Alan Sinclair: Understanding dyslexia in the workplace
It was my first meeting with new colleagues following my law firm’s merger with a larger, international firm.
The litigation partners were having an away day to develop a plan for growing the division. Any anxiety about whether the integration would go smoothly was quickly dispelled; they were a welcoming bunch.
However, it didn’t take long for that initial unease to be replaced by a more acute feeling of angst brought on by one of the day’s activities.
Each attendee was asked to go round the room and write on large pieces of paper pinned to the walls. My concern wasn’t whether I had anything meaningful to contribute. It was that my colleagues (old and new) would find out my long kept secret: my spelling is appalling.
My assumption was that they would attribute my errors to a lack of intelligence on my part and wonder at how I had managed to find myself in the position of a partner in prominent Scottish law firm. My coping mechanisms kicked in. I found ways to express myself succinctly in easier to spell words. However, what I contributed was compromised by my ability to express myself in handwriting.
My shortcomings were not a result of a want of intelligence. I am dyslexic.
I am, of course, far from unique. The UK Dyslexia Association suggests that around 10 per cent of the workforce has dyslexia. If you manage a sizeable team, there is a reasonable prospect that someone within it has dyslexia. It would also not be surprising if those team members choose not to disclose this challenge.
When my dyslexia was identified, as a primary school pupil in the mid-eighties, my mother was a primary school teacher. She told me recently that, prior to my identification, she and her colleagues thought dyslexia was just a convenient excuse middle-class parents reached for when their children didn’t perform as well academically as they expected.
Whilst attitudes have undoubtedly moved on since then, many dyslexics still choose not to disclose their status to their employers. Whether justified or not, they fear it will be perceived as barrier to optimal performance in any field where cognitive ability is fundamental to the job.
It would be facile to suggest that dyslexia doesn’t present some challenges to people within the workforce. Dyslexics tend to have slower reading speeds, take longer to produce written work and have difficulties in keeping themselves organised. But with the right support, those difficulties can be managed and the advantages of the dyslexic mind can be harnessed for the benefit of employers.
It’s important for employers to recognise that the dyslexic brain provides advantages that offset the challenges. Neuroscience tells us that there are perceptible differences between dyslexics and the neurotypical in the outer layer of the brain, the cortex.
Those differences afford dyslexics an enhanced ability to identify patterns. The real-world consequence of this is that dyslexics are disproportionately successful in the fields of entrepreneurship (my spellchecker did a lot of heavy lifting as I typed that word), engineering, architecture and the arts. Dyslexics represent 40 per cent of self-made millionaires. Over 50 per cent of NASA employees are reported as dyslexics.
Until very recently, I have chosen not to disclose my dyslexia to colleagues for fear that they would see it as an impairment in my ability to do my job. Indeed, I suspect many of my colleagues will be learning about it for the first time if they read this article. I’m pleased to report that I now work in a firm that has inclusion as one of its core values, which has imbued me with confidence to speak about my dyslexia.
Where once I felt shame about my shortcomings, I now feel able to celebrate the analytical abilities that make me a better lawyer than I might otherwise have been.
So, to employers, my message is this: create an environment that makes your employees feel comfortable about expressing any neurodivergence. If you don’t, you may be missing an opportunity to harness their true talents. And please, think before you ask your teams to write on a whiteboard!
Alan Sinclair is a partner at Addleshaw Goddard. This article first appeared in The Herald.