Understanding neurodiversity in the workplace

Supporting 'diversity of thought' within finance teams can yield major competitive advantages.
Understanding neurodiversity in the workplace

With a steady stream of research warning CFOs and finance teams of the increasing presence of machines and artificial intelligence in day-to-day financial work, the profession is under pressure to provide value in new ways. Across sectors, technological disruption is forcing finance teams to take on a more strategic and creative role — for example, as companies scramble to adjust in a volatile global environment.

Yet, as many leaders are discovering, an organisation’s or a team’s ability to innovate and “think outside the box” requires not only a wide spectrum of skills but also a “diversity of thought” and perspectives.

This recognition is fuelling interest in neurodiversity, which can be broadly defined as the infinite variation in the way human brains work, encompassing variation in attention, sociability, and learning. Neurodivergent individuals include, for example, people with traits that are associated with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia (also known as developmental coordination disorder,r or DCD), ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), and other related “neurocognitive” variations.

“In their quest for high-performing teams and innovation, companies such as JPMorgan, EY, Google, SAP, Ford, and Amazon have either implemented neurodiversity-at-work initiatives or are currently developing one,” said Jill Miller, Ph.D., senior policy adviser for diversity and inclusion at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

“This is a very exciting and fast-growing area within workplace diversity and inclusion, and although we still have much to learn, organisations running neurodiversity programmes are already gaining competitive advantages by harnessing a historically underutilised pool of talent.”

Miller highlighted the example of Auticon, an IT consultancy which deliberately hires individuals on the autism spectrum as IT consultants and matches their skills to a specific client project.

“By hiring and supporting people who literally think differently, companies are finding that they are able to solve problems in new and unconventional ways, and in many instances, broaden their customer base,” she added.

According to Amanda Kirby, Ph.D., the CEO of Do-IT Solutions and a professor at the University of South Wales, neurodivergent individuals often have what are termed “spiky profiles”, meaning that they have areas of exceptional cognitive abilities (such as pattern recognition, rapid information processing, or strong mathematical abilities) while exhibiting some relative challenges in other areas.

However, despite the likely presence of neurodivergent team members in the current workforce, the majority of management practices and workplace environments focus on the most commonly used communication techniques. However, that approach doesn’t consider that some team members may benefit and thrive using different communication strategies.

‘Dividends of diversity’ for finance

“Finance teams have a lot to gain from neurodivergent individuals who are exceptional in different areas and who can deliver products and services that also speak to a wider diversity of customers and pain points,” Kirby said. “Yet it is likely that many finance leaders are attracting similar brains or ‘hiring in their own like’, and maybe missing out on different and innovative perspectives.”

Sean Gilroy, ACMA, CGMA, UX principal for cognitive design at the BBC, noted that finance teams which lack neurodiversity (and the working conditions that support it) can result in teams and organisations that “only look in one direction”, and hence lose out on the very tangible “dividends of diversity”.

“Within management accounting, for example, it is critical for team members to look in different directions to understand the operational environment more holistically, as well as to identify the opportunities that exist within it,” explained Gilroy, previously the finance director at BBC North, and a co-creator of the neurodiversity initiative BBC CAPE (Creating a Positive Environment).

“You also need professionals who can tell the story behind the numbers and help stakeholders outside of the organisation to understand patterns and trends — all of which speak to the benefits of having a wider diversity of cognitive abilities within your team.”

Rethinking management practices

With growing awareness of these types of competitive advantages, supporting and maintaining neurodiversity in the workplace is fast becoming both a business and societal imperative: Companies aspiring to be truly inclusive employers cannot exclude, as the CIPD puts it, “such a significant demographic as neurodivergent individuals”.

Yet far from representing a potential new “tick box affair” for employers looking to be seen as diverse and inclusive, increasing and supporting neurodiversity within teams can not only boost overall performance but can also make the workplace far more appealing and engaging for everyone.

“We are seeing that many of the changes and adjustments in the work environment that can better support neurodivergent individuals are universally beneficial,” Gilroy said. “For instance, working effectively with neurodiverse teams requires training other managers or colleagues to be very clear and concise in their communication, as well as highly receptive to individual feedback. This is something that everyone within a company would immediately benefit from.”

Many of the adjustments that companies and finance leaders need to make to attract, retain, and support neurodivergent talent are also “low cost and fairly easy to implement”, Miller noted.

“Organisations need to rethink the way they hire, manage, and promote people, because many of the traditional methods are not empowering neurodivergent employees to reach their potential at work — or are unintentionally excluding neurodiverse talent,” she explained.

For instance, when posting a job description, she said that companies often include a long list of skills without putting thought into the core competencies required to do the job really well. This often leads to people with outstanding abilities or narrower and deeper strengths in certain areas screening themselves out, and an increasing likelihood that the company will hire a generalist.

“In addition, many candidate interviews are designed to be a test of recall speed and social abilities, and this can put certain neurodivergent people at a disadvantage,” Miller said. “Yet these skills aren’t critical for every job, so employers should look at providing other means of assessing candidates and also training interviewers/recruiters to make sure they don’t rule someone out for something like lack of eye contact.”

As the global war for talent and high-performing teams intensifies, CFOs and finance leaders can potentially gain critical competitive advantages simply by better understanding who they are working with by educating everyone in the workforce about the value of diversity and providing training for both neurotypical and neurodivergent workers.

“For leaders and managers, the most important thing is to be open-minded and understanding,” Gilroy said. “Support may look different to what you had envisioned and may sound strange, but it takes bravery to disclose personal challenges which can deeply affect someone’s real potential.”

Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at