Often, when senior leaders attempt to account for their team’s broad spectrum of needs, the default is to adopt a ‘blanket’ approach that only goes so far. HR policies, no matter who they’re designed to help, must avoid being programmatic and ‘tick box’. One size does not fit all.
Organisations absolutely need processes and policies, but making a difference day-to-day is typically down to line managers. As in so much of business, they’re the silent heroes without whom any initiative, no matter how well-meaning, is unlikely to succeed.
It’s therefore critical that line managers have the necessary knowledge and skills to create inclusive cultures that help neurodiverse employees flourish.
Creating better opportunities
Line managers don’t necessarily need to ‘champion’ neurodiversity. Their role is to foster a workplace that meets the needs of every employee through acceptance and understanding – and they need to avoid the sense that individuals are being ‘singled out’ for any reason.
That said, it’s important that line managers realise that it’s their role to proactively squash any lingering fears that neurodiversity will be difficult or cause problems for the team.
Second, they can’t be afraid to ask questions and have meaningful conversations with their neurodiverse colleagues. If someone explains that they have, for example, social challenges, just saying “thanks for telling me”, and leaving it at that, achieves remarkably little.
If the colleague is open to conversation, line managers should work with them to try and understand what would make the work environment better for them – and then act on it. This is something a good manager should be doing for everyone in their team.
That can mean one-to-one mentoring or specifically tailored experiences. It could also mean adapting to sensory challenges in the office, such as accepting that a person wearing noise-cancelling headphones isn’t doing so to be rude or antisocial, but that the equipment is essential if that person is going to work comfortably.
Or it might look more like shorter meetings, offering longer deadlines or providing information in different formats.
And it’s not just at the office, either – it could be more essential for neurodivergent employees to work from home because of the familiar environment. Someone might even need to wear that particular jumper every day because it allows them to function comfortably.
Creating a culture of understanding
Key to providing this level of support is an elevated level of empathy. It may be difficult to wrap your head around the fact that your colleague finds it difficult to process or analyse a data set or stay focused in long meetings if you personally find those things easy.
However, it’s a line manager’s responsibility to accept and avoid judgement. Many neurodiverse people suffer because a lack of empathy means that managers simply don’t believe them.
It’s also vital for line managers to ensure this approach across the entire team. To truly create a culture of inclusivity, they must model the right behaviours and ensure that every member of the team, no matter who, what or where they are, is fully heard, accepted and included.
That means asking if people feel supported and addressing any issues or challenges that come up. Line managers may have to create a platform for conversations that raise awareness throughout the team, while remaining conscious that while some people are happy to have their personal preferences shared with their colleagues, others are not.
Most importantly, line managers should not single out their neurodiverse employees. Positive line manager behaviours and a need to tailor the experience of work are applicable to every team member.
It’s vital to avoid situations in which neurodiverse employees lack the safety to talk openly with their line manager. Managers might consider highlighting and discussing their own vulnerabilities, so their teams will feel they have permission to be open about their personal challenges.
Ask, understand and adapt
Being a line manager isn’t easy. It’s a tough role that requires people to manage their own work as well as curating a culture that gets the best out of the people in their teams.
In the case of being a supporter of neurodiverse colleagues, the most important characteristics are those that serve them well when it comes to managing anyone: asking questions, being accepting of different ways of working and thinking, and then trying to create a better and more welcoming workplace.
This is, after all, a line manager’s job.
By Ally Illsley, senior engagement manager at culture change consultancy United Culture.