Listen first, solutions later: let’s get real about dyslexia

Listen first, solutions later: let’s get real about dyslexia

Hearts & Science’s UK MD shares her experience of dyslexia and offers advice on how to move beyond its perceptions.

I’m dyslexic, but I don’t see myself as any different — if anything, not being dyslexic in my family (on my fathers’ side) means you are in the minority.

Growing up in this environment and being diagnosed fairly early on — I was 10 — means I have always felt incredibly supported by my wonderful parents, one dyslexic, one not. We learned to navigate how I understood and processed information from the world around me together as a family.

Instead of feeling fear, embarrassment, or shame, I was shown how to embrace dyslexia in the same way I do any other part of me. And woe betide anyone in our household who uses it as an excuse for not doing something, or not trying your best.

But I know not everyone is fortunate enough to have that same level of understanding, encouragement, or help — whether that’s at home, in education or in the workplace.

In fact, the unfortunate reality is that a worrying number of people with dyslexia have left a job because of the condition, citing a lack of support, feeling misunderstood, difficulty with workload and — naturally — feeling stressed and being left with poor mental health as a result of these factors.

So, whether you’re someone with dyslexia, an employer, or a colleague that needs to understand more, listen up and let’s put an end to this once and for all.

Good work cultures embrace diversity, however it comes, to make the most of everyone’s talents. Poor ones do not. Even today, dyslexia is still too often viewed only through a negative lens.

We’re told people “suffer” the condition, but actually how my brain processes information is just different. It can, in fact, be hugely beneficial — and that’s something a great many people are not aware of.

As Dyslexia Awareness Week gets underway, I want to share what I’ve learned about dyslexia, career progression and leadership, demonstrate how it affects men and women in unique ways, and explain why businesses ultimately need to embrace different modes of thinking.

It’s different to what most people think

Dyslexia affects over six million people in the UK. It can impact reading, writing, and spelling (all to differing levels) and often extends its influence into other areas of life, including time management, organisation, and memory.

Leadership roles are challenging for anyone, but for individuals with dyslexia, additional factors come into play. The volume and nature of written communication can become a daunting task — managing grammar, spelling, and punctuation — alongside the gravitas of the document itself. Time management is also often an issue that dyslexics have to grapple with, as reading and writing tasks simply take longer.

The challenge of staying up-to-date with important information and developments might feel overwhelming if not correctly managed. And dyslexics may encounter difficulties in keeping track of tasks, deadlines, and projects, affecting their organisational abilities.

And please be kind if I struggle at times to recall personal information. Dyslexia’s impact on memory can make it harder to keep track of names, dates, and other information.

These factors may not scream ‘leadership’ on paper, but many dyslexic leaders have achieved remarkable success by leveraging their unique strengths — Jo Malone, Dame Anita Roddick and Sir Richard Branson are all great examples.

What too many don’t know about the condition is that people with dyslexia often excel in problem-solving. We are masters of employing creative and innovative thinking to identify patterns and connections that others might overlook.

It’s this type of creativity that allows dyslexics to offer fresh perspectives and find unconventional solutions. This, in my experience, fosters adaptability.

Furthermore, a heightened empathy among dyslexics cultivates deeper connections with co-workers and clients, leading to more cohesive and productive teams. Even if we might sometimes get your name wrong…

Indeed, dyslexic minds are often better at grasping the big picture, which allows us to connect different ideas and concepts to envision the overall goal of a project or task.

Strong visual-spatial skills allow those with dyslexia to visualise concepts in intricate detail. Some dyslexics in fact exhibit exceptional attention to detail, thoroughly scrutinising tasks and ensuring precision and quality control.

The importance of honesty

Despite dyslexia affecting the sexes equally, it is important to note it is less commonly diagnosed in women. Research by Arms, Bickett & Graff (2008) suggest girls habitually miss out on diagnosis because boys are more likely to cause active disruption as a result of being dyslexic. Girls on the other hand, are more likely to disengage quietly and as they get older, mask their symptoms more, either actively or without knowing they’re doing it.

As media and advertising approaches boardroom gender parity, it’s worth identifying these extra hurdles that aspiring leaders might face and finding ways to overcome them.

My personal experience has shown me the benefits of being vocally open about dyslexia. This has led to better communication and collaboration, allowing colleagues to comprehend my unique working style and provide support when needed.

Patience and understanding from those I work with are vital, as are clear and concise communication styles. Offering to proofread documents or presentations and providing extra time or access to technology can ease the challenges dyslexics may face — for example providing assistive technology such as screen readers, text-to-speech software, grammar checkers, mind-mapping software and so on.

Much like ensuring you have the correct desk set-up whether at home or in the office, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need — businesses want people to be their best, after all. Some just need different mechanisms.

My golden rules

Reflecting on my career to date, these would be my words of advice for aspiring dyslexic leaders:

Drop the ego: Being authentically open about my dyslexia has meant I have felt comfortable enough to ask for support when I have needed it. In my 20-plus years’ career, I have never had a negative reaction to date. I have never made it a big reveal moment either — rather it’s just something that’s come up in general conversation.

And in the words of my dad: “if anyone has a problem with it, it says more about them than you”.

Learn your style and communicate it: Over the years, dyslexia has really made me focus on understanding how I work at my best and how to get the best out of me. For example: I will read written documents three times before starting to form an action plan — and I never read them when tired or when I can’t focus fully.

I block diary space for reading and RRTs — Rachel Random Thoughts — 10 minutes at the start of every day help me create clear action lists for the day, week and month (including colour highlighting).

I know what forms of communication work best for me too, that’s WhatsApp first, then email and followed by Teams. I have even created a “working style cheat-sheet” which I share with those around me. Even if you don’t share it widely, it’s a brilliant exercise to see what your individual working style is — dyslexic or not.

Use technology and support: There are so many free support options now — I can’t live without Read Aloud and Immersive Reader on Microsoft, while The Dyslexia Association UK shares regular updates and runs training courses on market-leading assistive technology options. Speak to your line manager or HR department about what specialist support your organisation can offer.

For those mentoring aspiring dyslexic leaders:

Don’t diagnose: It’s not your job to diagnose someone. Even if you are dyslexic, have dyslexia in your family, can see patterns etc. Please always allow someone to own this conversation with you.

Listen first, solutions later: Please make space for people to talk about their lived experience with dyslexia. All are different, and if people feel comfortable talking to you about it, they just want to be acknowledged and seen. Solutions for certain support can be found later, but feeling heard and supported is so important, especially as this might be their first time discussing it in a work environment.

Help them find their working style: Helping individuals acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses is key to developing effective strategies for overcoming challenges as they progress through their career. Also use your own network to help provide mentorship or coaching from experienced individuals who can provide valuable guidance and support.

The way ahead

So, whilst some may only be aware of the perceived negative effects of dyslexia, there are in fact a whole host of positives — we just need to recognise how dyslexic minds differ and create working cultures that let them flourish.

Business will only be able to leverage the power of a range of experiences and perspectives — and avoid the pitfalls of groupthink and foster innovation — if they embrace diversity. This means breaking down the barriers that exist because workplaces are structured to cater for particular modes of thinking.

The better the business world can celebrate difference and harness the potential within dyslexia, the more it can benefit. But like most things, it just takes real understanding and some deeper accommodation of diverse points of view to make it work.

Rachel Peace is UK managing director at Hearts & Science.

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