Episode 163 – Supporting Neurodiversity on Project Teams

Episode #163
Original Air Date: 10.17.2022

45 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Hiren Shukla

As a project professional, are you creating an inclusive, high-performing team that builds on each individual’s strengths? Have you considered neurodiversity in your project teams? Our guest Hiren Shukla, the founder of Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence at Ernst & Young Global, joins us to talk about how to create a more inclusive, neurodiverse project team.

According to Hiren, about 15-20% of the world’s population would be considered neurodivergent or neurodistinct. These are individuals that have an inherent cognitive difference. He explains EY’s efforts to find and employ neurodivergent individuals, and he describes their approach to training for neurodiverse as well as for neurotypical employees. If you have questions about recruiting and onboarding, listen to Hiren’s advice about the process at EY. He explains how they pivoted towards a performance-based assessment process and away from a behavioral-based process for these candidates. Join us to hear about the remarkable impact of this innovation at EY as they are tapping into the significant skills of the neurodiverse community. Hiren’s message will inspire you!

Hiren’s experience spans more than 20 years across accounting, strategy, automation, innovation and change management. He currently leads internal automation and innovation efforts at Ernst & Young LLP and is the founder of Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence at EY Global.

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Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"And when one of our team members said to us,...“When I’m at work, I feel comfortable because I can take the mask off. I can just be myself.” Well, this was really powerful. And we know when people feel comfortable; these are when the most innovative, transformative ideas and solutions come to bear. And so literally this is creating and unlocking innovation capacity that already exists in our organization, in our communities."

- Hiren Shukla

"We’re all diverse and worthy of respect and should be treated so where we work by our team members and by our organization."

- Bill Yates

"...creating that psychological safety...when you’re saying the power is not in a smooth harmonized group that gets along from day one. You’re not going to get the highest level of innovation there. It actually is going to come when there’s a little bit of push and pull from both sides."

- Hiren Shukla

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The podcast by project managers for project managers. As a project professional, are you creating an inclusive, high-performing team that builds on each individual’s strengths? Hiren Shukla, the founder of Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence at Ernst & Young Global, talks to us about how to support neurodiversity on project team. Hiren shares the remarkable impact of this innovation at EY as they are tapping into the significant skills of the neurodiverse community.

Table of Contents

02:07 … Defining Neurodiversity
03:40 … What Inspired Hiren?
05:17 … Recruiting Neurodiverse Talent at EY
07:30 … Training for All Team Members
11:38 … Reconfiguring Hiring Processes
13:14 … Creating a Stronger Team
14:36 … Masking Neurodiversity
17:41 … Awareness in Education
20:59 … Psychological Safety
24:51 … Disclosing Neurodiversity to an Employer
27:58 … Improving Morale
30:11 … Kevin and Kyle
31:52 … Interview Process Accommodations
36:13 … Source, Skill and Support
42:04 … Find out More
43:51 … Closing

HIREN SHUKLA: And when one of our team members said to us, and we had hired her, and she said, “When I’m at work, I feel comfortable because I can take the mask off.  I can just be myself.”  Well, this was really powerful.  And we know when people feel comfortable; these are when the most innovative, transformative ideas and solutions come to bear.  And so literally this is creating and unlocking innovation capacity that already exists in our organization, in our communities.

WENDY GROUNDS:  You’re listening to Manage This.  My name is Wendy Grounds, and with me in the studio is Bill Yates.  This is the podcast about project management.  If you like what you hear, we’d love to hear from you.  You can leave us a comment on our website, Velociteach.com, or on social media, or whichever podcast listening app you use.  That really helps us out.

Today we’re talking with Hiren Shukla.  Hiren’s experience spans more than 20 years across accounting, strategy, automation, innovation, and change management.  He currently leads internal automation and innovation efforts at Ernst & Young and is the founder of the Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence at EY Global.  As a project professional, are you creating an inclusive team that builds on each other’s strengths to create the most successful high-performing project teams?  That’s something that we’re looking to answer today.

BILL YATES:  That’s so true.  And Hiren, of course he works with E&Y, and possibly no company in the world is doing a better job at attracting neurodivergent talent to drive innovation than Ernst & Young.  Hiren is an expert in neurodiversity.  And as he describes, he didn’t think this was where he was headed in his career, but that’s where he ended up.

WENDY GROUNDS:  And he’s very passionate, and we think he has some really good advice.  Whether you are neurotypical or neurodiverse, this is definitely a podcast for you.  Hi, Hiren.  Welcome to Manage This.  Thank you so much for joining us.

HIREN SHUKLA:  I’m so excited to be here today, Wendy.

Defining Neurodiversity

WENDY GROUNDS:  We’re looking forward to digging in to talking about neurodiversity, but I just want to ask if you could start out by explaining what the term means, neurodiversity, and what that encompasses.

HIREN SHUKLA:  Thank you for asking that.  I know definitions are really important.  And let me describe it this way.  Neurodiversity is like biodiversity.  It represents, though, the realm of cognitive differences in the world.  So neurodiversity effectively is all of us, and under that umbrella there’s really two main portions of society.  Probably 80-85% of the world are neurotypicals, individuals like myself.  We converge in our social thinking and communication style.

About 15-20% of the world’s population would be considered neurodivergent or neurodistinct.  These terms are interchangeable.  These are individuals that, as you can hear, do not converge necessarily in social thinking or communication style; have an inherent cognitive difference.  It’s not a bad difference, it’s just a difference.  And we often can think about this in terms of diagnoses like autism, dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia.  So that’s really what neurodiversity is and what the components of that are.

What Inspired Hiren?

BILL YATES:  That’s really helpful.  And Hiren, when we look at what you’ve done and with such a large organization with E&Y, it’s super impressive.  This is not an easy challenge.  What inspired you to get into this?  What motivated that?

HIREN SHUKLA:  Bill, thank you for asking.  And the “why” is really important.  Much of this conversation in the past has always been, A, through either a clinical lens; or, B, through a disabilities perspective.  In fact I was really excited seven years ago as I took on an innovation and transformation role about the opportunity to tap into this amazing talent pool that is literally under our nose, that can have extremely high creativity to think differently, challenge status quo, and reimagine and help build the world of the future.

And that opportunity, Bill, was the one that really excited me from a sense of purpose, curiosity, and belonging.  And as you probably both know, the moment you get that beautiful sandwich of purpose, curiosity, and belonging, it is exciting to most folks, and it really gets them going.  So that’s really what drove me to build out something from an application perspective that was a hypothetical idea in 2015 and is really I think a bit of a phenomenon that we’re seeing around the world now.

Recruiting Neurodiverse Talent at EY

WENDY GROUNDS:  I really do think you’re leading the way in finding neurodiverse talent.  Can we talk about the efforts that you’re doing at Ernst & Young to find and employ those neurodiverse individuals?

HIREN SHUKLA:  You know, to find and employ these individuals, we took a little bit of an unorthodox approach.  And let me describe what I mean by that.  And by the way, there’s so many great organizations today that are involved around sourcing, skilling, and support.  The ecosystems are now growing, and they’re robust.  But you go country by country, and you find vast differences.  You can even go city by city just here in the U.S., and you will find vast differences.

But Wendy, I like your question because we think about sustainability and scalability from a business outcomes perspective.  So the unorthodox approach that I naively took when I started this was we’re going to drive better outcome solutions, process optimization, effectively better business results.  And the spillover effect will be making the world a better place.

So it’s the business case that really is where the rubber hits the road, as they would say, where you get traction.  And I think that is how at EY we’ve really embraced this.  There is a lot of charitable efforts that we do.  There’s a lot of corporate social responsibility; extremely strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.  Those are all secondary and tertiary outcomes of the business results.

And so as we ground this in a powerful business case, as we continue looking for skills, and we think about data, emerging technology, process optimization, frankly, the solutions that our clients are hiring us for, this has become a tremendous talent pool, already providing amazing value, and we feel like we’re scratching the surface.

Training for All Team Members

BILL YATES:  As we think about the support side of that source, skill, and support, one of the obvious areas of support would be training.  And I think about it from both perspectives.  And I’m curious to hear your input on that, both for the neurodiverse employees that, you know, the onboarding process is going to look different.  So describe that a bit.  And then we also want to ask, you know, what about for those team members who are neurotypical that now have a team member who is neurodiverse, so training for them, as well.  So describe that training.

HIREN SHUKLA:  Bill, this question is so important because there is a fundamental flaw that we’ve uncovered in what happens in extremely well-meaning organizations by extremely well-meaning people from diversity that you celebrate, and inclusion, we unfortunately often lead to assimilation.  We converge people.  So we’re hiring all kinds of different people; right?  But what happens is our massive organizations, and the stronger we are on process, the more we will take all different kinds of ingredients, and we will blend them all together.  And there’s a fundamental difference in the approach we’ve taken here because we actually want to retain all of the beautiful spiky edges around it.  Innovation comes from the edges; right?  Innovations come from thinking differently.

And so when we think about training, and I’ll start with our neurodivergent talent pool and population, when we realized and heard that there is 80-85% unemployment or underemployment of hundreds of millions of people who have high creativity, strong 3D thinking and big-picture skills, ideation and brainstorming capacity like we’ve never seen before, the ability for detail-orientation, pattern recognition, and hyperfocus.  And I’m thinking and went, how is this resource – and I’ll give you three direct examples of individuals we hired – how are they underutilized driving Ubers, delivering pizzas, working as a janitor?

Don’t get me wrong, these are all hard-working, honorable jobs with dignity, except if you have a data science degree, and you are delivering pizzas.  This is a real example, okay, that I’m giving you.  As we broke this down and said, oh, so what is going on here, this assimilation problem kept coming into play.  And part of what we realized is the interview process itself is inherently skewed towards neurotypicals where you make eye contact, and you build rapport, and you think on your feet, and it’s like a pop quiz that you’re supposed to do well, and you don’t actually know if you did well or not, did the interviewer like me.

In reality we’re looking for performance, and we pivoted towards a performance-based assessment process as opposed to a behavioral-based, is that person a fit or not.  And that was the first barrier to redesign a process that, you know, you want to – we’re hiring over 100,000 people a year.  You think about this is a massive repetitive process.  Six Sigma has been applied to this process where we are down to the lowest amount of variation, right, over what we’re going to do here.  And so we have to create a bit of an incubator-style startup environment.  This allowed us to experiment.  And that was the first kind of step in the process.  So just sourcing.  How will you, A, find individuals; B, how will you assess them?

Reconfiguring Hiring Processes

BILL YATES:  Yeah, that’s a real problem, yeah.  You’ve got to change your ways.  You have to do it a different way.

HIREN SHUKLA:  Absolutely.  And, you know, the other piece that we found really interesting, Bill and Wendy, was that these individuals have very different backgrounds.  So one of our team members was trained as a Shakespearean actor, but his data and technology skill, meaning his aptitude, acumen, and interest around creative use of data and technology to solve complex problems is off the charts.  And so we started to realize, you know these algorithms you can build that will just feed résumés in, and they’ll kick some out?  That we cannot use.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, right, right, right.  My AI is not working here.

HIREN SHUKLA:  Because if you get more of the same, then you’re going to end up with the same results.  And so there was a lot of process reconfiguration, almost reimagination.  And I have to give credit to our neurodivergent team members because every time we hired a new batch, it was them and their voice that said, hey, you know that process that you hired me in?  We think there’s a better way.  And we said, oh, would you like to be involved?  Could you help us?  And so they’ve actually helped create a process that’s much more conducive, that opens the aperture around skills and how you identify for acumen, aptitude, and interest.

Creating a Stronger Team

And, you know, if we think about some of the neurodivergent populations, you know, autism for example, there’s a stereotype.  Sometimes when they like something, it’s not a little bit, it’s a lot.  They like creativity and complex problem-solving through the use of data, technology.  Oh, my god.  This is now amazing resource.  At the same time, and I’ll answer the second part of your question quickly, there’s a lot of awareness and education to the existing workforce of neurotypicals.

But at the same time it began to open up these avenues where all of our organizations already have neurodivergent team members.  They’re already here. They’re already working with us.  Often they may not be optimized for what they’re really capable of.  Often they may be struggling.  But creating that psychological safety where you talk about this, where you’re educating, when you’re saying the power is not in a smooth harmonized group that gets along from day one.  You’re not going to get the highest level of innovation there.  It actually is going to come when there’s a little bit of push and pull from both sides.  And how do you manage that tension such that you produce creative results and create a stronger team at the end of the day.

Masking Neurodiversity

WENDY GROUNDS:  It’s so interesting that you say that there were already people who were neurodiverse.  And I’m sure there’s a vast percentage of people that are undiagnosed, or maybe they suspect, or maybe, you know, their coworkers or family suspect that there’s something neurodiverse about their makeup.  But they kind of want to just fit in, you know, some of them are probably really good at masking and fitting in.  It tends to be on teams, and it’s mostly people who maybe have a good emotional intelligence, or the extroverts that fit the mold, and the rest just kind of have to pretend.

HIREN SHUKLA:  Yeah.  Wendy, you use a great word.  Around pretending there’s a term that I’ve learned that happens within the neurodivergent community.  It’s called “masking.”  And masking is literally pretending.  And when one of our team members said to us, and we had hired her, and she said, “When I’m at work, I feel comfortable because I can take the mask off.  I can just be myself.”  Well, this was really powerful.  And we know when people feel comfortable; these are when the most innovative, transformative ideas and solutions come to bear.  And so literally this is creating and unlocking innovation capacity that already exists in our organization, in our communities.  They’re under our nose.

But you have to be very deliberate about it, to your point.  And if you’re not, then you’re going to create a lot of stress, anxiety, mental health challenges, high turnover.  We’ve enjoyed in the last 6.5 years 92% retention of data science competency, cybersecurity, blockchain, quantum computing, artificial intel, I mean, these are skills that are hard to find, hard to retain, hard to grow.  And so when we think about the extreme value, the ROI that you get when you make these changes, which are not easy to do, but I think that the opportunity exists globally around the world because we know neurodiversity cuts across race, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, all of it.  And to your point, the state of diagnosis is completely volatile.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.  I like that word.

HIREN SHUKLA:  Yeah, it costs a lot to do.  And, you know, getting them.  So we see our black and brown communities, for example, have a much lower rate of diagnosis than others.  And we don’t know why.  And I’ve not seen any definitive.  But for some reason females seem to be much better at masking than males do.  We don’t know why.  But interesting things.

WENDY GROUNDS:  I think that would be a good motto, create teams where people take their masks off.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That would be a goal to achieve.

BILL YATES:  Put that on a T-shirt and a coffee mug and sell that all day long.

HIREN SHUKLA:  There you go.  There you go.

Awareness in Education

BILL YATES:  Yeah, this is a safe place.  Take your mask off.  Well, speaking to that, walk us through kind of tactically or the practical aspects of let’s say I’m on a team at E&Y.  And then my manager comes to me and says, hey, we’ve got two new team members that we’re adding to our team.  We’re continuing this effort, and we’ve got two more team members coming on.  One is neurodiverse.  Now, let me describe that.  And then here’s the training we’re going to go through.  Here’s how we’re going to help the team and the new members assimilate.  What does that look like practically?

HIREN SHUKLA:  Bill, we have been on a massive journey, both internally and externally.  One of the reasons why I’m so grateful to be with both of you today is driving awareness in education.  And the awareness in education is not a Netflix show about what you stereotypically see out there; right?  It’s really about the power of differences and how managers and team members create the environment around belonging and acceptance.  And we know not all of us react the same way to ideas.  Not all of us may have the same facial expressions.  Sometimes how we articulate our thoughts could be very different.  And we’ve got team members, some of them who are absolutely brilliant, but primarily nonverbal.  Which means that their communication is coming through their email and their instant messaging.  But they can do this.

And I’ll tell you, the last two and a half years immersing into the virtual world has frankly only helped us.  It’s leveled the playing field.  And so as we bring new team members on, one is we’ve got a continuous campaign on education and awareness.  We’ve literally just completed a session for our entire wave space design team.  These are all of our facilitators across E&Y where we talk about what do you do in advance for any team member. 

So we think about this from a universal design perspective.  I may have a disability, I may not.  I may just be having a hard day today.  Maybe I’m a visual learner.  Maybe you’re an auditory learner.  Right?  And so what do you do in advance of any teaming environment to get to know who your team is, to allow them to say here’s how I best learn and participate.

And again, we’re not talking about diagnoses or what the conditions are of anybody.  We’re just saying everyone learns differently.  And I think that that’s, Bill, part of the ethos now that is being drilled in over and over to say if you want to get the best out of a team, you’re going to have to make them feel comfortable, regardless if this is a middle-aged white male or it’s a young black female.  It doesn’t matter.  They all have different life experiences.  But until you create that psychological safety, you’re not going to get the highest performing team.

Psychological Safety

BILL YATES:  That’s so good.  I love that you brought up the different learning styles because that’s something at Velociteach that we do very frequently.  We’ve got a series of courses that help people prepare for a certification exam.  It’s very difficult to earn the PMP.  And so through the years we’ve tapped into the fact that people learn different ways.  They’re visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners.  And it’s not a judgment; right?  We’ve developed content to touch all three because most of us are a blend of those.  Some are very strongly one way or the other.  But it’s not a, you know,  hey, if you’re an auditory learner, you’re the really smart person.  You know, this is going to work great for you.  The others, eh, try to keep up.  So we see it as everybody just wired differently and has a preference.

And so that is such a great way for you to position this and to help people see it and relate to it for the neurotypical individual to see it and go, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.  I prefer my communication to come in an email.  That way I have time to really look at and assimilate it, think about it, and think about my response because I’ve gotten myself in trouble in the past when I’ve just blurted out a quick “I think that’s a stupid idea, and here’s why.”  I think people can relate to that as they’re thinking about different team members.

And, you know, another thing that you said right from the start, Hiren, that really resonates with me is your approach with this or how you got into it was through innovation and looking for ways in innovation and transformation, how can we take a team that’s performing at a certain level and take them to a new level.  To your point, it’s on the edges.  It’s not taking all these different colors of the spectrum and coming up with one brown paint; right?  You know, mixing them all together.  You want to keep those differences because there are strengths there.  There is power there.  So this is intriguing to think about bringing all these skill sets onto a team and not having them fit into that box, but have them be an accepted and productive member of that team.

HIREN SHUKLA:  Yeah.  And, you know, I think, Bill, to what Wendy, you were talking about earlier about pretending most folks think about large organizations will say, ah, I have a question.  Maybe I’ll just keep it.  I’ll figure it out later.  I’ll give you one quick story of the value here, though, of psychological safety.  When we hired our first four team members in Philadelphia, March of 2016, we really didn’t know much of what we were doing.  We were – we had great intention.  And we had some great support from folks across EY.

In our onboarding, and we onboard over 100,000 people a year, one of the four team members said, you know this setup, I think it was some computer setup, and they said, uh, there’s a mistake in here.  And the trainer who onboards thousands of people kind of just chuckled and said, no, you know, we hire thousands of people a year.  We’ve used the same training.  We’ve used the same thing for years.  Keep trying it, and I’m sure it’ll work.

And three days later I think she woke up in a cold sweat and realized that steps 18 and 19 over a 22-step process were actually not correct.  We translated this into a cost of 25,000 hours globally per year.  Nobody had said this to us before.  And that’s because most people will pretend, just say, ah, I’ll ask my cube mate later; right?  I’m just going to figure it out on my own.  But the beauty of feeling comfortable and speaking up and listening to the quietest voices, boy, that’s where the innovation lies.

Disclosing Neurodiversity to an Employer

WENDY GROUNDS:  Often it is undiagnosed.  We mentioned that already.  And tying in to what you’ve just been saying, in the hiring process when people are looking at being hired, they don’t want to disclose their neurodiverse situation.  Sometimes people are not comfortable talking about it.  What advice would you give to someone as to should they or when should they disclose their particular neurodiverse situation?

HIREN SHUKLA:  Wendy, it’s interesting.  I’ve been asked this question a few times.  And as a neurotypical, and as an ally, clearly I am not in a state to say, ah, you should disclose all the time because it’s really hard to do this.  But here’s my perspective from an employer side of the house; okay?  I would say that, A, look for neurodiverse friendly players; right?  You want to see where the acumen of the employer is there such that they are attuned and aware to at least offering changes or differences or things of that nature in an interview process, regardless of whether an individual discloses or not.

And so, again, we’re trying to take a universal design approach; right?  Everyone may need something different, or they may communicate differently.  And this three-dimensional, meeting people live is hard.  Two-dimensional added another complexity to it.

But I would say that for my neurodivergent friends and those that have taught me, those that say “There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m going to ask for what I need, and I’m going to disclose upfront,” it’s almost like you’re separating oil from water.  You will now know is that employer somebody who’s really going to take the time to understand you, even if they say, you know, I don’t understand that, could you explain it to me.  This was some of the “coaching,” I use that word in air quotes, that I got when I was basically walking on eggshells, do I make eye contact, what do I do?  I don’t know how to react.

And the coaching was “Hiren, get over yourself, it’s not about you.”  And if you have a question, you just need to be very direct, cut through the corporate niceness.  That was when we realized the perception that launching a neurodiversity initiative and hiring neurodivergent individuals would be harder, to the flipside to say it’s actually easier because they will tell you exactly what they think if you create the right circumstances.  So I know I’ve kind of gone off a tangent, Wendy, from your question.  But I do think that disclosure is a really hard thing.  But looking for employers that are attuned and aware and friendly and understanding of accommodations, that’s going to drive sustainable and happy employees at the end of the day, and a happy career path.

Improving Morale

BILL YATES:  You know, one thing I’ve got to add real quickly, just some of the research I was doing on this prior to our conversation, was for those companies who have taken the deliberate process of making sure they’re including more neurodiverse employees, that overall morale has gone up.  I love that.  I mean, Wendy and I were talking before.  We’re of the firm belief that every person has dignity, every person deserves respect.  I may learn a different way than Wendy or than Danny or than you.  But we all contribute our own special way.  We’re all diverse and worthy of respect and should be treated so where we work by our team members and by our organization.  So the fact that others would recognize that within an organization and morale would increase, that’s a tremendous testament to me for the efforts that you guys are taking on.

HIREN SHUKLA:  Yeah, it’s amazing, Bill that I was presenting at a conference, must have been 3,000 people in the audience.  So it was the stage.  You can’t actually see the faces.  All you just see is a big mass of people.  But we had the lights turned on.  We said, could you raise your hand if you know someone that is connected to the neurodivergent community, family member, coworker, neighbor.  Now we’ve done this thing over and over, and 85% of the hands will go up; okay?  And so somebody always knows someone.

But I think to your other point is, and the point I was making earlier, is there is tremendous intersectionality here.  Neurodiversity cuts across every other dimension of diversity you can think of.  And so the belonging amplifier, it’s almost like this powerful WiFi signal, it pervades, and it makes everyone say, are you really seeing people?  And this is an invisible condition.  So when you acknowledge and see people live, you feel something from that.  Right?  And I think that this pervades where employee engagement and a feeling of pride increases dramatically.  And I don’t know what price an organization can put on that these days because that is really, really hard to get at.

Kevin and Kyle

KEVIN RONEY: What is the difference between a mediator and an astronaut? An astronaut may sit on top of a controlled explosion but at least he has some idea of the direction it’s headed.

We probably all experience some level of conflict many times a week and it can happen so quickly. In an instant, teams that are meant to be helping each other end up locked in conflict. At work you can’t just cut someone off and not deal with it. And in a professional setting your reputation is also at stake.

KYLE CROWE: When it comes to conflict, a good piece of advice I’ve been given is to not deal with it when you’re in a highly  emotional state, step back and try to cool off. Maybe revisit in the morning. If you feel as strongly about it after a night’s rest, send an email or talk to the person involved.

Conflict at work isn’t fun—but it doesn’t have to derail you. On your teams you might see two different types of conflict. There’s task-based conflict – when people clash over a specific goal or action, and there’s emotional interpersonal conflict which happens when people just can’t get along. How you deal with conflict is a major factor to the success or failure of your projects

KEVIN RONEY: As a manager, you can create a work environment that encourages tolerance and open-minded exploration of differences. Knowing when to allow employees to work things out themselves, and when (and how) to mediate a conflict on your own is a big part of that.

KYLE CROWE: If you’re looking for some conflict management strategies, or some steps to successfully resolve any conflict take a look at our InSite course by Neal Whitten: 7 STEPS TO SUCCESSFUL CONFLICT MANAGEMENT.  This online course prepares you for successfully resolving conflict by introducing you to the causes as well as the need for conflict.

KEVIN RONEY: Once you can identify actions you can take to change the conflict culture on your team, you’ll see how conflicts are opportunities to build stronger teams.

BILL YATES: Thanks Guys! Now let’s get back to the podcast.

Interview Process Accommodations

WENDY GROUNDS:  I’m going to ask a practical question.  If we talk about, say, take autism, for example, and I know when I was raising my kids, I would always tell them make sure that you look so-and-so in the eye, shake hands, you know.  My son was going for his first interviews, I’m like, this is what you do.  You look them in the eye, you remember their name, you shake hands.  And for someone who’s autistic that is just not possible.  It’s just it’s really painful, and it’s not something that we should be expecting them to fit into that mold, or to wear that mask.  So what are you doing at Ernst & Young in your interview process to accommodate people in that spectrum?

HIREN SHUKLA:  That’s a great question, Wendy.  So one, we have organized and set up our Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence.  So we effectively created a new front door and entry path into EY.  That entry path is specifically designed around a performance-based assessment process.  It takes seven to 10 days to do this process; okay?  But at 92% retention, you know, those companies that say I don’t have seven to 10 days, and we say, do you want 92% retention?

WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s very good.

BILL YATES:  I have seven days.  They find it in the room.

HIREN SHUKLA:  Yeah.  So there’s a deliberate change in that process.  But we’re taking it a step further because we’re saying these individuals that we hire are not in a bubble.  We’re not trying to put them in a silo.  In fact, they are part of EY’s 360,000 individuals and team members, and they’ll work on the highly matrixed, project-oriented basis all the time.  So I think, Wendy, as we continue to drive awareness in education, we specifically call things like eye contact.  And we did an article in Chicago Tribune, I think they titled it “We don’t care if you make eye contact or not.  Can you do the job?”  And I’ll give you just one quick story on this.

Unfortunately, I think, society, schooling, experience has not done a fair job, you know.  And again, I think I’ve been guilty of this with my daughters, as well, been like, okay, make eye contact, while I’m talking to you, I don’t know if you’re actually listening to me.  But one of my team members had said to me once, he said, I have trained myself, like forced myself to make eye contact.  But it’s excruciating.  And first it broke my heart.  Then second, then I, from that day onward, I’d look over his left shoulder. 

And so leaders mimicking and acknowledging behaviors that are acceptable, like not making eye contact, is then giving permission to others that it’s okay.  Can you do the job?  And, you know, whether you are stimming, and stimming is kind of like a fidgeting, it could be a rock, it could be anything, many people think, well, they’re stimming; right?  That’s how they actually are thinking.  And if you have them stop, guess what?  You can’t think through a problem.

So, you know, as we in 2017 came off the elevator in our Philadelphia offices, going to visit the team, and one of our team members was in the fishbowl conference room doing pushups.  Said okay, this is interesting.  So we said, “Are you okay?”  He said, “Yeah, fine.”  We said, “Why are you doing pushups?”  And he says, “Well, because if I don’t release my energy like every 45 minutes or an hour, I can’t think.”  And so we said, “Oh, okay.”

Well, we were on the seventh floor.  And we said, “How about if you go into the internal staircase, and you can just go up and down as many times as you like.  That’s probably better than doing pushups in the conference room; right?”  And he said, “Well, what if I’m in a meeting?  Can I go still?”  And we said, “As long as you come back, you can go.”  And so these were these interesting, small, but people will think about, you know, quote unquote, “accommodations” in the HR world.  And we said, “This cost us nothing to solve this.”

Source, Skill and Support

BILL YATES:  Hiren, you’ve described the three legs of the stool in this program as source, skill and support.  Can you talk more about that and maybe the impacts or the benefits that you’ve seen from the program?

HIREN SHUKLA:  If we go back to this concept around sourcing, skilling and support.  So these were the three legs of the stool that we realized there’s no playbook on this.  And so being a professional services consulting firm, what’s the first thing we had to do is, A, we had to create slides because we love slides first.  But then we had to create methodology, actually, that goes into the slides.  And it is amazing that you go through this sourcing, skilling, and support process.

And in that journey we’ve created ecosystems.  So we’ve created our blueprint around an ecosystem that is a combination of government, academia, business, nonprofit, self-advocacy groups.  And we all realize each of these stakeholders are all trying to drive outcomes with their constituents, with their employees, with their students, maybe with the folks that are being served by nonprofits or NGOs.

But the sourcing, skilling, and support paradigm required that we all came together.  And so we’re now creating the conditions by which – we know time is the hardest thing to get from anybody.  Say why would you spend time across these different sectors or different groups of people?  What is it that you’re going to get out of it?  And we found something very interesting is that the intersection of digital transformation and workforce transformation, and then if you think about the other axes of results-driven, diversity, equity, and inclusion, we all know diverse teams will always outperform less diverse teams.

And the last avenue that is crossing into this, which is a massive one, is the broader ESG, or the Environmental Social and Governance model, that we know organizations, public and private, are all now going to be measured on to say are you creating value for stakeholders and not just shareholders.  That intersection is the one where we have parked neurodiversity in and realized, you know, this was not planned, I wish I could say it was, creating value in all four directions at the same time.  We’d never imagined.  So some people think, you know, it’s kind of like when the first iPhone came out, and folks at BlackBerry said this is a kid’s toy, it has one button on it; right?  Where are the rest of the keys for this thing?

Most people think, that when we’re talking about neurodiversity, they’re thinking about we’re trying to pull heartstrings and there’s a philanthropic charitable mission here.  And we’re seeing the value that you can create here when you start to drive this transformation, digital transformation through the use of data and technology.  You’re now opening up new avenues of workforce transformation and skills building, and you start involving this ecosystem.  You’ve now created multidirectional value that’s going to be almost self-generating.

And so we now find ourselves literally going around the world and activating these ecosystems, creating new models of value where you’re taking individuals and families that have been on a flat trajectory.  Or if you’re thinking, ah, I need assistance because what am I going to do with my son or daughter when I’m no longer here.  And those individuals have an opportunity, as we all should, to become self-sufficient and actually now contribute to the tax coffers of society.  And those dollars now get put back in.  So it’s an amazing phenomenon on a value engine.  I went back to that ESG piece.  A lot of focus clearly has been on the climate side of the environmental.  Very little models have actually been created or seen that create social value.

And so this is a social value creation engine.  And that’s the frame upon which we’re hoping to educate others and to think about this because it’s very easy to perceive this to be something much less than it is.  But, you know, it’s so new, until you see it, and this is where we invite folks to say, “Don’t just listen to Hiren.  Would you like to meet the team?  Do you want to hear from the folks?”  Because it’s their voice.  It’s their ability to self-advocate that really matters at the end of the day.  And so we pull the curtains back.  We probably do two tours, virtual tours now twice a week.

BILL YATES:  Oh, nice.

HIREN SHUKLA:  And we’re just saying let’s figure out how to collaborate and build value.  And that’s something I’m hoping maybe you build at your listeners’ space.  They’d listen to this, think about the opportunity to create value.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, mm-hmm.  It’s clearly there.  I think about a Venn diagram with four different perspectives, and there in the center is this approach to neurodiversity.  That’s fantastic.  This has been excellent.  Thank you so much.

HIREN SHUKLA:  As you can see, we’re a little bit excited to talk about this, yeah.

Find out More

WENDY GROUNDS:  I definitely hope it helps our project managers and their teams as they consider the impact that this can have on their teams and how they can change the way they do things.  If our listeners want to hear more about your work or what you’re doing, what’s the best way that they can find out more?

HIREN SHUKLA:  Wendy, thank you for asking.  And I would say if you go to EY.com and search “neurodiversity,” you’ll see some thought leadership.  You’ll see examples.  We’ve actually put use cases up there.  And so we want to make it very real and tangible.  What is this?  Because it’s not just one thing.  Right?  It’s a few different things.  I would go even back to the thought on the project managers.  Project managers probably don’t realize that many of their stakeholders and roles that folks are playing, the neurodivergent pocket is already here.

And so the better you get at thinking about the power of perspectives and creating that environment, you know, you may feel like you’re slowing down; you’ll effectively accelerate the value creation.  And so that is the opportunity that exists.  And if folks ever want to hear more happy, whether it’s in the bio, you can feel free, LinkedIn, reach out.  We’d love to help and talk about this more and create a collaboration opportunity for value around the world.

BILL YATES:  Thank you so much.  This is inspiring.  It’s practical.  I think it challenges project managers to think outside the box and to really look at the resources they have today and how they might expand those, again, to the value of the organization and to those that they’re serving.  Great information.

HIREN SHUKLA:  Thank you for having me today.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Thank you so much for listening.  We’d love to have you visit us at Velociteach.com to subscribe to this podcast, see a transcript of the show, or to contact us if you have any questions about project management certifications in general.

You’ve also just earned some professional development units by listening to this podcast.  To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com, choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page, click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

3 responses to “Episode 163 – Supporting Neurodiversity on Project Teams”

  1. Shiraz Khan says:

    Very informative

  2. Allyson H says:

    Amazing podcast episode. Love the focus on the hiring process not being conducive to hiring neurodiverse individuals.

  3. Jaideep Rijhsinghani says:

    Very eloquent speaker. Easy style of imparting knowledge

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