Providing Performance Feedback to Support Neurodiverse Employees
There are more neurodiverse people in the workforce than ever before.1 Improved diagnosis, better interventions, and greater education and workforce accommodations have meant new opportunities for people with neurodiverse conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and dyslexia. Research suggests that many neurodiverse people have a strong work ethic, are resilient, and are determined to do well.2 But many function differently when it comes to social interactions, communication, executive attention, working memory, language learning, and sensory processing. Some also suffer from anxiety and depression.
Given a supportive environment, neurodiverse employees can meet or exceed performance expectations.3 Poor management practices, however, such as unsupportive supervision, unclear communication, and inflexible work policies, as well as office politics, noise, and clutter, can compromise their performance. Organizations should promote practices to support and encourage neurodiverse staff members.
Effective feedback, which is data-driven, specific, and tailored to individual employee needs, is one good tool. Used correctly, well-formulated feedback can dramatically improve work relationships, job commitment, and engagement and can ultimately help create a more inclusive work culture, in addition to enhancing job performance. Here, we provide guidelines based on our research that can help managers use performance feedback as a transformative tool.
1. Build rapport, and focus on the individual.
A trusting relationship is required for performance feedback to be meaningful and effective.4 Compassion for employees’ needs — or individualized consideration — works particularly well with neurodiverse employees.5 Prominent companies with neurodiversity programs, such as Microsoft, JP Morgan, and SAP, use peer mentors, job coaches, and work buddies to develop rich feedback channels between neurodiverse employees and other team members to foster a supportive work environment.6 The point is to be sensitive to the needs of neurodiverse individuals while also empowering them.
We developed a survey to help managers tailor individualized support and empower all employees, not just the neurodiverse. (See the downloadable PDF, “Working Style and Feedback Preference Form.”) Employees can use it to explain their needs and particular challenges, and managers can gain valuable insights into how best to support employees in meeting the organization’s goals.
Surveys like this one are especially beneficial to neurodiverse employees because they enable individuals to share their concerns without disclosing medical conditions, which, if known, could adversely impact their careers.7 Marcelle Ciampi, the senior manager of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Ultranauts, who is autistic, noted that many neurodiverse employees face discrimination, stereotyping, and difficult work environments once their conditions are known. Disclosure should be a deliberate personal choice, she said.8
2. Time feedback to get the best results.
Feedback timing is critical to improving performance.9 The ideal timing depends on the type of task performed and whether the feedback is positive or negative (corrective). Positive feedback is usually most effective if given immediately after a task is performed, because it reinforces the connection between the desired behavior and the positive result, which promotes better performance in the future.10
In contrast, it’s better to delay giving corrective feedback — especially if there is a lag between consecutive tasks — until right before the task is performed again.11 Giving clear and direct corrective instructions immediately before a task is especially valuable when employees are learning new things. Feedback given right before a task can also reduce anxiety, which is an important consideration with neurodiverse staff members. Negative feedback delivered at the end of the day can create unnecessary anxiety overnight — a particular concern with neurodiverse people who may dwell on negative feedback.
3. Cite specific, job-related behaviors.
Feedback should be data-driven — in other words, based on observable, specific, and job-relevant behaviors. This type of feedback is better received and far more effective than feedback that is overly broad or abstract. Telling employees that they should stop making careless errors or work on their leadership skills usually makes them defensive without giving them specific things they can change. All workers, and especially neurodiverse ones, require specific information to improve their performance.
Specific, data-driven feedback helps managers avoid making fundamental attribution errors. For example, managers may infer that employees who make frequent errors are careless, which may not be the case, while assuming that employees who are more outgoing, likeable, and socially charismatic are more competent than they are. Unconscious biases like these disadvantage the type of neurodiverse employees who are less sociable and struggle at picking up on subtle social cues.12
Well-formulated feedback also makes good business sense, given that research suggests feedback is more motivating to employees than money. In one experiment involving trainees who were not neurodiverse, researchers found that offering them payment contingent on performance without providing feedback did not result in improved performance.13 In contrast, when subjects were provided with specific feedback that explained their errors and how to correct them without accompanying monetary rewards, performance accuracy on tasks increased to nearly 100%. This suggests that data-driven performance feedback can yield better business results than pumping money into performance bonuses and other monetary rewards.
None of this means that managers shouldn’t make broad assessments. It means that the assessments should be supported by clear, job-relevant behaviors that employees can change. Even with competency-driven jobs, behavior-based feedback can be provided by translating vague competency labels, such as leadership and teamwork, into job-relevant and observable behaviors. For example, what do leadership skills mean for a loan officer’s job? As a starting point, think of instances where employees exceeded expectations, and focus on job-relevant behaviors. A good rule is that if broad behavior assessments can’t be supported, you should reconsider giving feedback related to them.
4. Provide feedback often, and not just when things go wrong.
Positive feedback — commending specific behaviors and describing their positive impacts — especially benefits neurodiverse employees who require reassurance. As Sarah Hart, a behavior consultant who is autistic, explained, “If you aren’t telling me that I’m doing it right, then I assume I’m doing it wrong.”
Hart encourages managers to address corrective feedback, even if it is unpalatable. Some managers will instead let their irritation fester but then explode. Hart described how a supervisor once yelled at her for interrupting. When she apologized, the supervisor snapped: “You do that all the time. It drives me crazy!” The exchange left her confused: “Why would someone not tell me that I do something that bothers them until the day they blow up at me about it?”
Neurodiverse employees, especially those on the autism spectrum, feel anxious about not knowing what is socially right and wrong. Managers can help alleviate this tension by giving regular feedback — don’t wait for formal performance periods. Most people, neurodiverse or otherwise, prefer a direct approach. Studies show that many neurodiverse employees face situations in which coworkers abruptly, and without explanation, stop talking to them or refuse to work with them.14
Regular and direct communication is more respectful and helps people grow. Honest conversations can reveal why someone is behaving in a certain way (such as interrupting) and help managers identify ways to address an employee’s needs (by structuring the conversation, for instance). Often, the solution is a simple one. For example, to minimize interruptions and allow the speaker and listener to focus, limit the amount of time each conversation participant is allotted before the next person is given an opportunity to speak.
5. Sequence mixed feedback in a way that works for employees.
Many managers take a “feedback sandwich” approach (positive-corrective-positive) toward sequencing feedback, but there’s little research indicating its superiority in improving subsequent performance or helping employees acquire new skills.15 For some people, too many positives initially can overshadow the negatives, and the corrective feedback can get lost. Research suggests that if the main point is negative, it’s better to lead with corrective feedback and end with positives.16 (With serious performance issues, we advise using only corrective comments, to focus the conversation on understanding the causes and identifying corrective actions.)
In the positive-negative-positive sandwich, positive comments are sometimes used solely to prepare the listener to hear negative feedback. But employees often see through this lack of sincerity, and neurodiverse individuals can find these positive comments distracting. Sincerity is often the best method. Instead of trying to butter up employees, it’s far more effective to say things like, “I want to help,” or, “I’m confident you can do this.” Often, the best strategy is to ask employees which sequence works best for them. You can use our survey to help figure this out.
6. Set goals, and create an action plan.
Employees are looking for more than a performance critique. They want to know how to improve. Linking feedback to achievable goals is effective, but neurodiverse employees often complain that they don’t receive enough guidance. An action plan that includes goals and how to meet them can empower them.
Good action plans may require a problem-solving conversation to help employees understand how they can achieve their goals, what potentially stands in their way, and how managers can help. During these conversations, avoid vague and open-ended questions, such as “What will motivate you?” Instead, ask pointed questions, such as, “Out of the three tasks assigned, which one do you like doing the most, and why?” This achieves clarity, given that open-ended questions can be interpreted in multiple ways and can confuse the listener, especially those who are not good at reading subtext.
Keep in mind that with neurodiverse employees, such information should be delivered in a way that allows them to go back and look at it again. In national and global research studies, neurodiverse employees reported that having supervisors who provide clear written instructions and feedback is key to their job success.17
7. Train employees to provide and receive feedback.
Often, managers who are asked to assess others lack the time to observe those employees or are reluctant to critique them in the first place. Both issues lead to sloppy assessments. Employee feedback that is inaccurate or based on unclear performance standards is worse than no feedback at all.18 Studies have shown that inaccurate feedback delays employee learning, even when accurate feedback is provided later.19
To improve the performance of neurodiverse employees, managers should be trained to provide accurate, concise feedback, using literal descriptions.20 (This applies to all communication. For example, it’s more effective to say, “Please email me your completed account reports by 11:30 a.m. tomorrow,” and not, “We need to send your completed account reports ASAP.”)
To reduce misunderstandings, train staff members to give and take feedback in a way that is sensitive to how neurodiverse people think and communicate. “I have been told by several supervisors that I do not accept critical feedback well because I ‘argue’ with it,” explained Hart. “I don’t. I am simply explaining why my mindset led me to do X when I should have done Y. I’m giving the reasons that I felt I was doing the right thing at the time. I want them to hear my train of thought and tell me where I went wrong so I can break it down to the exact mistake.”
Using mutually agreed-upon language can help: “I need to ask a clarifying question,” for example, or a “problem-solving question.” These labels can foster more productive conversations. Similarly, structuring the conversation as clearly communicated steps can create more certainty, such as (1) the speaker gives feedback; (2) the receiver repeats and confirms their understanding; (3) the participants pause and reflect to let the employee process the feedback, make notes, and organize their thoughts; (4) they engage in a problem-solving conversation; and (5) they devise an action plan.
It’s valuable to train employees on how to receive corrective feedback to curb defensiveness, which in turn helps managers more accurately critique staff members. Employees should be trained to take notes and ask questions during feedback sessions and even thank the reviewer. All of these techniques can help employees better understand and appreciate being reviewed. Such training has been shown to increase employee task performance by 10% to 30%.21
Neurodiverse people are a growing part of the workforce and can be extremely valuable employees. Feedback is a great way to assess their skills and behaviors and motivate them to do better. When delivered effectively, feedback can work as a catalyst for personal growth and trigger higher employee engagement and performance. But the feedback must be data-driven, goal-relevant, and behavior-specific for individuals to act upon it. It must also be delivered in a way that is sensitive to how neurodiverse people think and communicate, and be followed by a clear map of how to achieve specific goals. It’s not enough to have a diversity agenda. The agenda has to empower diverse employees to work effectively together.
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