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Meike Bliebenicht - How to…Neurodiversity

Meike Bliebenicht - How to…Neurodiversity

Katie.Dix / 11 May 2021

Meike Bliebenicht, Neurodiversity Campaigner | 2020 Leader of Diversity Initiative of the Year | 2019 Role Model of the Year | Multi-Asset Investing

Friend of E2W Meike, hosted an insightful virtual workshop for us back in March on the subject of, Neurodiversity: Diverse Minds at Work. Members of E2W can rewatch the full recording on our private LinkedIn Group. 

How to...Neurodiversity

Silicon Valley was built by those who see the world differently, demonstrating how neurodiversity -embracing different neurotypes- can open entirely new opportunities and perspectives. How can the investment industry unlock the amazing potential offered by neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity describes how diverse we are from a neurological perspective. It refers to the diversity of human brains, and considers differences in how our brains are ‘wired’ as simply another natural variation in humans. Neurodiversity includes, but is not limited to, autism/Asperger syndrome, dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD. 

It is estimated that roundabout 15-20% of the UK population are neurodivergent, so we will all have a number of colleagues already among us. Neurodiversity suggests that instead of regarding large parts of the population as suffering from a deficit, disease or dysfunction of mental processing, we should value and celebrate the differences. 

There are good reasons for this. Neurodivergent brains literally think differently, and the differences in brain wiring often come with very distinct skills. For example, dyslexic colleagues often have an entrepreneurial mindset and are excellent visual thinkers. Autistic individuals typically excel at problem solving and have great attention to detail. Against common belief, ADHD brains are able to deeply concentrate on topics that interest them and operate at extremely fast processing speed. Dyspraxia is often associated with creativity and good people skills. All of these are sought-after attributes and they are readily available in our workforce today. We just have to allow them to shine through.

Unfortunately, there is something which regularly impacts our industry’s ability to benefit from this amazing potential. It is the fact that most demands, expectations and processes in the workplace are aligned to what one would expect from neurotypical brains. There seem to be unwritten rules that individuals in certain roles and at certain levels of seniority are expected to have developed a certain skillset and that they act and behave in a certain way. 

Let me give you a recent example. A senior portfolio manager of a bottom-up equity fund told me that their autism allows them to base investment decisions purely on facts and data. It enables them to separate facts from emotions, ensuring that their decisions are not influenced by emotional aspects, such as whether they had a good rapport with a company CEO or not. 

However, while this autistic feature contributes to the PM delivering superior investment performance, they mightily struggle with another requirement of their role: the expectation that they regularly meet with investors and consultants to present on investment performance and discuss their investment strategy. These meetings often take place at the client’s office (assuming non-COVID19 times…) and are attended by a number of friendly, but unfamiliar faces.

Uncertainty can trigger anxiety in people with autism. Ambiguous meeting objectives, but also ‘minor’ details, such as unknown meeting room layout, can cause distress. This impacts the autistic PM’s ability to perform at their best during the client meeting, especially as they will make every effort to cover up their challenges. Luckily, the situation can be easily improved, for example by holding the meeting at the investment manager’s office (or via video conference) and by clearly outlining the meeting details in advance. 

However, to successfully include neurodivergent colleagues, we have to go beyond these basic steps. We have to question our existing assumptions and expectations. Do we really need every PM to attend client meetings? Why is this a requirement, what has been driving it? Could the Product Specialist or Investment Strategist be equally well placed to attend? 

Flexibility is key when it comes to neurodiversity. There can never be a one size fits all, especially not when wanting to access the abilities and skills of brains that think differently. By adjusting our demands and expectations we reduce frustration on both sides. 

At the same time, it is important to ensure that neurodivergent colleagues do not stand out. As mentioned earlier, up to 20% of the UK population could be neurodivergent. But this does not mean that 20% will have received a formal diagnosis of autism, dyslexia, ADHD, etc. And even if they did, they may choose to not share it. Talking about your brain is something very personal. It is about who you are. And once it is out there, you can’t take it back.

We also have to consider that the majority of our colleagues over 30 were not diagnosed as children. However, all will have grown up knowing that there was something different about them. Nobody wants to be different when they grow up, and so most will have trained themselves up to be ‘normal’ and fit in. It is hard to suddenly share openly what you have been covering up for so long, and to verbalise your needs when you have never done so. 

And yet, successful neuroinclusion can be straightforward. There are many small steps we can all take:

1. Recruitment

It is often assumed that everyone needs to be given the same task to ensure a fair assessment. However, standardised testing does not work particularly well for people who think differently. We need to be mindful to not weed out neurodivergent talent right at the beginning.

Avoid rapid fire questions. Most neurodivergent candidates struggle with transitioning from one topic to the next. To allow their brains to adjust, try to group your interview questions and announce when you move to a new topic.

Give a full brief on expectations before the interview.

Limit distraction in the interview room, e.g. reduce artwork.

2. People management 

Focus on the employee’s strengths and provide assistance with challenging tasks. Accept that sometimes help is needed for perceived ‘easy’ tasks, such as managing a to do-list or doing admin. Do not expect any improvement or ‘learning success’ in these areas.

Stick to your word. If you said you’d call on Monday at 3pm, do so. Ambiguity can trigger anxiety.

Give clear instructions. In particular autistic brains tend to take things literally.

Allow employees that find commuting in rush hour difficult to work different hours, from home or in the evenings / at weekends.

3. Workplace

Provide options to reduce sensory overload by allowing all employees to wear headphones, to use quiet rooms, etc.

For those easily experiencing sensory overload, 1:1 meetings are easier than group activities.

Don’t judge. Constantly wearing headphones or seldom engaging in smalltalk does not equal lack of team spirit. 

On our way to successful neuroinclusion, the most significant results can be achieved simply by us valuing the difference, and the potential which comes with it. The most important aspect is to stop imposing normal, and to accept that everyone is different and has different abilities and challenges. To achieve this, we usually only have to make one adjustment. Luckily, it comes for free. It is called understanding. 

When we manage to do this, neurodiversity will allow us to access a world of opportunities and new perspectives. This will help us think in different ways and continue to build attractive solutions for our clients. And then maybe we can be the next Silicon Valley? With neurodiversity, the sky is the limit.

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