In this article, three neurodiverse individuals talk about how difference can be a benefit to manufacturing.
We live in a rich world of diversity, and while many differences between people are visible, other sources of variation – such as our genetic code and the architecture of our brains – are knowable thanks only to advanced medical technology.
Since everything you know, sense, feel and think originates in the brain, differences in its structure and connections mean that our minds, memories, thoughts and perceptions are very different too. Tom Æ Hollands, Innovation and Technical Director at Raynor Foods, Dr Rachel Moseley, Department of Psychology at Bournemouth University, and Professor Steve Evans, Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge, discuss how neurodiversity can change manufacturing for the better.
Neurodiversity is the term which describes the rich diversity of human minds and the brains underpinning them. Different brains give rise to different patterns of behaviours, strengths and weaknesses. These patterns are what we know as ‘diagnoses’, and include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia etc. The emerging perception is that rather than these manifestations being a pathology or illness, and by extension something to ‘cure’, they are instead just another naturally occurring variation within the human condition.
Strengths and weaknesses or just differences?
Often neurodivergent people have ‘spiky’ profiles, meaning they excel in some areas but struggle in others, especially if compared to the ‘average’ or neurotypical population. For example, some autistic people are incredibly sensitive to noise, rendering everyday sounds like those of a washing machine physically painful. That same person could have a superb memory for facts, be unfailingly but ‘brutally’ honest, and command an almost super-human mastery of detail.
People with dyslexia can muster hundreds of new ideas, solutions and approaches to problems. Despite this, their difficulties with reading and spelling may cause great anxiety when asked to read reports in meetings or hand-write notes on a flipchart.
Attention is a bit like a flashlight which people can usually shine around at will, choosing whatever they want or need to pay attention to. This process looks different in neurodivergent people, so the operator on the factory floor, if they have autism or ADHD, may demonstrate an incredible ability to hyper-focus on a particular process or detail, tuning out everything else. Despite this, they might struggle to focus on things that are boring but necessary, might lose or forget things, and seem rather disorganised. If they have ADHD, they might spark with energy, craving excitement and spontaneity; these same traits lend themselves to coming up with new ideas and ways of solving problems.
Unlike skin colour or gender, it is harder to identify neurodiversity within organisations, unless profound support is required. Indeed, many neurodivergent people try hard to hide or ‘camouflage’ their differences and perceived weaknesses, as many will have been bullied for these in the past.
In many cases, especially in the more mature workforce, there are employees who do not have the understanding around why they struggle to fit in; people who, perhaps, grew up in times where knowledge and diagnostic services were less advanced. Sadly, there are many more people who you will not see in the workforce, given the high rates of unemployment in neurodivergent people reported by the Office for National Statistics in 2020.
Why thinking differently is a resource
That colleague with a different perspective on a situation is a powerful asset, be it for a decision, ideation or discussion. When it comes to these kind of thought tasks, people are influenced by a range of semi- or wholly unconscious biases and pressures.
Emerging research suggests that neurodivergent people differ in their susceptibility to biases like these. People with ADHD are less socially influenced and more strategic in their decisions. Similarly, autistic people have been described as ‘more consistently logical’ than neurotypical people, being less influenced by emotional content in the framing of a decision and less likely to make future decisions based on past, irretrievable investments.
This kind of logic may be especially valuable when UK businesses are buffeted by world events, when strategic and tactical decisions are required swiftly. Couple this with their tendency to speak plainly and honestly, and to think outside of conventional social norms, and neurodivergents can add value and influence decision-making in a preferential manner, even if it requires expressing hard truths to those in higher managerial positions – a frightening prospective for most of us, but potentially stimulative for the organisation.
The ‘intense hyper-focused beam’ of their attention, the ability to sustain this over time and to spot details unnoticed by others, are qualities of ADHD and autism that are extremely valuable for productivity and quality control. This is aptly demonstrated by JPMorgan Chase, who reported fewer errors and 90-140% higher productivity in autistic employees.
Another facet of ADHD is what researchers term ‘cognitive dynamism’; fast, creative and divergent thinking, curiosity and openness to experience. This same creativity and inventiveness is also observed in people with dyslexia and dyscalculia, who often excel at recognising patterns and joining up the dots.
You might consider all of these traits to equate with low employee maintenance (a line manager’s dream), but they require in return the flexibility and trust from management and workplace mentoring and adaptations can be integral to help neurodivergent people to flourish by optimising their workplace environments.
The bigger picture – the benefits of neurodiversity for manufacturing
While these features make neurodivergent employees valuable contributors to their own workplaces, the larger scale benefits to inclusivity are manifold. Inclusion of diversity in all its forms has been linked by Deloitte to greater likelihood of organisations meeting or exceeding financial targets, obtaining better business outcomes, and being ‘high-performing’, ‘agile’ and ‘innovative’. This may explain the success of companies like SAP, Microsoft, EY and JPMorgan Chase, who lead the way on inclusive recruitment and employment practices. So, what does the research tell us?
One review summarised findings from 39 research studies around the advantages of employing people with disabilities. Benefits included greater productivity, profits and cost-effectiveness, plus an increased likelihood of gaining competitive advantage over others in the market.
These advantages were suggested to derive from the greater reliability, punctuality, work ethic, loyalty and attendance of disabled employees, their lower turnover rates, and the positive impact of inclusivity on company image, customer satisfaction and loyalty. This links inclusive employment practices to attracting new customers and even new investors; inclusive actions impact positively on stock prices, while discriminatory ones have the opposite effect. In the manufacturing domain, likewise, greater diversity of the workforce shows in greater productivity.
Employing neurodiverse people clearly benefits individuals, while giving them a sense of purpose and value which may go towards improving the poor mental health and wellbeing of these often unemployed groups. However, when we look beyond the individual, those qualities of neurodivergent people – for instance, innovation, creativity, directness, focus – clearly benefit the wider workforce and the culture of the organisation. Neurotypical or non-disabled employees are drawn to companies with inclusive policies; these same policies result in happier employees and better morale.
Of course, while the neurodiverse can be a superb asset to employers, it is the culture of the business, set by its management, which determines the success of any innovations around inclusive practice. So, what should employers be doing?
The environment and culture – attracting and retaining a neurodiverse workforce
Supporting recruitment: When it comes to interviewing, judge potential employees not by their social skills and their performance in the interview, but by their ability. Rather than a single interview, why not follow Microsoft’s lead and invite the candidate for a few ‘taster’ days where you can formally and informally chat and observe their skills?
The neurodivergent journey will have its own barriers, challenges and learnings. Easy pitfalls to avoid are:
Trust: Relationships between the organisation and the neurodiverse can lead to maximising productivity and value only when they are ‘high trust’ – meaning neurodivergent employees are trusted and supported to meet the objectives of the task in the means that work for them, managed in a less bureaucratic, ‘one-size-fits-all’ style.
Polarities: For many neurodivergent people (ADHD and autistic especially), their thinking often falls between two extremes, with less appreciation of ‘shades of grey’ (nuance). This may be helpful in some contexts, when binary decisions are needed, but at other times the person may struggle to appreciate the subtleties of a situation.
Co-occurring conditions: It’s common for conditions within the neurodivergent spectrum to co-occur. People can therefore present a very hybridised skillset and require varying support. On this point, remember that even within neurodivergent ‘categories’ there is great variation between individuals. One person’s struggles might not be an issue for someone else.
Mental health: Be aware that conditions like anxiety and depression are exceptionally high in neurodivergent people. They may also struggle to cope with stress, especially if things are unpredictable and out of their control. Perhaps because of this, they may be more prone to stress-related illness. Line managers should be mindful of this.
Or take some hints from Google by providing questions in advance and allowing the candidate to respond in writing if preferred. If your process has ability as its starting point, then the steps to assess suitability will be shaped around their strengths and provide the employer with a tangible demonstration of potential value. Research suggests that these kinds of adaptations make all the difference.
Induction and beyond: The next step is accommodations – in legal-speak that’s reasonable adjustments. The environment has a massive and significant impact on the productivity of neurodivergent people, the quality of their work and moreover, their mental health.
Be aware and help facilitate ways to change the sensory environment, which could include providing noise-cancelling headphones, providing private office space where lighting could be dimmed, allowing them to bring in sensory fidget toys and to take breaks as needed. Fortunately, many reasonable adjustments are easily implemented with minimum cost.
With all these adaptations occurring, it is vital to support other staff in understanding and accepting neurodivergent colleagues. For autistic employees, at least, positive relationships with colleagues are absolutely vital in predicting their success and retention in the workforce. Problematically, both autism and ADHD are highly stigmatised conditions, so training must be mindful of this.
Line management: Line managers (or even company mentors) are a significant facilitator of retention for the neurodiverse, as for any employee. Mentoring and job coaching in the workplace is known to improve the wellbeing of autistic people, their integration into the workforce and their productivity – indeed, some research suggests that sustained employment depends on supportive relationships with line managers.
There is evidence to suggest, at least for autism, that autistic people communicate far more effectively with other autistic individuals – a significant benefit for line management relationships. But the key factor required is understanding and a willingness to adapt. Research suggests that authentic, empathic management, with a focus on building self-worth and collaboratively working to enable the individual, benefits the neurodivergent employee, the wider management team, and the organisation’s performance as a whole.
Organisation culture: Ultimately, senior management needs to embrace the fact that different types of minds flourish and produce their best work in conditions that are supportive of and adapted to their needs, and must support the development of this attitude across the organisation.
Cultural change can be successfully facilitated through open dialogue, at and across all levels, in a process of appreciative enquiry. This starts from a foundational assumption that people want to do their best, focusing on the current strengths of individuals and the organisation. Discussions should work from the present to consider what optimal conditions might look like, and how these can be realised and maintained for future benefits.
While this requires time and consideration, the practical allowances described here and the broader cultural change are the trade-offs for tapping into the neurodiverse workforce, and the long-term benefits go far beyond those experienced first-hand by the neurodivergent individual.
The next step
This is a very challenging and yet volatile time in manufacturing, where new opportunities for growth and change are rampant, and often facilitated by digital adoption and innovation. This brave new world is rapidly changing and presenting systematic problems, requiring new opportunities for innovation. Our increasingly complex world requires new ways of thinking and doing –the perfect moment to take the next step in human and employee diversity.
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- Change can be successfully facilitated through open dialogue, at and across all levels
- Relationships between an organisation and neurodiverse individuals can lead to maximising productivity
- Even within neurodivergent ‘categories’ (e.g. autism), there is great variation between individuals; one person’s struggles might not be an issue for someone else
- This is a challenging and volatile time in manufacturing, where new opportunities for growth and change are rampant, and often facilitated by digital adoption and innovation
- Our increasingly complex world requires new ways of thinking and doing – the perfect moment to take the next step in human and employee diversity