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Why Hiring Upside Down Thinkers Is a Competitive Advantage

“In my experience, people with ADHD are overwhelmingly bright and clever. The ADHD brain has been found structurally different from the neurotypical brain, which is part of the reason why it’s able to tackle problems that stump others and jump to solutions that no one else saw. These are just a few of the reasons why promoting neurodiverse hiring is a part of my personal mission as an HR consultant.”

upside down thinking
Businessman upside down at his desk in his office

All workplaces benefit from creativity. It inspires collaborative innovation, which, in turn, spurs growth. This is a well-established business fact, and there is no shortage of case studies exploring the talent and growth strategies of ground-breaking companies like Apple and Tesla.

But I would like to suggest a new theory: A brand or organization can achieve meaningful competitive advantage by recruiting from a largely untapped talent pool — workers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and other neurodevelopmental conditions.

I’m a human resources consultant based in the UK with decades of experience. And I’m so convinced of the competitive advantage of neurodiverse thinking that I’m writing a book to help HR professionals and managers understand why inclusive workplaces spark magic and how to achieve meaningful diversity at their companies.

I’ve seen how neurodiversity can mean the difference between solving a problem and continuing to struggle with it. Here’s an example: Glaxo, a large global healthcare company with which I worked, was struggling to solve a complicated client problem. The team charged with cracking it had been working together for quite a while and, despite having a mix of genders and ethnicity, it couldn’t hit on the right solution — group think had become a barrier.

I set up some small focus groups to invigorate the process and one — with a young autistic man who also had ADHD — blew me away. I noticed he’d been completely quiet for the first 30 minutes and suspected he had something to contribute.

[Click to Read: Here’s What Happened When I Revealed My ADHD on LinkedIn]

When I asked to hear his view, he opened by saying, “If you stand on your head…,” then proceeded to unwrap the problem. He’d read everything about the subject before arriving at the focus group, looked at the problem uniquely — the opposite way from everyone else — and steered the team to a remarkable solution.

ADHD Misconceptions

Growing up, I associated ADHD with middle and high school students who — thanks to their pushy parents — received extra support or more time for exams. I’d shake my head and wonder why kids who were obviously permitted to consume large amounts of sugar (usually in the form of bright orange drinks) were rewarded this way. Their accommodations never seemed fair to me.

Boy, was I mistaken.

What I’ve learned in the years since is that ADHD is not a disease — and it cannot be “cured.” It’s a disorder that can be treated effectively and also harnessed for great things. Like autism, ADHD varies in how it manifests. Most who are diagnosed with it have some degree of difficulty concentrating, are impulsive, and experience periods of high activity that are also highly productive.

[Could You Have Autism Spectrum Disorder? Take This Self-Test Now]

In my experience, people with ADHD are overwhelmingly bright and clever. The ADHD brain has been found structurally different from the neurotypical brain, which is part of the reason why it’s able to tackle problems that stump others and jump to solutions that no one else saw. To accommodate greater inclusivity in the workplace, it’s important to understand how ADHD impacts a person’s life.

The ADHD Nurse

Meet Sue, a wonderful nurse, and an asset to the clinic where she works. When properly supported, Sue is one of the most productive members of her medical team, with clarity and insight that go way beyond the norm. Her energy and hard work benefit both her patients and her peers. Sue wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until adulthood but manages well with medication and counseling. Here’s what a typical day in her life looks like.

  • Forgetfulness is a constant companion. She’s regularly locked out of the house, or her car, because she frequently forgets her keys. Sue writes appointments in her diary, then forgets to look. She knows she needs her medication, but forgets to order it. These symptoms are extremely frustrating and caused by ADHD-related working memory challenges.
  • Grocery shopping is a nightmare. There’s no such thing as a simple trip to the supermarket. Sue gets completely distracted by all the special offers and the annoying regularity with which products are moved around the store. Much too often, she arrives at home with random food that can’t be used to make a meal and has to return to the store. Her personal record? Five separate trips to get what she actually needed. Meal planning doesn’t happen and cooking regularly fails.
  • Life is either lived at full speed or a dead stop. When she’s fully engaged with a problem, Sue can become passionate, focused, and very productive — these are her “superwoman moments.” They don’t last forever but can provide some of her best ideas and breakthroughs.
  • Ruminating in her own thoughts can be a problem. Sue likes to analyze and reflect so much she can get stuck. At these times, it can be difficult to move forward as she processes all the data whirring around in her head.
  • Being overly sensitive to push-back or challenges sometimes creates difficulty at work. Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) — intense emotional pain and sensitivity to perceived or real criticism — is closely associated with ADHD. Without the right support, her self-confidence is knocked out, her self-esteem lowered, and her productivity plummets.

11 Ways to Support ADHD Employees and Avoid Employment Roadblocks

Three percent of the population has ADHD. Chances are you currently work with someone with ADHD — even if they aren’t formally diagnosed. There are plenty of ADHD success stories out there — Richard Branson and will.i.am to name a few. To reap the benefits of a genuinely inclusive workplace, you must be willing to make some adjustments. Here are some ways to attract neurodiversity to your workplace and avoid employment roadblocks when working with neurodiverse employees.

#1. ADHD is a real disorder. Learn all that you can about it.

#2. Encourage neurodiverse hiring practices and accommodate reasonable interview requests from candidates with ADHD when they apply for a role.

#3. Consider providing access to coaching support to give employees with ADHD a way to seek help when they need it.

#4. Allow “time outs” to give employees with ADHD an opportunity to pause and regroup.

#5. Recognize that team retreats or long, off-site meetings may be extremely stressful for people with ADHD. Be sure to schedule plenty of breaks and enough downtime for quiet thinking and reflection.

#6. Deliver feedback in a positive way. Be sure to provide context. Employees with ADHD need to be shown there is always a way forward. Never mark-up a Word document and return it by email. Explain your input and why it matters by talking through your comments in person. The face-to-face connection is important.

#7. Consider sharing your cellphone number with an employee to use as a helpline. People with ADHD benefit from individualized support. Allowing them to vent or talk through difficulties with you can prevent workplace dilemmas from getting out of hand.

#8. Avoid insensitive remarks. Never use phrases like “toughen-up” or “stop being so sensitive.” Telling an employee to “just concentrate on this, for now, ” can sound condescending. Asking “have you had your meds today?” is also a very bad idea.

#9. Accept minor errors in written work. There may be gems buried in those spelling mistakes. Avoid criticism. Instead, find a way to take the best bits and enhance them.

#10.Appreciate their vulnerability. When people with ADHD do something for the first time, they may feel very insecure and more sensitive than usual.

#11. Don’t shame them for being emotional. Give them a chance to talk through an upsetting problem with you. It will resolve if you give it a little time.

Sue has a fun hypothesis. She says adults with ADHD are either cooks or cleaners, but never both. Sue can’t cook, but she enjoys cleaning her home and knows exactly which products she needs and never forgets them when out shopping! She’s been asking her ADHD friends what they think and so far everyone is in agreement. Adults with ADHD either love cooking or cleaning, but not both!

Sometimes the fog of ADHD is dense, but if we create space for employees like Sue to reflect and recover, the creative energy and input they will invest in our teams and work will be more than worth the wait.

[Read This Next: How to Get Work Done and Avoid Getting Distracted, Again]


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Updated on July 28, 2020

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  1. I have ADD (NO hyperactivity!). This $#1+ is no gift! It has been a handicap and a constant source of embarrassment all my life and I cannot think of any instance where it has helped me. I have a 40 + year work history and have seen it all. It took years to build up a good reputation and a modicum of respect but it takes only one incident to destroy your public image.

    From what I’ve observed admitting to having ADD/ADHD in the workplace is a terribly bad idea. First of all, the HR manager will take that label, go scurrying to the internet and will find that the ‘H’ stands for Hyperactivity. He will automatically assume the worst, that you constantly fidget and squirm; that you are impulsive and have a high tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time; that you’re possibly an alcoholic or a drug user. Giving yourself the label ADD or ADHD will sign the death warrant on your career.

    Nothing good can come from making such a shocking true confession. The neighbor/classmate/coworker bullies will weaponize this information and try to destroy your self esteem. Open minded and sympathetic people will feel sorry for you but will not stick their necks out to defend you. Your HR manager will add your name to his secret list of layoff candidates.

    Reread the essay above. Look at all of the quirks that ADD or ADHD people have. There are too many negatives and too much risk from the viewpoint of the hiring company. You are not legally required to bare your soul to employers about personal health issues whether you have gonorrhea or some of the wonderful forms of mental illness.

    I had an HR director tell me that he can fire or refuse to hire anyone he wants and make it all sound legit. It’s OK to declare that you are a MENSA member but don’t be reckless and don’t be stupid and reveal that ADD or ADHD is the driving force behind it.

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