How diverse do we need to be?
Law firms and other businesses that fall into the trap of being ‘diversish’ risk missing out on a range of benefits that could help their people and operations, writes Leonie Green.
I came across a video a few years ago about what “diversish” looks like and found myself uncomfortably giggling at the concept.
The video is worth a watch, but in essence diversish refers to a scenario when we say we value diversity and inclusion while not really understanding what that means to those who are ‘divergent’ from ‘the norm’ of an environment. We might say we value diversity and inclusion, without challenging ourselves to seriously consider what that means for us, for our firms, and why we might value it.
It’s fascinating what comedy can provide by way of education and reflection… or a mirror. Recently, the ALPMA HR Day 2023 had the theme of Embracing Difference and opened with a presentation by workplace dynamics expert Callum McKirdy as keynote speaker. I still find myself reflecting on the a-ha moments I had in Callum’s presentation and have been reflecting on how often we force our workplaces and our employees to work in a neurotypical way, rather than leaning into understanding how we can get the best from our employees who are neurodivergent.
Striving to be better
In my quest to understand more, and in reflecting on how we can be better than diversish, I have been devouring information about what it’s like to be neurodivergent as a starting point. In so doing, I was interested to hear ‘disabled’ used as a verb, not a noun, for a better understanding of how environments impact our ability (research psychologist Jac den Houting describes how the environment can be disabling).
I also appreciated the analogy that autistic educator Kip Chow uses to describe what it’s like to be autistic: “My brain isn’t broken, it’s just running on a different operating system.” Kip challenges us to “imagine trying to operate an iPhone with instructions for an Android”. If people around you don’t see it and are using their Androids just fine, then the impact might be debilitating, and it might be the cause for confusion or misunderstanding between the Android user and the iPhone user.
The challenge is we often don’t see autism or other differences, or recognise them, and they are often undiagnosed. As Kip says, “Someone in your life could be an iPhone trying to fake their way through life as an Android. That person could even be you.”
The analogy explains a lot. It makes me imagine how complicated, exhausting or confusing it might be just to complete what might be a straightforward task for the Android user, while potentially missing the full benefit of the functionality of the iPhone.
Neurodivergence, such as autism and ADHD, are becoming more prevalent, it seems. Like many things, we are getting better (slowly) at diagnosis. In many instances, adults are being diagnosed at the same time as their children, with the diagnosis having been missed or unavailable when they were younger. Journalist Mia Freedman recently wrote about the challenges she faced with a diagnosis of ADHD at age 49.
As I was researching further, and writing this article, I was reflecting on how often neurodivergence might be at the heart of miscommunication. As one example, I see this when conducting workplace investigations; trying to reconcile how differently people experience, interpret or perceive the very same interactions.
One of the key underlying causes of negligence claims against law firms, as identified by LPLC, is poor communication. Whether we are communicating with clients, or within teams, having a better understanding of one another’s communication needs can increase our effectiveness and productivity, but it also reduces risks. That is, it makes business sense to work on improving how we communicate.
The challenge is clear – how do we work on improving communication when we don’t talk very much about neurodivergence and are only just scratching the surface on what it means?
We can start by opening a conversation about neurodiversity. Work on creating an environment where it is safe to say, “I am neurodiverse.” By way of example, HSBC celebrates neurodiversity within its workplace, while also encouraging open conversation, as demonstrated through its promotional video: Neurodiversity, work and me.
It also helps to get curious and understand more about what neurodiversity means and how we might design work environments that are more reasonably accommodating to different needs (or, approached from a different lens, get curious about improving how our people and our clients understand one another and work as effectively as possible). Neurodiversity campaigner Professor Amanda Kirby suggests using design thinking to ask better questions, listen differently and design better (and more effective) solutions for all.
The message is that we should strive to be better than diversish, and in so doing we might just all benefit from a more accommodating work environment, where people understand one another more readily, and work more effectively every day.
Leonie Green is the co-founder and director of the Corvus Group, a workplace and legal advisory firm with more than 20 years of senior legal and HR experience working in Australian and international companies. She practised as an employment and industrial relations lawyer for a number of years prior to moving into management roles in industrial relations, shared services and human resources. She can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.