What happens when supergeeks and HR meet?
I work with very bright people who have exceptional technical expertise while finding the social aspects of the workplace challenging or mystifying. They are “supergeeks”, often described as “High IQ, Low EQ”. This profile has qualitative similarities to Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), a form of neurodiversity. AS traits are more common in STEM occupations (Scientists, Technologists, Engineers, Mathematicians).
A common topic supergeeks raise are the challenges they see themselves facing in the selection process for a new role. They are confident with the technical aspects but much less so with what they call “the HR bit”. This seems to raise particular anxiety often based on an assumption they will be judged negatively.
I wondered what HR professionals might think about this and I’ve asked the question on a number of HR forums. Here are the main themes that came back and some of my reflections on them.
Syndrome to Strength
There is a need to move beyond tolerance to acceptance – to acknowledge and welcome the strengths that different minds bring. Someone with AS or similar traits is likely to bring tenacity, persistence, honesty, conscientiousness, an eagerness to please and an inability to be malicious – all good for business. Perhaps HR can so more to view supergeeks as “raw talent” and “rough diamonds” with a view to proactively recruiting, understanding and supporting such individuals rather than expecting them to take all the responsibility of fitting in.
Should the onus always be on different kinds of minds to fit into a role and workplace designed for and by the neurotypical? High IQ/ Low EQ or “supergeeks” can be understood as having different minds that have real value for business. Can businesses learn from neurodiversity about how different kinds of minds work and what they need to thrive? Businesses can use what is known about neurodiversity to recruit, retain and get the best from the brightest.
There are those in HR with personal experience of neurodiversity in family members. These HR professionals know first hand that neurodiversity can mean valuable talent but also have genuine concerns about how these different minds are treated in a workplace that doesn’t understand them.
When I talk about neurodiversity in business, it’s almost inevitable that someone approaches me afterwards to mention a family member. So awareness of the neurodiversity and the strengths and challenges that it brings already exists in business. I wonder what might be possible if those with personal experiences, particularly those in HR or other senior positions, were able to lead on raising awareness and advocating action on neurodiversity in the workplace.
HR is often under a great deal of pressure with many competing priorities. When faced with multiple applications for a post, filters are used with no explicit intention to discriminate but possibly looking for those who will fit in more easily. HR value diversity but may waiver in the face of doing something new or potentially demanding. When demands for skills are high, employers will be more willing to address this. In this situation, it might be useful to consider neurodiversity at the job design stage of the selection process, as a strategic approach to bringing different minds into the organisation.
With a shortage of STEM and many STEM having at least moderate AS traits (supergeeks), is this where an understanding of neurodiversity could be of real benefit to business? By understanding how supergeeks experience the world, neurodiversity offers business practical ways to create roles, selection processes and work environments to get best performance.
Problem or Solution?
Often the first experience an HR professional has of neurodiversity is when it is identified in an employee who is not performing – a problem to be solved. Solutions that assume neurotypicality are frustratingly ineffective. When HR, colleagues and coach do not know how to adapt what they are doing, a poor outcome is often blamed on the individual.
Businesses often misunderstand neurodiversity and are fearful of it as a result. A sense of no simple solutions and that no one “supergeek” is the same as any other means there are no shortcuts to getting it right. It is seen as time consuming and difficult thing to do.
It’s true that not all supergeeks are the same. However, research into AS gives core principles that can be easily learned and applied. Solutions do not have to be onerous. Something as simple as a quiet place to work and flexible hours can make a real difference. A manager knowing these becomes a better manager – not just for the supergeek but for others as well. This knowledge expands a business’ repertoire for effective performance management.
To find out more about neurodiversity and what to do with it in your business, come to our Masterclass: Managing Supergeeks, London May 2016. More information here.