Diversity delivers dividends
Some of our most seemingly advanced techniques for recruitment, health checking and people management may be greatly inimical to what we need to do to exploit the competitive advantages we can gain from diversity. When HR hears of diversity, gender inclusiveness (as sacralized in corporate headquarters ranging from 120ºW to 15ºE or from models in Menlo Park) is usually the sole and almost Pavlovian response. A few gadflies may, at best, prompt a secondary focus on affirmative action for Dalits and tribals.1 Let me insist upfront that all these diversities are vital and much work remains to be done for them (particularly the last two). While they certainly have the potential to yield great business benefits, their central justification is equity and justice.
This column deals with two other forms of diversity whose prime purpose is the competitive advantage they bestow on organisations that take them seriously. Both Educational Diversity (Edudiversity) and Neurological Diversity (Neurodiversity) can certainly also be defended on grounds of fairness but they have a direct and immense business benefit that few organisations have yet exploited.
A little after 600 CE, Isidore, Bishop of Seville, put together a compendium of much of the essential learning of the ancient Greco-Roman and early Christian worlds. We may be amused at some of the anachronistic concepts and factoids it contains. Our condescending smiles turn to open-mouthed admiration, however, when we take stock of the sheer breadth of topics the 449 chapters (across twenty volumes) the Etymology covers. Agriculture, anatomy, astronomy, biology, chemistry, grammar, law, mathematics, medicine, religion, shipping, tools and war, all have their place.2 It is an astonishing feat. What is even more amazing is the extent to which, 1,400 years later, corporate recruiters believe narrow focus, specialization and immediately usable competencies are a better substitute than an updated Etymology-equivalent curriculum for facing an uncertain future with a high rate of infant-technology mortality. Granted the accretion of knowledge at an ever-increasing pace makes it difficult to create individuals with such super-Renaissance versatility but surely it is feasible to aggregate individuals with Edudiversity into teams that collectively display such multi-faceted sparkle.
There are two ways to justify Edudiversity. The obvious one is to go subject by subject and project the kind of contribution a person proficient in that discipline could make to a commercial enterprise. I eschew this track not only because the number of subjects is so much larger than it was in Isidore’s time, making it practically impossible to recruit from each (or even to write about them all in a single column) but because we stand a very good chance of missing the forest for the firewood in doing so. What we need to identify is a meaningful diversity of mindsets and, for our purposes, grouping them into three mind-frame creators will suffice. Since most current corporate recruitment falls into just the first of these categories, the addition of two more will be a sufficient agenda augmentation to keep us busy over the next few years as we gain acceptance, refine selection techniques and integrate the new flow into teams. The three-fold categorization of Edudiversity proposed here is based on the manner in which disciplines acquire knowledge and skills as well their way of using them. Naturally, these groupings and the generalizations about them that follow are rather broad and low on nuance. As Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein point out, however, subtlety often succeeds only in increasing 'noise'. On the other hand, frugal models that look "ridiculously simplified … can produce surprisingly good predictions."3
The most familiar category consists of the Know How (KHow) disciplines. Almost our entire sourcing for managerial positions comes from a double layer of KHow education. The near-ubiquitous KHow MBA is preceded in 85% of cases (according to some sources) by the KHow BE.4 Similarly, the KHow CA (or equivalent) that is the mainstay of some organisations and functions has the KHow B Com as its near invariant antecedent. Organisations love people who know how to do things and promptly go ahead and do them (preferably unquestioningly).5 I have no problem if KHows constitute a very major part of the intake – they just shouldn’t be all of it.
The next come the Know Why (KWy) disciplines. These are the ones (best exemplified by the natural and behavioural sciences) that prompt their learners to figure out, from first principles, why things happen the way they do. A few KWy mindset people (including B Techs from some of the IITs) do get recruited into commercial enterprises. Where KWy mind-setters are given free scope, a new level of innovation suffuses the organisation. Two of my first bosses in HR had Masters’ degrees in Physics and what advanced research in Physics lost, both corporate India and I personally, gained from their creativity.6
The category that finds the least representation in India’s corporate firmament is from the disciplines that equip people to Know What is worth doing and What Not to do (KNot). A rather convoluted way of describing what a Liberal Arts education aims to do but it expresses the value KNot mind setters can bring to the corporate world. Apart from a tendency to have a holistic rather than an analytic view of reality, KNots too display a high degree of creativity but in an intuitive fashion rather than one derived logically from first principles like the KWy. Most importantly, they have the mental ruggedness to play the devil’s advocate and question accepted wisdom (or glib justifications for deviating from core values). A few KHows and KWys acquire an overview of KNot disciplines along their career journeys but this is a matter of happenstance. A more certain way to prevent sliding into noise-caused errors of judgement, stodgy repetitions or moral morasses is to deliberately recruit for these contra mindsets. "Organisations that want to harness the power of diversity must welcome the disagreements that will arise when team members reach their judgements independently. Eliciting and aggregating judgements that are both independent and diverse will often be the easiest, cheapest, and most broadly applicable decision hygiene strategy."
Providing KHows with intense learning opportunities is certainly one way to bring innovation-spurring and value-guarding diversities into organisations. I owe an immense debt to the National Institute of Advanced Studies, conceived by J R D Tata and designed under the genius of Dr Raja Ramanna, where I was privileged to be in the first batch in 1989. While the programme did provide Edudiversity for budding leaders, it lasted 5-6 weeks and I do not see too many organisations or executives investing that kind of time today. Recruitment of KWys and KNots, therefore, remains the most practical and quick way to gain dividends from Edudiversity. I can testify it works – but only if leaders have the vision and patience to try non-conventional sourcing streams.
We turn now to the most neglected of diversities with perhaps the greatest potential for transforming corporate capabilities and competitiveness. As studies of the brain have progressed in recent decades, it has become clear that people are not divided into two distinct categories: the normal majority and abnormal sub-groups. Instead, the Neurodiversity movement premises, "… deviations from the standard neurotypical brain that result in differing behavioural patterns are natural variations, not disorders or illnesses… If neurological differences are not disorders or illnesses, but merely variations, neurodiverse people are to be treated equally to neurotypical individuals."7 There is no gainsaying the fact that along the spectrum of differing behaviour, some fall clearly outside of the minima our society and working cultures demand. That still leaves a substantial number of persons who could be aided to reach minimal work conventions if we could overcome our biases against them. Our reason for the additional effort to prepare such niches and overcome the resistance of the general body of employees, need not solely be benevolence. Once we stop excluding people who behave oddly or are typed with a mental illness label, we open ourselves to untapped sources of talent that have fuelled some of the greatest geniuses and entrepreneurs the world has seen. The brilliance is not available without the apparent handicap. "Defects, disorders, diseases, in this sense, can play a paradoxical role, by bringing out latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life, that might never be seen, or even be imaginable, in their absence."8 Only when large corporates stop being 'ableist' in their searches will they be able to recruit the neuro-mavericks, some of whom will end up creating new products and business models that are today available to large corporates only after costly acquisition wars. Even where these special-brain individuals do not scale such heights (which is obviously rare) they frequently excel in tasks that neurotypicals struggle with and are free of several foibles to which the latter are prone.9
Thomas Armstrong has written a wonderful book on Neurodiversity that explains the evolutionary benefits these so-called disorders gave to humans.10 He makes an excellent case for mining each of these veins of talent:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Mood Disorders
- Anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders
- Atypical Intelligences (a disorder only to the extent performance on typical intelligence tests is sub-par)
- Schizotypal Personality Disorder
When these diagnostic labels cause us to veer away from recruiting people to whom they are applied (even if they are above the requisite minimum of daily routine competence), we lose a pool of talent that, with suitable support, can do better than neurotypicals at many jobs. The tech industry, with its chronic attrition problems, should be eager to beat a path to the doors of high-functioning autists. 11 & 12 Ioan James quotes Hans Asperger saying: "To our own amazement, we have seen that autistic individuals, as long as they are intellectually intact, can almost always achieve professional success… often in very high positions, with a preference for abstract content."13 Neurodiverse people have often delivered superior performance in the following roles (that are not always easy to fill):
- Inventor, researcher or industrial designer
- Computer software designer or programmer
- Life coach or marriage, child, and family counsellor
- Writer, musician or painter
Moreover, some of these brain states can equip the Neurodiverse to cope with crises and pressures under which neurotypicals wilt. For instance, they can manage isolated remote working (such as was forced by the Covid crisis) far better and their retention rates are almost invariably higher than those of ’typicals’.
Initial pilots have been extremely encouraging. Among the most advanced, in Europe we have the inspiring tale of Thorkil Sonne and of Specialisterne, the remarkable company he founded.14 A far more familiar name is Google, which "sees the neurodiverse community as a veritable treasure trove of talent largely untapped… Google believes autistic people can be successful doing anything in the organisation.”15 So it is not as if organisations in India that diverge from the path of recruiting neurotypicals will be global pioneers but they will certainly benefit from initial mover advantage within India for years to come.
The benefits we have alluded to so far mainly relate to the contributions Edudiverse and Neurodiverse people can bring to individual roles. Perhaps their greatest contribution, however, could lie in transforming group functioning once they have leavened the talent mix. They do so by catalyzing creativity, dismantling the knee-jerk resistance to outside ideas and developing the diversity delivery capabilities of the leadership and HR.
One of the surest paths to organisational innovation is through the formation of multi-functional task teams focused on solving seemingly intractable problems. Part of the benefit comes from the very different perspectives people from different orientations bring to bear. I have seen the effect replicated within HR when MBAs and behavioural scientists rub shoulders on a daily basis. The phenomenon was described long ago by Arthur Koestler but is even more important in the hyper-specialized and narrowly normalized world of today.16
More than one international expansion, collaboration, merger or acquisition has been sunk on the rocks of incompatibility. The stronger the culture the greater the probability of a debilitating auto-immune response, against the 'outsider', kicking in. Diversity of the recognisably different groups that this column has espoused gets people used to accepting and benefitting from the ideas of others unlike themselves.
These are not the last kinds of diversities the top management and HR will be expected to steward over the years. The time has long gone when HR can stand complacently near the shards of the glass ceiling shattered by women and remain under the illusion that its mission on diversity is accomplished. Subsequent ceilings will be constructed of progressively tougher glass and Edudiversity as well as Neurodiversity with provide excellent practice for shattering the transparent armour of which they are made. I know bringing in people who were considered abnormal and weeded out till now may go against the grain of several CHROs. There can be no better encouragement for them than to be reminded of their success in dealing with the psychopaths at the helm (Think I am joking? Check out the statistics and checklist from a recent Forbes article17). An organisation that has braved those hazards should find the gentler differences of the Neurodiverse a refreshing tonic indeed.
- Visty Banaji, There is an Elephant in the Room- And the Blind Men of Indostan Can’t See it, 26 September 2018, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/employee-relations/mass-exodus-of-employees-can-hr-pre-empt-it-19333).
- Isidore of Seville (Translated by Stephen Barney, W J Lewis, J A Beach and Oliver Berghof), The Etymologies, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein, Noise: A flaw in Human Judgement, William Collins, 2021.
- Rajen Mehrotra, Gaining Entry into a Management Institute, Current Labour Reports, September 2021.
- Diego Gambetta & Steffen Hertog, Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education, Princeton University Press, 2016.
- Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein, Noise: A flaw in Human Judgement, William Collins, 2021.
- Timo Lorenz, Nomi Reznik and Kathrin Heinitz, A Different Point of View: The Neurodiversity Approach to Autism and Work, from Michael Fitzgerald and Jane Yip’s (Editors), Autism - Paradigms, Recent Research and Clinical Applications, InTechOpen, 2017.by
- Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, Vintage, 1996.
- Michael Booth, Better, faster... and no office politics: the company with the autistic specialists, The Independent, 23 October 2011.
- Thomas Armstrong, The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain, Da Capo Lifelong Books; 2011.
- J Slegers, Why the Tech Industry Needs More Autism, Hackernoon, 30 October 2015.
- Robert D Austin and Gary P Pisano, Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage, Harvard Business Review, May-June 2017.
- Ioan James, Singular scientists, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, January 2003. 96(1): 36–39.
- Jonathan Wareham and Thorkil Sonne, Harnessing the Power of Autism Spectrum Disorder (Innovations Case Narrative: Specialisterne). Innovations, MIT Press, 2008.
- Steven Aquino, Google Cloud Exec Rob Enslin Talks Neurodiversity In The Workforce And How The Autism Career Program Seeks Top Talent, 26 July 2021.
- Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation, Hutchinson & Co, 1964.
- Jack McCullough, The Psychopathic CEO, Forbes, 9 December 2019.