He’s got a brain the size of a planet but…
Could neurodiversity be the next big thing in managing highly specialist talent?
Business needs “super geeks”
New ideas, innovation, technology, science and engineering have never been more important in the global economy. In a world where not all brilliant minds are the same, where one person can be 10-100 times as productive and valuable than others (Seebach, 1999), and one good idea can bankroll an organisation for decades or longer, looking after the best specialist talent is much more than numbers game.
At the same time, businesses are increasingly keen for their brilliant thinkers to be able to deal with customers, work in a team, collaborate with or lead others. They want them to be socially competent and emotionally intelligent as well as intellectually outstanding. Those who can either demonstrate or easily learn all these skills are very successful.
Then there are the “super geeks” – those gifted thinkers who thrive on solving complex problems but find interacting with others mysterious and challenging. Often described as “High IQ/ Low EQ”, they are familiar to many businesses. Their unequivocal strengths include: focus to detail; exceptional memory; intense concentration; a clear preference for rationality; impeccable dependability; extraordinary capacity for difficult technical challenges; highly expert knowledge in areas of keen interest and conscientious persistence. These are strengths businesses cannot do without.
Potential workplace sticking points can 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.
These super geek characteristics are the same as those demonstrated by the remarkable individuals who drove the IT revolution from the 1950‘s and eloquently described in Steven Levy’s book “Hackers”, first written almost 30 years ago. They are also qualitatively consistent with features of Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) or high functioning autism. An internet search of famous names linked with AS features yields a list of astonishing world-changing identities – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Zuckerberg, Isaac Newton, Mozart and Albert Einstein. AS is a form of neurodiversity and research carried out over the last 15-20 years offers tantalising possibilities in the management of some of the brightest brains in the workplace.
Super geeks and neurodiversity
Neurodiversity is an area of neuroscience that focuses on how brains differ in structure and function. Familiar brain differences include left or right-handedness, clumsiness, IQ and giftedness for art, maths or music. Less familiar to those without personal or professional experience are differences such as learning disabilities, ADHD, Tourette’s, dyslexia and autism.
People with AS, at the highest functioning end of the autistic spectrum have fluent language and average to highly superior intelligence. They also have strong systemising capabilities that can be of enormous value, particularly to businesses reliant on scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical (STEM) skills. The core characteristic of AS is a bottleneck in social understanding and communication relative to overall intelligence. How this presents in the workplace varies widely according to personal style, learned behaviours, culture and environment.
AS has received huge attention from researchers and practitioners over the past 15-20 years. Around 1 in 100 of the general population is estimated to have AS with a 4:1 male to female ratio. Most have not been formally diagnosed. Qualitatively similar characteristics – “fragments or splashes” of AS – are present in the general population with moderate levels identified in 40% of men and 20% of women. These percentages are higher for people working in STEM occupations (Baron-Cohen et al, 2001).
Working with neurodiversity
Where people are living independently and are in employment, it is helpful to think of AS features as a normal difference, along the lines of personality or being left or right handed, rather than a disorder that needs to be diagnosed. Formal diagnosis has its place and is a choice for the person concerned. In the workplace, whether someone has a diagnosis or not matters less than an employer going beyond awareness to an understanding of AS features as a difference presenting significant strengths and manageable challenges. The benefit of this understanding is it allows employers, managers and others to differentiate how they work with these individuals to take AS features into account. Much has been learned about working with people who have AS and those around them to get the best outcomes. There is no reason why this cannot be applied in workplaces to maximise strengths or where sticking points get in the way of performance. It can be particularly useful in situations where the usual strategies have not yielded expected results.
There are multiple strategic and operational application opportunities ranging from motivation and reward, attraction and retention, culture, physical work environment and management of creativity to diversity, culture and career structure. Three examples are workplace relationships, development and vulnerability to stress.
The core issue of social understanding means that different attention to workplace relationships is key in managing people who have AS or features of it. The benefit of having HR and line managers who understand how people experience situations such as selection interviews, management relationships, team working, collaboration, managing others or relating to customers is that potential sticking points can be quickly identified and strategies put in place to deal with them. Attention can be given, for example,to optimum ways of establishing trust, setting up feedback mechanisms, managing expectations, restoring relationships, managing conflict and translating the social world. Assumptions about the potential for people to develop people-facing skills can also be challenged.
Learning and Development
Brains that work differently learn differently. Research into what works for people with AS shows that learning opportunities need to make more use of visual materials and allow frequent chances to practice new skills. Particular attention should be given to the generalisation and maintenance of learning. Where learning objectives include the development of social competencies, differentiated provision is particularly important.
Vulnerability to stress.
Different brains inevitably have different vulnerabilities. When people are asked to do things that are difficult for them but might be seen as routine for others, it can feel like getting a square peg into a round hole resulting in stress, anxiety or depression for the person and considerable frustration for the organisation. People with AS or features of it are more likely to struggle with people-facing situations, managing change, big picture or flexible thinking and time management — all of which are highly valued in organisations and increasingly demanded by employers. An understanding of AS features offers different ways for organisations to get the best from their people and better choices for the individuals concerned. Outcomes can range from a better fit to a constructive parting of ways.
Geeks and super geeks are increasingly regarded with kudos and respect. With rapidly developing understanding of how different brains operate, neurodiversity offers a way for businesses and organisations to gain a competitive edge in attracting, keeping and managing extraordinary talent. There is a direct impact on the bottom line for the organisation that gets it right and huge potential costs of losing the brightest people to competitors.
Paul is in his late 30’s and worked as a researcher for a large IT firm for 8 years. His performance was unorthodox in that most people didn’t really understand what he did other than the senior researcher, Mary, who managed him and considered him to be exceptionally brilliant. She found Paul worked best when he was left alone to get on with it. Mary’s style was to act as a shield between Paul and other people in the organisation who found him jumpy and abrasive when they approached him. They also found his very particular use of language hard to understand and his conversational style somewhat awkward.
Organisational restructuring meant Paul got a new manager, Steve, who had different expectations for performance that required a more commercial focus. Paul found this new way of working very difficult which led to a performance management process he found confusing given Mary’s positive feedback to him in the past. Steve did not understand how to get the best out of Paul who, from his perspective, got lost in detail. Both were convinced they were right with Paul taking an increasingly rigid, pedantic position. A series of difficult conversations led to Steve losing his temper in front of others and Paul feeling humiliated. The conflict between Paul and Steve became increasingly intractable – HR became involved and mediation was offered. However, any agreements reached did not lead to lasting changes and Paul subsequently left to work for a competitor.
On reflection, the HR partner involved describes the challenges of making sense of the dramatic shift in Paul’s performance which appeared more extreme than a reaction to organisational change. She also reflected on how the performance management process seemed a blunt instrument in which Paul was particularly difficult to engage.
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 (1) 5-17
Levy, S. (1984) Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution Pub: Doubleday, New York
Seebach, P. (1999) The Hacker FAQ http://www.seebs.net/faqs/hacker.html. Sponsored by IBM