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Neurodiversity: Talent or Token?

How window-dressing chips away at any tangible rewards companies could reap from neurodiversity efforts.

Diversity has made a dent in the public consciousness. With a long-overdue shift from an ethical buzzword into a brand-defining must-have, emerging nuances to diversity have at last begun to take their place on the front burner.

In fact, neurodiversity is now so widely known that it has quickly risen to become a subject of keen interest. Google Trends drops data-backed hints about how much of a crucial role neurodiverse individuals actually play in corporate and social settings — unlike how we have come to view them as outliers.

A close look at the data around the search for the term “Neurodiversity” reveals a sudden spike in traction, especially from 2018 to present. Forward-looking predictions that neurodiversity is set to garner more awareness over time are as sharp as a tack.

All of us must, at some point, have found ourselves frowning upon companies’ poor performance at the “diversity Olympics” — whether it be embracing gender diversity, racial diversity, or other similar incarnations of diversity. Well, now I’ve just tossed one more in your direction to consider: neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity cuts across a broad spectrum of natural human variation in neurological makeup — namely ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Autism, Dyslexia, and Dyspraxia. To add to this, a Harvard Medical report also did well to throw mood, impulse-control, and anxiety complications into the mix. In layman’s terms: neurodiverse people are competent in particular areas, while somewhat lagging in others. And while this can certainly be true of neurotypical people, it’s often more pronounced in neurodiverse individuals.

The benefits of diversity, especially in tech spaces, are well-documented. Diversity inspires curiosity in heterogeneous teams, which means more robust creative capacity. Diversity creates a level of discomfort that makes teams perform better. But why, then, are claims of diversity being an ethical and a commercial win-win for companies and the neurodiverse people so often met with knee-jerk cynicism? This points to a knowledge gap. An obvious one, if you will.

“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” – Alan Turing

However, the crux of this article spotlights a less-pronounced knowledge gap — negative impacts of window-dressing, appearance-only effort which saps away energy from genuine efforts that are aimed at ushering in a working model of diversity in the workplace.

To ask a burning question: why has neurodiversity — the understanding that brain differences should be viewed as normality, and not a deficiency, in the workplace — taken on a fat serving of window-dressing with a side of nonchalance in our workplaces?

More worryingly, how has this whitewashed version of neurodiversity chipped away at the true purpose of neurodiversity policies? How is anything less than true diversity self-defeatist for companies — especially in spaces which could function notably better with neurodiverse talent? (think cybersecurity)

Are neurodiversity policies an act of philanthropy or productivity?

The afore-stated questions should be asked within the context of our business reality. The reality is that true diversity shouldn’t be thought of just as an end in itself — it should also be considered a means to achieving a profitable future.

Without taking anything away from the ethical and moral credentials of neurodiversity, it is understandable why businesses might be reluctant to adopt diversity merely for the sake of it in a cutthroat business environment. After all, even the lure of a glowing brand reputation doesn’t necessarily translate to increased equity. Diversity efforts should make business sense.

Companies need more than just high points on their “diversity” scorecard to cut it — first, they need to remain in business, and then they need to drive sustained growth and value. And while the long-term benefits of neurodiversity (think employee loyalty or a healthy brand reputation) might hold a ton of appeal, there is still an increasing need for companies — especially public companies — to demonstrate a shorter-term nexus between neurodiversity initiatives and an increasingly “on-demand” shareholder value.

For these companies, not only does merely assembling a heterogeneous workforce to beef up inclusivity stats miss the mark on the true essence of neurodiverse recruitment, it is also lamentably shortchanging.

Neurodiversity is not something that should be adopted in isolation as an end in itself; rather, it should be treated as a means to a meaningful, economically viable end — using that heterogeneous workforce to fuel innovation, growth, and gain a competitive edge.

Some characteristics of neurodivergent people

If you’ve ever met one neurodivergent person, then you’ve met one neurodivergent person. Each and every neurodivergent individual out there has their own unique strengths and characteristics. As an example, however, some strengths of individuals on the autism spectrum can include:

  • attention to detail
  • ability to think “outside the box” and approach a problem from a completely different angle
  • strong abilities with systems, such as computer programming and mathematics
  • above average visual-spatial skills
  • refusal to take things at surface value and performing critical evaluation of everything
  • intense, focused interest in a subject
  • lower intrinsic pressure to conform to social norms

and many others. Those strengths are often accompanied by characteristics that employers sometimes see as issues, such as:

  • lower intrinsic pressure to conform to social norms
  • intense, focused interest in a subject
  • refusal to take things at surface value and performing critical evaluation of everything
  • low social interaction
  • inability to initiate or hold a conversation
  • fixation on certain routines or rituals
  • difficulty maintaining eye contact

Neurodiversity’s biggest bane

You don’t need to be David Attenborough to know that biodiversity is necessary for keeping a complex ecosystem working optimally, and you don’t have to be a Certified Financial Planner to know that having a diverse stock portfolio gives you better possibilities. In the workplace, neurodiversity breeds a different approach to problem-solving and a fresh take on issues. It sums up why neurodiverse individuals have been so quick to embrace the term “differently abled” instead of their obsolete label, “disabled”.

Simple as this term sounds, however, there still hasn’t been much done to take stock of these peculiarities by companies. Regrettably, HR personnel mostly tend to optimize their recruitment operations and performance assessments for neurotypical candidates.

In fact, “culture fit” or “team fit” considerations during recruitment have taken relatively higher importance than even competency questions.

On the surface, this is understandable. Hiring those that “look like us,” “sound like us,” and “think like us” means that they would fit into the workplace more easily, take less time to acclimatize, be easier to coach, and — presumably — stay on longer. Complex problem-solving is a team sport, so clearly, building a collaborative team makes sense. And with this in mind, someone who “fits in” is likely someone who will also go with the flow without presenting any challenges.

Despite the evidence about their results, homogeneous teams without friction feel more effective. Homogeneous teams are easier for management. And easier for HR. Team members in homogeneous teams understand each other better, and the collaboration is smooth, which feels like progress.

Whereas dealing with people who are different causes friction, which feels counterproductive.

And that’s the crux of the problem: in a homogeneous team where the collaboration is smooth, how do you progress if no one challenges anything? How do you innovate? How do you solve complex problems? How do you reach new customers? How do you service clients that are different?

Diversity brings with it tension and constructive conflict — and teams that are able to discuss, debate, (respectfully) challenge one another, exchange opinions, and critically evaluate ideas are significantly better placed to innovate and solve complex problems.

The work may feel harder in heterogeneous teams, but the outcomes are undeniably better.

“What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.” – Dr. Temple Grandin

The systemic rigidity found in existing recruitment and team management approaches that are focused on conflict avoidance, removal of friction in the team, and maintaining the status quo spell out one negative outcome: an untapped pool of potential.

To my mind, this is a reflection of why most neurodiversity policies in their actual application are (at best) window-dressed versions that water down the true essence and meaning of neurodiversity. Achieving true diversity means confronting some of our most ingrained behaviours. Achieving true neurodiversity is probably harder than with any other flavour of diversity. Implementing it can be more challenging than turning a ship in the Suez Canal —so it’s easy to see employees’ tendency to recoil into social bubbles and homogeneous settings. Again, I addressed why we cannot afford to wallow in this comfort zone in this article.

But nothing ever worthwhile comes easy, does it? When responsibility is shared, starting with a paradigm shift that tackles our subconscious bias, the collective burden gets lighter. And the payoff? Enormous. And not just by way of an enhanced brand reputation and public image, but also performance-wise. Of course, this also rewards the company’s bottom line.

Neurodiversity within the cybersecurity space

As traditional HR in the tech space puts a premium on qualities like proficiency in numerical skills, the “team fit,” and other basics, the increasing awareness of neurodiversity benefits has shown that they just might well be missing out on a big piece of the pie.

Vacant cybersecurity jobs globally are projected to clinch a whopping 3.5 million in 2021. Further, the global study undertaken by the ISSA (Information Systems Security Association) and the ESG (Enterprise Strategy Group) shows that this shortage in the cybersecurity space can be linked to more cybersecurity challenges that threaten company operations.

One is tempted to think that the current shortage in cybersecurity should force the hands of HR to tap into a pipeline of neurodiverse employees. After all, it is estimated that around 1 in 7 people (more than 15%) are neurodivergent. But in truth, most often, even when they try to attract neurodiverse candidates, this leads to unrewarding “busywork” lacking in meaningful value contribution.

We, cybersecurity professionals, know better. We are increasingly finding that neurodiverse talents easily hold up to the scrutiny of performance and value — thanks to their uniquely fresh perspective and out-of-the-box thinking they bring to the table. Seemingly opposite angles to problem-solving deliver strong results when dealing with complex cybersecurity issues.

The gist is that diversity — when harnessed on any team — unlocks a greater balance of skills, which thus means more productivity. In neurodiversity terms, it becomes clear that what has hitherto been seen as a skill deficiency is, in fact, a secret weapon. And this is particularly pronounced in the realm of cybersecurity. The possibilities for neurodiverse individuals are limitless, seeing that the cybersecurity industry is suffering a skill shortage that could leave companies short in their bid to combat cyber warfare.

“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” – Frank Zappa

To further zero in on how neurodiverse talents can prove to be valuable assets, it is worth considering that the cyber battleground is characterized by legions of malicious perpetrators that can mutate their attacks in a blink of an eye, once they have been spotted. They are equally targeting software, hardware, and wetware — the human brain (through social engineering attacks). They are well-funded and patient, which allows them to continually innovate in their attacks.

People on the autism spectrum are known for their uber-concentrated approach to work, a sticky brain (good memory), thorough analysis, and meticulous attention to detail that makes the strenuous tasks of spotting anomalies a doodle. This would undoubtedly prove an asset to any cybersecurity department or company.

But all of this would be from a defensive angle only, which — in my opinion — is a little reductive of the offensive angle to their “superpower” — the true depth of high-functioning innovation that neurodiverse talents possess. Some of the best cybersecurity researchers, exploit developers, pen testers, and red teamers I met in my career were differently-abled.

In the cybersecurity world, these are absolutely the people we want on our side.

Marie Schaer, head of the Autism Outpatient Clinic in Geneva, Switzerland, reinforces this in her observation: “A lot of individuals on the spectrum tend to outperform in domains that are strongly rule-based, such as mathematics or engineering.” She further states: “That might explain why we find more people on the spectrum in tech-related jobs: they’re simply good at it.”

Having neurodiversity on your team offers a fresh perspective, as their minds work differently to those of neurotypical employees. They’re wired differently. They will push the bar on established procedures, and keep their eyes peeled for opportunities or irregular patterns. They will find “needles in haystacks”. Most importantly, they will refuse to take things at surface value — a hallmark of some of the world’s finest innovators.

Neurodiverse employees often have no difficulties side-stepping their emotional bias to determine the root cause of problems. In cybersecurity, they’re more mentally equipped to peek beyond the veneer of OK-ed systems to optimize for tighter security and even greater possibilities.

Ultimately, neurodiversity is companies’ sure-fire ticket to bringing a fresh perspective to recognize and create value.

Companies are now moving away from the notion that hiring neurodiverse talent is some sort of “charity”. They’re finding that neurodiversity should form a crucial part of their talent acquisition strategy, as it benefits both parties — the clients, who are beneficiaries of their genius neurodiverse employees, and the companies themselves. In a smart move, IBM and SAP have started making wholesale changes to their hiring process in order to accommodate neurodiverse talent.

What’s with the “window-dressing”?

If it’s worth doing at all, then it’s worth doing well. When the only evidence you have to show for your neurodiversity effort is a few diversity webinars here, a handful of diversity training there, and a few inclusivity stats, then chances are you’re probably just window-dressing.

Window-dressing doesn’t only include tokenism — simply making symbolic, “tick-box” efforts to include neurodiverse individuals, or an exercise that involves bringing in a few neurodiverse faces so that you can plant your brand in the Cool Kids Club. Window-dressing also manifests itself in good-intentions-poor-outcome initiatives (such as throwing oodles of diversity training, certifications, or diversity quota targets at the problem and calling it a day). The latter version of window-dressing is more prevalent.

Implementing a working neurodiversity policy model starts with rejigging the recruitment process. An overhaul of company workplace culture to engineer a more inclusive environment should be a priority in the workplace. And with steep long-term gains on the horizon, the juice is definitely worth the squeeze. Microsoft gets this, and they’ve successfully leveraged high-functioning autistic talent to foster more creativity for solving technical niggles within their ranks.

It is also worth noting that ultimately, the responsibility to oversee the implementation of neurodiversity lies at the feet of senior management. A study carried out by Forbes Insights on Global Diversity and Inclusion sampled the opinion of ten companies — seven of which claimed that the buck stops at the C-level and their board.

When it comes to the strategy and implementation of a diversity program, responsibility for the success of the company’s diversity/inclusion efforts lies with senior management, with 35% ultimately tasking the CEO with the role of championing true diversity and closely monitoring the success — or otherwise, progress — of their impact-measurement initiatives.

Anything short of the afore-stated amounts to window-dressing. If you belong to the category of companies that will not just talk the “diversity” talk, but also scream it from the rooftops till it wears out your staff (PwC CEO Dennis Nally, in his 2013 opinion piece, calls this “diversity fatigue” — a state in which employees are inundated with diversity talks), then a follow-through plan should be put in place to implement and track your progress.

A failure to follow-through with your neurodiversity ambitions spells either (or all) sour outcomes:

  1. Failure to follow-through with your neurodiversity ambitions means you’re not bridging the gap between policy and practice. And like any well-intentioned project without any means to track progress and steer itself from veering off course, it wobbles.
  2. A lack of follow-through on your diversity initiative means little to no insight. Little insight translates to lagging innovation, and thus, it’s only foreseeable that sentencing your employees to death by a thousand diversity pieces of training without having a transparent, trackable way of monitoring this policy will only leave them damning the consequences (if any) of non-compliance. To put it simply, they will have little to no regard for your attempts to change the corporate culture.
  3. Organizational efforts which are perceived as disingenuous lead to potentially negative effects, including lower job satisfaction, increased distrust in leadership, and reduced performance by all employees — not just neurodivergent ones.

In short, a window-dressing approach not only fails to capture the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce, it could also negatively impact even the existing neuro-homogenous workforce.

Weaving neurodiversity into corporate consciousness

In a previous piece, I addressed the harms of deeply ingrained subconscious bias and gave a few recommendations on how we can spot and best address it using a systemic approach. Neurodiversity, being a nuance of diversity as it deals with cognitive variations in individuals, equally demands a more nuanced strategy.

A report by CREST about neurodiversity in the Tech Security workplace hints that challenging lazy thinking patterns at work is a good place to start. And when you think of it, it is. Ditching stereotypes and exercising restraint to outrightly dismiss ideas without giving them true thought only makes teams one-dimensional in their thinking and less creative. Such a dismissal also breeds an air of toxicity, which is not an optimal condition in which for employees to thrive.

Neurodiversity objectives require switching up a gear, which means taking positive action to reflect this mind shift — that is, from the false notion of accommodating people with “conditions” to acknowledging that neurodiversity is nothing but variations in cognitive processing that exist among individuals.

As noted earlier, though, the buck of this change stops at the feet of managers and team leads. In the end, it is up to them to tweak the workplace and the bulk of its processes and systems to become blind to unconscious bias. The “culture fit”-focused hiring process is a perfect case-in-point of one such workplace system — it gives hiring officers ample medium to express their subconscious biases.

The hiring process needs to undergo an expansion to accommodate neurodiverse nuances. The operational communication style should do away with non-verbal communication such as eye contact. You want to ease their nerves with a less crowded atmosphere, as well as a more relaxed line of questioning. And that’s only if you insist on continuing the old way of recruitment through evaluating CVs and interviewing. Ask yourself: are you trying to get people in who are successful at writing CVs and interviewing, or are you trying to get people in who have the best talent?

“Rigid academic and social expectations could wind up stifling a mind that, while it might struggle to conjugate a verb, could one day take us to distant stars.” – Dr. Temple Grandin

Maybe CVs are not the best way to assess talent. Consider the fact that ~78% of job applicants lie — something which might come hard to some neurodivergent people who are often unwilling to follow established, but illogical, practices simply because “everyone else is doing it.” This might serve to disadvantage the neurodiverse talent right from the immediate outset of the selection process.

It is prevalent for neurodiverse talents to find it difficult to navigate social settings or apply social skills. With this in mind, concepts like verbal communication should instead give way to actual job trials. Microsoft opted to forgo the interview process, rather inviting people to come in and work, to see how they could code. Then, hiring managers looked at the different ways in which people solved problems.

But beyond hiring, the workplace also needs to be a breath of fresh air for these neurodiverse individuals. Even those neurodiverse people who were able to find gainful employment are oftentimes spending most of their energy and motivation on blending in, masking their true selves, and absorbing all the barriers the workplace throws at them. To further drive this home, I find the opinions of these two neurodiverse individuals in the cybersecurity space quite instructive, as they know where the shoe pinches. Michael Seborowski, an incident response investigator who joined through the Autism at Work Program initiative of SAP, weighed in on the most effective way leaders can coax the best out of neurodiverse individuals in the workplace:

“Biases and stereotypes that might affect a colleague on the spectrum need to be replaced with caring, and companies need to be able to work with colleagues constructively to figure out problems.”

Megan Roddie, another professional on the autistic spectrum who is a cyber threat researcher with IBM’s X-Force Threat Intelligence team, thinks neurodiverse individuals are just as functional as neurotypicals:

Often when management and executives hear ‘disability accommodations’, they’re thinking of physical or medical things to do,” she argues. “They’re not thinking about the fact that autistic people just think differently, and most of us neurodivergent professionals function fine.

One thing stands out clearly from these sampled opinions: that if anything close to “true” neurodiversity in the workplace is to be achieved, managers have to act — and proactively, too.

For instance, neurodiverse individuals may not be willing to signal their status for some reason. It then behooves hiring managers or team leads to ask these questions. Once these individuals open up about it, then the manager should be trained to manage workflow patterns or create an enabling environment. These wholesale changes should be implemented not just at the hiring level, but throughout the entire employment lifecycle.

Tech giants like SAP, Microsoft, and the UK’s GCHQ intelligence and security organization have implemented these solutions, and it has proved rewarding. I see an opportunity for a similarly successful application in cybersecurity companies.

More broadly, governments could wade in with their fair share of responsibility to expand and publicize neurodiversity empowerment initiatives. Corporations also have an important place in the conversation to build a pipeline of opportunities for neurodiverse individuals.

Wrap up

There is enough anecdotal evidence (and even some empirical evidence) to suggest a link between a diverse workforce and innovation.

While the difference in our backgrounds would almost certainly mean that true diversity is an uphill struggle, the tangible gains in the undertaking — both for the neurodiverse individual and company productivity alike — are certainly worthy of contemplation. Companies stand to lose out big when neurodiversity is just another box to be ticked. To make matters worse, when companies try to raise standards and employees get the impression that they are “window-dressing” or tokenistic in their approach, this triggers a breakdown in confidence and breeds a poor working environment.

A workplace with neurodiversity becomes more inclusive to a broader range of individuals, thus enhancing company reputation and brand image. Naturally, this can only ensure a healthy, morale-boosting environment for all employees to ramp up productivity levels.

“Nowhere am I so desperately needed as among a shipload of illogical humans.” – Mr. Spock

Cryptosec is a leading provider of security solutions in the rapidly evolving world of blockchain, cryptocurrency, DeFi. Their specialist investigations arm, Crypto Investigators, offers expert services in blockchain forensics and legal investigations, leveraging deep industry knowledge and advanced investigative techniques to navigate the complexities of the digital age.

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