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  • Writer's pictureJames Fairview

Inclusive Leadership – Prioritising Mental Health Over ‘Fit’

Shaw Trust (2018) found over half of employers were unwilling to hire somebody with mental health issues as employers perceived people with mental health issues represented a ‘significant risk’ to their business.

During the 2020 mental health awareness week, the theme of ‘kindness’ has never been more pertinent. Employers are being asked to show greater kindness towards those people with poor mental health. Employers can do so by demonstrating an inclusive approach when hiring, and by being far more accommodating when developing ‘talent’ and building teams.

Too often, hiring managers look for a prospective team member to ‘fit’ within a team. This approach automatically implies the leader and team is inflexible and intolerant of certain types of people. When put in this way, it seems odd that an employer would want to create such a team and culture.

Every year, one in four people will experience a mental health issue, no matter their seniority. Almost every team will have members with mental health issues. The most successful teams of the future will have a culture in which people with mental health issues positively contribute towards or are even the source of greater productivity, greater innovation, improved collaboration and much more. The most successful teams of the future will be flexible and accommodating, as opposed to inflexible and intolerant. These future teams will embrace people who possess a strong skill-set, but who may also possess poor mental health and possibly unusual behavioural traits, including an odd appearance and peculiar mannerisms.

Many of the ‘icons’ we hold up as role models and as the pinnacle of success had peculiar traits. Einstein was thought to have schizotypal traits and Steve Jobs was renowned for his ‘odd’ behaviour and beliefs. Brilliant but ‘odd’ people have been flourishing in a variety of industries and professions for years. They have flourished because they were given the opportunity to do so. Industries and employers believed in them, seeing the value they offered. These industries and employers prioritised the opportunity for success, which these brilliant people represented, over any prejudices or misgivings they may have held.

Whether Steve Jobs had a mental health issue or not, his firing at Apple Inc. is a classic example of what can happen to a person with mental health issues. A person who presents as ‘odd’ can struggle to ‘fit’ within the corporate mould. This doesn’t mean they are not good at their job and can’t add value. They may add enormous value and even possess unique skills, which the organisation may not be able to do without, as seemed to have been the case, for a while at least, with Steve Jobs at Apple. At Apple, it appeared that ‘fit’ was prioritised over success. Prioritising ‘fit’ became a point of near-failure. Perhaps Apple can now succeed without Steve Jobs because of the lessons learnt through firing and re-hiring him. IBM used to dominate the global technology landscape. It was renowned for the mould of its people. Did this strict ‘corporate person’ mould lead to the organisation’s relative demise? We’ll never know. But it may have played a part.

Looking at today’s global corporate success stories, T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops are common-place. Flexible working is well-established. In the workplace, common areas with pool tables and gaming arcades can be found. Remember ‘dress-down Friday’? In some organisations, every day is now a ‘dress-down’ day. The ‘norms’ of corporate yesterday are, in many areas of the economy, a distant memory. Leaders are prioritising employee preference for more relaxed working conditions and a more relaxed environment because of the potential for success offered by employees who hold such preferences. The employee experience and employee value proposition are now central to the employer’s success.

Many of these more progressive organisations, such as the leading ‘tech’ companies, now have ‘neurodiverse’ employment policies. These organisations are concerned with what people can do, not what they look like or how they behave. Neurodiverse people are known to be more creative and innovative. Schizotypal people are more likely to think ‘outside the box’ and come up with new ideas. And some people on the autistic spectrum possess a ‘hyper-focus’ ability, enabling them to apply extreme concentration to a task for hours on end, with coding being an obvious example. Organisations requiring constant innovation, say, in strategic planning, technology development and product design, may well benefit from having neurodiverse team members, such as people with ADHD.

The lesson for employers is clear. An inclusive leadership approach is required. Inclusive leadership calls for leaders to create teams based on the opportunity to achieve success, not on a predetermined notion of ‘fit’.

‘Mental health’ may well be the new IBM ‘corporate person’ mould, in that if an absolute belief is held on to and not changed, the belief (that people with mental health issues represent a risk) may become a point of failure. Leaders who hold inflexible and intolerant views of certain types of people will build teams that conform to their own (often prejudicial) view of what a person should be like. More progressive leaders will build teams based upon employing and supporting all types of people, but who represent the best opportunity for success.

As people with mental health issues are so numerous, and because employees can join with no mental health issues but develop issues once in employment, progressive leaders must develop two skills:

  • inclusive recruitment skills – the ability to identify candidate capabilities which may be masked by mental health issues, and

  • inclusive management skills – the ability to help employees realise their potential by maximising their positive mental traits, whilst minimising adverse mental health issues and their effects.

Myopic leaders who do not adopt progressive mental health recruitment and employment policies may face underachievement or even failure. Progressive leaders who are truly inclusive will learn how to benefit from the capabilities of neurodiverse and other employees with mental health issues, which in turn may increase the chance of organisational success.

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