Last week I wrote an article about my own brush with bipolarism and how mental illness can actually be a positive experience. It seemed to strike a nerve. It fast became one of our most popular articles and was kindly reposted by The Drum (where it’s had over a thousand shares). Thank you to everyone who spread it around and for all the wonderfully positive messages I’ve received.

Most people haven’t heard of neurodiversity

However, what I really want people to think about is bigger than mental illness. It’s about embracing every form of mental variance. The term for it is neurodiversity.

Most people haven’t heard of neurodiversity. And amongst those that have, you’ll find different interpretations of what it means. I’ll do my best to explain my understanding of it and why I think it’s important for business. (If you disagree, or have a different understanding, please use the comments below to share your thoughts.)

What is this neurodiversity thing?

Quite simply, neurodiversity describes all variance in the way people’s brains work. And that doesn’t just mean mental illness. It also covers natural variances like autism, ADHD and dyslexia. And brain injuries too. These can all be reasons for people to behave in ways that don’t fit into our definition of ‘normal’. Maybe this diagram explains it better:

Neurodiversity - natural variation, injury and illness

Everyone has their own definition of ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ behaviour. That includes manners, customs, traditions, societal standards and what the psychological profession refer to as ’norms’. When people regularly veer from these expectations – for whatever reason – it makes us feel uncomfortable. At best we tend to label these individuals as being rude. But when their behaviour is more severe and consistently falls outside our definition of ‘normal’ we use more negative labels like ‘weird’, ‘abnormal’ or ‘mentally ill’. Read those words again and see how they diminish a person. They have a stigma. And they lead to people being excluded to prevent our social discomfort.

This is damaging both to ourselves and the organisations we work for.

The push to conformity

One of the ways that people bond is by demonstrating how similar they are to each other. Young dating couples will often lie to each other about the films, books and music they like in an effort to build a connection. And people in business collect around the same views and opinions – not because they’ve thought them through – but because influential people seem to think that way.

There’s an irresistible pull to the middle that discourages different thinking

There’s an irresistible pull to the middle that discourages different thinking and alternative approaches. Employees are sucked into the homogenous circle of normality. This is the real culture of the company; it’s the unwritten understandings and behaviours that are considered ‘normal’.

You can see it in the work uniform. Lawyers dress like lawyers. Bricklayers dress like bricklayers. Your organisation may not have a written mandate that ‘this is what you wear’ but I’m sure a quick look around at your colleagues will show that most people dress pretty similarly. Suits are not really any different to builder’s wear. A tie seems to be just as necessary in most offices as a hard hat is on most worksites.

And creative industries are no different. My jeans, converse, t-shirt, pretentious facial hair and bold eyewear are not uncommon in advertising. If I had worn a three-piece suit into any of the agencies I worked at, I would have got weird looks (I actually did for my first week in advertising and I didn’t just get looks – I was a laughing stock!)

The way you dress affects the way you feel. It helps to put you into character. And that character is usually pretty similar to the other characters wearing the same uniform.

The result is homogeneity. Which is the opposite of creativity.

Why should you want a neurodiverse workforce?

I’m taking it for granted that you believe the world of business needs fresh ideas. If you disagree with this, I have no idea what you’re doing on this page right now when there are Donald Trump speeches you could be watching.

A diverse and neurodiverse workforce brings with it a wider range of knowledge, experience, opinions, skills and perspectives than a homogenous workforce. Look at the inner dotted circle in the diagram above. Any thinking inside this circle is stale and predictable. It’s the thinking from outside this area that leads to more insightful, more interesting, more impactful ideas. That can give your organisation a real advantage over the competition.

Choose people for their strengths

Most people see neurodiverse conditions like ADHD, depression, anxiety and autism as weaknesses. They see them as debilitating drawbacks that make the people who have them less valuable and more of a liability. Our language doesn’t help. Just think of the terms we use: ‘sufferer’, ‘disorder’, ‘illness’, ‘issue’. But as I said in my article last week, these ‘ailments’ can be viewed as superpowers. They come with positives that can make people incredibly valuable. And smart businesses will be able to tap into those (although I’d ask them to do it with sensitivity because there’s also a risk of pigeonholing and exploitation, if it’s done wrong).

Our language doesn’t help

This isn’t a new idea. A couple of months ago I was doing a workshop with Aran when a former HR person for the Metropolitan Police told us they used to hire autistic people to analyse CCTV footage because they were better equipped to concentrate and spot anomalies.

I also received an email last week from someone telling me their anxiety made them the best person for thinking through the details in their organisation.

This isn’t just my own hokey theory. There’s been some research into this.

And this diagram from Genius Within sums it up really neatly (thanks Nancy Doyle‏!)

neurodiversity positive traits

Could this change the way you recruit? Maybe you need more dyslexics. Or people with autism. Or someone with Tourette’s. Their special attributes may be exactly what your company needs. Regardless, it would almost certainly be more valuable for your organisation to hire someone with these abilities than getting another off-the-peg graduate to turn into another identikit employee.

Normal-ville is the saddest and least fulfilling place to beClick To Tweet

 

Embrace neurodiversity

So you may be reading this and thinking ‘I’m not neurodiverse – I’m normal’. That’s a real shame. Because all of our brains are different. We all have neurodiversity.

Thinking you’re ‘normal’ indicates that you’ve been sucked into that limiting definition and that you’ve pruned off all the interesting stuff that sits outside the perceived boundary.

By trying to be like everyone else, you make yourself no more valuable than anyone else

I personally think normal-ville is the saddest and least fulfilling place to be. It involves stifling your ambitions, neglecting your passions and trying to be as much like everyone else as possible. That makes you replaceable, generic and unfulfilled. By trying to be like everyone else, you make yourself no more valuable than anyone else.

I think it’s so much better for you and your employer if you embrace your difference and try not to exist solely within the circle of normality. Resist the magnetic pull to the centre.

Resist the magnetic pull to the centre

And, let me repeat, this applies to every industry. Some of the ad agencies I’ve worked in, as much as they are supposed to be creative, had a powerful pull to the centre of adequacy.

I can say the same for broadcasters. And design companies. And digital agencies.

Maybe this diagram sums it up best:

Neurodiversity - diversity is beautiful

Just look at how much more potential there is when you embrace difference. The opportunities are broader. And this applies to every form of difference – gender, race, sexuality, neurodiversity, political views, religion and anything else you can imagine.

If there is one thing that sums up the journey through our diversity and divergency series, this is probably it.

Resist the pull to the centre. Embrace a world of difference.

Look at how much more potential there is when you embrace differenceClick To Tweet
https://i2.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/neurodiversity_brains.jpg?fit=1024%2C576https://i2.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/neurodiversity_brains.jpg?resize=150%2C150Dave BirssDiversity & DivergencyADHD,anxiety,asd,autism,depression,diversity,dyscalculia,dyslexia,neuro,neurodiversity,normal
Last week I wrote an article about my own brush with bipolarism and how mental illness can actually be a positive experience. It seemed to strike a nerve. It fast became one of our most popular articles and was kindly reposted by The Drum (where it’s had over a...
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Dave Birss
Founder and Editor at OpenForIdeas.org
Dave is obsessed with creativity. He's been a musician, illustrator, stand-up comedian, poet, radio DJ, television presenter and advertising creative director. He also wrote A User Guide to the Creative Mind.
Now he runs Open for Ideas and helps individuals and companies become more creative.
You can find him speaking at conferences all over the world. And sharing his thinking in boardrooms, universities and dimly-lit pubs.