Don’t Change the Person, Change the System – A Simple Strategy For Increased Employee Engagement

My friend recently told me about her partner who loves to clean the fridge (umm..lucky!!)

The thing is, he organizes it so that large items are at the back unobscured by the smaller items at the front. That’s logical for him.

But not practical at all for my friend who needs to get milk out several times a day, and only uses those small jars of jams and pickles infrequently. It does not make logical sense to her at all. Moving the jars out of the way every time she needs to reach back has become frustrating and cumbersome.

Who’s right? That’s a trick question. The issue here is not about best practice – because as you can see, best practice is person specific. It’s not even a question of logic, because there is logic in both scenarios. The issue comes down to whether the person who is organizing the fridge is paying attention to the needs of the people using the fridge.

Let’s put that in more “corporate” terms; Who is creating policy, practice, and protocols for your company? And who is using those policies, practices and protocols? Does the logic line up between who mandates what happens, and who facilitates those happenings?

Let’s add another layer to this. Increasingly, neurodivergent individuals are reporting that the workforce is not working for them. I think this has to do with the assumptions and miscommunications that happen when two – entirely logical – ways of working start bumping up against each other. When you have a workplace that blends neurodivergent and neurotypical employees and leaders but does not mix neurodivergent and neurotypical insights and input into the creation of policy, practices, and protocols, you end up with a workforce that feels utterly frustrated, team dynamics that are constantly at odds, and leadership that feels ignored or even disrespected.

In my own business, this situation came up recently. My business partner and I were joking about my “filing system”. In a previous post I alluded to the fact that there is little filing and absolutely no system involved. My partner joked that I really can’t use the term “filing” at all for what I do. And that’s probably true and gave us a big laugh. But as I thought about it later it reminded me how often we dismiss the way someone does things simply because they aren’t our way.

Do I not file? Or do I file very differently based on my logic, needs, and capacity? Is the issue my filing, or our shared expectations about how we each manage documents?

Now, I will be clear and say that I wouldn’t nominate myself for “administrator of the year”. It is likely my own neurodivergence makes this particular task really cumbersome for me (though I don’t speak for all neurodivergent people and I know fellow neurodivergent folk who are absolute champs at organization). But for me, it’s one of those executive functioning skills that just eludes me.

But it’s an important question to raise because when we don’t look at how ND and NT work together, we often default to “The neurodivergent person is struggling/getting it wrong/can’t understand the logic/can’t follow the system/is the problem”. When in reality, it’s the disconnect between the NT way of processing and the ND way of processing. And it’s not hard at all to get a healthy conversation going and create a strategy that mutually benefits everyone.

Too often neurodivergent folk struggle at work, not because of their abilities, but because the expectations of the way they “ought” to perform their work is inaccessible or at times harmful to the way they work. When neurodivergent strategies are unrecognizable to neurotypical folk, they are downplayed as “ineffective/inefficient”. We can fail to recognize that the struggle some of our employees face may come from the assumption that everyone works the same way, and not because of some ineptitude on the part of an employee. When we place responsibility on them to work in a system that doesn’t work for them, we assume that the issue is inherent to them, and not an issue of a conflicting system. This dismisses their needs and can result in them potentially experiencing burnout and conflict. There is an alternative.

Let me use another analogy to paint a picture of what this alternative can look like:

Your kids come home from school and without fail, take their boots off by the living room sofa. It’s 4 feet away from the doormat that you carefully laid out in the entryway. You have spent months fighting with them about this. Explaining why boots go by the door. Begging them to get it right. It’s creating more work for you to always pick up their boots and move them and you are all tense and walking on eggshells. The home seems like a time bomb every day when the school bus rounds the corner. You dread it.

You could fight forever, solidifying a toxic atmosphere at home and damaging the relationship between all of you. Or, you could figure out why they keep removing their boots by the couch. After all, every brain has a reason for doing what it does. And if you want a solution, you need to understand the “why”.

So you ask your kids and it turns out at the end of the day when they pile in with their huge heavy backpacks, and they are standing in the entryway there is no room for them all. It is cramped, they can’t move around let alone bend over. There is nowhere to drop their bags, they are tired and stepping on each other’s toes and knocking each other down and they are exhausted and the couch is right there. They can walk a few feet. Sit down. Take off their items. Get a break. And they don’t end up stepping in slushy puddles and getting their socks all wet.


It just wasn’t your logic. Your logic was based on the assumption that shoes should go by the door. Their logic was based on the experience of the system. It doesn’t actually work for them in practice.

Now that you understand how their brain works, you get a clearer picture of their actual experience and where some accommodations could easily be made to support everyone’s needs. You also see that forcing them to comply with a system that was inefficient for them creates a lot of barriers and then leads to discord and frustration all around. Sure, they may try to put their boots by the door for a few days to please you, but it simply won’t be sustainable.

Systems based on one person’s logic and expectations without input from the actual experience of its people and what the actual barriers are, become unsustainable systems. 

Unfortunately, too many neurodivergent folk are reporting that the workplace – as it is currently set up – is an unsustainable system for them. And that is genuinely a problem, not just for the value these individuals bring to the workforce, but because everyone deserves to enjoy their work, and feel valued and engaged.

Back to my example: By eliciting insight from your kids you come up with a list of options: Move the floor mat to the side of the couch, put a towel down to step on so feet don’t get wet and the soggy floor gets mopped up, remove boots at the couch but before supper time each person places their boots on the mat by the door, put a large floor runner from door to couch, perhaps you create a larger entryway to accommodate more people or put in a bench and coat hooks for their heavy bags. The possibilities truly are endless if you get creative enough. The more important part is the system now works and no one feels like they were “the problem” and no one feels shame and frustration for not being able to “live up to expectations”.

When working with teams I always ask, what would make this task easy and enjoyable for someone to complete it? 

This is a very different question than “what is the most logical way to do this?” Or “what is the best way?” Or even, “what do you suggest happens?” Instead, it is about co-creating and collaborating. We ask, “What are some options for how this could happen and what barriers would each person face versus what obstacles would it help each of us overcome?” This is an empowering dialogue.

Making a task enjoyable and accessible brings out the best in people. It elevates their capacities and enables their capabilities to shine through. Nobody expects every policy or practice to meet all their needs. Individual adjustments can be made in collaboration with a team leader or manager in a way that doesn’t deviate from the overall big picture. Think of how many people feel crappy about themselves because they didn’t have enough energy to hop over all the barriers and roadblocks that their employers didn’t realize were in the way. Imagine being an employer and feeling awful that your employee burnt out and had to leave because you honestly are doing your best and didn’t realize there were simply structural issues that got in the way.

As a neurodivergent person, I feel comfortable sharing that often neurotypical people don’t realize how many steps go into completing a specific task. And each stage toward completing a task has many opportunities for hurdles. Let me ask you if you were to make a sandwich, would you say “get bread, put peanut butter on it, cut it in half, eat! Done!” or would you say “locate bread, open bag, pull out two slices, open cupboard, take out a plate, place one slice on the plate, open cutlery drawer, grab butter knife, walk to the fridge, open door, grab peanut butter, twist off cap, etc…” you see where I am going. Each of these stages is inherent in the system. But those who do not use the system, or those who process information differently and communicate information differently, may blow by these little steps. And when there is a cog in the system, like say- no more butter knives – it’s all too easy to exclaim, “wow this person can’t even make a basic sandwich!”. Which is inaccurate, unfair, and stigmatizing.

Pay attention to the steps. Ask where roadblocks are. Get curious and collaborate.

This method is useful for all neurotypes because the basis of it asks what would help each person become more confident in their task rather than assuming someone simply “isn’t good at” something. We are talking about accessibility, not ability. When you increase someone’s capacity with targeted accommodations, they will thrive. And not only is that better for a company’s bottom line, but it is also a more respectful and dignified way of leading.