The first in a new project on The Innovation Show.
Audio versions of our content and guest content from others.
Hire For Neurosignature, Train for Skill: The Brain is Like a Waterbed
“Autists are not just square pegs in the round hole of society. The real problem isn’t the challenge of fitting them in, it’s that in trying to do so we risk destroying their unique shape.” — Paul Collins
The parents of an autistic young man approached a local convenience store, hoping to secure a job for their son. The retail chain manager, hesitant due to his team’s lack of experience with special needs, said he would give the kid a chance. On his inaugural day, the manager tasked the young man with organizing food items by their expiration dates on a single shelf. He figured it would take him at least the whole day. To the manager’s astonishment, the young man had meticulously arranged every shelf in the store in just three hours. This young man, perceived as disabled, viewed sorting produce by date as a delightful puzzle. His neurodiversity brought joy to the task and put him in a flow state. But the story doesn’t end there. Harnessing the youngster’s unique ability, the retailer employed him to travel between stores, solving his ‘puzzles’ and sorting food items. This valuable skill saved the retailer a significant amount of wastage and helped them to achieve their sustainability goals. Today, this young man earns so much that his father left his previous job to chauffeur his son (who cannot drive) around the country, solving puzzles for the retail chain.
“We all have a calling. Each one of us has a role to play on this planet. When we play the instrument that is meant for us in the orchestra of life, we will be in a constant state of bliss” – Joe Vitale
The moral of the story? Everyone has a unique place if the world gives them a chance.
Unfortunately, a story like this is scarce. The unfortunate reality was recognised best by one of the great geniuses of our times, Albert Einstein, who said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by Its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. Because the work system is set up for efficiency, it caters for the majority. It is a drain on resources to cater to everyone. It is even more challenging to interview “everyone”, so we hire for homogeneity. And somewhat understandably, as human resources, people officers and hiring executives are already stretched to the maximum. Companies are dealing with a tumultuous business environment. They are preoccupied with quenching multiple fires: AI, digitalisation, remote work, supply chain volatility, business model shifts, data, GDPR, inflation, housing crises, pandemics and even wars. The modern workplace is structured like a fine-cut diamond—rigid, linear, and sparkling with hierarchy. This construct, drawn from centuries of church and military organisation, may bring a semblance of order, but it simultaneously smothers the potential of those who don’t fit the mould. Neurodiverse individuals can struggle in these traditional environments. Executives often overlook them (or ignore them outright) due to their distinctive ways of processing information, unique patterns of thought and behaviour, and distinctive communication styles. To ensure that these square pegs aren’t shoehorned into round holes, we need to rethink the design of our workplaces. We must build environments that foster neurodiversity rather than suppress it.
The modern workplace is more like a network of networks, teams of teams, nuanced and complex. The brain works similarly; the brain is more about connection than calculation. Understanding this can help executives update the workplace. Imagine a world where everyone got to use their talents and didn’t have to shore up their weaknesses and, in many cases, disguise those weaknesses. That is the focus of this week’s Thursday Thought.
The Brain is like a Waterbed ￼
Imagine the brain as a waterbed. When one area is pushed down, or in the case of the brain, damaged, underdeveloped or overdeveloped, the other regions fill the void. This phenomenon mirrors what is known as the ‘waterbed effect’. Just as the water in a waterbed redistributes when pressure is applied, the brain can restructure and adapt when certain abilities are not utilised. This isn’t necessarily a sign of deficiency. On the contrary, it indicates the brain’s wonderful compensatory capacities. When we neglect or underutilise some capacities, the brain develops and restructures in ways that enable us to get even greater capacity out of other aspects. Neurodiversity speaks to different types of intelligence, learning styles, communication styles, appetite for risk, openness to change and much more. When someone has a different “setting”, they are not disabled. They are, as singer Danny Deardorff put it, we are all “differently abled.” The people who succeed in the workplace (and education system) do so mainly because their intelligence matches the dominant paradigm or they have found ways to adapt to the mainstream (and perhaps mask their true selves).
Neurosignature: The Neurochemical Graphic Equaliser ￼
As a kid, I loved our family’s hi-fi system. It had a record deck, cassette decks, an amplifier, a subwoofer and a graphic equaliser. They are so out of date tod that I found it difficult to find an image to illustrate what I mean, but the image above does a good job. Just as the graphic equaliser displays the signature of an audio output, I visualise the brain doing the same with the signature of our neurochemicals composition. ￼
“Setting up a brain-friendly workplace that is naturally attractive to all neurosignatures has wide-ranging benefits. It’s far easier to reform the workplace than it is to change people. Let people play to their strengths instead of wasting energy trying to change their personalities. – Friederike Fabritius, Episode 418
One person’s treasure is another’s junk; what one person finds interesting is drip torture to another. What if our workplaces were crafted to harmonize everyone’s unique brain patterns, or what our recent guest on the Innovation Show, Friederike Fabritius, refers to as their ‘neurosignature’? Our brain structures are as unique as our fingerprints. Friederike tells us four powerful elements shape our personalities: dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters and estrogen and testosterone hormones. These neurotransmitters are the brain’s messengers between nerve cells or neurons. Like different songs on a graphic equaliser, we each display a distinct neurosignature.
High-dopamine individuals love to explore and try new things. They thrive in ambiguity and crave change. They bring humour and fun to the workplace and can be very charismatic and inspiring. They’re often innovators, changemakers, inventors and entrepreneurs. They get bored easily and are always looking for the next thrilling project. These individuals are vibrant, imaginative, and spontaneous. They are also typically optimistic and generous. However, they can be reckless, susceptible to addictions and lack attention to detail. Organisations should provide them with creative freedom and autonomy to keep them engaged. They love fresh projects, regular promotions, and job mobility. Avoid stifling them with excessive routine, or they may lose their spark. High-dopamine individuals can sometimes overwhelm others with their energy, love for change, and occasional impatience.
Serotonin People high in serotonin are reliable, detail-oriented, cautious, and loyal. They thrive on routine and structure and enjoy consistency and stability.
Testosterone People high in testosterone are tough-minded, direct, and enjoy wielding power. They tend to be analytical and use systems thinking, which involves moving logically from one step to the next to solve a problem based on a system’s “rules.” They enjoy tinkering with “systems” such as car engines or computers.
Estrogen People high in estrogen are empathetic and good at building personal connections and community. Estrogen increases the secretion of oxytocin, which enhances feelings of bonding and trust. This neurosignature excels at nonlinear “lateral thinking,” which involves examining a problem from multiple angles until insights emerge. Lateral thinkers are also good at envisioning the long-term implications of a decision.
Imagine how demoralizing and exhausting it must be for an autist to conform or someone with ADHD to engage in mundane work. Someone with a distinct neurosignature fighting their true identity all day can leave you deflated and depressed. Friederike shares some fascinating research from NeuroColor, that shows how roughly 28% of men in the general population and around 72% of women exhibit traits associated with the high-estrogen brain. The data reinforces that gender should never be used to stereotype anyone’s personality or thinking style. Your gender affects your neurosignature, but it does not determine your neurosignature.
In a recent episode of the Innovation Show, our guest Charles Conn lauded the value of what he calls a “Dragonfly Eye Mindset”, seeing the world through different lenses. He shares how Lawrence Fung of Stanford’s Neurodiversity Project observed that successful problem solvers in Silicon Valley often show signs of being on the neurodiverse spectrum. Such individuals “have a unique ability to connect the dots, which allows them to reach conclusions quickly. Neurodiverse individuals have cognitive tendencies to look at the details first before the bigger picture, contrary to how most people dissect an issue, essentially broaching an issue from a very different lens or level.”
A Final Thought “A lot of different flowers make a bouquet.” -Islamic proverb The world has changed immeasurably, and societies face increasing levels of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). If times have changed, then the composition of the teams to master those times must change. Homogeneous teams operated well in relative stability; These groups excel at incremental change, process improvements and exploitation of an existing competitive advantage. Diverse teams, on the other hand, summon a larger set of skills and perspectives. Neurodiversity is ideal for creative innovation challenges when the future is ambiguous, and the path is non-linear. In a changing workplace, rather than hiring solely based on skill, we might consider a candidate’s neurosignature. Each neurosignature brings unique strengths to the table. Hiring for neurosignature and training for skill might lead to higher workplace happiness, higher revenue and lower employee turnover.
Our guest on the Innovation Show a couple of weeks ago was Helen Edwards. Helen observes, “The more people differ in their ethnicity, gender, background, age and sexuality, the greater the likelihood that they will have encountered different marginal behaviours and life choices. Combine that with a declared celebration of diversity of thought. You will get people speaking up for those marginal behaviours in corporate decisions: innovation programmes, new product development, new market categories, new routes to growth. This enhanced diversity on the inside is one of the reasons we will see more ways to satisfy the extraordinary behavioural diversity that exists – hitherto often unrecognized – in contemporary society.”
With a deliberate aim, I’ve sprinkled this week’s Thursday Thought with quotes from a kaleidoscope of neurosignatures and sources. Yet, there’s one sentiment that truly encapsulates the essence of the theme. It’s from the luminous Maya Angelou, who beautifully pronounced, “In diversity, there is beauty, and there is strength.”