How to Foster Authenticity and Trust in Neurodiverse Teams

Written by Susan Fitzell

The importance of team trust in neurodiversity
There are many different ways that human brains work.

Anyone who has ever worked with another human knows that great things can evolve when we approach conversations, problems, or ways of being in the world differently. Yet, while wisdom unfolds when people with differently wired brains collaborate, there is also a chance of friction. Some friction can spur better problem-solving, yet it can sometimes interfere with cohesive teamwork.

Individual success vs. team success
Employees naturally seek to grow in their careers. Because opportunities for recognition, professional reward, and promotion are limited, competition can cause conflict among team members. The potential for conflict is especially likely when a team member stands out as non-conformist, intense, and talented. However, at the same time, most individuals realize that working together is integral to achieving a company’s overall business goals. Managers also recognize that the company can only succeed if everyone works together.

Neurodiversity in workplace teams
What does all this have to do with neurodiversity? A lack of knowledge about neurodiversity can lead one to believe that neurodiverse individuals may not be team players or may, potentially, pose a risk to team cohesiveness.

Imagine that you are on a team that has been working to solve a complex problem. Most of the team feels strongly about a proposal a seasoned, well-respected team lead recommended. Just when everyone sees a resolution in sight, one team member passionately shares a solution that is so unconventional that it seems destined to fail. Add to that scenario that the team member constantly rubs others the wrong way because of their quirky behavior. They interrupt, will argue to make their point, and lack finesse. In the moment, it doesn’t matter to the rest of the team that the proposed solution may deserve their consideration. And, on some level, this team member’s divergent ideas threaten competitive team members looking to win the boss’ favor.

People tend to lack trust in those who are different from themselves. Human nature is often suspicious of what isn’t easily understood. As leaders, our challenge is to create and nurture teams that work well together, despite their differences.

Teamwork in the neurodiverse workplace
Teamwork isn’t simply about people getting along and liking each other. It’s about team members working together for the success of the organization.

In very general terms, the following characteristics mark effective teams(Ingram et al., 1997):

  1. A unitary mindset among team members — working toward the same result
  2. Recognizing each other’s strengths and allowing team members to do what they do best
  3. Holding each other accountable for achieving successful results
  4. Team trust is high
  5. Effective communication

These five factors work together to create an effective team that produces results. To achieve these results, all team members must be aware of and buy into the results they are working to achieve.

This buy-in calls for effective communication and group-wide awareness of each person’s strengths. Recognizing one another’s strengths allows team members to give each other the freedom to get on with their tasks without the feeling of being watched or judged, which may hamper morale, self-esteem, and overall success.

When team members trust each other, they also look out for each other’s success and look for ways to support each other and move toward the team’s end goal. A culture of genuine “How’s it going?” and “Anything I can do to help?” contributes to team success and individual success while reinforcing the quality of team trust.

So, successful teamwork requires trust and psychological safety on the team. That trust and sense of safety are missing in the scenario described above.

The link to neurodiversity in the workplace
This is where neurodiversity comes in. All the characteristics that make up an effective team also help to create a successful neurodiverse workplace.

How so?

Many neurodivergent thinkers do their best when there is a clear goal and purpose. You’re probably thinking that we ALL need a clear goal and purpose when working on a team. This is true, and because of the way neurodiverse brains are wired, they need it more. Divergent thinkers thrive when they are made aware of the big picture, their place in it, and why their work is essential. Having a clear purpose helps to create the emotional buy-in required for success.

Atypical thinkers are aware of what they are good at and painfully aware of their weaknesses. Therefore, allowing employees to use their expertise and show what they can do is essential. Give them the autonomy to be successful.

For example, in the scenario above, ask the team member with the non-conformist solution to research the remedy, present pros and cons, and flesh out the idea rather than dismiss their concept because it’s inconvenient. Allowing them to elaborate on their vision and present at the next meeting builds confidence in that team member and strengthens the whole team.

Acceptance of our differences can lead to excellent results if there is awareness and trust.

“Diversity practices and inclusion interact to foster a trusting climate and employee engagement.” (Downey et al., 2015)

A culture of team trust and safety,, where all members work together to help each other “fill the gaps”, allows teams to complete their mission successfully. While one person may be able to hyperfocus and get intense, high-concentration tasks done, another may be able to think out of the box and link unrelated facts to find unique solutions.

Both individuals contribute to the team’s goals. Both play a crucial role in team success. Creativity, hyperfocus, and lateral thinking are all characteristics of neurodiverse thinkers. Yet, linear thinking gets consistent results. Linear thinking is predictable, process-oriented, and time-tested. Teams need both types of thinkers to achieve maximum results. In the animal kingdom, we call this symbiosis and mutualism.

Did you know that zebras and ostriches have a symbiotic relationship?

Zebra and ostriches look out for each other. Zebras have a great sense of smell and hearing but poor eyesight. While the ostrich has great vision but not great hearing or smell. […] They often travel together and warn each other when danger is coming. Each animal benefits from the strength of the other animal. This relationship keeps them safe from lions on the hunt.” (Zebra and Ostrich — Symbiotic Relationships, n.d.)

Effective communication builds team trust
Effective communication is critical to the success of neurodiverse teams.

Atypical thinkers understand and process communication differently from the norm; innuendo, implied meaning, inside jokes, and sarcasm can be missed or misinterpreted. Without awareness of this, misunderstandings are bound to happen. Receiving mixed messages makes the neurodivergent team member look like they are being difficult or ignoring instructions.

This confusion over the message is why some feel that neurodivergent people aren’t team players. Setting up a culture of clear communication serves everyone in a neurodiverse workplace. It leads to more accountability and builds trust among team members.

Creating strong, cohesive, trusting teams promotes authenticity. An authentic team working with purpose toward the same goal makes your company future-proof, flexible, and innovative.

It’s a win-win for everyone, regardless of differences.


Downey, S. N., van der Werff, L., Thomas, K. M., & Plaut, V. C. (2015). The role of diversity practices and inclusion in promoting trust and employee engagement. Journal of Applied Social Psychology45, 35–44.

Ingram, H., Teare, R., Scheuing, E., & Armistead, C. (1997). A systems model of effective teamwork. The TQM Magazine9(2), 118.

Zebra and Ostrich — Symbiotic Relationships. (n.d.). Animalsymbiosis.Weebly.Com. Retrieved September 6, 2022, from


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