inclusion image for illustrationGlobalization has pushed diversity to the forefront of many organizations’ strategic planning. However, the current management approach in working with diverse teams is often one of trying to achieve uniformity, even in cognitive styles, within the context of a singular dominant culture. It is our view that the most successful approach is one that focuses more on effectively achieving optimal productivity while supporting

corporate goals through the recognition and valuation of the different talents of each individual. This includes the diverse nature of people with disabilities.

In the past few years there has been an increasing awareness of the need for better practices to support the accommodation of individuals with disabilities in the workplace — what is commonly referred to as ‘inclusion’. While progress is being made, many companies continue to focus only on how to manage around the disability rather than on what individuals with disabilities can bring to the workplace. This latter view sees disability as potentially positive and innovative, with attributes which are important for business success. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of invisible disabilities, such as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). All too frequently, the company misattributes the work styles and challenges of these individuals because the work culture does not support disclosure. Ultimately, poor performance and turnover is the result. Yet, with the right tools and training a person with a traumatic brain injury or any other invisible disability can contribute significantly in creative and productive ways.

While it is true that the majority of larger companies do have human resource programs in place which are considered ‘people friendly’, and which are, in theory, designed to support employees’ diverse needs, there remains a misalignment. According to Cantrell and Smith (Workforce of One, 2010), 94% of employees do not believe that the practices specifically designed to support their work performance are relevant or helpful. These practices include, determining how jobs are defined, cultural diversity programs, and incentive programs.

Given the cognitive complexity of today’s workforce, it is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of employees do not feel that current policies are making them more effective or engaged in their jobs. It could be that the policies take too narrow an approach – they may be based on a preconceived notion of corporate culture and therefore do not reflect the true variety of cognitive states found among the company’s employees.

Yet it is clear that many organizations recognize that diversity and inclusion are critical to business success. So much so that many organizations are dedicating senior management to focus on improved employment practices and development practices in this area. As a recent WSJ article indicates, 60% of the Fortune 500 has a Chief Diversity Officer or diversity leadership position. Clearly there is a growing need to address diversity and inclusion as a part of business development. Such approaches are good “first steps” but they continue to emphasize a separate organizational function that is not fully integrated with the overall business strategy.

The composition of the workforce is changing. Less than 10% of today’s employees subscribe to the traditional “dad as breadwinner” model. However, sociological diversity is only part of the changing picture. One fifth of the current workforce has some form of a disability, yet organizations still avoid openly discussing them, particularly when they are invisible, such as PTSD, learning disabilities, or TBI. Also, cognitive styles are wide-ranging, influenced by culture, disability, health conditions, age, and stress.

Over 85% of baby boomers intend to work past age 65. These individuals represent a vast fund of knowledge and skills but at the same time they may have cognitive differences that manifest as speed of processing or memory issues. At any given time as much as 26% of the workforce may have a mental health issue, which can also impact their cognitive processing. Our growing understanding of neurological functioning and learning styles also indicates that there is a greater need for a comprehensive approach to diversity and inclusion – Increasingly, managers have to deal with scenarios such as the following:

  • Jane has been with XYZ inc. for 8 years, is a good employee, and has an excellent record of performance in her previous department. About a year ago she developed serious depression after the sudden death of her husband and her father. She took a year off from work – rumor was that she was suicidal but you don’t know for sure. She returned to the company and transferred to your department “to start anew”. She seems stuck, struggling with focus and motivation, sometimes confused. You wonder if the problem is her meds or her illness. Since people in her new department don’t know her that well they feel as if she’s a slacker, and are very critical. How do you get Jane back to speed?
  • Pete was an officer in the army. He has an excellent background: West Point, an MBA, and a Purple Heart. He came with high recommendations for his leadership and his strategic skills. But it’s been a tough transition – he can’t organize his thinking, often gets terse with others, and at times is forgetful and rambling. You know that he saw serious action in the military, and wonder if his problems may be related to a brain injury or PTSD – but you also see that he’s intelligent, hardworking, and disciplined, and that he routinely offered his life up for his country. How do you help him succeed?

Policy and programs are often not enough. To create a truly inclusive environment requires that skills and training are provided to all members of the organization. Implementing organizational changes to support inclusion and cognitive diversity does not need to be overwhelming; it starts with an assessment, a basic educational program, and the development of a roadmap of your future vision.

For diversity and disability programs to be truly effective, differences must be seen as features of the workplace instead of as problems to deal with. Diversity and inclusion need to be a part of the overall business strategy with the recognition that they respect not just the particular attributes of a given employee, but that they reflect the situation and needs of the much larger consumer class as well.

Most companies have not positioned themselves to address these issues, and, consequently, productivity and employee engagement suffer over time. While these changes may seem challenging or ambitious, organizations can start by taking basic steps. One of the best ways to begin is to partner with a consultant who can assist you in developing a step-by-step program that will help your organization use all of its talent, and achieve optimal employee engagement.