Empathy, neurodivergence, and getting the best out of everyone

Written by Guy Walsh

As I embark on a new journey as a neurodivergent speaker, I thought I would use the final day of ADHD awareness month to write up a brief summary of something that I’ve found myself saying a lot recently.

When I look back upon my career in employment with my newly-focussed ADHD eyes, I can pinpoint the management techniques that helped me become successful, and I can equally see the times when bad management hindered my work.

The most frustrating thing though, is that I shouldn’t have needed a diagnosis or understanding of neurodivergence to have been able to thrive.

Many of my managers have been incredibly supportive and empowering. Take for example the manager that gave me this advice when my contract came to an end: “You have lots of ideas and most of them are great. If I can give you some advice going forward – don’t ask for permission. Just put them into action and show your manager the results. No one will complain.”

Said manager employed me again 11 years later, and everyone benefited from my going above and beyond my job description.

Another manager was happy to leave me to my own devices. “I don’t what you do or how you do it, just come to me if you need any help.”

Unfortunately, that manager was replaced during my employment, and the new manager insisted on regular check-ins and reports on progress. I struggled to explain why I hadn’t started certain tasks or why some things didn’t seem to be progressing. I understand now that my brain was working in its own unique way. I don’t work in a linear manner – I complete tasks in an apparently random order and bring them together at the end.

And let’s not forget the manager who would insist on giving me a list of things to do while I was in the middle of doing two or three things already. Despite my requests that they email me the details or at least allow me to get a pen and paper to write them down, they would still blame me for not remembering, even though I had made my needs very clear on multiple occasions.

But the overarching management attribute that allowed me to thrive in multiple jobs was a very simple one: empathy. Genuine empathy.

You see, most neurodivergent people are incredibly empathetic. We often suffer from something called the double empathy problem. In short, this means that while we can be empathetic to the social norms of wider society, wider society is not empathetic to our needs.

I’m sure that you can see that this is not exclusive to neurodivergent people.

The employer-employee relationship can often suffer from something similar. An employee may understand that there are business needs to be met, so things like time off and some working conditions may be essential for the job. But “the business” cannot empathise back. It’s why we have limited compassionate leave when someone passes away, rather than allowing the person to grieve at their own speed.

Of course, a good, genuinely empathetic manager can help negate the effects of this.

The same is true of a neurodivergent person’s needs at work.

If a person tells you that they work better in a quiet environment with no one around, a truly empathetic manager can use this information to create the working conditions that allow this person to thrive.

If the manager ignores the needs of the neurodivergent person, they won’t ever get the best from them. The company will lose money, the employee will be disgruntled, and colleagues may suffer from having to work alongside someone who doesn’t want to be there.

But the real question here is why does this question only come up in the case of people with additional needs? Surely it’s obvious that EVERYBODY will thrive when their personal needs are met?

Unfortunately, sometimes even an empathetic manager isn’t enough.

The system needs to be flexible enough to offer empathy too.

However, a truly empathetic manager will at least be able to limit the impact of an inflexible one.

There’s no magic formula. There’s no secret method.

Just be empathetic.

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