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We all have needs and many of these are unique, this is what makes working with people intriguing. Some needs are obvious, others are closely guarded secrets, and more we don’t even know ourselves! As leader’s we have to make every effort to understand the needs of the people in our teams and adjust our approach to meet those needs. I will use Autism and ADHD as an example here as I’ve had a steep learning curve in this area over the last couple of years. These could be considered quite extreme needs compared to others but we can still approach these in a similar way.

The first challenge is recognising there is a need! For those who are not open about their needs, we have to spot them, which makes observation key. Is someone acting out of character? Are you seeing unexpected responses to questions? Is anyone uncomfortable in certain situations? There are usually signs but you need to be looking. In my example, I could see something was wrong but with no direct experience with these conditions, I struggled with the root cause. When adjusting to people’s needs it’s the root cause we need to meet not a symptom, otherwise, any adjustments will be superficial.

If you’ve identified a need or believe something isn’t right it has to be discussed with the person. This may not be an easy conversation to have so it’s essential to be open and honest, explaining your observations and listening carefully. The timing of the conversation is important, try not to set time specifically for this topic (unless there is an urgent need), instead cover it in a general conversation, which makes one-on-ones an ideal time. And be prepared, you may be entering a subject that is extremely sensitive so be open to any direction this conversation goes. Prior to the diagnosis in my situation, I felt I was walking on eggshells, some topics ended abruptly while it was difficult to get much detail with others. There’s no easy resolution but this cannot be ignored because there’s a need that has to be addressed. You need support yourself, so making other people aware of the situation is important (your manager and HR), they may know more details or at least be able to offer advice. Ultimately don’t give up, allow time to pass, if nothing has changed and the person hasn’t brought up the subject it has to be discussed again. Give examples of the effect this is having on others and reassure them that you’re there to help.

Once a need has been identified the challenge moves to the adjustments you should make. Obviously working with the person to agree on these changes is ideal, otherwise, it may be a case of trial and error. Either way, closely watching the effects of the adjustments will show if more changes need to be made. In my example, the diagnosis came some time after and professional advice was given. Only then did I have confidence that these adjustments would be for the better. The advice was:

  • consistency – continuous change has a negative impact, so predictability is key in allowing them to perform at full potential. An example would be keeping one-on-ones at the agreed time, resist rescheduling due to other urgent tasks.
  • flexible working hours – social situations can be stressful which makes the rush hour commute a difficult time. Our agreement was to work from home in the mornings and commute in when it’s less busy.
  • social communication – social situations can be an unfair disadvantage due to the demands of simultaneous processing. Adjustments can be made to minimise the impact, for example, share clear agenda prior to meetings and any agreements are finalised in writing shortly after the meeting. These adjustments primarily affected one-on-ones and team meetings.

There were other adjustments made mainly around more awareness of the condition so avoiding conversations near their desk that could cause a disturbance. Also, making a few other people aware, those who interact with the person so they can make necessary adjustments too. The person didn’t want to make a big issue out of this situation or any special treatment but informing the small group of people reduced the possibility of creating harmful situations.

It can be difficult making the right changes, we certainly don’t want to make any situation worse. It’s important the leader has the right support too, they may be internal or external to your organisation, but seek advice before making any decisions you’re not sure about. While scanning blogs in my feed I came across one that stood out – Working with Autism and ADHD. Even though I had already been through my changes it was still encouraging to read about other experiences. Remember that you’re not alone!

My example is quite an extreme case, however, many needs are straightforward and with a small adjustment could make that person’s life better. As leaders, our actions should show our teams that we care for them and have their best interests at heart. These adjustments could be as simple as changing the one-on-one time to suit them not you, or not interrupted them while they are ‘in the zone’, they are small adjustments from us but could mean the world to someone.

The relationships we have with our teams are built on trust and respect, the aim is for each person to believe they are special and an important part of the team. Overlooked needs can be harmful and could leave the person feeling isolated, this would have a larger negative effect on the team. As a leader, we should know we are not here for ourselves but for our teams. By identifying and making adjustments for any needs is an essential ingredient to healthy teams.

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