3 Ways To Embrace Neurodiversity In The Workplace
In a work world dominated by automation, digitalization, and increasing incivility, the need for one group of workers, those whom I call “sensitive strivers,” has never been greater.
A sensitive striver is an employee who is both highly sensitive and high-achieving. Their empathy, emotional intelligence, and superior level of perception and insight offer an undeniable competitive advantage in the future workforce. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report says that by 2025, the skills that sensitive strivers exemplify — such as critical thinking, problem solving, self-management, working well with people, and communication — will be most in-demand.
The Business Value of Sensitive Strivers
One in five people has inherited a special set of genes that leads to having a highly attuned central nervous system. Psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron, who first discovered the trait of high sensitivity has suggested that it evolved as an “innate survival strategy,” to stay free from harm in prehistoric times. Pausing and observing — a hallmark of high sensitivity — helped these individuals make wiser decisions by picking up on environmental cues and recognizing things that less-sensitive people didn’t.
While we may no longer need to avoid dangers in the wild, high sensitivity is still an invaluable trait: managers consistently rate people with higher sensitivity as their top contributors. Studies have also shown that because of their unique wiring, sensitive people have more active mental circuitry and more neurochemicals in areas related to attention, action-planning, decision-making, and empathy.
Sensitive strivers’ depth of mental processing means they take in more information, synthesize, and process it in a more complex way. They explore various angles and paths for a solution and constantly scan for improvements. Sensitive strivers are likely to offer novel, inventive suggestions or highlight gaps before they become problems, which can save time and money. Their natural conscientiousness means that their work is consistently thorough and professional.
Sensitive strivers also have more active mirror neurons, which means they more deeply empathize and understand behavioral nuances — even through a Zoom screen. As leaders, they have a pulse on morale and can revive engagement when burnout takes hold or read between the lines to discern when their client is dissatisfied. Sensitive strivers are also deliberate with their actions, balance different perspectives, and tactfully communicate even when the pressure is on.
The Cost of Overlooking Sensitive Strivers
Overlooking the contributions and qualities of sensitive strivers can have major business consequences. Consider the story of one of my clients, Gabriel, who was Head of Research and Development at a top cosmetics company.
When his company sought to acquire another brand, Gabriel quickly sensed they weren’t ready for the investment. He feared it would crush their operations and create a bottleneck. Gabriel tried to get the ear of the COO and the CEO, but they dismissed him and went ahead with the acquisition.
The investment turned out to be a debacle, as Gabriel warned. The company missed key shipment dates, leading to the firing of the COO. The CEO later told Gabriel, “If only I had listened to you from the start. I would have saved my reputation.” She said she needed more people like Gabriel — sensitive strivers who were good at sensing, anticipating, and solving problems.
How Organizations Can Embrace Neurodiversity
In recent years, there has been a move to embrace neurodiversity in the workplace, or valuing that there are normal, non-pathological variations in mental functioning. Neurodiversity has typically (and rightfully) referred to promoting inclusion for those with autism and ADHD. It also applies to high sensitivity, given that the trait leads to neurological differences in about 20 percent of workers in regards to emotional responsiveness, self-reflection, and more.
Embracing sensitive strivers presents a huge opportunity to transform your organization’s leadership, revenue, and impact. High-performing companies and teams require a mix of personalities, so when sensitive strivers find roles and workplaces in which they can thrive, everyone wins.
Here’s how to promote greater neurodiversity in your company and get the most from the sensitive strivers on your team while you’re at it:
1. Adapt the interview process
The traditional interview process tends to primarily assess and over-index on hard skills, such as data analysis, software expertise, or project management skills. While many sensitive strivers are technically gifted, you may miss out on top candidates by neglecting to explore brain differences. And by doing so, you bias your process to eliminate sensitive strivers who could transform your organization. How can you adapt your interview process?
· Include questions that assess a candidate’s natural level of sensitivity. For example, ask about the thought process behind an important decision in their last role. Evidence that the candidate paused before acting, took various scenarios into consideration, and reflected on their past experiences suggests you have a sensitive striver.
· Break interviews, virtual or in-person, up into sequential sessions or spread them out over a period of a few days to avoid overstimulation. No one is at their best when they are depleted or overwhelmed, but this is particularly true for sensitive strivers given the high activation of their nervous system.
· Offer reasonable take-home interview assignments. Brief, high-level case studies, presentation, or test assignments give you an opportunity to assess a candidate’s creativity and communication. They’re also helpful to thoughtful sensitive strivers who tend to become stressed under observation of evaluation. Sensitive strivers thrive when they have the opportunity to contemplate and reflect versus answering on the spot.
2. Create a well-balanced work environment
Because of their genetics, sensitive strivers are more affected by their environment, for better or worse. Even if your staff is working from home, the impact of your workplace culture can transcend physical walls. To create a well-balanced environment:
· Model strong work-life balance by clearly defining work hours and expected response times. Sensitive strivers tend to be so committed that they overwork, so encouraging time off is crucial.
· Create opportunities for deeper processing by normalizing no-meeting days and the use of “Do Not Disturb” on work messaging apps, for example. You’ll get higher productivity and work quality from your entire team, but especially your sensitive strivers. Creating a lower sensory threshold is related to better job performance for those with high sensitivity.
· Take swift action to remove toxic employees who bully, belittle, or lead through coercion and fear. The longer these people stay with your organization, the faster you’ll lose your best talent in your sensitive strivers.
3. Integrate self-awareness into your organization’s work style
High sensitivity is linked to a gene that increases the vividness of inner experiences. Being more emotionally in-touch makes sensitive strivers highly self-aware — and self-aware workers are more effective. Borrow from sensitive strivers’ approach to the world and make your organization more successful by integrating self-awareness into your working style. Here’s how:
· Individuals should develop a “user manual,” which is a document that outlines their best working conditions; how they prefer to communicate, receive feedback, and make decisions; how they learn best; and things they struggle with. This helps neurodiverse teams understand each other’s working styles and, in turn, work more harmoniously with one another.
· Give sensitive strivers input on what they work on. They generally know themselves well, so align projects with their natural skill sets in communication, empathy, complex thinking, project management, and problem solving.
· Educate managers and leaders with training on normal personality differences. Acceptance and appreciation of sensitive strivers has to come from the top.
Ultimately, championing neurodiversity is in part about changing the narrative around sensitivity from one that sees the quality as a weakness to one that heralds it as the superpower it is.
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