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Rethinking normal: how to embrace cognitive-neurodiversity at work

Building teams with divergent thought processes, thinking styles, and problem-solving approaches are also increasingly recognized as critical to success. This kind of variation is referred to as cognitive diversity. Here are 10 ways to help you rethink diversity at work.

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Last updated

29 Jul 2022
 Building teams with divergent thought processes, thinking styles, and problem-solving approaches are also increasingly recognized as critical to success. This kind of variation is referred to as cognitive diversity. Here are 10 ways to help you rethink diversity at work.

When companies talk about diversity, it's used in a variety of ways. You might say there’s a diversity of diversity. So meta.

The push for diversity, equity, and inclusion(DEI) in the workplace is most often focused on race, ethnicity, age, gender, and sexual orientation. But real DEI goes beyond physical and social differences. 

Building teams with divergent thought processes, thinking styles, and problem-solving approaches are also increasingly recognized as critical to success. This kind of variation is referred to as cognitive diversity.

As long as you're in a psychologically safe environment, diversity of opinion, perspective, and background is likely to lead to better outcomes.

What is neurodiversity? 

It's often used as an umbrella term for clinically diagnosable conditions. The most common include ADHD, dyslexia, and people on the autism spectrum, but that's far from an exhaustive list.

Through a neurodiverse lens, these conditions result from normal variation seen across all humans and shouldn’t be viewed as disorders to be fixed.

People aren’t disabled by their cognitive divergence; they’re disabled by environments that aren’t adjusted to their differences.

And there’s evidence that their neurodivergence can bring unique strengths:

  • People with ADHD can have high levels of creativity and empathy and can hyper-focus on tasks of interest 

  • People with autism often are good at pattern recognition, have good memories, and more easily process complex information 

  • People with dyslexia may better perceive visual information, and can be highly intuitive and aware of their environments 

Many discussions of cognitive and neurodiversity get muddled in definitions and details. But we’re not here to discuss the finer points.

Our question is, what can we—you, us, and our companies—do to help?

Rethinking different: 10 ways to welcome diversity into your teams

At Hotjar, we have employees—Hotjarians, as we call them—from 43 different countries. Naturally, this brings a variety of races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, behaviors, thinking styles, and other human quirks.

We celebrate these differences because it makes our company—and each of us—better.

We’ve put together some ways that we’re trying to encourage cognitive and neurodiversity in our teams. Suggestions we think might be useful for you too.

Make diversity your default

Humans naturally classify the world in terms of same and different, in- and out-groups, us versus them. And we often notice differences with a tinge of judgment: ‘Why are they so different?’

But instead of framing it as ‘they're different from me,’ try flipping your perspective to ‘we're all different.’

Instead of defaulting to categories, notice the range of variation. They're not different from you; you are different from each other.

It’s a subtle shift of language that acknowledges that difference is the norm. And it can have a profound effect on how we perceive and tolerate the variation that exists in all of us.

Encourage empathy over conformity 

 “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle”—that you most likely know nothing about. 

While this statement may date all the way back to Plato, it’s just as relevant today as it was way back then. While you may not be able to see through the eyes of someone who identifies as having neurodiverse traits, you can have an empathetic response to the variety of minds and behaviors we all bring to the table.

Try this: rather than pushing others to be more like the group, push yourself—and your team— to be more tolerant and accepting of differences. 

Looking for some practical ways to bring more empathy into the workplace? Our CEO Mohannad Ali wrote about three ways in this blog post

Practice perspective-taking

Diversity breeds creativity. But does simply sticking a variety of brains and backgrounds in a room foster innovative thinking? It’s unlikely. 

But studies have shown that one way to extract a diverse team's creative potential is through perspective-taking exercises. Looking through someone else’s eyes can help unlock creativity. 

Perspective-taking isn’t the same as empathy. Empathy is about understanding how someone else feels. Perspective taking is more cognitive: understanding someone else’s thoughts and viewpoints.

Both are important for diverse teams.

Hire for culture-compliment, not culture-fit

Most companies have some sort of loosely defined ‘culture fit’ criteria. What this often means is that recruiters look to answer questions like: Do I like you? Are you easy to work with? 

Of course teams need principles and guidelines.

And it's important that team members adhere to these norms. In the long run, getting along with teammates is as important as getting the work done. But that doesn’t mean you want to build a team of people ‘just like you.’

Culture fit doesn’t mean that everyone looks the same, worships the same, or thinks the same.  

This is why heuristics like the beer test don’t stand the test of time. If you like to toast it up with teammates after work, that’s great. But don’t make it a requirement to join the team.

Respect labels, but don’t give them

Is adding a diagnostic label to a health issue a good thing?

Some say that labeling feelings, behavioral traits, and mental health conditions helps people deal with these things. Others argue that labels aren’t always useful.

So who’s right? Unless it’s your own case we’re talking about, it’s not up to you.

If someone has been diagnosed with whatever, that’s their issue, and you should respect that. 

But it’s never your place to give someone a label. Does that guy who’s always looking at the ground have autism? Maybe. Or maybe he just lacks confidence and has trouble socializing. 

It’s not up to you to decide. But it is up to you to be kind.

Say hi with a smile

There’s a huge misconception that people on the autism spectrum don’t like to socialize. The reality is that many want more human interaction but struggle to make it happen.

And it’s the same for many neurotypical individuals. Opening up is a challenge, even when they want to. 

One simple thing you can do: smile and say hi. It’s one of the easiest ways to say, “We’re in this together. I see you, not your differences.”

And it might lead to a great conversation.

Ask how you can make reports and presentations better

Some people are more visual. Others are more verbal. That’s normal variation. 

But some people really struggle to process certain types of information. They might have dyslexia, color blindness, or just have bad eyesight that needs correction.

So check with your team to see if there are ways you can make information more digestible. 

Sidenote: A huge majority of company reports and presentations could do with some clean-up. Get rid of those unnecessary words, stop filling every corner of your slides, and look for ways to change paragraphs into bullets and stats into graphs. Even your cognitive-neurotypical colleagues will thank you. 

Acknowledge diversity through accessibility

Websites and products are typically built for the average user. Best practices determine how to catch and keep people’s attention, and how to make options and next steps as easy and obvious as possible—for the ‘typical’ visitor. We can always do better.

Building accessible websites and products is an acknowledgment of diversity. It speaks to our awareness and acceptance of the different ways people process the world, digital world included.

Content Design guru and accessibility specialist Sarah Richards puts it more bluntly: “If it’s not accessible, it’s not usable.”

So if you build for the web, make accessibility your default perspective. Because the average user is not the only user.   

Check automatic assumptions

What do you think if you see someone walking around the office with headphones on?

You might think they’re asocial. You might wonder how they can concentrate with music ringing through their heads. But maybe the music isn’t on. 

Some people on the autism spectrum and highly sensitive people are overstimulated more easily than others, so headphones may serve to dampen environmental inputs. 

Likewise, people with easily wandering attention may need to protect their eyes and ears from active environments. So don’t assume that the person in the open-office who moves to face the wall is odd and doesn’t like people. It might be a strategy to protect a silent struggle. 

You’ve surely met people who struggle with eye contact or hair-twirling, or fidgeting. Notice the automatic assumptions that pop into mind, and try to transform judgements into compassion for difference. 

Build environments, not platitudes

Many DEI initiatives are failing. Why? 

Part of the problem is that companies try to add the D without the E and I—and diversity without equity and inclusion doesn't fly. You can’t create successfully diverse teams on paper. You have to do it in practice. 

This goes hand-in-hand with creating psychological safe teams. And research shows that when you combine cognitive diversity with psychological safety, you get better problem solvers.

You also get happier teams. Especially when it’s built into the fabric of the company. It’s something we put a lot of time into. And it’s rewarding when you see employees publicly sharing the effects, like this person on Glassdoor: 

“There is a big focus on diversity and inclusion, and not in a fake way, the team genuinely wants people to feel welcomed and be their authentic selves at Hotjar — we celebrate our differences, and it's a great place to learn about different cultures and beliefs!” — Anonymous Hotjar employee on Glassdoor

We don’t know who you are or which of the 43 countries you’re from, but we’re happy you feel this way. And we thank you for being part of the reason that others do too.

What is normal?

It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde dedicated her life to addressing racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.

As a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” she knew what it was like to feel different. 

As her quote above reveals, she was also wise enough to see that the problem isn’t our differences but our inability to embrace our diversity.

What if we flipped the default script? What if diversity was viewed as the norm? 

Instead of 'average' being our reference point, let's celebrate the spectrum. Our differences range widely, but we’ve all got them. 

And diverse teams are better teams. So let’s make our differences our new normal.

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