Ever since Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the term neurodiversity in the late 1990s as part of a break with the stigma she felt people with diagnoses such as autism and ADHD were exposed to, the theme gained greater focus in working life around the globe.
But according to Marianne Egelund Siig, CEO of the consultancy Mannaz, which for the past 20 years has worked extensively with equity, diversity and inclusion in working life, including the inclusion of neurodivergent employees, there is still room for improvement.
Marianne Egelund Siig has, among other things, written about neurodiversity in her book ’Gid vi gad – Om viljen og vejen til ligestilling, diversitet og inklusion’. She believes that this is a very important management task. But if we’re willing to put in the work, there are great gains to be reaped both in terms of innovation and the company's bottom line if the managers listen to the wishes of their neurodivergent members of the team and have an eye for what consideration should be given to them.
"As a manager, you want all employees to unfold their full potential. In relation to neurodivergent employees, managers must recognize that the group is far, far larger than what we have expected in the past. It is an umbrella term for a broad spectrum of diagnoses ranging from Asperger's syndrome to ADHD and autism to dyslexia, and it is estimated that approximately 15 percent of the workforce can be considered neurodivergent. If this large group of people is to function optimally, it requires respect and humility on the part of the manager – but also a recognition that you cannot find workable solutions for everyone based on a one-size-fits-all approach," Marianne Egelund Siig emphasizes.
The Mannaz CEO advises managers with one or more neurodivergent employees to first and foremost enter into a thorough dialogue with the person or employees in question.
"I have the rule of thumb in relation to diversity and inclusion that as a manager you should always talk to more than about the employees in question. My recommendation is that managers should talk to the neurodivergent employees and invite them to provide as much input as possible in order to learn more about what it takes for them to really thrive," says Marianne Egelund Siig.
For many, well-being can be related to the way the workplace is physically designed. And here the trend from the 90s with open plan offices is far from ideal for everyone.
"Managers must therefore find out whether neurodivergent people thrive best sitting in large or small groups. And they need to find out whether they thrive best with many or few meetings and with little or a lot of remote work. In relation to the neurodivergent team members, but actually also in general, it is about becoming better at understanding that our workplaces must have as much variation as we humans are varied. In the past, we have been good at streamlining and getting everyone into tight boxes, but it is no use having a culture where one type of employee dominates over others," says Marianne Egelund Siig.
According to Marianne Egelund Siig, the art of inclusive leadership is to have an eye for the whole, but at the same time also for the individual's preferences. And this must happen to a greater extent than we have been used to, she believes.
"When you know that 15 percent of employees are neurodivergent – and that we are all different – it should be an important reminder to managers to invite all employees to find out how the workplace and working life should be arranged for the individual and at the same time to have the strongest possible community. " says Marianne Egelund Siig.
For managers, it can be a demanding task to manage employees with differences, including people with a brain that, in popular terms, is different from the majority.
"It can take time to understand how exactly the individual should be managed and thrive, because it is not only about which diagnosis is involved, but also at which end of the scale the diagnosis is," Marianne Egelund Siig explains.
On the other hand, the benefits of having a diverse workforce – not only in relation to gender, age, sexuality and ethnic origin, but also in relation to neurodivergence – are huge, says Marianne Egelund Siig.
"The diversity of employees and the ability to work really well with people who are different from ourselves, think differently and perhaps have differently wired brains contribute to us being able to create more innovation and make better decisions. So bringing all diversity into play is good for all organisations and good for the bottom line. If, on the other hand, we are only with people who think like us, we will not be as sharp as we can," says Marianne Egelund Siig.
She emphasises that it is difficult to generalise in relation to what special abilities and competencies neurodivergent people can contribute – precisely because the spectrum of different diagnoses is so large and the degree of, for example, autism or dyslexia can vary greatly.
"But we shouldn't think that neurodivergent people have to be able to do something special in order to have a right in the labour market. On the contrary, we just need to be more inclusive, so that everyone experiences that they can be who they are and fulfill their potential with whatever strengths or challenges they bring," says Marianne Egelund Siig.
As an example, she cites X-Factor judge and musician Thomas Blachman.
"It's interesting when Thomas Blachman says that he's dyslexic – many people might not think so when they hear him speak. In fact, in Denmark there are 400,000 who are dyslexic to a greater or lesser extent. And the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has been out calling her Asperger's her superpower, because it makes her focus more and care less about social norms, while others with Asperger's syndrome talk about how it is socially very challenging for them," says Marianne Egelund Siig – and continues:
"Overall, you can say that often, if you stand out from the majority in one respect, you find ways to compensate so that you focus on some other strengths. You can experience that with a lot of neurodivergents."
As an image of a company that has gone 'all in' when it comes to inclusion of neurodivergents, Marianne Egelund Siig highlights the auditing and consulting firm Ernst & Young, which a few years ago decided to hire 150 neurodivergent candidates who became part of different development teams.
"The company's approach was that they could help create more technological innovation and a new creative dimension. So Ernst & Young did it to create value, while at the same time wanting to help someone who would otherwise drop out of the labour market," says Marianne Egelund Siig.