5 min read

How to Create a Psychologically Safe Workplace For Neurodivergent Employees

How to Create a Psychologically Safe Workplace For Neurodivergent Employees

Do you know the difference between neurotypical and neurodivergent employees?

Neurotypical” describes a person who thinks and processes information in ways typical within their culture and tends to learn skills and reach developmental milestones around the same time as their peers.

Neurotypical individuals often find learning and maintaining workplace relationships much easier than neurodivergent workers. Leaders expect them to adapt to changes in routine, tolerate sensory stimuli challenges, focus despite constant and sometimes loud noise, maintain social and organizational skills standards, and focus on learning new tasks for extended periods.

A neurodivergent individual processes information differently due to conditions or disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, a learning disability, Tourette’s syndrome, or synesthesia.

Too often, neurodivergent workers are viewed as having a mental illness when, in fact, they simply have different ways of processing and understanding their environments.

As leaders, we must ensure that all workers feel psychologically safe, welcomed, valued, included, and confident speaking up and sharing their concerns and needs without being judged. We must also understand and accept that just because a neurodivergent worker does not process information or interact with the world as they do does not mean they are not capable.

Becoming an inclusive leader requires understanding, flexibility and commitment 

As an international expert in workplace mental health and leadership who happens to be neurodivergent, I can tell you that living in a neurotypical world is not easy. I have lived with ADHD and a learning disability my entire life and have experienced oppression and judgment because I do not speak, respond, spell, and read the same as my neurotypical counterparts. Most people expect us to think and behave like they do. But that’s not how we are wired.

I often tell people that ADHD is my biggest challenge and strength. For all the burdens and strained relationships this condition has created for me, I would never have accomplished all my education, writing, research, and experiences without it. I couldn’t have achieved these things if the environmental support systems, resources, and mentors who saw something in me weren’t understanding, flexible and committed to my success.

Fortunately, I am confident in advocating for my needs and have accomplished enough that most neurotypical individuals interested in working with me adapt rather than expecting me to adjust to them in ways that aren’t possible for me.

Not all neurodivergent workers are as confident. They require environmental support, tolerance, and patience to unleash their full potential so they, too, can thrive in a neurotypical world.

Tips for helping neurodivergent workers thrive

Neurodivergent workers shouldn’t be made to adjust or adhere to neurotypical standards. Leaders should positively influence and adapt the environment, if necessary, to ensure needs are addressed and all employees are able to thrive and reach their full potential. To do this, you must be open to learning, adapting and embracing continuous improvement.

Below are some tips to help you understand how neurodivergent employees experience the world and what we need to thrive and feel psychologically safe in the workplace.

  • Learn about neurodivergence from an expert — It is estimated that 15% to 20% of the population—primarily male—is neurodiverse, and evidence suggests that neurodiverse teams are 30% more productive and make fewer mistakes than those with neurotypical members. Training can support workplace inclusion goals by challenging implicit bias and curbing oppression and marginalization of workers disadvantaged because they do not communicate or process the world like neurotypical workers or leaders. 

  • Be open and willing to make informal accommodations —Leaders can remove barriers and facilitate informal accommodation, such as providing feedback in writing prior to meet so the individual has time to prepare, or allowing people to wear headphones to block out noise.

  • Work with neurodivergent workers to understand their best roles — If a team member shares that they are neurodivergent, talk to them to understand what they feel they need and what they and you feel their strengths are to define a role that is the best fit to help them be successful and the team to achieve its goals. For example, asking a visually dyslexic worker to do the final edit of a memo before it goes to the board may not be a good decision. When they feel safe and supported, most neurodivergent workers can articulate the tasks they believe they excel at and those they find most challenging. The only way to understand a person’s best role is to listen and learn from them. It is okay to respectfully challenge, question, and learn.

  • Inquire about existing support resources to maximize employees’ experience and productivity — Look for supports to help neurodivergent workers thrive. Listen carefully to what the individual finds challenging and look for what can be done to maximize their experience, safety, and opportunity to succeed in their assigned roles and tasks.

In my case, it was being provided with professional editing. I am visually dyslexic. There aren’t any courses or training programs that can change how my mind processes written words. Without professional editing, I would never have published one article, let alone hundreds.

  • Discover the best work arrangements for their roles — Some neurodivergent workers are hypersensitive to noise, light, and stimuli (e.g., movement of people) that can be distracting, discomforting, and in some cases, verge on painful. For example, I have always needed a quiet space when working. Cubicles were a no-go for me—too much distraction. I either worked in my home office or had an office where I could find quiet to focus. Because there are many kinds of neurodivergent workers, not all are desk workers, so try to understand the available options. In a manufacturing environment, consistency of shifts and teams are essential for some neurodivergent and neurotypical.

  • Be interested in employees as people — You can build enormous trust by putting humanity into the equation. Showing interest in all employees, understanding what they like and dislike, find easy and challenging, and learning about their career aspirations will strengthen your connection. When employees trust their leaders, they are more likely to feel safe sharing ideas, worries, concerns and positive experiences. Many workers may not know they are neurodivergent and have never been tested. Building trusted relationships allows workers to share how they struggle with their environment and peers, which could help them identify issues.

  • You don’t have to be a therapist to be a strong leader — You don't need to be a psychologist and screen workers for neurodiversity. The core objective of leading through a psychologically safe lens is to remove fear and barriers, facilitate conversation, reduce anxiety, and encourage accountability and learning.

  • Encourage employees to tap into their superpowers — Confident leaders who understand that neurodivergent workers possess unique strengths, talents, and perspectives that can result in new ideas, thinking, and perceptions of what is possible. Take the opportunity tap into their gifts. I often tell senior leaders, Neurodivergent brains don't necessarily see the same boundaries as neurotypical brains. If you're not listening and open to differing viewpoints, you may miss out on some incredible opportunities. Instead of jumping to, "No, that could not work," consider asking, "Why do you think that? What would need to be done to …? How would we do it within …?" By creating a space for innovation and creative thinking, neurotypical leaders increase the opportunity to find a solution or option they may never have considered or thought was possible.

  • Provide coaching when needed — Every employee has needs, challenges, and struggles in the workplace. A neurodivergent worker (e.g., falls on the autism spectrum) is no different. When you are in tune with your employees, you are more apt to notice when they find a task challenging to understand or complete. You can seize these opportunities to provide coaching and support in a manner that suits the individual, keeping in mind that everyone learns differently, and sometimes people need extra support, clarity, and encouragement to get on track.

  • Don't apply a blanket approach — No two neurodivergent workers' needs are the same, no different than neurotypical peers. The key for leaders is to listen and discover how to support workers with different needs and help them thrive by adapting the work environment to make it more neurodivergent-supportive and inclusive.

Too often, people are judged for acting differently. However, as leaders, we must be careful not to confuse differences in how people interact with others and process information as signs of lesser intelligence and capability. Psychologically safe leaders help all workers -- neurodivergent and neurotypical – tap into their strengths, access support and resources, and remove barriers and obstacles so they can succeed and realize their full potential.

Get to know the authors – Dr.  Bill Howatt

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