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How to Attract and Support Neurodiverse Talent

Companies that embrace different thinking styles have more innovative teams.


​Soon after Lindsay Grenawalt started her job as head of people operations at Cockroach Labs, a software company based in New York City, her CEO approached her because he was concerned about the company’s lack of diversity. Specifically, he was concerned that there were no women on the engineering team. The company wasn’t quite a year old yet in December 2015, but it was growing rapidly. Grenawalt pushed her CEO to think beyond the traditional notions of diverse recruiting: Why would someone want to work at Cockroach? And why would that person want to stay? 

She proposed an approach geared toward building an inclusive environment that achieved diversity in all areas—traditional ones like race and gender, but also less-explored ones like the way people think and work. For example, new hires are asked to create a “how to work with me” document that includes their preferred work hours, ways of giving and receiving feedback, and communication methods. The process encourages employees to evaluate themselves and become self-aware, Grenawalt says.

It also allows employees to “understand and set those boundaries for themselves [and] have every single employee in this company understand and recognize that people are thinking and behaving differently from them and it’s OK,” she says.

Cockroach is one of many companies realizing the benefits of cognitive diversity, also known as diversity of thought or neurodiversity: a workforce that includes people who brainstorm, problem-solve, evaluate and strategize in a variety of ways. Cognitive diversity can help eliminate an echo chamber and groupthink, leading to more innovation, experts say. For instance, a team of five like-minded people may come up with only one or two ideas, while a same-size group of neurodiverse individuals could produce five or more unique approaches.

More and more, jobs that depend on workers who are proficient in one specific skill—such as a particular task on an assembly line—are disappearing or being automated. Today, many business leaders are looking for people who can fill more-challenging roles. “The fact is that, once problems become super high-dimensional and complex, they’re beyond any one person’s ability to solve,” says Scott Page, the Leonid Hurwicz collegiate professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan. “Ten copies of the same person don’t do you much good.”

And that’s where traditional diversity and neurodiversity go hand in hand—since a workforce that includes a robust mix of men and women of various ages, ethnicities, religions and other characteristics is more likely to reflect a variety of perspectives and thought patterns than a more-homogeneous group of people with similar backgrounds and experiences. 

In addition, leaders who strive to build a cognitively diverse workforce must embrace inclusion, says Khalil Smith, head of diversity and inclusion practice at the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global research organization based in New York City that uses neuroscience to examine leadership. “Inclusion absolutely is the device that unlocks diversity, because diversity in and of itself is interesting. But [you must create] an environment of inclusive behaviors where people genuinely feel and believe and see it demonstrated that the way that they think, the way that they act, the way that they approach problems, their background and who they are [is valued],” Smith says.

Ultimately, teams with cognitive diversity produce better results, he continues, “because you’ve had more people weigh in and those people have each analyzed a problem through a different lens.” 

Inclusivity in Hiring

Creating an inclusive environment that embraces a wide range of thinking styles starts with self-awareness, Grenawalt says. Cockroach Labs, which has 50 employees, hired a vendor to lead an unconscious bias workshop for its employees. “What it did is really make people aware that this is something that we have to work toward. … It’s actually something that we have to embed into not only our structure and our processes, but into our culture,” she says. 

Grenawalt also got rid of resumes and instituted exercise-based interviewing in its place. “Let’s stop giving [hiring managers] that crutch of being able to recruit their own image,” Grenawalt says. “Instead, let’s challenge them to really speak to the candidates and learn from the candidates if they have the applicable skills.”

The company’s HR team still uses resumes to make sure job seekers have the required qualifications, but hiring managers don’t see the documents. Once the recruiters narrow the pool and conduct initial phone calls, candidates are given a take-home activity to assess their skills and uncover different approaches to problem-solving. Those who do well are invited in for a day of four exercise-based interviews and lunch with the team. 

When hiring HR staff, Grenawalt asks candidates to imagine they are kicking off the search for a software developer, absent initial input from a hiring manager. The HR job seekers must put together a recruiting strategy and pull three strong candidate profiles before conducting in-person interviews. Grenawalt goes through this information onsite with the candidates, putting herself in the role of the hiring manager.

“It’s a direct reflection of what they’ve not only done in their current job, but what they’re going to be doing day-to-day at Cockroach,” she says. 

Company leaders are transparent about their intention to incorporate familiarity and fairness into the process. “We would rather have somebody feel like they’re coming into the interview … prepared to show their skill set rather than not feeling prepared,” Grenawalt says. 

At Ultra Testing, a technology services company based in New York City, a majority of the 50 employees who work across 16 states are on the autism spectrum. “Our mission as a company is to prove that neurodiversity, including autism, can be a competitive advantage in business,” says CEO Rajesh Anandan. “We aim to do that by being the best in our business in the quality assurance and quality services industry.”

He is quick to point out that this is a spectrum, which means not everyone acts in the same manner even if they tend to share similar characteristics to varying degrees. “We have colleagues who have very different learning styles and models for and ways of processing information,” he explains. 

Leaders at Ultra have developed a set of specific attributes needed for each position. From there, they give candidates a multistep assessment that gauges cognitive abilities, aspects of personality such as curiosity and behavioral traits like coachability. The process includes questionnaires, essays and tests, along with interviews. The last step is a week of simulated work. 

What it doesn’t include, however, is resumes or subjective interviewing. Previous work experience or degrees aren’t considered, since people on the autism spectrum are less likely to have been employed or to have completed secondary education. 

“It’s not perfect, but at this point, we can take someone who’s never done software testing before, may or may not have a college degree, may or may not have had a skilled job, but at the end of our process have an over 95 percent degree of confidence that we’ve found someone that has what it takes to be a world-class software tester,” Anandan says. “Within a month, they’re doing billable client work and within a year, they are at the level of competence where they could go up against any software tester in the world and outperform them.”

6 Ways to Promote Cognitive Diversity

1. Hold an unconscious bias workshop, which will help employees uncover their own preconceptions, including the tendency to hire people they connect with or have commonalities with. 

2. Stop providing resumes to hiring managers. Implement exercise-based interviews and allow candidates to prepare ahead of time.

3. Use a cognitive ability assessment to discover variations in how current employees think.

4. Conduct tests in the hiring process to find employees who think in different ways from the current team. 

5. Create and champion processes that encourage people to ask questions and speak up, both to co-workers and executives.

6. Celebrate employees’ new ideas and different ways of thinking. 

Opening Up

Myriad vendors provide out-of-the-box assessments designed to help companies achieve cognitive diversity. These tests measure people’s cognitive abilities and behavioral characteristics, then place them into categories based on how they prefer to think and work.

“People behave based on how they think,” says Anne Griswold, senior consultant at Herrmann International, which is based in Spindale, N.C. The company offers an assessment called the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, based on the company’s Whole Brain Thinking methodology. “Our preference is where we get excited and like to connect with people.” Knowing what type of work energizes people instead of just what they are capable of doing can increase productivity and retention. 

Test results can show which employees prefer to think through a problem by focusing first on the process and which ones would rather jump right to potential solutions. One employee may be data-driven, while another is motivated by relationships and the customer experience. 

Knowing current employees’ strengths can guide the hiring process. “We use assessments to determine where we have gaps on certain teams in order to bring in somebody who’s a little bit different in certain areas,” says Cassandra Pratt, vice president of people at Progyny, a fertility benefits company in New York City with 130 employees. 

Company leaders often opt to share the results of assessments with the entire organization. They may display color wheels highlighting an individual’s strengths at their workstations or more-detailed assessments on the company intranet. 

Workers at Ultra Testing create their own “user manual” called a biodex—an idea that was suggested by an employee. Before starting any new project, team members are expected to read each other’s biodexes. 

The biodex assessment has 28 data points that highlight a person’s preferred way of communicating, average response time to other employees’ requests and feedback preferences. It also outlines an individual’s triggers for stress, information that could be helpful in the workplace. “Whether you’re on the spectrum or not … most humans are not good at being self-aware when stress or anxiety is building up until it’s too late,” Anandan says. “So if our colleagues all know what those triggers might be, then they can be more intentional about avoiding them.”

Managing Diverse Teams

Celebrating and respecting different ways of thinking is itself a different way of thinking for many—but employers need not invest in an expensive vendor solution to embrace the basic idea. Foster a culture of cognitive diversity by being open to different opinions and following up on new ideas or tough questions, and by encouraging your executives to do the same. For example, every other month, the CEO and COO of Progyny hold a round table for new employees and any other staffers who want to join. The gathering is kept to five to eight people to facilitate conversation. Employees are encouraged to share how their jobs are going so far, ask about issues or processes they don’t understand, and suggest recommendations for change.

Companies that don’t embrace diversity and inclusion, including diversity of thought, will fall behind.

The company also has a mentoring program intended to make people feel comfortable approaching higher-ups. The program matches recognized high-performers with a member of the executive team for eight months. The duos are selected from separate departments and different generations and have varying cognitive styles. (Progyny has a separate mentoring program for new hires.)

Understanding Thinking Styles

Researchers have identified seven thinking and behavioral tendencies: 

​​​Analytical thinking happens in the left hemisphere of the brain and is essential to making more-objective, less-biased decisions. 

​​Structural thinking also takes place in the left brain and ensures that you come up with a plan that is doable. It is the methodical, sequential process that helps maximize results and minimize pitfalls.

​​Social thinking is a right-brain tendency that allows a leader to listen, build successful teams, relate to people, and develop and inspire others.

Conceptual thinking is right-brain, visionary thinking that jump-starts innovation. 

Expressiveness refers to how well you communicate your ideas. It affects how you relate to people and sets the course for the way you speak with others.

Assertiveness is a behavior style you use to put your ideas to work. An effective leader is assertive enough to make things happen, but not so much that they stymie others.

Flexibility is about not only your openness to other points of view, but also your ability to thrive in undefined (or very defined) situations.
Source: Emergenetics International.

Necessary Challenges

Embracing cognitive diversity may cause more conflict in your workforce—and that can be a good thing if it is handled well. Teams with members who think differently will undoubtedly have different approaches and perspectives. They will question, and perhaps even disagree with, each other more. That will require leaders who are equipped to manage disagreements and provide constructive feedback, while continuing to encourage employees to speak their minds. Neurodiverse teams may also spend more time and effort discussing a variety of ideas and researching solutions. Creative hiring and onboarding practices can require more resources as well. 

But HR leaders say companies that don’t embrace diversity and inclusion, including diversity of thought, will fall behind in today’s competitive, innovative world. “I think the types of problems that we are needing to solve and the kind of environment we’re all living in requires the ability to navigate complexity, solve tough problems, and continue to learn and evolve—and if you have a more homogenous-thinking team, you will fail,” Anandan says. 

“Companies that don’t take [this] approach are missing out,” Pratt says. “They aren’t going to move as quickly, shift when the market shifts. The only way you’re going to [keep up with it] is by tapping into all of your employees.”  

Melanie Padgett Powers is a freelance writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., area.

Illustration by Mari Adams for HR Magazine.