As someone with more than 50 years of experience in both industry and academia who also happens to be a person with autism, managers in charge of DEI at major corporations often invite me to give lectures. These companies range from steel, pharmaceuticals, computers, and consumer products to cattle and livestock handling, transportation, and social media. I always get asked the same basic question from management: What do they need to do to make their workforce more inclusive?
It’s a big step forward that corporations are striving to make their workforces more diverse with respect to race, gender equity, and people with disabilities. Now it’s time to apply these same strategies to different kinds of minds. Doing so will increase creativity, ignite problem solving, and lead to more cohesive workplaces.
Different Kinds of Thinkers in the Workplace
First, leaders simply need to increase their awareness about the different types of thinking that exist and how we all benefit from these different minds and the skills that go along with them. This may sound basic, but in our verbally dominant culture, visual thinkers often get left behind.
I am an extreme visual thinker, meaning that all my thoughts resemble photorealistic pictures and short video clips, like those on TikTok. My visual recall is a full vocabulary of images that come from memories of places I’ve visited, movies and pictures I’ve seen, and printed text I’ve translated into pictures. When I’m asked to assess a cattle-handling system, for example, video clips of every system I’ve seen run through my mind. I sort these images into categories, and I have the ability to combine them into new things. With age and experience, my visual “vocabulary” grows the way a verbal person learns complex ideas through words.
Visual thinkers like me process information differently; we use hands-on problem solving and visual perception. I often point to a moment at the beginning of my career when my visual orientation aided in solving some behavioral issues in cattle. The animals had suddenly halted and refused to move forward, causing work delays and compromising profit margins. Handlers hadn’t been able to figure out what was causing the cattle’s behavior, and they were using extreme methods, such as prodding and bullhorns, to keep the animals in line.
When I witnessed this phenomenon, I jumped into the chute to get the cattle’s-eye view. The ranchers and suits alike thought I was being ridiculous. But for me, as a visual thinker, it was the obvious thing to do. I immediately picked up on the little things the handlers had missed. Shadows, reflections, even something as seemingly insignificant as a piece of chain or a fabric cutting dangling inside the chute could slow down the cattle’s movement. It was a simple fix, but no one else saw it. To me, these small obstructions were glaring. That’s how my mind works.
I am not the only kind of visual thinker. It turns out there is another type, with its own unique perspective and skill set: spatial visualizers. This distinction was identified by Maria Kozhevnikov and her team of researchers at Harvard. People like me, who think in photorealistic pictures, are known as object visualizers. We tend to be good at design, mechanical engineering, animal handling, and other hands-on jobs. Spatial visualizers tend to think in patterns and abstraction, and are often skilled in mathematics, computer programming, and music. We have distinct approaches to problem solving: Object visualizers can see how mechanical devices work, while spatial visualizers calculate how they are supposed to work. I’ve made the analogy that object visualizers make the trains, and spatial visualizers make them run. We need both kinds of thinkers.
A good example of a successful collaboration between different kinds of minds is the partnership between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who famously developed the Apple computer. Jobs conceived of a computer that was beautiful and simple to use, and Wozniak made it work. According to his biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs wanted a “seamless user experience.” Wozniak, the techie, wanted lots of features, but Jobs knew that too many features would make the computer more confusing to use. This is an example of an artistic visual thinker working with a more technically oriented partner to create a very successful product.
When different kinds of thinkers get together and recognize the value of their different approaches, great progress can be made. Organizational psychologist Anita Williams Woolley and her colleagues at Harvard and Stanford undertook a study in which they asked object visualizers and spatial visualizers to navigate a Pac Man–style virtual maze. Some of the teams were pairs of same-style thinkers, others were different thinkers. The research found that the teams of mixed thinkers outperformed the homogenous teams. When the teams were mixed, the visual spatial thinkers tended to work the joystick and the object visualizer zapped the greebles. The homogenous groups tended to spend more time in conversations that didn’t lead to results. (If you have been in one of those endless company meetings where nothing gets resolved, this may ring familiar.) It turns out that great minds that do not think alike are more likely to yield towering innovations.
How to Harness Different Kinds of Thinking
First, business leaders and policy makers need to encourage schools to address the fact that visual thinkers who cannot sit still or cannot do abstract math, such as algebra, are screened out of the U.S. educational system. Thomas Edison was at the bottom of his class and described as “addled” by a teacher. His mother took him out of the classroom to be homeschooled. Today, Edison might have been diagnosed with ADHD, as are nearly one in seven American boys who appear bored in the classroom and get labeled “disruptive.” These kids need to be doing things.
We need to nurture and invest in students with hands-on classes, mentoring, internships, and apprenticeships in fields where visual skills are essential. I learned to sew in home-economics classes, designing patterns and sewing costumes for the school play. In shop class, I learned to build things and made our sets for the school play. Those foundational skills set the stage for my future.
Hiring practices also need to change. As a visual thinker who has autism, I wasn’t going to succeed in a typical job interview where being articulate and looking people in the eye was important. In order to get jobs, I let my technical drawings and photos of completed projects in my portfolio “talk” for me. I couldn’t sell a job by describing it, but I impressed potential employers with what I came to call my “30-second wow,” a visual presentation of my work. I learned to sell my work and not myself. The same goes for educational credentials: For instance, I couldn’t pass the mathematical requirements to pursue a career in veterinary work, but given my visual affinity with animals and insight into their behavior, I now train veterinarians.
The business and industrial worlds need all kinds of diverse minds. There is an increasing number of examples where neurodiverse employees have been the key to successful implementation. For example, a company that was critical to the success of the latest Mars rover is Illinois-based Forest City Gear, which worked with NASA to create the tiny gears that turned the camera. Precise tolerances were required to survive the harsh Martian conditions. To execute, extraordinary attention to detail was needed. The perfect candidate for the job could be a person with autism.
Today, we’re starting to see exciting new efforts to create job opportunities for all kinds of thinkers. For example, Dr. Ivan Rosenberg started a unique program with the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California to train autistic students to run computerized metal machinery equipment in many different factories. These students would have the qualifications to work at Forest City Gear.
Highly specialized work calls for highly specialized minds. For these programs to work, we need to understand that accommodations are not special favors. All workers, visual and verbal alike, perform according to their strengths.
In conclusion, the business world needs all kinds of thinkers. When they work in teams with complementary skills, they will be very effective. The first step is that managers need to be aware that different kinds of thinking exist.
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