Why a promotion can be a nightmare for the neurodiverse

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The transition into a management role can be a stressful time for a neurodiverse employee, especially if the cognitive abilities that got them noticed in their previous role will be used less frequently. Dr Nancy Doyle looks at why coaching and other adjustments can help the neurodiverse thrive in their new job.

Getting a promotion is often rewarding and exciting news, but for many neurodiverse individuals it can fill them with dread.

My social enterprise Genius Within receives referrals for over 3,000 people each year seeking support for a hidden disability, neurominority or chronic cognitive condition.

Around 30% of referrals are people at the point of transition into management or senior management. The typical story is one of an excellent professional, be it social worker, salesperson, analyst, trainer, with a solid work history of top performance. This performance gets them noticed, and promotion is offered to them as role models of how to deliver.

However, points of transition always come with challenge and, for many people, being promoted into a new role may reveal cognitive differences which previously learned coping behaviours are now unable to support. For example, a more senior role might involve social skills, relying on visual-spatial body language ability, and verbal strengths. Managing the team might involve reading other peoples’ reports and processing finance data

A strategic role uses different cognitive functions than a tactical role and people can find it hard to manage without some, often simple, adjustments to support their transition. An employee might find that their dyslexic creativity, dyspraxic listening skills, their ADHD-based selling power or their autistic attention to detail is no longer in use and they now need a different blend of capabilities.

This can be disabling for some and I have met many confused employers who simply don’t understand why their star salesperson is now floundering and failing to meet deadlines, or their most accurate analyst can’t engage or get buy-in from their team.

The need to apply different skills doesn’t rule our newly promoted managers out of contention; it’s a tricky transition, not a failure.  We might get a request for a diagnosis at this point, from someone who “always suspected” but was never struggling enough to go to the trouble. It might be that the cognitive struggles were passable at GCSE, A Level, and degree but now, at Master’s level, their strengths can no longer pull them through. It’s like a neurominority glass ceiling.

I had a client once with a processing speed in the bottom 7% of the population but verbal skills in the top 3%.  He had a degree, had sold a business for six figures, and was failing his Master’s degree. He reported, “I feel like a Ferrari engine in an old banger. I can go like stink, but I never know when the wheels are going to fall off!”

The good news is we can plan for this, address it when it happens and learn from the experience. HR teams should make sure they are aware that an undiagnosed or undisclosed condition might thwart an ambitious and talented team member: they weren’t trying to hide it from you, it just wasn’t relevant before.

It might be that the cognitive struggles were passable at GCSE, A Level, and degree but now, at Master’s level, their strengths can no longer pull them through. It’s like a neurominority glass ceiling.”

Adjustments work. There are simple processes to consider like implementation of assistive technology and making sure the working environment is free of sensory distractions, or more complex approaches like provision of professional workplace coaching with a cognitive focus.

If coaching is chosen, please use trained coaches. There’s a lot of poor, unregulated practice out there. Be careful of providers whose experience is restricted to their own, rather than qualified coaches and psychologists.

My research has found that just four sessions of targeted coaching for neurodiversity can improve performance 61% (rated by supervisors and clients) as well as leading to a 95% retention rate after one year.

Bigger organisations might want to think about building workshops on speed reading, structuring reports, managing time, prioritisation and wellbeing into a management onboarding programme.  Doing this pre-emptively can save a lot of wasted effort and goodwill.

By the time someone puts their hand up for help we estimate they’ve been struggling for six months on average. That’s six months of lost productivity, strained relationships, 4am wake ups and dreading Mondays.

We know these employees excel in their field – that’s why they’ve been promoted. With the right, proactive adjustments, your new managers can reverse the fade and light up again, like the stars that they are.

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Dr Nancy Doyle

About Dr Nancy Doyle

Dr Nancy Doyle is CEO and founder of Genius Within, a social enterprise that helps neurodiverse people reach their full potential at work. She is a an occupational psychologist with more than 20 years' experience.

3 Responses to Why a promotion can be a nightmare for the neurodiverse

  1. Avatar
    A. Walker 17 Feb 2020 at 6:50 pm #

    I think you mean “neurodivergent.” Diversity is a property that applies, or does not apply, to groups.

    More info – https://neurocosmopolitanism.com/neurodiversity-some-basic-terms-definitions/

  2. Nancy Doyle
    Nancy Doyle 20 Feb 2020 at 7:00 pm #

    Yes, that’s true for the sociological definition but there is also a psychological definition which is in use, and preferred by many people. I use both interchangeably as a nod of respect to peoples’ identities.
    See here more information on the psychological definition: https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/psychology-work-improving-wellbeing-and-productivity-workplace (chapter 2)
    And also see Neurodiversity in Education D. Pollack (Ed) and Neurodiversity by Dr T. Armstrong.

  3. Avatar
    Louisa Radice 13 Mar 2020 at 3:26 pm #

    What if promotion is not something which happens by “[getting] noticed” but something you have to make happen by applying for vacancies at a higher grade? That means being able to identify which roles are worth the effort of applying for, perhaps as part of a longer-term strategy of moving sideways in order to move upwards. It means being able to decipher the acronyms and/or technical jargon typical of internal job vacancies. It means being able to identify what you’ve achieved (or could achieve given the right assignments) in your current job. Above all, it means psyching yourself up to return to the fray of applications and interviews, which is particularly dispiriting if you took longer to land your current job than the average jobseeker. It seems that all this is something the average employee is expected to do instinctively – either that or they manage to befriend a senior coworker who shows them the ropes. How true is that of the neurodiverse?

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