Heartstyles blog

Heartstyles part in the neurodiversity movement


Sandra Bullen – Former Director of Marketing and Communications

How does Heartstyles, a psychological behavior tool, fit with neurodiversity? A term that was coined in 1998 is now a social justice movement, promoting the idea that there is no right way to think, learn or behave. The movement began in education and child development, and it has gathered momentum to include adults and the workplace. HR leaders can no longer ignore it, they need to consider the needs of the neurodiverse in their learning and development and their diversity and inclusion plans. We will explore this question from several perspectives.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity describes the different ways in which people understand and interact with the world. Just as every human fingerprint is different, so too is their brain function. Although the word neurodiversity applies to all people and thinking styles, it has come to be a collective term for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Dyscalculia, Dyslexia, and Dyspraxia. The rest of the population is described as neurotypical.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2020, only 22% of autistic adults were in paid employment in the UK. There is a trend for high-profile organizations, such as Microsoft, EY, and SAP, to actively recruit individuals with autism. This special group is increasingly seen as a rich new talent pool. Assuming this trend continues, are our workplaces ready to care for them? Are employees ready to be kind to them?

Personality and behavioral assessments and neurodiversity

Heartstyles is an online behavioral survey subject to the rules of all assessments. They are judged on the principles of reliability and standardization. Reliability refers to the consistency of the measurement; does it measure the same thing every time? Standardization describes how an individual result should be understood when put alongside a bigger “norm” group.

Here, standardization can determine what typifies a common response. The way standardization works can be explained by considering exam results. If they are normed, any pass mark or grade boundary is not an absolute percentage. The mark will vary depending on the cohort taking the exams. For example, instead of a distinction being a 70% pass mark, it becomes whatever mark the top 10% of students get. A bright cohort will drive up the mark needed for a distinction.

Therefore, results for neurodivergent individuals will be understood against those of neurotypical individuals; and this could distort their results. The standardization principle in behavioral surveys can fail the neurodivergent population.

Indeed, many tools were created before the neurodiversity movement began. Three assessments, Myers Briggs, Hogan, and Discovery Insights were developed in 1943, 1987, and 1993 respectively: Any tool developed before the early 2000s was not normed with a neurodiverse population.  

However, such assessments remain relevant to the neurodiverse. There is a difference between saying a tool is not designed for some individuals and saying it is inapplicable or unhelpful for them. The key is understanding and mitigating its limitations.

The place of Heartstyles alongside other assessments

Heartstyles helps individuals, and teams, to understand their behavior and that of those around them. It was launched in 2012 as an academically validated, reliable, and standardized assessment tool. The Heartstyles Indicator measures how people perceive their behavior and, crucially, how others perceive their behavior. The Indicator, a 75-question survey, measures sixteen behaviors by categorizing them into four groups. Figure 1 below shows an Indicator result.   

Figure 1

Dr. Mara Klemich, the co-inventor of the Indicator, acknowledges the norming group for Heartstyles is most probably neurotypical. So, some neurodivergent respondents’ behaviors may be seen as less than ideal because of the measurement norms. This must be understood when interpreting Indicator results.

Heartstyles contribution to the neurodiversity movement

Heartstyles remains unstandardised for neurodivergency. But once its limitations are understood it can be valuable for developing neurodivergent people and the perceptions of those who work with them.

Heartstyles as a behavioral assessment does much more than generate a report and leave participants to wrangle with it. On the contrary, everyone learns how to interpret their results, make sense of what they have learned, and put their learnings into practice.  But the question remains, how can these learnings help the neurodiverse and those around them? There are two principal ways:

Understanding myself better

Firstly, neurodiverse individuals understand themselves better; Heartstyles is a self-awareness and character-building tool. The Heartstyles report and associated teaching on neuroscience help them to realize how they are showing up, why they do what they do, and how they can behave constructively in different situations.

Alice is severely dyslexic. She found going through Heartstyles “life-changing”. She often became easily offended and sought approval. Heartstyles helped her to stop and choose different behaviors; her relationships improved.  She loves the way the tool is so visual; it suits her dyslexic brain. Throughout her life, she has had to build strategies to cope with simple things she finds very hard. She knows this scores her high on dependent. She jokingly adds she believes dyslexia impacts her high achieving and transforming scores!

Sajid is a senior leader with ADHD. He struggles to listen deeply; he often responds too quickly. He has jumbled thoughts and works hard to get his ideas into delivered plans. ADHD causes him to be acutely aware of his “mental space”. When he went through Heartstyles he realised he could use the lessons he learned to manage his responses better. He has built Heartstyles thinking into his life as a daily habit, and it is helping him manage that “mental space”.  

Understanding and compassion for others

Secondly, team members will understand neurodiversity more because Heartstyles is an others-awareness tool. It shows people how to discern what is going on in the hearts and minds of those around them. This results in empathy and compassion. These are skills that must be learned by workforces if they are to include those with stigmatized behaviors.

Roger is a team leader. Before going on Heartstyles his team feared him. He often lost his patience with them. He did not listen or try to understand what they needed or what they were feeling. While going through Heartstyles the penny dropped. He realized why he was not enjoying work or finding it fulfilling. He is learning to listen to his staff, and gently coach rather than aggressively react.

The usefulness of engaging Heartstyles

Firstly, use Heartstyles with your teams to help them understand themselves and those around them better. Their shifted behaviors will positively impact your business.

Secondly, make sure neurodivergent participants are looked after when it comes to debriefing their Heartstyles Indicators. This will ensure their context is considered and a sensitive interpretation is given. 

Thirdly, consider those with extreme divergence on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps they should not complete the Heartstyles Indicator. Or perhaps consider doing only a self-assessment. 

Fourthly, don’t exclude anyone from the Heartstyles programs, the principles of neuroscience endure regardless of neurodivergence.

Long may the momentum continue 

According to the chartered institute of personnel and development (CIPD), 1 in 10 of the UK population is neurodivergent, that’s equivalent to six Birmingham’s. This will never be an absolute measurement because of the loose definition of neurodiversity. After all, it’s a movement, not a science. Whatever the number, it is a significant section of the diverse workforce, whose needs cannot be ignored. 

As organizations evolve, they come to understand and value the particularities of the neurodiverse community. Interior design and new communications can answer the sensory and intellectual needs of neurodivergent colleagues. Heartstyles can play a vital role in deepening their adult development needs. The neurodiversity movement demands a fairer world. A world where they have better prospects and less stigma. Long may the momentum continue.

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