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A New Model for High-Quality, Accessible Supervision in the Workplace: Universally-Designed Synergistic Supervision

by Adam R. Lalor, Ph.D.

The neurodiversity movement highlights that all people – neurodivergent and neurotypical – possess strengths which they can use to contribute positively to society.  Neurodivergent individuals frequently bring new talents and entrepreneurism, such as outside-the-box thinking and diverse ideas, to these environments. The Harvard Business Review refers to these talents, skills, and abilities as the "competitive advantage" of neurodiversity (Austin & Pisano, 2017). In fact, Hyland and Connolly (2018) note that companies with neurodivergent employees often outperform their competitors, averaging 28% higher revenue and greater returns on investment for their shareholders. Still, neurodivergent people are often underrepresented in workplaces (Moss, 2019). The disconnect between neurodivergent talent and opportunity has been explained, in part, by lack of understanding regarding workplace needs and managerial support (Armstrong, 2010).

With this in mind, Landmark College’s Vice President for Neurodiversity Research and Innovation Dr. Adam Lalor and Bellows Falls Union High School Principal Kelly O’Ryan developed a new supervision framework that combines a highly researched supervision model, Synergistic Supervision (Winston & Creamer, 1997), with common elements shared among universal design models (e.g., universal design for instruction, universal design for learning, universal instructional design; Orr & Hammig, 2009). The resulting framework, Universally-Designed Synergistic Supervision (UDSS), was recently published in Dr. Roger “Mitch” Nassar’s (2023) book Identity in Supervision: Understanding Who Works for You and Who You Work for in Higher Education.

Synergistic Supervision is a collaborative approach to supervision that centers on the needs of the individual and the organization.  It tends to shy away from more authoritarian or laissez-faire qualities that commonly define supervision. The approach has been characterized as a "cooperative effort between the supervisor and staff members that allows the effect of their joint efforts to be greater than the sum of their individual contributions” (Winston & Creamer, 1997, p. 196). Central to the synergistic supervision model are several pieces: dual focus, joint effort, two-way communication, focus on competence, goals, systematic and ongoing process, and growth orientation (Petroc & Piercy, 2013; Winston & Creamer, 1998).

In many ways, UDSS is a natural evolution of Synergistic Supervision and extension of UD-IL that supports larger calls for more inclusive and equitable workplace environments. Both foundational frameworks share core values, specifically a sensitivity to how environment can influence retention and persistence; the importance of reflexivity as part of the supervisor’s role; the necessity of clear and inclusive communication; and the importance of having a process that focuses on centering, supporting, and valuing the needs of an individual.

The seven components of UDSS are:

  • Empathy and allyship
  • Reflexivity - a regular process of assessment designed to explore how actions and systems may enable or further disable colleagues. When inaccessibility is noted, steps to meaningfully address the issue.
  • Strengths focus
  • Holism
  • Growth orientation
  • Supervisory dyad
  • Accountability

UDSS-aligned strategies can proactively meet the diverse access needs of supervisees in a variety of ways.  For example, by providing meeting agendas to staff in multiple formats (e.g., electronically prior to the meeting, in hard copy at the meeting, orally at the start of a meeting, etc.) supervisors can ensure that staff who need to use speech-to-text technology to access the agenda, need time to process and think through the agenda information, or have difficulty with auditory comprehension all have the opportunity to access the agenda content.

By employing UDSS, employers and supervisors stand to better align their professional and departmental values and goals using a more accessible, inclusive, and equitable supervisory approach. In turn, disabled professionals stand to receive supervision that is more tailored, holistic, and equitable, regardless of their decision to disclose their disability. In merging universal design, the “procedural translation and application of the social model of disability” (Beck et al, 2014, p. 210), with an established supervisory model, employers may be able to support the success of neurodivergent employees and retain and develop capable employees.

While this is an emerging framework in need of research to determine its effectiveness, recent findings from Stenn, Lalor, Coplan, and Osterholt found that many of the UDSS components are present in the supervisory practices of Fortune 500 companies with well-regarded Neurodiversity in the Workplace initiatives.

As one disabled professional describes the UDSS experience, “I feel like I can bring my whole self to my work. I am supported and expected to craft a culture of excellence – I am neither pitied nor ridiculed. Compassionate supervision helps me.”

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