According to recent estimates, between 15 and 20 percent of the world’s population is neurodivergent. Although our understanding of the brain has taken some massive leaps forward, a large proportion of neurodivergent people do not have a formal diagnosis.
The advantages for employers with neuroinclusive cultures are significant. Not only do they open important pools of talent, but they are also recognising that everyone’s brain is different. This can enable a substantial increase in collaboration, innovation and productivity.
My guest this week is Ed Thompson, Founder and CEO of Uptimize and author of the new book “A Hidden Force: Unlocking the Potential of Neurodiversity at Work”. Ed has a vast amount of knowledge and experience to share on how to increase neuroinclusion.
In the interview, we discuss:
• Different brains
• Belonging, collaboration and innovation
• Common misconceptions
• The dangers of ignoring neurodiversity
• Boulders in the road; building an inclusive recruiting process
• Culture change
• Challenging the norm
• The future for neuroinclusion
Matt Alder (1m 7s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 522 of the Recruiting Future podcast. According to recent estimates, between 15 and 20 percent of the world’s population is neurodivergent. Although our understanding of the brain has taken some massive leaps forward, a large proportion of neurodivergent people do not have a formal diagnosis. The advantages for employers with neuroinclusive cultures are significant. Not only do they open important pools of talent, but they’re also recognizing that everyone’s brain is different. This can enable a substantial increase in collaboration, innovation, and productivity.
Matt Alder (1m 52s):
My guest this week is Ed Thompson, Founder and CEO of Uptimize, an author of the new book, A Hidden Force Unlocking, the Potential of Neurodiversity at Work. Ed has a vast amount of knowledge and experience to share on how to increase neuroinclusion. Hi, Ed, and welcome to the podcast.
Ed Thompson (2m 15s):
Thank you. Great to be here.
Matt Alder (2m 16s):
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Please, could you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Ed Thompson (2m 22s):
I am Ed Thompson. I am the Founder and CEO of Uptimize. That’s Uptimize.com with a Z. We are a leading training company globally in Neuroinclusion. We’ve been going since 2016. A few years into that journey, I felt compelled to share some of the energy and excitement I’d seen in this nascent, but to me, very belated space of how do we include people who have different brains in the workplace. I wanted to write a book about it. I started that journey three years ago and that was released in April of 2023.
Ed Thompson (3m 4s):
That book is called A Hidden Force Unlocking, the Potential of Neurodiversity at Work.
Matt Alder (3m 10s):
Well, congratulations on the book launch. Tell us a little bit more about it. What’s the background to it? Why did you write it and what’s it about?
Ed Thompson (3m 18s):
Yeah, I think this really ties to my own story. Inevitably, how did I get into this area? My background was nothing to do with really people or diversity in the workplace until I went to work for a tech company in London. I was on the leadership team working for the CEO and slightly to my surprise, his priorities and therefore my priorities were all around people. How do we hire the best people? How do we hire talent fast enough? How do we make sure we really build the workplace of the future that we know needs to be diverse and leverage diversity of thought?
Ed Thompson (3m 59s):
I got involved in talent and strategic diversity programs through that and then through some family members who are autistic and lifelong autistic self-advocates talking to me about the Neurodiversity field and encouraging me to bring some of what I’d been doing to their field. That resonating with me, particularly because I’d had a traumatic brain injury about five, 10 years before that. I was still getting over. I started to build, optimize, realizing that, “Gosh, if we’re talking about talent being overlooked and marginalized and this being an opportunity both for business impact and social impact, and this is absolutely huge and organizations don’t know anything about it, and I’m gonna change that.”
Ed Thompson (4m 51s):
That was the genesis of Uptimize. I think one of the first realizations that I wanted to share with the world initially through the business and then ultimately through the book further realizations followed really as you start understanding, well what is Neurodiversity? You realize actually this is simply the fact that we all have different brains. Any interaction at work, whether it’s a meeting, an interview, a conversation with your boss, whatever it is, involves human neurodiversity. If we are not paying attention to that, then we are not gonna get the best outcomes in terms of belonging collaboration, innovation, and so on.
Ed Thompson (5m 33s):
That was another major thing as we began our work. We saw how often and how obviously organizations weren’t necessarily hiring the best people, that the best candidates were getting excluded in hiring processes. I know that’s gonna be particularly of interest to your listeners here.
Matt Alder (5m 51s):
Ed Thompson (5m 53s):
All of these things just piled up and somebody who’s written multiple books said to me the other day, there’s two types of books. There’s this book that you try to come up with, maybe you are a fiction writer and trying to come up with your fifth book because you know you need to release another one. Then there’s the books that just tumble out of you. Because of everything I’ve just explained, this was really very much a book that tumbled out of me. I wanted to share all of that. I wanted to share the excitement of it. I wanted to explain and investigate why is it that we haven’t been talking about this stuff as humans until the 21st century.
Ed Thompson (6m 34s):
Given that human collaboration of course is hundreds of thousands of years old, why are we not talking about the fact that we’ve got different brains? If we do, what can that mean in terms of what you can bring to your own work and then what you can bring to your organization?
Matt Alder (6m 49s):
It’s really important, interesting stuff. I really wanna dig into some of the themes that you bring up in the book, but really starting with what you just said there about the understanding of of Neurodiversity and certainly, over the last four or five years maybe, we’ve seen much more discussion about it. Companies really, diving in and working out how they can be inclusive. There’s a building understanding around it. What are the biggest misconceptions and why has it taken so long for it to come to the center of conversation?
Ed Thompson (7m 28s):
Well, I find that fascinating. I’m glad you asked it. As somebody who studied history and actually from a family of historians, I really enjoyed looking at some of the history of this and the extent to which human societies have not talked about Neurodiversity, where that started to change, and the way it started to change. Of course, the way it started to change was in the medical field where you had doctors coming up with reports, theories, and terms for patients, for example, dyslexia, for example, autism and so on.
Ed Thompson (8m 10s):
These are all fairly recent. We’re talking over only really in the last hundred or so years, which is pretty recent when you’re talking about the big sweep of human history. Then you have a period where these things exist as medical conditions with shifting diagnostic criteria. It’s only in the 1990s that you have the birth of what’s called the Neurodiversity movement, which is neurodivergent, people talking about being neurodivergent in a slightly different way and starting to talk amongst themselves. Then even more broadly about the idea that Neurodiversity might just be a natural variation in human brain wiring and actually not necessarily something that should be stigmatized.
Ed Thompson (9m 0s):
In the way it is as simply a negative or simply as a disability and no more. Now if we think why are we only talking about this now? Diversity and inclusion as a thing. If you like DE&I, whatever you wanna call it, that’s been around since the sixties and you have cases of organizations being taken to task in the seventies and paying fines because they’re not doing enough to be inclusive, but that’s 20 years or so before anyone even used the word Neurodiversity. Neurodiversity always been playing catch up. What’s interesting to me is that actually, we hear this from some smaller companies is that I think if you were looking at diversity and inclusion and you’d never done anything and you’re a new company, and obviously some companies are in that space, makes a lot of sense actually to start with it.
Ed Thompson (9m 54s):
Not to do this as the final piece in the puzzle, but actually say, “Well, look. Our people are our most expensive asset. What’s the major tool that they’re all bringing to work every day? Whoever they are, whatever their ethnicity, or gender, and so on, and how can we start being inclusive of that? I think that’s a powerful prism then to get into other forms of difference. It’s a way that we can start talking about difference in a positive way and embracing it. Everybody can get the idea that, “Look, if we have different brains working on a problem, that’s a good thing. I think positive things can come from there rather than just tacking it on because, “Gosh, another thing people are talking about it.”
Ed Thompson (10m 37s):
Let’s do it just because of the societal pressure. I think you are missing something in that sense.
Matt Alder (10m 42s):
You’re basically saying that it should be important to every organization and a central part of their thinking. What are the dangers of ignoring it?
Ed Thompson (10m 54s):
Yeah, I think the dangers of ignoring it are major business impact leading to reduced business performance, if you like. Not to sound too great, but what I mean by that is I think it’s pretty easy to see the dangers of ignoring this as major elements of failing to meet business or corporate goals. It’s interesting. If you look at annual reports these days, you look at what CEOs are talking about and the CEO I worked for that I mentioned was no different these days.
Ed Thompson (11m 36s):
CEO priorities are what used to be HR priorities. It’s how do we keep people around? It’s reducing turnover. It’s attracting talent. It’s productivity. It’s innovation. All of those things and all of those things really matter at the moment. They’re not just HR buzzwords. People are genuinely struggling to fill roles. One in three, one in four corporate employees are voluntarily leaving every year productivity is down. Innovation in a world now where the average lifespan of a company has absolutely plummeted in the last 50 or so years down to about 15 years, and it’s getting shorter and shorter.
Ed Thompson (12m 18s):
No, that’s not just a buzzword. That’s if you’re not innovating in the 21st century, you are gonna be out innovated and you’re gonna be in trouble. I think we can easily link ignoring Neurodiversity to all of those things. If you have a culture and an environment where significant chunk of people feel marginalized, feel uncomfortable, feel unable to share their true selves, we know there’s a link to turnover there. Not surprisingly, we know that not surfacing some of these things is going to impact not just productivity, but also collaboration. You’ve got a team of different brains and we’re just working the way the manager likes to work, that’s not gonna get the best out of ourselves.
Ed Thompson (12m 60s):
Then the same thing with innovation. If we’re missing out on talent that thinks differently and we don’t have a culture that allows them to be themselves and do their best work and surface their ideas in a culture of psychological safety, then we are going to reduce the likelihood of innovative outcomes.
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Matt Alder (13m 49s):
Digging into that a bit deeper and going back to something you said earlier about companies not necessarily hiring the best people. What can employers do to really make sure they are hiring the best people, making Neurodiversity a real proactive part of their talent strategy?
Ed Thompson (14m 11s):
Yeah, it’s a great question. Chapter in the book called Boulders in the road, which is all about this. I think that the idea of Boulders in the road, the idea of stuff getting in the way of hiring people, but it’s unintentional. I think that’s quite a good metaphor and particularly good for hiring processes. Let’s start thinking about the experience of a candidate and we can start identifying these Boulders. A candidate goes to a careers website and they see a lot of stuff about diversity and inclusivity, but they don’t see anything about Neurodiversity.
Ed Thompson (14m 54s):
That’s very, very common. It’s very few companies these days that will say, “We actively welcome people who think differently,” so immediately we know this from our focus groups. People will think, “Well, they don’t get people like me.” Same thing with job descriptions and so on. Then once people get to some of those interfaces, job descriptions, application forms, there can be all sorts of friction points or Boulders in the road there. Unclear text jargon, timed application forms that are difficult to follow, eye pressure, and so on. Then of course, applicant filtering tools can easily be problematic, whether it’s psychometric tests, whether it’s software that requires candidates to take videos of themselves.
Ed Thompson (15m 43s):
Of course, some people are gonna enjoy that and like it. Some people aren’t. Whether it’s recruiters saying, “We need everybody to have had no more than a three month gap in their CV,” when we know that neurodivergent people may well have had a longer time underemployed for reasons that are outside of their control. Then we get to interviews and of course, if interviewers are interviewing without much familiarity of Neurodiversity, they can punish somebody who speaks with a flatter. They can punish somebody who doesn’t make eye contact. They can punish somebody who doesn’t appear to perfectly wrap up their sentences or their thoughts.
Ed Thompson (16m 24s):
All of these things are where talent is dropping off, right? That’s where we would teach in the training we do at Uptimize. How we reduce all of those things. We look at this funnel, where are the gaps? How do we address the gaps? Surprise, surprise. We’re able to hire people who think differently.
Matt Alder (16m 46s):
Expanding that out more generally, how can employers be more inclusive when it comes to a neurodivergent workforce?
Ed Thompson (16m 54s):
What organizations can do about being more inclusive, it has to start with Culture change. Most people don’t know much about Neurodiversity and often what people think they know is wrong. In all of these interactions at work, again, interviews, meetings, whatever it is, slack chats, I mean anything that are taking place between different brains, most of the time people aren’t thinking about that. That makes for some of these Boulders that we’ve described. It also makes for cultures where people don’t feel they can be themselves. They don’t feel like they can disclose and so on.
Ed Thompson (17m 36s):
We have to address that and we can address that through awareness and Neurodiversity appreciation, change training. People start realizing that they work in a neurodiverse context and then they start learning how to bring neuroinclusive principles into their work in specific roles, whether managers, recruiters, HR, or so on. As people start being more cognizant of Neurodiversity around them and understanding what some of those friction points and Boulders might be, they often are able to pretty quickly take solutions into their own work to be able to achieve Neuroinclusion at scale in an organization.
Matt Alder (18m 26s):
You talk about Culture change there and with the best will in the world, that’s something that takes a long time to happen. There’s lots of leaders and managers who are listening to this. What advice could you give them of something that they could do right now to engage the different type of thinkers that they work with?
Ed Thompson (18m 48s):
Yeah, absolutely. For me, it’s recognizing not only the Neurodiversity of your team, right? However many folks work for you, they all have a different brain. They all have different preferences. We do a survey of them in terms of how they like to communicate, problem solve work, the times of day they like to work, and so on, the types of tasks they like to do. We’re gonna get different answers and that’s because they’ve all got different brains and different brain worrying,but so do you, right? You are one brain within that context. I think what managers can do is start being more cognizant of both of those things that their team thinks differently, but also, so do they in that context and actually starting to have conversations around these things that have nothing to do with diagnoses or “conditions”
Ed Thompson (19m 41s):
and so on. Just start to recognize that everything you are doing as a team, you are bringing your own brain, you are bringing your own preferences as a result and so is everybody else. The types of things you could do, let’s say around communication, you could do this to your team or you could do this to a new team member. You could say, “Look, here’s how I like to communicate. Here’s how I like to give instructions. Here’s how I like to get feedback. Does that work for you? How do you want me to give instructions? What is gonna work best for you?” Not to assume that how you like to do it is how they like to do it. There’s an interviewee I spoke to for the book who said it took about three months to pluck up the courage to cough to her manager and say, “Look, the way you are giving me instructions, completely not working for me.”
Ed Thompson (20m 34s):
I think what you could do as a manager is to start the conversation by surfacing your own preferences, but then use that as a way to understand other people’s preferences and if necessary, tailor those to them. Another example, again, I’ve mentioned problem solving. Well, what do we mean by that? Let’s say you want to do a strategic planning exercise with your team as a leader. Now you probably have a preferred way of doing that, but so does everybody else. Now, not everybody is going to want to be a verbal thinker at the whiteboard, visual, and draw boxes on the board.
Ed Thompson (21m 18s):
That for me, that works quite well, but I know that doesn’t work for everybody. What you can do is you can say, “Look, here’s how I like to problem solve. How do you want to contribute to this strategy? Do you want to share ideas ahead of time? Do you want to see the output of everybody else’s thoughts? Then spend some time working through that before you make a contribution. Same things with things like meetings and so on. Don’t just assume that the way you like to do it or even what you perceive as the norm is gonna work for everybody. I think if you start having those kinds of conversations, you give people a really safe and productive space to say, “Actually, thank you because my preference is really this, and if you allow me to work within the corridor of my preference, you’re gonna to get the best out of me.”
Matt Alder (22m 7s):
As a final question and looking towards the future, there’s an ever growing understanding of the way that the human brain works and the diversity of the human brain. I suppose I’m thinking particularly of any parents who might be listening who have children who’ve been diagnosed as neurodiverse. What do you think the future of work will look like? How are things gonna evolve over the next decade or so?
Ed Thompson (22m 35s):
Yeah, also a great question. Also, something I tried to tackle in the last chapter of the book, which really I think goes back to the importance of this in a context of disruption, change, and of course, technology and AI, and so on. I think it should look like a growing appreciation of what humans diverse humans can do together and increased efforts to get the absolute maximum out our human capital in order to some extent, fend off the machines, but to some extent optimize the machines as well.
Ed Thompson (23m 20s):
I hope that everything we are seeing now, whether it’s the appreciation of prevalence and the increased diagnostic rates, whether it’s the amount of celebrities and voices, not just celebrities, but also individuals talking about their neurodivergence in a nuanced way that points out the strengths that they bring as well as any challenges they faced and the continued efforts of leading employers to say, this is something we value and we want to take seriously. I do hope that within the next five to 10 years, and we’ve seen enormous change in the last five or so, that this is something that becomes a lot more normal and somebody can go to an interview and disclose with confidence and the folks that they disclose to are totally equipped to interview that person constructively, fairly, and effectively in order to give them the best chance to put their best foot forward.
Ed Thompson (24m 27s):
We’ve seen that and I think the interesting thing when we talk about the future, we at Uptimize and with my role there and also writing the book, I think we’ve seen pretty much everything that needs to happen happen. It’s just a question of scale and really bringing this to the economy in a wider fashion. We’ve seen teams face major challenges, for example, during Covid, and deliberately put highly neurodiverse teams together to meet them and then to see that have great results. We’ve seen the impact of on collaboration where people start to recognize the way that they think differently.
Ed Thompson (25m 7s):
We’ve seen the impact on recruitment and so on. I think it’s all there and I think the change, we’ll see, I hope is that this becomes a reality at scale and not just the privilege of the lucky few who work with organizations that get it.
Matt Alder (25m 21s):
Ed, thank you very much for talking to me.
Ed Thompson (25m 24s):
Matt Alder (25m 59s):
You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at recruitingfuture.com. On that site, you can also subscribe to the mailing list, Recruiting Future Feast, and get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.