If I were to ask you if you were an “inclusive” person, chances are you’d say yes. Most likely your company has a written Diversity & Inclusivity policy. Nice, nice. Good intent is a great start. In India, diversity often means female representation. Or people with disabilities. Maybe even by sexual orientation. In other countries race is a consideration.
But how many of us view diversity through the lens of neurodiversity? Yet nearly 15-20% of the world is neurodiverse. Neurodiverse (ND for short) is a broad term that encompasses those with ADHD, autism and more. If you’re not familiar with these terms take a look at this chart. The majority of the world is Neurotypical (NT for short).
Trevor Noah, Paris Hilton, and Justin Timberlake are some celebrities that have disclosed that they have ADHD. More visible in childhood and adolescence it causes differences in attention, impulsivity, and executive function. Elon Musk has said he has ASD (now included in Autism). Richard Branson says he has dyslexia and ADHD symptoms. David Neeleman founder of JetBlue and multiple other airlines says he has ADHD.
I bet you’d love to have dinner with these folks (well, ok, not in Bangalore with Trevor!)
But what about working with them?
Educating them as children?
The Virtual Ramp
A friend recently confided that their top salesperson was phenomenal with customers but not so great with the following up and paperwork. Years of chasing on this aspect has not yielded change. I suggested that he start breaking up the tasks into smaller chunks and also provide support for the paperwork and chasing. Turned out the organization had just appointed an EA to support the salesperson remotely. The salesperson has an ADHD diagnosis – if that had been factored in right at the beginning, they could have been provided with the reasonable accommodations to succeed much earlier.
This is the virtual ramp I am referring to. Or maybe the path less travelled.
It is more tangible to focus on the infrastructure of building transgender toilets, wheelchair ramps or braille lift buttons. And those are required.
Technology has been of tremendous help to those who struggle with writing, or who learn or communicate through audio or visual methods.
But how do we build a bridge for minds that think differently from us?
There are certain sets of patterns that vary across larger groups of people – could be executive function, managing impulsivity, ability to hyper focus, ability to communicate our feelings verbally etc. I’m on a Facebook group for neurodivergents and I learn so much, and there is a lovely sense of belonging and community.
People do well if they can
This is the first and most important principle. Kids and adults will do the right thing, if they can. If someone is consistently failing at an expectation, you need to think about why. For example, many people find taxes complex and boring at the same time. Presenting a default tax liability is a huge benefit for most of us – our intent is to file it accurately on time, but we somehow don’t have the ability to do so.
You can look at this sheet for common lagging skillsets and see how you can help your team or family members address issues arising from them.
Inclusive products and services
By this I do NOT mean predatory, but helpful. For example, a live tracker for food delivery is nice to have for me, but could significantly reduce anxiety for people with low tolerance for ambiguity. Designated common dining tables in hotels and cafes take the awkwardness out of eating alone and can even spark conversations amongst shy people.
I have written about neurodiversity in the marketing context back in 2022 too – “The Voice in My Head Won’t Let Me Write”.
Tools and services can help make people who are not so organised be more efficient. Google maps was initially a boon for those of us who struggled to remember our way home and is now ubiquitous. Options to consume content in video, audio and text formats provide wide access. Offering kids the opportunity to present their learning and take tests with multi-media options and in settings that address their sensory or mental efficiency needs. I discussed this in “Do you speak Manga” in 2021.
Equity NOT Equality
Kids who are ND generally struggle all the way through school as the system does not try to accommodate their needs. Most schools – even the so-called inclusive ones – still believe in equality (everyone gets the same) instead of equity (everyone gets what they needs). Even Paris Hilton had a very rough couple of years as she was sent off at 17 to a “Troubled Teen” camp where the methods were abusive. This is often what happens to people who don’t conform with mass expectations – even if your parents own a chain of hotels.
Mental Energy and Mental Efficiency
I was discussing elder care services with a friend. We found the principle of mental energy and efficiency interesting in this context. As we age, we generally decline in mental energy. We could also have less mental energy due to medical conditions or anxiety or depression. So it is important to do things efficiently. For example reducing choices promotes mental efficiency and conserves mental energy.
Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg chose to wear the same clothes. I order the same Americano at Starbucks most of the time.Swiggy and other food order sites like Grab address this need by having the “repeat order” option prominently displayed. Subscriptions, “happy meals”, “SaaS packages” all serve this same purpose by simplifying options.
Elon Musk is being panned for asking employees to avoid attachments on email so it is easier for him to take decisions on his iPhone. Given the huge scope of businesses he runs, it might be a great tool for mental efficiency. Incidentally mental energy rises when you solve a problem – probably why he likes to buy challenging companies. For lesser mortals, Wordle or Sudoku serve the same function. If your product of service does not itself spike mental energy, think of an add-on that will – a puzzle, scratch card, joke.
There is research on how to build and conserve mental energy published in Harvard Business Review.
Why should we be inclusive
Without this approach we cannot truly enjoy or benefit from people who think differently. Moreover you know that twinge of rejection you feel when someone doesn’t “click” with you? If you’re neurotypical (NT) that probably happens maybe 20% of the time. But if you’re ND that could be as high as 80% or more. Think what that would do to your peace of mind!
By not building the ramp we are also setting up people to fail in the workplace, when simple accommodations like a tool or splitting the job into two would solve the problem.
My friend from engineering college, Kowsik gave me an easy description of two different work styles – a stir-fry chef who experiments and creates new things, and where the cost of failure is low and the baker where everything is precise, process driven, takes a longer time to show results, and failure has a high price. In his view, startup CEOs can be stir fry chefs but when they are acquired into a large organization they need to have baking skills.
Not many individuals can do stir fry and baking equally well. Which is why many successful businesses have multiple founders or CXOs come as a team.
After writing this, I’m not sure if I’m ND or NT either. That’s a topic for another day when I have figured it out 🙂 Feel free to continue the conversation with me through email or whatsapp.