The ‘dyslexic advantage’ and the corporate environment

Literature and social media around dyslexia in the last couple of years has referred to a ‘dyslexic advantage’ – the suggestion that those individuals with dyslexia share a unique learning difference that can create advantages both in the classroom for learners, or in the workplace for adults.  There is no disputing the fact that dyslexic people perceive the written word differently to non-dyslexics, but recent research has suggested that they may also excel at spatial reasoning, interconnected thinking and display amazing creativity (Source: www.dyslexicadvantage.org).

I found this particularly of interest as I assess adult learners for specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) including dyslexia and dyspraxia for the University of Cumbria and often many of these are mature students who have returned to education as they struggled to find a job they excelled at.

Thinking about the famous people we know with dyslexia, obviously all highly successful ones as that is predominantly why they are famous: Sir Richard Branson, Lord Alan Sugar and the late Steve Jobs.  What do these business icons have in common, beyond their dyslexia?  These three all carved their own path in business and led the way, rather than being constrained by the corporate world.  There have been a lot of suggestions in the past that the dyslexic advantage would tend to favour a more creative entrepreneurial type role.  An article I’ve recently been reading quoted this fascinating yet slightly concerning statistic:

One percent of corporate managers in the UK are dyslexic compared with 20 per cent of entrepreneurs (Logan 2009)

The article addresses the question of how could a condition such as dyslexia, termed a ‘hidden disability’ under the Equalities Act 2010, have led to such a high proportion of business acumen? (Doyle and Isaacs, 2012). And why might this be? How can individuals with learning difficulties sufficient enough to be classified as ‘having a long term effect on their ability to cope with everyday activities’, be so able to turn their hands to the creativity and motivation required to set up and run a successful business venture? And why do so few excel within a corporate environment?

What is dyslexia?

To understand this, one needs to know a little bit about the mind of someone with dyslexia. Very little is understood about dyslexia outside of an educational context, this being the first major hurdle for those individuals with an SpLD to face. The majority of people have the assumption that an individual with dyslexia simply struggles to read and spell. Well, to a certain extent this is often true, but as the article clearly points out, this is the symptom rather than the cause. Dyslexic individuals are usually characterized by weaknesses in their working memory and/or visual processing speed and their ability to process sounds accurately and decode words. It is these cognitive weaknesses that manifest into literacy difficulties such as weak spelling ability, difficulties in recognizing new words and slow reading and often poor reading comprehension. However, what is often misunderstood or unrecognized is that an individual with dyslexia often faces a variety of other challenges. These can include: problems with their organisation skills and ability to prioritize and schedule; punctuality and difficulties when required to work within time constraints; forgetting colleagues names and job titles; issues with sustaining concentration and being able to filter out background noise; difficulties with keeping up in meetings, note-taking and following information that is delivered verbally.

These problems can pose a variety of issues for individuals in the workplace and are often attributed to other less favourable personality issues, such as laziness or lack of motivation. Due to the problems outlined above, those with dyslexia often find the corporate environment a challenging one.

What is the ‘dyslexic advantage’?

But why the disparity in the statistic mentioned above? How come so many dyslexics strive as entrepreneurs? This particular article does a great job of highlighting what is very commonly overlooked: dyslexic individuals often have strengths as a result of their cognitive profiles and it is these strengths that make them well suited to the entrepreneurial career. Along with weaknesses in working memory and processing speed, it is not uncommon for a dyslexic individual to have a high score in perceptual reasoning and/or verbal comprehension. These skilled visual spatial thinkers may exhibit some of the following workplace strengths: looking for the bigger picture or wider context; comprehending and producing complex ideas via graph, diagram or infographic; picking novel ideas from tangential thinking; intuitive reasoning and strategic thinking; and detailed episodic memory (Doyle and Isaacs, 2012)

It is this set of skills that is likely to equip an individual well for an entrepreneurial career. An ability to work outside the prescribed path, create their own rules and look for connections between ideas will translate to a real skill in spotting the gaps in a market or finding a quicker, cheaper way to do something (Doyle and Isaacs, 2012).

This article makes the very obvious point that is: why is the corporate environment not taking advantage of individuals with this set of skills who, in today’s past paced technological world, may be a valuable player in the workplace? It may be that the corporate management environment is not conducive to dyslexics or that there are barriers that prevent those with dyslexia from achieving corporate management roles. But surely organisations could capitalise on the potential of their current employees by raising their awareness of dyslexia and other SpLDs, making the workplace more accessible for these individuals and unlocking their potential.

If you would like advice on unlocking the potential of your employees in relation to SpLDs contact Lakeland Capabilities. Have a read of our Neurodiversity page for more information. We can offer workshops to raise awareness, learning style assessments and one to one coaching to help develop coping strategies.