Putting ‘driven to distraction’ into park


Who hasn’t been distracted by the constant confluence of texts, emails and instant messages bombarding them at work? And who among us hasn’t felt a bit nervous or intimidated when interviewing for a dream job before a panel of five executives?

While these are common stressors that hundreds of employees face, for employees with autism or ADHD, they can disrupt an entire career trajectory.

ALP_4391.jpgDr. Maria Hamdani, associate professor of management at The University of Akron (UA), co-authored an article published earlier this month in MIT Sloan Management Review that outlines challenges that neurodiverse employees face at work.

Along with coauthor Shannon Biagi, a business consultant and behavior sciences professor at the University of West Florida, Hamdani outlines seven evidence-based guidelines to make feedback empowering and helpful for these workers.

But first, a quick definition of “neurodiverse.” The word refers to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions. It may encompass the broad autism spectrum, dyslexia, Tourette Syndrome or ADHD.

Simply put, says Hamdani, it’s a different way to process or communicate information. The person experiences and interacts with the world around them in a different way.

Employees with autism may struggle with navigating social complexities and initiating and maintaining friendships, skills so often needed to succeed at work. A worker with ADHD might need more help in staying on task while delivering on vaguely defined goals or the person’s work may appear unorganized.

And deadlines? “What do you mean ASAP?”

Hamdani argues that when supervising neurodiverse employees, managers need to provide feedback that is data-driven, goal-relevant and behavior-specific.

When delivered effectively, such feedback can work as a catalyst for personal growth and trigger higher employee engagement and performance. It must also be delivered in a way that is sensitive to how neurodiverse people think and communicate and be followed by a clear map of how to achieve specific goals.

“Neurodiverse people are a growing part of the workforce and can be extremely valuable employees,” says Hamdani. “Despite being qualified and motivated, they face significant barriers in gaining and maintaining employment.”

Stigma, a lack of awareness and lack of appropriate infrastructure (such as office setup, staffing processes or work policies) can cause exclusion of neurodiverse persons.

During a job interview, for example, someone with autism may avoid eye contact. The manager, in turn, may write them off as being dishonest or odd.

An employee with ADHD may get fired for not meeting goals.

Poor management practices such as unsupportive supervision, unclear communication and inflexible work policies, as well as office politics, noise and clutter, can compromise their performance.

In recent years, says Hamdani, large companies have begun to recognize neurodiversity when considering diversity and inclusion, but there is a long way to go. Neurodiversity advocates encourage using inclusive, nonjudgmental language in organizational communication.

In a university setting, administrators need to take steps that will help neurodiverse students succeed, which is Hamdani’s passion. “I want to provide a broader picture, raise awareness and encourage support from the business community so that neurodiverse students will have the opportunity to excel.”

“Performance feedback can improve student or employee commitment and engagement and ultimately build a more inclusive culture,” she adds.


Media contact: Cristine Boyd, 330-972-6476 or cboyd@uakron.edu