Updated: Feb 7
Evolving our Diversity Councils in the post-pandemic world
America's corporate world has seen an impressive increase in, and re-energizing of, Diversity Councils. (Also known as "Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Councils" or "DEI Councils") These are intra-company teams that focus on enhancing the firm's diversity focus and effectiveness. The pandemic has underscored our country's persistent challenges in this area (1). Diversity Councils are a core pillar to making diversity a key corporate priority. This article makes the case to include a significant neurodiversity focus as firms adapt to the post-pandemic world. In the final section of the article, we demonstrate how the addition of neurodiversity to the diversity mandate will sustain and accelerate overall diversity objectives.
The Case For Neurodiversity
As a building block, here is the role definition of a Diversity Council from Diversity Best Practices:
Diversity councils are a critical driver in fostering real organizational change, establishing a dedicated focus on diversity and inclusion priorities, and managing the D&I program. Moreover, they provide platforms for overseeing and assessing the effectiveness of the D&I function and introducing reform when needed. The primary role of the Council is to connect D&I activities to a broader business-driven, results-oriented strategy.
For this article, our operating assumption is:
Diversity Councils are business smart but may be incomplete.
Business Smart - Taking a business perspective, our clients generally want the best solution at the price that drives the desired quality and implementation time frame. They are generally indifferent to the color of the skin, the country of origin, or other visible attributes of those creating or delivering the solution. As such, more diversity equates to having access to more and better talent, leading to better and more competitive solutions.
Another way to look at it, based on hiring, promotion, mentoring, or other practices, why would a firm purposefully reduce access to talent based on skin color, country of origin, gender, or some other visible attribute? Expanding access to diverse talent is a business smart arbitrage trade.
Incomplete - The on-point question is whether our Diversity Councils are fully emphasizing an even more powerful diversity business driver. That is neurodiversity. To be clear, for this article “neurodiversity” is defined as the mainstream and significant differences in how all people think. The biggest reason neurodiversity may not be considered is likely more to do with our cognitive biases and the fact that "how people think" is harder to understand than more visible attributes. (We will discuss the differences between “neurodiversity” and “neurodivergence” later in the article.)
As a parallel, the lack of neurodiversity uptake relates to the challenge of getting people excited about global warming. CO2 is an odorless, invisible, commonly occurring gas. The science related to its negative impact has been known for many decades. However, because people cannot see its impact, it makes it harder to sell as the very significant issue that it is. (2)
In this way, neurodiversity is the same. It is hard to see how people think. You can only deduce it from actions or induce it from psychological or other medical testing. The challenge starts with the type of people that often get attracted to senior leadership roles in the first place. That is the typical neurological type of people responsible for making and enforcing firm rules. Many studies show (3) that senior leaders' success may occur from having an extroverted personality and having a natural talent for building company culture.
So far, this does not sound so bad. What is wrong with someone that gets energy from communicating and that likes building firm cohesiveness!?
The challenge could be blind spots (i.e., less affinity) to the other 75% or so people that may not share the same neurobiology and/or personality.
Approximately 50% of all people are introverts. (4) That is people who get motivated and energized from using communication to produce new and interesting thinking as an output. On the other hand, extroverts derive energy from the other side of our creative process cycle, using good thinking to drive effective communication as an output. (5) While all people naturally perform both introversion and extroversion (a verb) as a part of their mental processes, people naturally favor one of these activities as either an introvert or an extrovert (a noun), especially under stress.
50% of all people will have higher concentrations of the neurotransmitter oxytocin compared to the 50% of people with lower oxytocin concentrations. Oxytocin is the family-forming "love" neurotransmitter, closely associated with childbirth. (6) It provides a special loving and bonding feeling for family formation. High oxytocin is also associated with tribal affiliation, including company culture. It helps when firm leaders have high levels of oxytocin to enable them to create a strong company culture and strong company beliefs.
We have exemplified two neurodiversity dimensions (personality type and neurotransmitter mixing concentrations). There are many more personality types (per Myers-Briggs type or related testing) and there are certainly more neurotransmitters. (7) Plus, these are only two of many other related neurodivergent groups. Other neurodivergent groups may include Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Dyslexia. (8) As you will see in the next paragraph and along with two of many dimensions, differences related to neurodiversity could account for 75% or more of your employees.
The bottom line is, we are all neurodiverse. The Diversity Council should enable leaders to understand the full strength of their employees' diverse thinking talents.
So, if our leaders typically come from a population of which 50% are Extroverts and 50% are high Oxytocin concentration people, the simple probability math suggests 75% [1- (.5*.5)] of all employees are either Introverts, Low Oxytocin people, or both. (9) Then, when you overlay neurodivergence, the numbers are likely higher. That is a lot of people that may not think like our leaders!
You still may be thinking, "So what!? I like that our leaders like to communicate and build company culture!"
And I agree. The issue is that the neurodiversity of most people may drive different needs and motivations compared to their leaders. As such, if diversity councils are to guide senior leaders to 1) better develop talent and 2) make better use of all available talent, why wouldn't our diversity councils emphasize neurodiversity? Next are a few neurodiversity considerations.
Work flexibility success considerations in the post-pandemic world
The following are ideas for putting neurodiversity considerations to work in your business context - especially following the 2020-2021 pandemic.
Work from anywhere - the pandemic has revealed something interesting but not surprising. Introverts like to work from home or in a place other than the office. They are productive and energized when they have downtime from communication and the extrovert intensity of the office. This is not to say that periodically being in an office would not be helpful, but probably far less than desired for the extrovert.
Collaboration - one concern from our pandemic separation is 1) whether our less experienced teammates are being mentored by more experienced folks and 2) whether brainstorming and other creative-based collaboration are as effective as before the pandemic.
Mentoring - With the traditional mentoring being done in a physically proximate environment, it turns out, introverts are people less likely to need proximity to be either the mentored or the mentee'ed. They can easily write helpful guides or read those helpful guides, with perhaps only a brief need to dynamically confirm. Those interactions can certainly be remote or in-person. This is not to say that being together periodically would not be helpful, but probably far less than that desired for the extrovert. A recent technology study called the Virtual Watercooler explores this idea. This facilitates more senior managers connecting with more junior staff but in a more relaxed virtual environment.
Brainstorming - Brainstorming interactions are important. Being remote requires a change of thinking about how we brainstorm, but can certainly be done as effectively. For example: Schedule planning and debrief discussions on either side of an important event. Say, you have an important meeting with your CFO. Make sure your team has active discussions scheduled before and after. This simulates the "hallway" conversations that often occur. The bottom line, it will take a little more commitment to structure remote-enabled brainstorming.
A matter of culture - people with low oxytocin concentrations are simply less likely to internalize the need for high tribal affiliation (10). While they intellectually "get it," they do not need high tribal affiliation to be productive and may find it more distracting than helpful. Sure, periodically getting together as a company-wide team is important for leaders to share information and demonstrate firm values and beliefs. High oxytocin people find this much more helpful than their low oxytocin counterparts. Plus, those communications may certainly occur remotely.
Effective teams - Consulting firms and other companies are usually good at inventorying staff skills. Especially in consulting, where project teams are regularly forming, disbanding, and reforming; putting together effective and diverse skilled teams is critical. Skills are relatively easy to inventory. This can be done by combining resume-based skills and years of experience. Unfortunately, neuro-propensity is generally more challenging to inventory. Could you imagine if all members of a team were extroverts? or introverts? How we approach decision-making is critical to the decision itself. Shouldn't key drivers of decision-making be transparent to decision-making teams? Some companies are good at inventorying and utilizing neurodiverse attributes to fine-tune team complementarity. For example, the investment management firm Bridgewater is known for using personality assessments and related neurodiversity understanding. These are utilized for both recruiting as well as within business operations. At Bridgewater, transparency for "how people think" is an input to business decisions and performance discussions. (11) It takes time and skill to test neurodiversity. Without formal testing, leaders must use their judgment to assemble appropriately neurodiverse teams. Unfortunately, as studies have demonstrated, human judgment may be fraught with both bias and noise. (12) Without objective support, leaders have a much higher likelihood of getting neurodiversity-related judgments wrong.
But, What About....?
This may leave you asking questions, especially in the post-pandemic world. I think we all have questions. It is an interesting time. The post-pandemic world is the mother of all-natural experiments and we are only scratching the surface of our learning. Here are a few questions and related solutions to ponder:
In a more ”work from anywhere” world, how do we get the full value of the intangibles?
Haskel and Westlake wrote a super book called Capitalism Without Capital. It is about how firms drive success in the intangible asset-heavy information economy. Haskel and Westlake define the four main properties of the intangible economy as Scalability, Sunkenness, Spillovers, and Synergies. In particular, how do you get the network spillover effect if people are not physically together? (Please see the table for how spillovers drive intangible asset value.) To this “birds of a feather, flock together” point, there is a reason why San Francisco seems to be the nexus for tech people! As we discussed in the earlier "Collaboration" section, this is more of a "how" question. The technology exists to capture spillovers. It will take companies really thinking about integrating the technologies into their culture. We have had 18 months of practice. Also, if the pandemic had happened 20 years ago, this would not have been a question. The technology, including the bandwidth, was not good enough then. It is today and it is only getting better.
How do you know we are more productive in a remote environment?
We do not know this for sure. But some recent studies show evidence we are more productive working outside the office. In a paper published by Stanford University, Nicholas Bloom found that work from home increases productivity by 13% (To be fair, this is a single company example, based on a technology, consumer-oriented company called Ctrip). Also, in another recent paper, Bloom found that Americans, pre-pandemic, commuted an average of 54 minutes a day. Upon shifting to work from home, people spent 35% of the time-save on work. I consider this as a win/win. Both the employer and employee appear to benefit when commuting time is decreased. Finally, Raj Choudhury, an economist at the Harvard Business School, did a study on the U.S. Patent Office. The Patent Office allowed a group of patent examiners to Work From Anywhere ("WFA"). This work policy created a natural experiment because only a subset of Patent Office employees were provided this opportunity. The outcome showed the WFA group was 4.4% more productive than the non-WFA group.
What these studies have not focused on yet is "who is more productive." Neurodiversity is likely impacting job satisfaction and productivity.
What do we have to learn from the consulting industry?
I have worked for both KPMG and IBM financial services consulting organizations. Before my consulting days, I worked for Wells Fargo and Citibank in the financial services industry. My perspective is, the industry has very much to learn from the firms they hire as consultants. Consulting firms are already good at mobility, able to rapidly shift teams worldwide or working from home. Consulting firms, pre-pandemic, already had a "hoteling system" that allowed them to maintain a fraction of the office seats needed for their total employee population. Consulting firms are already good at creating culture remotely and collaborating virtually. The good news, there are already success stories for implementing hybrid or totally virtual organizations.
Is neurodiversity dilutive to visible diversity efforts?
This is important. As an example, a person of color may appropriately ask, “Will focusing on neurodiversity take away from improving discriminatory practices based on skin color?” My belief is a properly implemented neurodiversity program, in the context of an umbrella D&I program, will accelerate visible diversity efforts.
The potential challenge with visible diversity relates to a misalignment of incentives across visible groups. That is, those in the majority class may not feel compelled to actively advocate as a minority affinity ally. The visible-majority class behavior tends to be more passive. Also, this passive group tends to be the largest group, by far. As a solution for driving diversity awareness and action, diversity leadership should encourage converting passive visible-majority members to affinity visible-majority members. Please see the graphic.
A recent study suggests, most of the visible-majority class is passive in their attitudes toward diversity. (13) This is where neurodiversity comes into focus. Pair visibly diverse members with similar neuro-affinity attributes. (e.g., an Asian person and a white person that share introversion as a common neuro-affinity) Through their shared neuro-affinity, they will be more likely to extend the affinity to their visible diversity. Ultimately, sharing a business smart neuro-affinity may help accelerate visible diversity affinity.
The pandemic is full of interesting and high-impact lessons. Our ability to work remotely was certainly tested. It would seem that being in the office is not only unnecessary but can be counterproductive. The ability of our leaders to make the most of firm talent is critical. This article suggests leadership could be helped by including neurodiversity as a key component of developing and engaging their organization's talent. By choosing neurodiversity as a key element of your diversity program, you will be opening your firm to a rich world of talented possibilities! The good news is, choosing neurodiversity in the context of the post-pandemic world is already showing signs of increased productivity and work satisfaction.
Of our many cognitive biases, those most at play with "Hard to see" but "real" issues like global warming and neurodiversity are Hyperbolic discounting, Our lack of concern for future generations, The bystander effect, and The sunk-cost fallacy.
(3) The University of Minnesota Library houses a nice collection of supporting leadership studies.
(5) Jeffrey Hulett, Creativity - For Both Introverts and Extroverts
(6) Technically, Oxytocin is a neurohormone. It is consistently released into the neuron as neurotransmitters. Think of Oxytocin as a “dual-threat.” 1) It acts as a neurotransmitter and one senses its effects in the brain. 2) it is a hormone and one feels its effects in the body.
New York Times, The Dark Side of Oxytocin
Medical News Today, Oxytocin, The Love Hormone?
SJS Solutions, Oxytocin, the key to untapped human performance
(7) Kenhub, Neurotransmitters - for a nice summary of Neurotransmitters.
(8) I am generally combining all different manners of thinking under the neurodiversity umbrella. Neurodivergent groups are a specific subset of clinical designations found under the neurodiversity umbrella. The point is that we all have a unique and valuable way of thinking due to our neuro-affiliation.
Setting aside the personality type and neurotransmitter mixing-based neurodiversity, neurodivergent groups alone are estimated at 15% of the population.
(9) This simple probability calculation assumes factor independence, that is, the personality type associated with introversion is not correlated to the neurotransmitter mixing associated with higher tribalism. I have no reason to believe they are correlated, but, I have not seen any evidence in the literature either way.
(10) Inc., The Cult-Like Cultures of Amazing Start-ups
(11) Ray Dalio, Principles, Life and Work
(12) Kahneman, Sunstein, and Sibony, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment
(13) In a 2016 poll called Diversity Best Practices, they surveyed 7 companies to understand employee diversity-oriented resource group participation. Based on this survey, the median participation rate is 10%. This could be a proxy for visible-majority affinity and visible-minority. As such, this would leave 90% as either visible-majority passive or visible-majority unavailable.