Managing Performance of Neurodiverse Staff
Applying Performance and Behavioural Standards
Managing staff requires a mix of guiding through missteps and mistakes. Encouraging continued good work and dealing with the odd interpersonal challenge. This is no different when it comes to neurodiverse staff. But, this is often an area of uncertainty for many managers new to supporting a neurodiverse employee.
When establishing an inclusive workplace it's important to treat all people equally. Making distinctions on how one person is treated versus everyone else fosters exclusion.
Consider the following image:
Inclusion can only be achieved when the distinction of difference is incorporated as ‘normal’ and not singled out in any way. To treat equally. When it comes to managing performance, it is reasonable to expect a neurodiverse employee to perform at the required level for their role.
The critical question that I would ask though is: “to what extent are you prepared to support any employee to be successful?”
The answer to this question will indicate the level of effort you will spend to ensure your team is performing at their best. Regardless of their personal circumstances.
Your team members may be a parent, have extra-curricula commitments, be a carer or even be autistic or dyslexic. Is there any significant distinction between making adjustments in the routines, short term ‘output’ expectations or the way you might go about coaching and guiding them to success?
Overlay their personal situation with their personality. You may have a variable mix of people. And I at least would be excited to see that was the case. With such a group, you have the potential to create an outstanding team.
It’s not my intention to sugar coat the potential support needs of a neurodiverse staff member. But what I would say is that every single member of your team has different needs. Those needs may vary over time. And to be effective as a manager, you will be varying your approach to best suit each individual.
In that vein at least, don’t make an exception for the neurodiverse employee.
Before we get into tactics and strategies, I’d like to lay out some foundations for my thinking. By understanding at least some of the context behind my approach, you can better to decide if it makes sense, or if I’m just a nutter.
Some might say that regardless, that’s a foregone conclusion!
Policy - Process - Procedure
I have a tendency to see things as interrelated systems. A series of cogs turning in some form of unison, with a level of cause and effect by-play.
To make this more tangible, and relevant to the work context, let’s take a quick look at typical HR frameworks around performance and behaviour management. at least at a high level.
Policies are the overarching framework for how an activity or function or business might operate. They set out the guardrails and are the guiding principles for how the business will function.
For example, for performance management it might set out the expectation that performance targets will be agreed at set intervals. That they would also be used as a hurdle for performance-based rewards at the end of the financial year.
The processes then set out the general steps that would be undertaken to fulfil the objectives of the policy.
In our example, the process might state that the manager and employee will agree the outcomes and standards to be achieved for the year. This agreement is to be completed during the first quarter of the financial year.
At the lowest level of guidance are the procedures. Procedures set out the step by step actions that need to be taken to complete the requirements of the process.
Going back to our example, the procedure might state that performance objectives need to be completed by the employee in the HR system. These are then to be reviewed and signed as approved by the manager.
Managing Staff Expectations
With this understanding of Policy - Process - Procedure in mind let’s look at how I’d suggest you go about applying performance and behaviour standards to neurodiverse staff.
I’m going to assume that you have a level of understanding of some of the common traits of neurodiverse people. Things such as potential challenges with time management, starting and completing tasks, interpersonal skills and personal space.
In many instances, there should be no need to alter the application of performance expectations from a policy, process or procedure level. What might come about is the way in which they are applied.
For example, let’s take the example of someone who might have a challenge with maintaining focus on their work. This might present as regular delays in getting work completed, becoming a distraction to other staff members. Or creating extra work as they move off onto tangents.
A simple application of policy, process and procedure may lead you down the path to reprimand the employee and with repeated infractions lead to official performance management.
What I would encourage is to seek a deeper understanding of the drivers of the behaviour. Why is it that they are having issues with maintaining focus? Is it the nature of the work? Is it the sensory environment?
There could be many contributing factors, but more likely one or two main ones. What is probable is that your existing policy already states expectations on performance and meeting the objectives of an individual’s role.
It is absolutely reasonable to extend those same expectations to a neurodiverse team member.
The challenge in our example is that it will likely not be sufficient to tell them they are not doing enough. Asking them to make sure they achieve their timelines, for instance, could be falling short of giving them the insight required to make that happen.
If there are environmental factors that are affecting their ability to perform at their best, there may be more required to set them up for success.
A direct conversation that is devoid of blame and constructive in nature will open both sides to a clear understanding of the issue. Be clear and unambiguous in your feedback. Be mindful of how criticism may be taken, as for some, low self-esteem can cause negative feedback to be amplified or misconstrued.
Feedback should be provided frequently and not limited to formal review sessions. It should be brief and focus on the specifics of what the individual has done. For example, to say ‘good job’ can be too vague and not provide anything tangible for the individual to work with. Rather it would be better to say, “I liked what you did when you…”. This provides clarity around what good looks like and gives the team member a clear goal to repeat in future.
In the vast majority of cases, under performance can readily be resolved. It may take some investigation and conversation. The resolution could mean a level of adaptation of the role, or a shift in the application of standards. It may just require some minor changes to their environment or rhythm.
Allowing for sensory inputs (light and noise in particular), start and finish times for the day, or altering their specific duties could be the small changes required to see a significant shift in performance. Not to mention well being.
I believe that workplace issues with behaviour arise from two basic issues. The first being the level of understanding and awareness of other employees. What I mean by that is that some neurodiverse people may not act or speak in the same way that most neurotypical people will.
Autistic people can be characteristically direct and honest with their feedback. Equally they may be loath to initiate social conversation. Both of these characteristics can be off-putting to some people and can easily be misunderstood and misinterpreted.
Not all neurodiverse people will have the same understanding of social norms, such as eye contact and personal space. Some may find it hard to judge how much room they need to leave others or either not make eye contact or eye contact could be too intense.
Vocal control and volume can also be an area that some people find challenging, especially when emotions are high (stress, anxiety, or just very passionate about the topic) which again can be misconstrued by peers.
The second issue is really the same sorts of things, but from a self awareness and self-control perspective for the individual. Coaching and social skills training can help them to adjust to their environment and provide some strategies for dealing with others more effectively.
My experience has been that when someone feels that a neurodiverse person is being rude or mean to them. Invariably this is not the case, and the neurodiverse person would be upset to know they people have felt that way.
Before running down the path of applying repercussions for workplace behaviour breaches, it’s important to understand the cause of the behaviour. It’s equally important to help others understand the drivers and intent behind that behaviour, as it is often misunderstood.
Lifting team understanding through awareness training can be highly effective. Having a coach for managers to turn to when required can be build confidence and provide an independent perspective.
All too often, problems arise due to a disconnect in communication, and that goes both ways. By finding some common ground and understanding, nearly any workplace issue can be resolved.
Ambiguous language or unclear directions can lead to confusion about what your expectations might be. Long instructions that have no obvious breaks or built in contingencies can lead to anxiety or difficulty getting started for some people. Using multiple modes of communication and not just relying on one, ie written vs verbal can go a long way to ensuring expectations and requirements are understood.
Interpersonal communication can also be an area of concern. Jokes and banter can be misinterpreted as either literal or a personal criticism. Whilst this might not result in obvious ‘retaliation’, it can cause less obvious impacts on work performance and attitude. Even differences in opinion can be an area that requires a slightly different approach. Some neurodiverse people can exhibit quite fixed thinking. That is, once they have a thought, it can be difficult to move off that to something else.
Often, what you might find is that the opinion they hold about a matter at work is well founded. Even though it might be counter to yours (and everyone else’s) and be expressed directly and bluntly, don’t be too quick to dismiss it.
It’s possible that a key piece of knowledge has been missed. But often you may be facing the out of the box thinking and reasoning skills you hired them for in the first instance. You can always work together on their delivery in the future (or not and just accept them for who they are).
If you’re having difficulty aligning, then having someone independent in the mix can help to remove the emotion from the situation. Finding objectivity can be challenging. Too often miscommunications can compound and lead to larger misunderstandings and resentment.
Getting on top of those problems early is important. Learning to understand that your neurodiverse employee is not trying to be difficult, they are just different, will change your ongoing relationship.
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