There are more neurodiverse people in the workforce than ever before.1 Improved diagnosis, better interventions, and greater education and workforce accommodations have meant new opportunities for people with neurodiverse conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and dyslexia. Research suggests that many neurodiverse people have a strong work ethic, are resilient, and are determined to do well.2 But many function differently when it comes to social interactions, communication, executive attention, working memory, language learning, and sensory processing. Some also suffer from anxiety and depression.
Given a supportive environment, neurodiverse employees can meet or exceed performance expectations.3 Poor management practices, however, such as unsupportive supervision, unclear communication, and inflexible work policies, as well as office politics, noise, and clutter, can compromise their performance. Organizations should promote practices to support and encourage neurodiverse staff members.
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Effective feedback, which is data-driven, specific, and tailored to individual employee needs, is one good tool. Used correctly, well-formulated feedback can dramatically improve work relationships, job commitment, and engagement and can ultimately help create a more inclusive work culture, in addition to enhancing job performance. Here, we provide guidelines based on our research that can help managers use performance feedback as a transformative tool.
1. Build rapport, and focus on the individual.
A trusting relationship is required for performance feedback to be meaningful and effective.4 Compassion for employees’ needs — or individualized consideration — works particularly well with neurodiverse employees.5 Prominent companies with neurodiversity programs, such as Microsoft, JP Morgan, and SAP, use peer mentors, job coaches, and work buddies to develop rich feedback channels between neurodiverse employees and other team members to foster a supportive work environment.6 The point is to be sensitive to the needs of neurodiverse individuals while also empowering them.
We developed a survey to help managers tailor individualized support and empower all employees, not just the neurodiverse. (See the downloadable PDF, “Working Style and Feedback Preference Form.”) Employees can use it to explain their needs and particular challenges, and managers can gain valuable insights into how best to support employees in meeting the organization’s goals.
1. Neurodiversity proponents prefer identity-first language (such as “autistic person”) rather than person-first language (such as “individual with autism”). We have used this terminology throughout the article. See A.E. Hurley-Hanson, C.M. Giannantonio, and A.J. Griffiths, “Autism in the Workplace: Creating Positive Employment and Career Outcomes for Generation A” (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020); and J.L. Chen, G. Leader, C. Sung, et al., “Trends in Employment for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Review of the Research Literature,” Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2, no. 2 (June 2015): 115-127.
2. A. Remington and E. Pellicano, “‘Sometimes You Just Need Someone to Take a Chance on You’: An Internship Programme for Autistic Graduates at Deutsche Bank, U.K.,” Journal of Management & Organization 25, no. 4 (July 2019): 516-534.
3. Hurley-Hanson, Giannantonio, and Griffiths, “Autism in the Workplace.”
4. S. Valcea, M.R. Hamdani, M.R. Buckley, et al., “Exploring the Developmental Potential of Leader-Follower Interactions: A Constructive-Developmental Approach,” The Leadership Quarterly 22, no. 4 (August 2011): 604-615.
5. A.D. Parr, S.T. Hunter, and G.S. Ligon, “Questioning Universal Applicability of Transformational Leadership: Examining Employees With Autism Spectrum Disorder,” The Leadership Quarterly 24, 4 (August 2013): 608-622.
6. M. Bernick, “The State of Autism Employment in 2021,” Forbes, Jan. 12 2021, www.forbes.com.
7. H. Annabi and J. Locke, “A Theoretical Framework for Investigating the Context for Creating Employment Success in Information Technology for Individuals With Autism,” Journal of Management & Organization 25, no. 4 (July 2019): 499-515.
8. M. Ciampi, “Disclosing Autism on the Job? Yes or No?” LinkedIn, June 1, 2017, www.linkedin.com.
9. A.A. Sleiman, S. Sigurjonsdottir, A. Elnes, et al., “A Quantitative Review of Performance Feedback in Organizational Settings (1998-2018),” Journal of Organizational Behavior Management 40, no. 3-4 (2020): 303-332.
11. E. Aljadeff-Abergel, S.M. Peterson, R.R. Wiskirchen, et al., “Evaluating the Temporal Location of Feedback: Providing Feedback Following Performance vs. Prior to Performance,” Journal of Organizational Behavior Management 37, no. 2 (2017): 171-195.
12. Remington and Pellicano, “‘Sometimes You Just Need Someone to Take a Chance on You,’” 516-534.
13. E.M. Roscoe, W.W. Fisher, A.C. Glover, et al., “Evaluating the Relative Effects of Feedback and Contingent Money for Staff Training of Stimulus Preference Assessments,” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 39, no. 1 (spring 2006): 63-77.
14. M.R. Morris, A. Begel, and B. Wiedermann, “Understanding the Challenges Faced by Neurodiverse Software Engineering Employees: Towards a More Inclusive and Productive Technical Workforce,” in “Assets ’15: Proceedings of the 17th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers & Accessibility” (Lisbon, Portugal: Association for Computing Machinery, 2015).
15. A.J. Henley and F.D. DiGennaro Reed, “Should You Order the Feedback Sandwich? Efficacy of Feedback Sequence and Timing,” Journal of Organizational Behavior Management 35, no. 3-4 (2015): 321-335; and S. Bottini and J. Gillis, “A Comparison of the Feedback Sandwich, Constructive-Positive Feedback, and Within Session Feedback for Training Preference Assessment Implementation,” Journal of Organizational Behavior Management 41, no. 1 (2021): 83-93.
16. Henley and DiGennaro Reed, “Should You Order the Feedback Sandwich?” 321-335.
17. S.M. Hayward, K.R. McVilly, and M.A. Stokes, “Autism and Employment: What Works,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 60 (April 2019): 48-58; and A. Krzeminska, C.E.J. Härtel, J. Carrero, et al., “Autism @ Work: New Insights on Effective Employment Practices,” PDF file (Brisbane, Australia: Autism CRC, December 2020), www.autismcrc.com.au.
18. D. Brand, M.D. Novak, F.D. DiGennaro Reed, et al., “Examining the Effects of Feedback Accuracy and Timing on Skill Acquisition,” Journal of Organizational Behavior Management 40, no. 1-2 (2020): 3-18.
19. J.M. Hirst, F.D. DiGennaro Reed, and D.D. Reed, “Effects of Varying Feedback Accuracy on Task Acquisition: A Computerized Translational Study,” Journal of Behavioral Education 22, no. 1 (March 2013): 1-15.
20. Hurley-Hanson, Giannantonio, and Griffiths, “Autism in the Workplace.”
21. R.J. Ehrlich, M.R. Nosik, J.E. Carr, et al., “Teaching Employees How to Receive Feedback: A Preliminary Investigation,” Journal of Organizational Behavior Management 40, no. 1-2 (2020): 19-29.