurodivergent people struggle with verbal communication, be it taking in what others are saying or putting words together ourselves, particularly without time to think and prepare. A neurodivergent employee may have great ideas, but if the only forum for sharing them is a meeting you may never hear them.
As with so many issues associated with neurodivergence, a few small changes can make a big difference. In the case of a meeting, can you provide advance notice of what will be discussed, and even let people submit ideas in writing for discussion ahead of time? Similarly, can you leave it open for participants to submit their thoughts by email later? You may well find that this benefits many staff including neurotypical and neurodivergent people, and you are ensuring that you have the best possible chance of gathering a wide range of thinking, not just the ideas of those happy to speak up in public.
Neurodivergent employees may be reluctant to put themselves forward for development opportunities. They may have had bad experiences in the past, or simply lack the confidence to do so when they spend much of their lives feeling like a fish out of water.
Stretch assignments are known to increase the chance of advancement.
But it is not just the neurodivergent individuals that miss out when they do not realise their full potential – the organisation also loses. With innovation and fresh thinking being key to success, can a business really afford to neglect this valuable resource?
Neurodivergent minds experience the world differently, and so will often come up with new approaches and solutions. They see patterns and common threads and are often unconstrained by the accepted norms because they do not understand them. Many neurodivergent people always think outside the box because they do not know what the box is – isn’t that free thinking something that could really benefit a business?
How can this be overcome? One strategy which often works well is mentoring. A senior advocate can help to ensure that the neurodivergent employee is able to put forward their ideas in a way that they are comfortable with. A mentor can also ensure that they are not overlooked when opportunities arise because they struggle to promote themselves through networking, volunteering to represent their team or building relationships with senior leaders organically.
Being quiet is not the same as having nothing to contribute, and the loudest voice is by no means always correct. An inclusive workplace recognises that we are all different and make our contributions in different ways. You would not differentiate between ideas and abilities on the basis of gender or race, so why do so on the basis of neurodivergence? Who are the invisible employees in your organisation, and what do they need to thrive for both their benefit and yours?