One of the best ways for managers to support neurodiversity is so simple you won’t believe me: Give your employees clear expectations and deadlines in writing.
That’s it! That’s the trick. I know what you’re thinking – this is the first thing I learned as a new manager, and it’s not even related to neurodiversity. Both of these things are true. This is an essential best practice for all leaders, and it supports all employees regardless of neurotypes.
As someone who manages teams and trains managers, I know that most of us try to provide clear expectations. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t cut it. When I looked closer at my work, I realized that I wasn’t being as clear as I was giving myself credit for. Providing written expectations was easy for my employees with admin tasks or quantifiable goals. For employees with large abstract projects, things weren’t clear. I wrote project goals for performance reviews and project plans, but expectations were mostly discussed verbally in 1:1s and status updates.
Putting project goals, milestones, and deadlines in writing provides a starting point for you and your employee to work from. Often, my employees would leave with one understanding of what they needed to do while I had another. Other times, I’d expect them to do something one way, only to find them going in a different direction – or prioritizing something else altogether.
When I train managers on this topic, one of the most common objections I hear is that once employees hit a certain level, written goals are unnecessary – the employee should know what they need to do with little direction. Some managers go as far as to think that if employees need written goals, they aren’t good enough to work in a particular role. This attitude is ableist and a disservice to non-disabled or neurotypical employees. This is a cop-out for leaders who want to avoid a task or don’t want to reveal a lack of understanding about their employee’s work. It’s also a fantastic way to waste time. Most leaders are busy enough that every second of their workday counts. Clear written goals can eliminate duplicate efforts needed when work must be redone. Once I took the time to write out and discuss agreed-upon written goals gave me a greater understanding of what was happening on my team. It also increased productivity and morale as everyone knew we were on the same page.
When writing out expectations, an excellent place to start is what success will look like: how will you know if the project is successful? When will it be completed? A great litmus test is that someone who doesn’t know anything about the situation should be able to look at what you have written and understand what you are expecting the employee to accomplish. That overall goal can be broken into milestones for larger or longer projects. When you meet your employee for 1:1s or status updates, you can email them after the meeting with what they are committing to do before the next time you meet. Do not rely on your employees to email you an update after each meeting. This communication must come from you.
You and your employee should have a mutual understanding. Continue to revise and tweak until both of you feel that you agree.
So how does any of this help neurodiversity? Common areas of challenge for neurodivergent brains are communication and executive function. According to Carrin Gilmore, Accessibility and Accommodations Expert, clear and concise communication is one of the most requested disability accommodations in a corporate environment. Clear written goals help eliminate miscommunications and aid in prioritization. They help the employee focus on what is business-critical. Deadlines for milestones and project completion help with task initiation, and clear expectations help prevent perfectionist paralysis. Overcoming these challenges possible for your neurodivergent employees, but it takes away critical mental and physical energy, as well as the time and thought they might spend on trying to figure out what they should be doing. Though neurodivergent employees experience these issues more severely than their counterparts, all employees are subject to these challenges.
Providing clear written expectations with critical deliverables and due dates is one of the many things managers can do to support neurodiversity and help all employees regardless of neurotype.