As a person with more than 50 years of experience in industry and academia who is also a person with autism, managers in charge of DEI in large corporations often invite me to give lectures. These companies range from steel, pharmaceuticals, computers, and consumer products to cattle and livestock management, transportation, and social media. I’m often asked the same basic question from management: What should they do to make their workforce more inclusive?
This is a big step forward as corporations try to make their workforce more diverse in terms of race, gender equity, and people with disabilities. Now it’s time to apply these same strategies to different types of minds. Doing so increases creativity, ignites problem solving, and leads to more cohesive workplaces.
Different Types of Thinkers in the Workplace
First, leaders simply need to increase their awareness of the different types of thinking that exist and how we all benefit from the different minds and skills that come with them.. This may sound basic, but in our word-dominant culture, visual thinkers are often left behind.
I’m a very visual thinker, meaning all my thoughts are like photo-realistic pictures and short video clips, like those on TikTok. My visual recall is a whole vocabulary of images that come from memories of places I’ve visited, movies and pictures I’ve seen, and printed text that I’ve translated into pictures. When I am asked to evaluate a cattle management system, for example, video clips of every system I see 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 always point to a time at the beginning of my career when my visual orientation helped solve some behavioral issues in cattle. Animals suddenly stop and refuse to continue, causing work delays and compromising profit margins. The handlers do not know what causes the cattle’s behavior, and they use extreme methods, such as pushing and bullhorns, to keep the animals in line.
When I witnessed this event, I jumped down the chute to see the cow’s eye. Ranches and suits think I’m funny. But for me, as a visual thinker, it was the obvious thing to do. I quickly pick up the little things the handlers miss. Shadows, reflections, even something as insignificant as a piece of chain or a piece of cloth hanging inside the chute can slow down the cow’s movement. It’s a simple fix, but no one else has seen it. For me, these little obstacles are bright. That’s how my mind works.
I’m not the only type of visual thinker. It turns out there is another type, with its own unique perspective and skill set: spatial visualizers. This difference RECOGNIZED 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 manual jobs. Spatial visualizers tend to think in patterns and abstractions, and are often skilled in mathematics, computer programming, and music. We have different approaches to problem solving: Object visualizers see how mechanical devices work, while spatial visualizers calculate how they work. I make the analogy that object visualizers make the trains, and spatial visualizers run them. We need two kinds of thoughts.
A good example of a successful collaboration between different types of minds is the partnership between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who famously developed the Apple computer. Jobs envisioned a computer that was beautiful and simple to use, and Wozniak put it to work. According to his biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs wanted a “good user experience.” Wozniak, the techie, wanted more features, but Jobs knew that too many features would make the computer confusing to use. This is an example of an artistic visual thinker working with a more technically oriented partner to create a successful product.
When different types of thinkers come 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 conducted a study in which they asked object visualizers and spatial visualizers to navigate a Pac Man-style virtual maze. Some of the teams are pairs of like-minded thinkers, others think differently. the the research found that groups of mixed thinkers outperform homogeneous groups. When the teams were mixed, the visual spatial thinkers used the joystick and the object visualizer zap the greebles. Homogeneous groups tend to spend a lot of time in conversations that do not lead to results. (If you’ve ever been to one of those endless company meetings where nothing gets resolved, this may sound familiar.) not shared thinking is more likely to yield great innovations.
How to Use Different Types of Thinking
First, business leaders and policymakers need to encourage schools to address the fact that visual thinkers who can’t sit still or can’t do abstract math, like algebra, are being screened out of US education. system. Thomas Edison used to at the bottom of his class and was described as being “addled” by a teacher. His mother took him out of the classroom to be homeschooled. Now, Edison might have been diagnosed with ADHD, as well almost one in seven American boys who seem bored in class and labeled as “disturbing.” It has to be these kids ACT things.
We need to nurture and invest in students with hands-on classes, mentoring, internships, and apprenticeships in fields where visual skills are important. I learned to sew in home-economics classes, design patterns and sew costumes for the school play. In shop class, I learned to make 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 with autism, I would not be successful in a typical job interview where speaking and looking people in the eye is important. To get jobs, I let my technical drawings and photos of completed projects in my portfolio “speak” for me. I can’t sell a job by describing it, but I impress potential employers with what I call the “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 example, I could not pass the math requirements to pursue a career in veterinary work, but because of my observation of animals and understanding of their behavior, I am currently training in veterinarians.
The business and industrial world needs all kinds of different minds. There are increasing examples of where neurodiverse employees have been key to successful implementation. For example, one company critical to the success of the latest Mars rover is Illinois-based Forest City Gear, which works with NASA to make the tiny gears that turn the camera. Proper tolerance is required to survive the harsh Martian conditions. In order to execute, exceptional attention to detail is required. The perfect candidate for the job would be a person with autism.
Today, we are beginning to see exciting new efforts to create job opportunities for all kinds of thinking. For example, Dr. Ivan Rosenberg started a unique program at the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California to train autistic students to operate computerized metal machinery equipment in many different factories. These students have the qualifications to work at Forest City Gear.
More specialized work calls for more specialized minds. For these programs to work, we need to understand that accommodations are not special favors. All workers, visual and verbal alike, act according to their strengths.
In conclusion, the business world needs all kinds of mindsets. When they work in teams with complementary skills, they are very effective. The first step is that managers need to know that there are different types of thinking.