Don't waste our superpowers: let's help managers support neurodiverse civil servants

Ross Duncan, of HM Passport Office, says the civil service should make the most of people with neurodiverse conditions as it prepares for an era of digital government and automation

People who are dyslexic can be more likely to use the right side of their brain, which tends to deal with nonverbal information. Credit: Lino Mirgeler/DPA/PA

By Ross Duncan

30 Jul 2018

Since discovering that I had dyslexia almost 10 years ago I have been very much involved with raising awareness of dyslexia as well as researching and writing for publications. My managers and departments have supported me in many ways. For example my employer, Her Majesty’s Passport Office, sponsored me to attend a training course on raising awareness after I identified the need for better understanding of dyslexia within that organisation.

Although roughly 10% of population have dyslexia it wasn’t that far back in time that many felt a fear of being found out and labelled as ‘thick’ or ‘stupid’. Thankfully these days there is better understanding, but I still believe there is more we can do to harness the talents of people with dyslexia, and neurodiverse people more widely. By doing this, we’ll be helping to build a truly brilliant civil service.

I was listening to a radio broadcast recently where a panel of experts were discussing how they see the workforce in the future and how computers could potentially take over a number of roles currently being done by humans. Most people would see this as negative subject to listen to; I however listened intently. What these experts importantly identified was that computers can’t totally replace humans because they can’t show empathy, be creative and show judgement.

This got me thinking. Being dyslexic helps me to see ‘the bigger picture’ and see how positives can come out of situations that many would see as mainly negative. This is because people who are dyslexic can be more likely to use the right side of their brain and less of the left. The brain functions on the right side of the brain tend to deal with nonverbal information, drawing, creativity, and intuitive and spatial relationships.

Other neurodiverse people – people with conditions such as dyspraxia, autism and ADHD – also tend to use specific sides of their brain, which means they often bring different ways of thinking and skills to a team. For example, people with autism tend to have a high ability to analyse because they are more likely to use the left side of their brain.

Nigel Lockett, professor of entrepreneurship at Lancaster University Management School, says that “dyslexics have a heightened level of empathy and heightened level of ability for visual or big picture thinking”. That is why he defines dyslexia as a “superpower”, and why we can bring something very valuable to civil service teams.

But Prof Lockket does however say that managing an individual with dyslexia can be complex. “Get it right and the rewards are high, embracing someone as an individual that has dyslexia goes a long way to give them self-assurance,” he says. But it’s imperative that a line manager be “open-minded and supportive” and allow the employee to develop their potential, he adds.

I believe that the skills of creativity, entrepreneurship and big picture thinking are essential to civil service teams, and that developing the potential of neurodiverse employees will help government to deliver improved outcomes in many ways, especially as we enter an era of digital government and automation.

But don’t just take my word on it: a number of successful global companies have capitalised on this by recognising the hidden talents people have if they are dyslexic, and communicating that there is no need to be embarrassed or keep it a secret. Mark Evans, group marketing director at Direct Line Group, has written that neurodiversity people bring “innovation from the edges” through their fresh thinking. He argues that as companies face the fast-moving digital changes, “innovation from the edges will become even more critical” – and I couldn’t agree more.

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