Harnessing the power of neurodiversity through coaching
Organisations across the private, public and voluntary sectors are facing unprecedented challenges: the climate emergency that has led to a need and desire to become more sustainable, high staff turnover due to the Great Resignation, and the economic uncertainty brought by the prolonged pandemic and most recently the war in Ukraine, to name a few. As Albert Einstein once said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. One way to bring in new thinking and solve complex problems is to ensure good neurodiversity of the workforce.
Neurodiversity and neurodivergent thinking styles
Neurodiversity is a term that describes a natural variation in the way human brains are wired. Whilst the majority of people experience the world in a broadly similar way (“neurotypical”), about 15-20% of people have marked differences in sensing the environment, processing information, regulating emotions, managing energy and communication (“neurodivergent”). From a medical perspective, the neurodivergent way of thinking includes autism (including Asperger’s syndrome), ADHD/ADD, dyslexia, and many more. Neurodivergence comes with its challenges but also some unique strengths. For example, ADHD is associated with an ability to multitask and make decisions under pressure whereas dyslexia is linked to big picture thinking and storytelling.
Most neurodivergent individuals learn about their cognitive difference in childhood but many discover their difference in adulthood after years of struggle, often as a result of a job burnout or mental health crisis. This is particularly true for women, who are more likely to hide and internalise their problems. Fortunately, there is more media coverage on this topic nowadays, with stories of a later-life diagnosis of autism and ADHD, including celebrities Melanie Sykes and Christine McGuinness. Receiving a diagnosis later in life is often a relief, but it also comes with questions about one’s identity that cannot be addressed through ‘one-size-fits-all’ interventions.
The case for coaching for neurodivergent employees
Unlike training and development courses that have pre-set learning outcomes and objectives, coaching by its nature is personalised to an individual. This is particularly important for the neurodivergent community, which is very diverse. As a popular saying in the autistic community goes: “When you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person”. In other words, although two people may share the same diagnostic label, the way their condition manifests can be very different. This means that each neurodivergent employee brings a unique set of strengths and skills and faces challenges that are unique to them. This is what makes coaching, as opposed to standardised training, such a powerful development tool.
Benefits of coaching for neurodivergent employees
As a professional coach who specialises in working with neurodivergent adults, I have witnessed a wide range of benefits that coaching brings to neurodivergent employees. On one level, coaching provides space for a neurodivergent individual to experiment with, and ultimately embed, new strategies for the areas they need support with. These include topics such as:
- wellbeing and stress management,
- effective communication,
- time management and organisational skills.
On a deeper level, a coaching partnership can help an individual to gain better understanding and acceptance of their different thinking style. Some of the common coaching outcomes amongst my coachees include:
- being more accepting of their seeing and experiencing the world differently than most people, with both the challenges and strengths it brings,
- having better understanding of how to craft their role to play to their strengths,
- having the language and confidence needed to ask for reasonable adjustments that will help them perform at their best.
These benefits can be accessed within as few as 3-6 coaching sessions and extend beyond the individual being coached.
“Being able to put a name to my challenges has allowed me to own that I process things differently and it’s nothing to apologise for. I now think and speak about neurodiversity and my confidence at work has improved. I no longer think that I’m a failure” - a neurodivergent coachee
Benefits of coaching for organisations employing neurodivergent staff
As well as being of value to the coached individual, a coaching partnership brings benefits to the organisation that has sponsored the coaching programme. Development of new workplace strategies, better understanding of one's own neurodivergent strengths and higher confidence levels lead to improvements in wellbeing, work satisfaction and job performance for a neurodivergent employee. This translates into employee engagement and loyalty in the long-term.
More widely, as a neurodivergent employee opens up about what they need to perform at their best, it gives permission to other employees to do the same. Any resulting changes to a neurodivergent employee’s role and responsibilities create an opportunity for the entire team to consider how tasks are allocated and how the allocation process can be optimised to play to individual strengths and preferences. As well as improving communication and psychological safety within the team, this increases team effectiveness and performance.