Psychological safety and neurodivergence

The relationship between performance at work and psychological safety is well-established. High performance requires people (both as individuals and collectively) to be periodically in “flow”. That’s hard to achieve when our thoughts are distracted by fear of, for example, saying the wrong thing, or by the need to maintain a mask that protects us from embarrassment and/or other negative emotions.

When we add neurodivergence, the problems multiply. A recent CIPD report on neurodivergence in the workplace found that a fifth of neurodivergent employees have experienced harassment or discrimination at work because of their neurodivergence. These same employees were also more likely to report a negative impact on their mental wellbeing, ability to perform well in their job and their intention to stay with their employer. 

From other studies, neurodivergent employees are also more likely to feel they have to “mask” and are less likely to feel they fit in or belong. And the more they experience these negative feelings, the more inhibited they are in having authentic dialogue with their bosses and colleagues about creating an environment, where they do feel psychologically safe.

Yet effective, compassionate leadership can produce a radial positive shift in the psychological climate. Focussing on the individual and adapting to their needs can make things worse, because the neurodivergent colleague can feel that they are at fault. Instead, the leader can ask everyone to reflect upon what enables them to perform at their best and what has the opposite effect. What typically emerges is a recognition of how diverse the sense of optimum working environment is, even amongst ‘neurotypical’ colleagues. For example, some people find that music helps them concentrate; others that it is a distraction. One solution (let those who want to, wear headphones) can also work for people with autistic traits, who are particularly sensitive to unfocused noise.

The key is to see the optimum working environment as something that is flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of preferences. This isn’t just about the physical or sensory environment. It’s also about issues, such as how people like to receive and digest information and instruction; or how they manage time and priorities. It’s about recognising that strength lies in harnessing difference, rather than imposing (intentionally or not) conformity.

When we conduct psychological safety assessments of teams, there is typically a bell-curve distribution. A few have very high levels of psychological safety; a few very low. Most lie in the complacent middle. Whatever the field of endeavour, imposing conformity leads to average performance. Few leaders I have met are content for their team to be average, but raising the team to a different level is tough – there’s a lot of inertia to overcome. Psychological safety can be the lever to pull the team out of the trough, but it only works when everyone feels they can be fully authentic. Because people with strong neurodivergent traits are the ones most likely to repress their energy to try to fit in, freeing them of this burden can have a disproportionate impact on both their own and the collective climate. Or to put it another way, if we can make the team more psychologically safe for its neurodivergent members, the whole team benefits.

© David Clutterbuck and Francoise Orlov 2024

*For more information on our Neurodivergence focused supervision groups please go here.



Our free content is available to everyone. It includes a limited range of Blogs, Videos and Briefing Papers on key topics and the latest trends. If you want to expand your knowledge even further, or support your development or business with up-to-date information and research, sign up for a FREE TRIAL to gain access to the full content of over 500 blogs, briefing papers and videos within our resource library.

Membership with CCMI offer you will access to all the content within this resource of over 200 blogs, video briefings and more.