Neurodiversity

Getting the Best from Scientists, Technologists, Engineers and Mathematicians (STEM)

Sally Moore, Dr Nick Kambitsis, Emma Seward

Executive summary

This research explores neurodiversity – the science of differently wired brains – and how it might add value for businesses and organisations looking to get the best from their STEM (Scientists, Technologists, Engineers and Mathematicians) talent. STEM skills are important for businesses now and will be more so in the future as reliance on information and technology continues to increase. Getting the best from STEMs is a challenge for businesses and a good, but not always easy, thing to do well. This is because STEMs, with their excellent thinking and technical skills, are not always so good with people, or seeing the business perspective.

We explain neurodiversity, the autistic spectrum, Asperger Syndrome (AS) and systemizing minds. Around 40% of STEMS are known to be systemizers – people who have qualitatively similar, but less extreme characteristics to AS (Baron-Cohen, S, 2004). We know the strengths people with AS can offer in the workplace and the challenges they face. We were interested in how these might map onto the strengths and challenges described by STEM and their employers.

Our research found strong qualitative similarities between the issues known to occur for people with AS and for STEM. There was recognition that the creative, logical problem solving skills and personal qualities of STEMs are critical for business success. Challenges included; problems with seeing the big picture, team working, organizing and delivering effective communication, over-attention to detail, taking longer to adapt to change and lack of flexibility.

STEMs themselves reported the need for interesting work and the pleasure of solving difficult problems. They also reported frustration when their thinking seemed to be ahead of others, and anxiety in the face of increased social expectations.

Organisations whose existence is highly dependent on STEM talent have made changes to appeal to STEMs in terms of values, recruitment, peer feedback, motivation and career structure. Others had taken a different route of managing out more “extreme” STEM and perhaps missing out on opportunities to make the most of the strengths they can bring. Our research shows that the “fit” of STEMs in the workplace is one that businesses see as important.

Research into AS over the last 20 years means much has been learnt about what works to get the best outcomes in terms of environmental fit, development and performance. These interventions are based on understanding neurodiversity – how a person experiences the world and how they learn. They involve working with the person and educating those around them.

What works with AS can be modified for those with a qualitatively similar profile and delivered in a prestigious and differentiated way. Neurodiversity offers a new way of thinking about how businesses and STEM can get the very best from each other.

“The Science of Today is the Technology of Tomorrow”, Edward Teller, American Physicist

STEM in business

New ideas, innovation, technology, science and engineering have never been more important in the national and global economies. In the 21st century, skills in these areas are not only essential, where they are core to what the business does, e.g. pharmaceuticals or IT; they are increasingly central to the way organisations in all sectors make money, save money and deliver to their customers.

To a large extent, the people who have these skills and come up with these crucial ideas do so because they think differently. Often colloquially referred to as STEMs, geeks or supergeeks, they are a diverse group and can experience the world and their working lives differently from others. While these differences bring clear strengths to the organisations and businesses they work for, they also bring challenges. For example, people who excel at working with systems, machines, numbers and computers, vary greatly in how well they do in working with other people or understanding the commercial perspective.
When thinking about this with our client organisations, a number of questions and issues emerge. They include:

  • How do businesses and organisations make sense of people with highly technical and less social minds?
  • What does top performance look like and how to get it? What are the possibilities for a business that can do this better than a competitor?
  • How can increasing expectations for collaboration and team working be met?
  • How can the highly technical be helped to communicate better with the non-technical and / or with customers?
  • How can they work more effectively in a team and / or with the marketing or finance department?
  • How do you access the really great ideas when understanding and communication are difficult? What are the potential costs of a competitor who has better ways of getting to the ideas that make or save millions?
  • How can creativity fit better with organisational objectives?
  • What are the optimum ways of managing motivation, career paths and rewards?
  • What needs to be considered in managing and leading STEM? Who make the best leaders and what do they need?

Our research

Our research set out to answer some of these questions and focused on Scientists, Technologists, Engineers and Mathematicians (STEM) in the workplace. Through semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders; HR professionals, managers, and STEM individuals, we explored experiences of working with / for STEM professionals. We had the aim of identifying the key challenges faced by organisations, teams, business leaders and STEM individuals themselves. We were interested in finding out how these challenges were understood and addressed.

We also wanted to gauge how some of the theory and research around neurodiversity – which addresses how brains are wired differently – might add value within this context. The rationale for considering neurodiversity originates from the past experience of one author (Sally Moore) working with people who have Asperger Syndrome. Research evidence shows that people with Asperger’s gravitate toward STEM occupations and qualitatively similar facets of Asperger’s are found in up to 40% of STEM professionals.

The organisations that took part in our research included Roche, IBM, PPMLD, Aimia, Medimmune and people who have worked for GSK.

Neurodiversity explained

Those interested in getting the best out of top talent recognise the value in understanding different personality styles and the importance of Emotional Intelligence. A clear hunger for better, science-based understanding of workplace behaviours is evidenced by increased interest in and application of neuroscience. Neurodiversity digs deeper to add value to these approaches and is particularly useful for those people often referred to as having high IQ / low EQ.

Neurodiversity is an area of neuroscience that focuses on how brains vary in development, structure and function. Familiar brain differences include left or right-handedness, clumsiness, IQ and giftedness for art, mathematics or music. Less familiar to those without personal or professional experience are differences such as learning disabilities, ADHD, Tourette’s, dyslexia and autism.

One area of neurodiversity that offers tantalizing possibilities for understanding and getting the best from top technical talent is that of high functioning autism – synonymous with Asperger Syndrome (AS). People with AS, at the highest functioning end of the autistic spectrum have fluent language and average to highly superior intelligence. A “bottleneck” in social understanding relative to overall intelligence is the core characteristic of AS.

Around 1-2% of the general population is estimated to have AS and many have not been formally diagnosed. Research shows there are many more people – 40% of men and 20% of women – with qualitatively similar characteristics. These percentages are higher for people working in STEM occupations (Baron-Cohen et al, 2001). How this presents in the workplace varies widely according to personal style, learned behaviours, culture, environment and how others understand them.

People with AS, or features of it, in the workplace are gifted thinkers – systemizers – who thrive on solving complex problems, but can find interacting with others mysterious and challenging (Baron-Cohen, 2004). Unequivocal strengths include: focus on detail; exceptional concentration; a clear preference for rationality and extraordinary capacity for difficult technical challenges. These are strengths businesses cannot do without.

Common sticking points for people with AS in the workplace, include: lack of commercial awareness; social awkwardness; rigid thinking; excessive perfectionism; resistance to change; disinterest in authority; arrogance; higher likelihood of stress and pedantic use of language. These can impact on performance and working relationships to the extent that businesses see people as too high maintenance to retain.

It is noteworthy that AS, particularly where intellect is high, is fast losing its stigma. It is often reported that in the Silicon Valley, a diagnosis of Asperger’s is almost a badge of honour, even a job qualification. Several famous figures who are often thought of as being “up there” on the spectrum are Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Albert Einstein. Others include Mozart, Isaac Newton and Steven Spielberg. More companies are recognising the value brought by people with Asperger’s and are actively seeking to recruit them. Two examples are SAP and Vodafone.

Our findings

1. Why do organisations need their STEM employees?

There was widespread recognition across the organisations that took part in our research, that STEM talent had much to offer the business. STEMs are described as “at the forefront of the latest research” and the ones who bring the “cutting edge science” into the organisation. In this respect, they are indispensable to organisations that rely on scientific and technical innovation to create new products. In some of the larger organisations that see their STEM talent as the powerhouse of innovation, there is an expectation that senior STEM leaders will have a key role in representing the organisation externally by writing papers, speaking at prestigious conferences and winning prizes in their fields.

There were, in addition, a number of personal qualities that STEMs possess, which our interviewees believe add real value to the organisation:

  • “STEMs are themselves, as a group, very diverse and this leads to quirky innovation and creativity.”
  • “They are organised and logical in their thinking and planning.”
  • “They are direct and don’t stand on ceremony.”
  • “Because they focus on data, one cannot pull the wool over their eyes.”
  • “They deal with conflict in a rational and fact driven way, which often means conflict is dealt with unemotionally.”

Overall, there was widespread agreement within our interview cohort that STEM individuals are and will continue to be critical to business success.

2. What have organisations already put in place to get the best from STEM talent?

It was apparent from our interviews, that the organisations whose very existence depends on STEM talent have, over the years, made significant changes to ensure that they motivate develop and retain their STEM stars. These changes include;

  • Changes to organisational culture: our interviewees mentioned the importance of any employing organisation appealing to the value base of STEM individuals. This may seem obvious, but the values of ‘big business’ – profit; shareholder value; efficiency and productivity – may not be aligned with the value base of STEM talent that is driven by intellectual challenge, rational science, and discovery. Organisations that have got these cultural aspects right, have created environments where STEM talent is assessed by its peers, and promotion is determined by these peers too. These environments are tolerant of risk and failure, and if an idea is good, STEM talent is given the opportunity to develop and test it. Innovation is not stifled. External recognition of STEM talent, whether it’s by publishing research in relevant journals, lecture tours and conferences, or winning scientific / technical prizes, is valued highly within the organisation. In these ways, organisations that rely on their STEM talent, develop ‘a culture of science’ that respects and values the skills and talents that STEM individuals bring.
  • Changes to structures and processes: Some of the organisations we interviewed had created dual-track career paths so that STEM individuals could, if they wish, follow a scientific / technical career ladder and become very senior without managing people. Others talked about not having such fixed career paths because they are large enough as global entities, to fit individual skills to internal roles as they emerge. These organisations also mentioned the importance of job rotation, as a way of getting people out of their areas of expertise and giving them a wider understanding of the business as a whole.
    The creation of internal ‘academies’ and ‘universities’ is another structural change that mimics academic institutions and helps to create a culture that appeals to STEM talent.
    Reward and recognition processes were popular tools in all the organisations we interviewed for motivating STEM talent. Bonus schemes that go well down into the organisational hierarchy, awards for innovation and specific technical / scientific titles to demonstrate status, are commonly used.
3. Key challenges

Analysis of the interviews identified some common challenges, which fall into three main areas:

  • Challenges at an organisational level.
  • Challenges in leading and managing STEM professionals.
  • Challenges identified by STEM individuals themselves.

We describe each of these in more detail below.

Challenges at an organisational level

At an organisational level, a common theme that was mentioned by our interviewees was that STEM individuals are often “less able to see the big picture” and connect their work to the organisational vision and business strategy. One senior HR professional commented that, “They don’t see the business relevance of their ideas – business savvy is often missing. Technical purity alone does not drive decisions.” Another felt that, “STEMs, on the whole, struggle to make a business case and link their ideas to the business strategy – this may mean that organisations end up being conservative.” Overall, STEMs were said to be less commercial in their thinking and less able to think systemically about the impact their contribution has more widely on the organisation.

The attention to detail that STEM talent possess is one of their core strengths, but when overdone, can cause problems with letting go and delegation. One interviewee commented that “Senior STEM talent want to review everything before sign-off and this can grind us to a halt.” Another said that “Inputs from scientists can take a long time to arrive and this means we can’t plan ahead as we would like.”

STEM were also reported as being less able to adapt to change as easily as others, particularly finding rapid change difficult. According to one of our interviewees, their mindset is often “It’s okay to be the way I am.” This lack of flexibility and adaptability can present 21st century organisations, that need to be nimble in their global markets, with some very real problems. For example, “There are challenges around closing down projects that STEM have been working on, which senior business leaders decide are no longer strategically relevant .”

Challenges in leading and managing STEMs

A very common challenge that emerged in the context of leading and managing STEM individuals was that of communication. Our interviewees reported how this plays out in a number of contexts:

  • “They can struggle to break things down to communicate effectively with, or teach others.”
  • “Presentations may be too long and detailed, and they tend to lose themselves in the minutiae.”
  • “It is difficult to find out what they really think so we may be missing out on great ideas that are in their heads. How do we get these ideas out of their heads?”
  • “As introverts they struggle to express themselves when they have a problem.”
  • “I would say that they are not subtle in their communications and can be too direct at times.”

Although being a “subject or technical expert” is highly valued in the organisations that took part in our research, the need to be able to summarise and not “show off” was also identified.

Linked to communication, the skill of influencing was also reported as presenting challenges for those who work with STEMs. Our interviewees agreed that STEMs tend to use linear, rational and logical facts to make their case, and are less likely to pick up on emotions and body language. The consequence of this was said to be that they come across as “persuading assertively.” One of the results of this approach was described by one of our interviewees as follows: “They like to do it their way so conversations about different options can be tough,” and another commented that “They dismiss possible solutions coming from others pretty quickly.” They are therefore less likely to create a common vision to get others on board and less likely to include others’ contributions in problem solving.

A number of challenges were reported in the context of STEMs in teams:

  • “Some struggle to work as part of a team; their preference is to work alone or in narrow silos.”
  • “They like to be seen as the only person who can do a particular task, which has a knock on effect on workload distribution and succession planning.”
  • “In conflict situations, they stick to the facts and use logic, rather than trying to understand the reasons and fears that lie behind the conflict.”
  • “They find it hard to accept constructive feedback, often pushing back using logic and facts.”

As a consequence of the above challenges, the managers of STEMs we spoke to felt that overall, STEM take up more of their time and require more one-to-one attention than other employees. Our cohort of managers reported that: they have to explain things in detail several times and often have to repeat themselves because STEM do not generalise to other similar situations; the consequences of STEMs actions – particularly the emotional ones – need to be broken down and spelt out. Giving constructive feedback will take more time because STEMs push back using logic.

Challenges for STEMs working in organisations

Seven of the individuals we spoke to identified themselves as STEMs, so it was useful to hear about the challenges that they have encountered during their organisational careers.

A number of them reported that they can become easily bored or frustrated if they are not given the right type of work. Typical comments included: “I really need challenging interesting work,” and “Variety is important for me. I like to work on lots of different things and to solve complex problems.”

Some reported that they feel, at times, that they are a few steps ahead of people in their thinking – which can lead to frustration when they believe that others aren’t keeping up with them.

Others mentioned their discomfort in forced social situations: “I am quite happy giving a presentation to 300 people and prefer this to the networking that I am required to do during the coffee break after my presentation.”

Dealing with the challenges – is this the way to go?

Interestingly, a number of organisations we spoke to have adopted strategies to deal with the challenges we have mentioned, by excluding ‘extreme’ STEM individuals. Examples include:

  • Assessments at the recruitment stage that exclude individuals who have poor influencing and communication skills.
  • Rigorous promotion systems that take into account an individual’s performance on a wide range of competencies, rather than only the technical ones.
  • Career paths which mean that if you choose not to manage and lead, you will not qualify as a high potential.
  • The active ‘managing out’ of individuals who only want to work with the technology and science.

Whilst these are effective ways of dealing with extreme STEM talent, there is a danger of excluding individuals who actually have a lot to give to the organisation and we would suggest that there may be alternative ways of dealing with these people.

Discussion and Recommendations

The strengths and challenges identified by our interviewees have a high level of qualitative consistency with those expected of people with moderate facets of AS. This aligns with previous research on AS traits in STEM.

Neurodiversity helps explain why some aspects of ordinary working life can be challenging for some STEMs. It also gives us an evidence base from which we might develop new ways to integrate STEMs more effectively into organisational life. It provides understanding of behaviours that might otherwise undermine working relationships, or be attributed to poor performance. It also offers a way for people to better understand themselves.

Much has been learned about how to support people with a formal diagnosis of AS. This includes ways of working directly with the individual and also involves “enlightening” the environment, so others can make sense of behaviours and respond to them appropriately. These strategies can be modified and applied in the workplace as a prestigious, differentiated offering. The benefits are better performance for the business and a more successful working life for the individual.

Neurodiversity based interventions are not about transforming highly technical people into socialites, nor are they about providing work environments that amount to a sheltered workshop – it is about getting an optimal or “good enough” fit. It is important to caution against stereotyping – STEMs are a diverse group and one size will not fit all. Work environments vary widely in terms of their purpose, structures, policies and culture. Awareness and understanding of the huge variation in how facets of AS features are expressed and the influence of environment, are all key. Interventions are aimed at the individual themselves and the environment around them.

Recommended interventions

For STEMs who present with the pattern of strengths and challenges described:

Work buddies or mentors, without line management responsibility, to explain unwritten social and cultural rules. This works particularly well when the mentor understands something about neurodiversity, so they can anticipate issues and have strategies to address them.

Specialist neurodiversity based coaching that leverages their strengths and cognitive style to address the specific challenges they face, e.g. workplace relationships, organising communication, reaching deadlines, getting the most from their manager, dealing with emotions and managing wellbeing. This would involve highly structured, problem-focused strategies, but still working from a strengths-based perspective.

Differentiated learning and development opportunities in the face of change, increased social demands and expectations to lead or collaborate. These would need to be differentiated in terms of timing, duration, frequency and expectations.
Specialist neurodiversity based workplace assessments can be particularly useful where a performance or development issue is not responding to other interventions.

For managers

Evidence from working with AS individuals clearly demonstrates the benefits of an environment that has good awareness and understanding of neurodiversity. This makes a strong contribution to better fit. Depending on the circumstances, this would involve the training of managers and possibly other team members.

This training would aim to increase awareness of strengths, challenges and sticking points, and gain some understanding of the underlying cognitive profile and practical ways to address issues and get best performance. This would include differentiated ways of; giving direction; motivating; managing deadlines and time estimates; managing unnecessary creativity by looking after the “big picture”; judging the right balance of macro- or micro- management; understanding different working styles while being aware of risks to wellbeing; and, using peer based feedback. It would also help managers tackle performance issues by identifying those arising from neurodiversity.

For the organisation

Every organisation is unique in its relationship with the STEM talent it employs, how it views the future of that relationship and the extent to which they are integrated. Improved awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace means people who think differently can work more effectively with each other. Better understanding helps the non-technical and the highly technical “get” each other and then manage the issues that commonly arise when mismatches exist. At an organisational level, neurodiversity can inform thinking about issues such as: structure; culture; recruitment; selection; performance management; ways to manage unacceptable behaviours; motivation and rewards; feedback systems; the physical work environment; and, interventions to increase resilience and well-being. Interventions complement, rather than replace, other organisational development initiatives.

Conclusion

Neurodiversity helps inform the right environment for a business to get the very best out of some of the most brilliant minds. It also offers new ways to keep valuable people who could otherwise “derail”, or be seen as challenging to manage.

In our research, we found no evidence of stigmatisation in response to the notion of people in the workplace with autistic traits at moderate to high levels. The response was overwhelmingly one of interest, understanding and self-recognition. This is an area the business world is ready to explore and one it can’t afford not to.

References:

Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J. and Clubley, E. (2001) The Autism-Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol  31, No 1.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2004) The Essential Difference. Penguin.

About the Authors:

Sally Moore is a Chartered and HCPC Registered Psychologist with over 20 years’ international experience. Now working as an Executive Coach and Consultant Coach, Sally is a former NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist where she specialized in working with neurodiversity. Sally recently founded Top Stream (www.top-stream.co.uk), after she became interested in the brightest people in the workplace who may demonstrate features of Asperger Syndrome. This is particularly applicable for people in STEM occupations (Scientists, Technologists, Engineers and Mathematicians).

Dr Nick Kambitsis is a Client Director at Nicholson McBride, a global business psychology consultancy: www.nicholsonmcbride.com. Over the last 12 years, his work has involved one-to-one coaching, supervision of coaches, working with senior teams, leadership development and organisational transformation. Before becoming an organisational consultant, Nick was a GP in central London; as a former scientist himself, he is particularly interested in how STEM individuals are integrated into organisational life.

Emma Seward is a Consultant at Nicholson McBride. Originating from Brisbane, Australia, Emma’s interest in organisational psychology led her to London, to study a Masters degree at City University. During her time at Nicholson McBride, she has been involved in researching, designing and facilitating workshops to enable individuals and teams to operate more effectively. She has also been involved in varied research projects, including topics such as Resilience and Organisational politics. Emma’s interest in neurodiversity came about through her reading on diversity and inclusion within the workplace and specifically, its importance in increasing innovation.

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