Every person has a unique pattern of abilities and interests. In neurodivergent people, these patterns tend to be particularly prominent and take the form of spiky profiles. Neurodivergent special abilities and creativity associated with some of our spiky profiles, especially when combined with intense intrinsic motivation, are powerful. These talents have the potential to propel organizations toward extraordinary success through innovation and outstanding quality of work. Unfortunately, traditional organizational processes and standard management practices are designed for the “average” – even though average people do not exist.
Standard management “manuals” offer little help in supporting and maximizing extraordinary performance and creativity. This article is focused on filling this gap. It provides several tips for nurturing a specific segment of neurodivergent talent – those who demonstrate pronounced abilities and creativity in particular areas of work. It is important to avoid stereotyping all neurodivergent people as “having special talents,” or confusing these talents with the overall potential to contribute at work or with human value. Yet, it is also important to understand how organizations can best help this often misunderstood segment of employees flourish rather than languish.
One-size-fits-all organizational practices can serve to limit and even undermine extraordinary talent. Some of the undermining is structural, via the red tape and narrow definitions of “culture fit.” Some occurs on the individual level, such as when coworkers resent the exceptional productivity and creativity. Even if the resentment does not turn into backstabbing and sabotage, its expressions can deeply hurt neurodivergent people who are simply trying to be who they are born to be, but are faced with yet another “you are too much,” “tone it down,” and “stop showing off.”
As someone who has heard this since I was five – we are not showing off. Those of us who are “wired” for specialized interests, achievement, or creativity have likely been punished for being “too much” by some unknown standards or “showing off” our entire lives. But we rarely try to impress, and we definitely are not trying to annoy anyone by excelling and creating. We are just following the natural “spikes” in our ability profiles, our curiosity, and sometimes our special interests. We can’t just stop being who we are meant to be, stop doing and elevating what we love, be it art, writing, research, accounting, or medicine. And when something separates us from opportunities to exercise our passions and interests, or when we try to suppress who we are to “fit in,” the sense of grief and loss is profound.
To unlock neurodivergent productivity, organizational leaders should break out of the confines of ordinary talent management. With intention, understanding, and flexible strategies, organizations can truly liberate the potential of neurodivergent talent – a win for both sides.
Of course, balancing the pressing demands of managerial tasks while ensuring every team member feels seen and supported is no small feat. If you are a manager working with unusual talents, these suggestions could help expand your leadership repertoire and enable your organization go beyond the ordinary:
- Embrace a Learning Mindset
Working with people who do not fit typical expectations – including those who far exceed these expectations – is not easy. When we do not understand something, we feel unsettled. To support organizational success and individuals’ well-being, decision-makers and coworkers need to resist the familiarity bias and the urge to reject and drive out neurodivergent talent just because it pushes the limits of the currently available knowledge. Knowledge can be expanded through learning. As Carol Dweck, the author of the growth mindset approach suggests, adopt the “not yet” thinking. You may not know how to work with neurodivergent talent yet. However, investing time to research and understand neurodiversity will empower you to support everyone on your team more effectively. Engage with reading, workshops, and firsthand accounts – including those of your employees. It’s not about becoming an expert overnight, but about continuously improving and progressively building an environment where every mind can flourish.
- Discard Stereotypes and Get to Know Individuals.
The very essence of neurodivergence is that our abilities and characteristics deviate from the average – in both directions. Some need more structure than most. Others need much less and do their best with full flexibility and autonomy. Some need specific directions. Others need creative freedom. Too often, neurodivergent employees are stereotyped as needing close supervision. This stereotype is extremely harmful to those neurodivergent people who are intrinsically motivated at work and have a high need for autonomy. Ask us how we work at our best, and truly listen. The only universally applicable rule is using a flexible and individualized approach.
- Construct a Safe and Enriching Environment.
A plant doesn’t thrive and bring fruit just anywhere; it needs the right soil, light, and protection. Similarly, neurodivergent talent flourishes in environments where we feel understood and valued. Listen actively, adapt flexibly, and enjoy the innovation that grows.
- Counteract Workplace Bullying.
In environments where standout talent is perceived as a threat, a pattern of bullying can emerge. The workplace bullying pattern is embedded in organizational systems that allow human biases to manifest; in many cases, autistic employees are specifically targeted because of their high performance and intrinsic motivation. Bullying is unlikely to “go away” without significant structural intervention. Actively cultivate a culture where every contribution is valued, collaboration is supported, and differences are celebrated. In addition, make sure to embed anti-bullying safeguards into systems and processes.
- Amplify Strengths; Offer Personalized Support with Challenges.
Due to the nature of spiky talent profiles, neurodivergent talent may excel in one area and need support in another. And, even if talents can partially mask vulnerabilities, many neurodivergent people have heightened vulnerability to stress due to physiological predispositions and lifelong trauma. Recognizing this dichotomy and providing tailored resources supports successful professional development and personal well-being.
With all people, treading the line between stimulating challenges and overwhelming pressure is hard. While it’s vital to offer opportunities that stretch the abilities of neurodivergent employees, it’s crucial to be mindful of the tendency to overload high performers. Providing the necessary tools and resources and avoiding task overload and time pressure that can turn challenges into overwhelming stressors is essential to healthy talent management.
- Transparent Communication is a Non-Negotiable.
Have you ever tried deciphering a foreign language without a dictionary or some way to translate? Confusing, right? Many neurodivergent people feel this when faced with deciphering hints and coded messages. Adapt your communication style, be open to feedback, and ensure expectations and availability of support are very clear and transparent.
- Cultivating Inclusion with an Eye on Growth.
Inclusivity isn’t a mere checkbox—it’s a commitment to organizational growth. And when it comes to neurodivergent talent, it is important to remember the need for professional growth. Champion mentorship programs, provide development opportunities tailored to their unique skills, encourage job-crafting, and support and recognize their potential to lead. When neurodivergent people wired for growth encounter bias-based organizational ceilings, it is not just an injury to our professional goals. It is an injury to our intrinsic desire to continuously grow and develop.
A diverse workforce presents great success opportunities. To maximize these opportunities, leaders must learn to create environments where every type of talent can shine. As I discuss in more depth in my upcoming book, The Canary Code – A Guide to Neurodiversity, Dignity, and Intersectional Belonging at Work, adopting flexible and neuroinclusive talent practices can help elevate the collective intelligence, creativity, and performance of the entire organization.