Why leaders must embrace neurodiversity to make better decisions


It’s not uncommon to see corporate teams that don’t function as well as they should or could. Their underperformance becomes increasingly apparent at times of critical decision making. Faced with a problem as complex and destabilising as the lingering COVID-19 virus, it’s clear we need more neurodiversity -- people who think differently -- on our teams to provide different experiences and different perspectives on the challenges ahead. 

A group diverse in terms of nationality or gender doesn’t necessarily think differently; a team’s members might look different but think along the same lines. A team which is neurodiverse as well as containing other forms of diversity will have access to the widest possible range of tools and information and subsequently be able to solve problems effectively. A ‘neurotypical’ team may perform brilliantly when faced with simple problems because repetition of the same perspective simply confirms accuracy. However, to solve complex problems, you need to assemble a complex meeting of minds, in which team members are guaranteed to come at problems from new angles. 

How do you assemble a neurodiverse team?

1. Focus on inclusion and encourage people to speak up 

Bringing together a neurodiverse team is not enough. Teams need processes and systems which ensure the diversity can have an impact by embracing inclusion. Inclusion at work means that all of the individual – their background, experience, opinions – can authentically be brought to the table.                                     

All teams have a natural tendency to focus on shared information i.e. things that everyone already knows. This feels like safe ground and is comfortable. But safe ground isn’t the most imaginatively fertile. Quality decision making requires insights drawing on information that isn’t readily available. To unlock the neurodiversity of a team, its members have to feel safe to share their views -- without anxiety and fear of judgement – even if it clashes with the status quo.  

Employees are resources and leaders who create cultures in which they can get the most from those resources tend to generate better decisions.

2. Encourage independent thinking

Good leaders know how to extract information from all the team members, including introverts and those with less status or experience. Leaders who work hard to unearth all the alternative answers – rather than looking for the simplest one – tend to score high marks from their teams.

Teams avoid bias when they understand how to gather and evaluate different ideas.

Once every member of a team has contributed their viewpoint, leaders have to actively ensure that team members remain confident in voicing their opinion.

How the team ‘votes’ makes a big difference to the quality of the decision. If you ask the ‘expert’ or the leader to speak first, you risk compromising the quality of answers. Going around the room is no better because naturally the inexperienced or introverted individuals will feel pressured to conform to what has gone before. 

In an ideal universe, teams would develop a culture where people could speak up independently in all circumstances. Until then, leaders, and especially those of new teams, have to be rigorous – first, in selecting neurodiverse teams and then creating an atmosphere in which they can thrive through inclusive practices. Even if leaders still see the final decision as their personal responsibility, taking these two steps will equip them to make more informed decisions. 

So, what can you do as a leader?

a) Select a new project team

  • Ask yourself, given what this team needs to achieve, what kinds of diversity of thinking are the most important?
  • Ask other people what they think about the diversity most useful to have in the team.
  • Don’t select the “usual suspects”. Look across organisational and geographic boundaries.

b) Avoid bias by inclusion 

  • Make the importance of sharing perspectives and dissenting views a subject for active discussion. 
  • Set expectations for inclusive behaviour in the team, such as active listening and avoiding early judgements. Model those behaviours yourself. 
  • Pay attention to social dynamics in the team to avoid cliques forming.
  • Invite contribution from everyone. Take into account seniority, introversion, communication and language skills, experience, etc.
  • Throughout the pandemic, Zoom meetings have made it obvious when one team-member dominates the conversation; their screen becomes the prominent display or is outlined in a colourful box. If you’re meeting virtually, be especially vigilant in ensuring that discussions include everyone. 
  • Pay attention to the emotions and fluctuating confidence of team members – make sure you know what it looks like for each of them to be engaged. 
  • To avoid group think, consider bringing in ‘critical friends’ from outside the group to provide an objective peer review.

c) Make independent unbiased decisions 

  • Don’t give your own opinion first.
  • Don’t allow any individual – or cluster of individuals – to dominate the decision-making discussion. This is crucial in the early stages; if team-members stop talking early on, it will become increasingly hard for them to contribute.
  • Consider using an independent facilitator for the decision-making discussion.
  • If the team is responsible for making a decision, consider a system of private voting to encourage people to register an independent conclusion.

 Any organisation can recruit the brightest and the best in their field, but if they fail to take the importance of neurodiversity seriously, they’ll miss out on its ability to build competitive advantage.