“We don’t want difficult people here.” “They will be difficult to manage.” About 50% of managers in the UK do not want to hire and work with neurodivergent people, and these are just some of the typical excuses that come up in my conversations with hiring agents and managers. The drastic unemployment levels among highly educated and highly capable neurodivergent people are, to a significant extent, due to the hiring managers’ belief that they will be “difficult” to work with or manage.
These beliefs are an example of bias. Humans naturally tend to categorize others as ‘same’ or ‘different,’ and to support and favor those classified as “similar.” On the other hand, “different” is automatically labeled as “difficult,” if not “dangerous.” These biased beliefs lead to exclusion, which in turn prevents developing knowledge about and understanding of the rejected group. Stereotypes about neurodivergent people are often a reflection of misinformation, such as selectively picked and often exaggerated media stories or unqualified personal opinions. This misinformation is then used to justify perpetuating stereotypes and discrimination.
In the context of working with people from neurominority groups, such as ADHD or autistic communities, the “difficult” label is often used to refer to differences that are objectively harmless or even useful to organizations, but that coworkers and managers nevertheless find subjectively “annoying.” Critically examining one’s “annoyance” is difficult; some people take the easier route of labeling another person as “difficult” and then using this label as a justification for exclusion. This exclusion of diverse types of talent has both individual and organizational costs.
This article is focused on removing the “difficult” label from characteristics typically associated with neurominority communities. It outlines how managers and colleagues could instead empathetically examine specific neurodivergent differences and learn to work with human diversity constructively.
Why neurodivergent people can be labeled as difficult.
In environments that lack inclusion and compassion, many harmless individual differences can be negatively labeled, and individuals ostracized or ”managed out.” Here are just some neurodivergent differences that have been labeled as “difficult” but are, in fact, simply differences. In inclusive environments, these differences can even become strengths.
Expressing sensory needs. Upon close examination, sometimes the “difficult“ label is a more general version of the “princess on the pea” label often used to shame and gaslight sensory-sensitive people. This happens when coworkers or managers do not believe that the air conditioning, side conversations, lights, or having to keep Zoom video on are as bothersome as sensory-sensitive people say they are. Nevertheless, sensory sensitives are very real, neurobiological, and are not something one can simply “get over.” The same depth of processing, when supported, can facilitate uniquely creative work and productivity.
(“Too” much) Knowledge-sharing. Knowledge-sharing is one of the most valuable contributions to the workplace. And yet, some neurodivergent people are labeled as “difficult” or, more specifically, “know-it-all” because of intense interest in learning and sharing that makes them “walking encyclopedias.” Unfortunately, our passionate sharing about our areas of expertise can be perceived as ”too much” or even as intentional “one-upping” and a competitive threat. However, this perception is often an erroneous attribution of competitive motivation. For autistic people specifically, knowledge-sharing is not about showing off; it is about passion for knowledge and a genuine desire to support our organizations to the best of our ability. When respected, this characteristic can powerfully accelerate organizational success.
Expressing emotion. In some workplace environments, the lack of emotional inclusion severely limits emotional expression. People can be labeled as “difficult” for being “a downer” or “too excitable” or “crier” or generally for having feelings. The resulting ostracism is highly unlikely to help the individual or the work environment, whether the label results from personality differences or a mental health concern such as depression. However, in supportive environments, people who process emotion deeply can offer an exceptional level of understanding of customer’s needs, powerful drive to excel, and creativity.
Build Inclusive Systems, Not Excuses.
True inclusion requires creating environments where differences are not just acknowledged but valued. This means not only adding diversity to your team but also promoting an environment where equity and inclusion are practiced daily. Creating neuroinclusive environments presents an invaluable opportunity for managers and coworkers to adopt a growth mindset and enhance skills essential for effective leadership and collaboration. The cornerstone of these skills is empathy.
Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is a critical workplace skill that is often lacking or misunderstood.
Writing people off as “difficult” is an example of lacking empathy – often, selectively lacking empathy toward those who are different from the perceiver. Ironically, autistic people are often the ones written off while also being accused of lacking empathy. The “double empathy” problem – the fact that allistic people have difficulty empathizing with autistic people, and vice versa – can make allistic coworkers and managers more likely to exclude autistic colleagues. Across contexts, people find it much easier to empathize with those who are similar to them. This means that inclusive empathy is a skill that goes beyond what is commonly defined as empathy – putting yourself into another’s shoes.
In fact, the common advice to “put yourself into their shoes” stems from a misunderstanding or a partial understanding of empathy. Thinking of oneself may not be the best way to develop empathy toward dissimilar people. For example, if you are a stimulation-seeking extravert, being moved to an open office will not have the same effect on you as it would on an introverted person with high levels of sensory sensitivities. Imagining how you would feel is not just unhelpful, it is misleading, because something you would define as a pleasant stimulation is, to the other person, a sensory torture. It would be more effective to think about how they – in this example, someone with a heightened sensitivity to the physical environment and drained by distractions – would feel. On the other hand, someone who loves and needs solitude will not get a full picture of how a person who needs people and stimulation would experience, say, a quarantine, just by thinking about their own reaction.
In the same vein, understanding the meaning of knowledge-sharing from an autistic person’s perspective can correct the perception of sharing a “one-upping” and help appreciate the true motivation and passion for complete and accurate information. An empathetic understanding of the impact of the rigid “emotional expression” rules on people whose nervous systems are naturally more emotionally reactive, those who come from cultures with different emotional expression rules, or are dealing with physical or mental health issues could inform a revision of these rules to make the organization more emotionally inclusive.
Developing neuroinclusive empathy requires a switch from the golden rule – treating others as we would want to be treated – to the platinum rule, treating others how they would want to be treated. Exercising the other-focused empathy – platinum, rather than golden empathy, and considering how other people feel, rather than how you would feel in their place – can also help us ditch the “difficult” label. Instead, we can replace this label with caring and clarity on how other people’s needs and perceptions are different from ours, and create flexible organizations that support different people in doing their best.
In sum, let’s not be quick to dismiss people different from us as difficult. Instead, let’s practice inclusive empathy and create flexible and inclusive workplaces.