Michael Phelps Was Told He Would Never Succeed: How Many Employees Have Had Similar Put Downs?

Dec 15, 2020 | Press Release

Nancy Doyle, Dec 15, 2020

This article was written by Nancy Doyle from Forbes and was legally licensed.

In the world of diversity and inclusion we are fighting a never ending battle against misinformation. To give one painfully obvious example it took Jenny McCarthy mere minutes to give new life to the modern day anti vaccine movement, something years of published research and well-articulated counter arguments cannot seem to undo.

A quick Google search on any neurodiverse or mental health condition will usually lead you very quickly to wildly inaccurate statements such as “he developed autism when he was 8” or “did you know they don’t have ADHD in France?” As a psychologist such phrases make me shudder. Of course we cannot expect everyone to be an expert but as employers and managers we must be very careful not to pick up and repeat such careless phrases.

You may think you don’t work with anyone who is neurodifferent but I guarantee you that you work alongside us and encounter us in everyday life all the time.

The ‘Naughty’ Child Does Not Have To Become The ‘Troubled’ Employee

As I have discussed previously, it is very common for neurodiverse children to be labelled as “naughty” or “difficult” when they are at school. It is not surprising then that they also suffer from assumptions and labels in the workplace. If as a dyspraxic child you were told that your condition wasn’t real, or simply an excuse for being lazy you would of course be anxious as an employee that any prospective employer may view your condition in the same light. This could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you encounter a manager or co-worker who makes careless comments based on misconceptions and hearsay. However it does not have to play out this way. In a supportive environment people who have previously felt unsupported can soar. There is no better motivation than being told you can’t do something and no greater focus and drive than that of an ADHD person on a mission!

In an interview with People magazine the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps talked about his experiences as an ADHD child in a school that didn’t take his condition seriously. “I [saw] kids who, we were all in the same class, and the teachers treated them differently than they would treat me. I had a teacher tell me that I would never amount to anything and I would never be successful.” Imagine if Phelps had stopped looking for his talent and believed their words. Better yet imagine being the manager that hires a Michael Phelps for your team and gets to benefit from their talent and motivation.

It is all too easy to tell ourselves that our words don’t matter but when it comes to a neurodiverse employee or co-worker the loss of trust that comes from a careless comment can have huge consequences. Setting out to run your teams inclusively and bringing in D&I training are a step in the right direction, but be careful not to accidentally reinforce untruths and bias. Do your research, take the time to educate yourself, start up a conversation and, if you get it wrong, apologize!

Jumping Through Hoops To Prove Ourselves

Another way in which neurodifferent employees are subtly “othered” in the workplace is the way they are expected to prove that their condition is legitimate. In the workplace as well as in education, neurodiverse and disabled people are often expected to provide evidence of their condition in order to access accommodations.

It is interesting to note the way different conditions are treated. If a new recruit told you they were diabetic or recovering from a surgery would you immediately doubt them? Suspect they are just looking for a way to get special treatment? Generally not. Even if you do doubt such a story a simple doctors’ note will be enough to bring you on board.

The same is not true for neurodiversity. A psychologist’s note for a patient must meet far stricter criteria before it is considered valid. We must demonstrate our methods and provide examples of tests given. This suggests an inherent bias against mental health and neurodifferences, an additional set of hoops to jump through before we prove our case. This week I saw a LinkedIn post in which a business leader was sharing his experience of being autistic in the finance industry and someone commented “how do you know it’s not ADHD?” I can’t imagine anyone questioning a different type of diagnosis. “Are you sure those chest pains aren’t indigestion? Do you definitely have MS, perhaps you need more sleep / exercise / fish oils?”

What this all boils down to, is trust. We trust people not to lie to us about serious matters, especially in the workplace. If an employee calls in sick we give them the benefit of the doubt. We must show the same level of trust to neurodifferent people and those with invisible disabilities. They do not owe us their confidential medical history or brain scans in order to be deserving of our trust and respect. They are not, and have never been, badly behaved children trying to trick us. And trust will lead to respect, belonging and working at their best.