Photo by Imran Bangash on Unsplash
Photo by Imran Bangash on Unsplash

I’m passionate about being an inclusive leader. I invest a lot of my leadership style into creating team environments that are welcoming to everyone. Most people understand inclusion as creating a sense of belonging for everyone regardless of race, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, religion, age, and other characteristics. However, making space for people whose brains work in different ways is a fairly new way of thinking about inclusion.

We tend to think of human behavior along a spectrum called “normal” and categorize people who think and behave in different ways as “abnormal”. These differences in behavior are often diagnosed as autism, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette Syndrome, etc.

I don’t think of neurodivergent people as abnormal or disabled. They simply receive information about the world and process it in different ways. In fact, no two people see and respond to the world in the same way. We all need to make accommodations for these differences whether we’re talking about introversion, extraversion, autism, or dyslexia.

As a leader, it’s my job to make sure that everyone on a team has an environment that allows them to be their authentic selves and also do their best work. I’ve found that when I understand the different ways my team members see the world, I can change the environment in a way that supports their natural working style. Surprisingly, I often find that these changes help the other members of the team who would be considered “neurotypical”.

Deduce, Don’t Diagnose

If you have someone on your team who seems to be a neurodivergent person, please don’t try to diagnose them. You probably don’t have the training required to make such a diagnosis, and the team member will probably react negatively to your attempts to do so. Instead, silently make observations and then use your powers of deduction to determine your course of action.

This post describes behaviors that are usually characteristics of neurodiverse people. For each type of observed behavior, I give a suggested accommodation as well as an explanation of how the accommodation helps the entire team.

It’s important that you don’t frame these accommodations as things you’re doing to “help” or “fix” the neurodiverse member of the team. In fact, you can propose and implement these changes as improvements meant to help everyone. This has the additional benefit of being true.

Characteristic: Short Attention Span

Your team member has difficulty focusing on one thing for a sustained period of time. They tend to jump from item to item while rarely getting any one thing done.

Remediation: An Ordered Backlog and Limit WIP

A common practice in Agile software development is having a product backlog sorted in priority order that informs the work of the development team. The work is often displayed on a “board” where it moves from various states like “Not Started”, “In Progress”, “In Peer Review”, “QA”, and “Done”. To keep work flowing, many Agile teams put “Work in Progress” (WIP) limit on each column. This makes sure that only a certain number of items can be each state. If a column is at its WIP limit, then the team swarms to unblock things downstream.

Even if you aren’t practicing Agile software development, using the concepts of an ordered backlog and WIP limits can be a powerful way to manage tasks. Provide a list of things for your team member to work on and make sure they are in priority order. Make sure they know that an item has to be completed before the next one can be started.

How This Helps the Entire Team

Humans are empirically bad at multi-tasking, and structuring work in this way will benefit the entire team.

Characteristic: Distractibility

Your team member has trouble tuning out the external environment. They tend to be easily interrupted by any change (e.g., people walking by, an unexpected noise, etc.) and are slow to return to their task.

Remediation: Environment Design

Create an environment that limits distractions. If possible, position this person in a part of the office that has low traffic and a door that can be closed. Also, suggest that they remove distractions by silencing notifications and using a separate computer for things like email, chat. etc.

How This Helps the Entire Team

Everyone is susceptible to distraction, and we all have to deal with an almost unlimited supply of things that can take our minds off work. Creating a place where the entire team can harness their full attention will help everyone.

Characteristic: Hyper-focusing

Despite exhibiting a short attention span and being easily distracted, when your team member can focus, they enter an almost zen like state where they are totally absorbed by their work. They become totally oblivious to everything else and can lose track of time.

Remediation: Timebox Work

Work with your team member to divide their work into manageable chunks. Schedule regular checkpoints that act as a force function to help your team member emerge from the cocoon of their hyper-focused state.

How This Helps the Entire Team

Dividing large pieces of work into smaller units helps everyone think about their work and show measurable progress. By checking in with the team at regular intervals, you can detect things that are blocking your team. Most Agile teams have daily stand-ups (in person or virtual) to regularly check progress.

Summary

Creating an environment that accommodates neurodiverse team members helps the entire team. By structuring your team’s work, thoughtfully designing their work environment, and setting up regular checkpoints, the flow of work across your team will improve. You’ll also create a more inclusive environment.