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Career Development: Issues & Decision Making
Richard is 42 and was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when 38. University educated with a degree in Physics, he has worked throughout his career in the Civil Service starting at a low level and is now working his way up.
Two years ago, having worked effectively and successfully in one role, he was offered promotion to a more senior level, an offer he decided to accept.
The move did not turn out successfully, though Richard learnt invaluable lessons going forward as a result. The following is his description of the choice he made, the factors behind it and what the experience taught him.
Exact details in this case study have been changed for confidentiality reasons. The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.
I had worked in the Civil Service since early 2001 and had held down a role successfully for the period up until now, (2006). This time was the longest period of continuous employment that I have enjoyed during my career.
I joined the Civil Service at Grade E2 which was formally known as either a Clerical or Administrative Assistant. This is the lowest entry grade and was instrumental in enabling me to begin in a relatively low pressure role and so learn the ropes effectively without any anxiety of as a result of my condition [Asperger syndrome].
I completed a probationary year in which I proved myself to be highly capable by performing all the tasks expected of me successfully. I was also able to be proactive and make my records more robust than when I inherited them. By this I mean that attention to detail and accurate cross-referencing was extremely lacking, and I felt increasingly that for the first time in my life that I was going to hold down a job long-term; and I did. The workplace was stable, predictable and I felt settled, contented, appreciated and well supported and encouraged by boss and work colleagues.
However, there was an ambivalence and conflict within in me related to my career and its development. My thought process was: I have got a degree and I have passed the entry qualifications into Mensa, so I am obviously very intelligent. Why then, am I stuck on the bottom run of the job ladder and – more pertinently – not looking to, and feeling uncomfortable about, seeking greater responsibility and higher, more senior positions?
Part of the answer lay in my discovery at the age of 38, shortly after I had passed my probationary year in the Civil Service, that I was probably affected with Asperger.
My initial thought was that all my past experience, and the situations to which I had been exposed, had been endured without the benefits that could have been realised had I had the knowledge beforehand.
Six months after my discovery I was formally diagnosed and I passed the information onto my manager and the HR Department. When discussing the subject with the latter I communicated my conclusion that my key attributes were logic and accuracy and attention to detail. This meant in my opinion that I was suitable for promotion into a more senior role that utilised these skills, but not one that involved having to manage staff. The HR Manager concurred that I could gain promotion at a later date to a higher management position.
The decision whether to progress then became – for me – a complex one. The issue of whether Asperger fell under equal opportunities legislation was obviously relevant: I was uncertain whether any special provision could be made for me in a higher role so as to mitigate the pressure associated with the promotion and the more demanding job tasks.
Of relevance and importance was the unease which I felt about discussing with others my being on the autistic spectrum due to the fact that people I have found tend to respond to it in a very literal way – falling back on a statement of facts particularly that in the Civil Service being promoted involves taking on management responsibility, rather than being able to think outside of the box, and understand where I am coming from when I wish to discuss the fact that the Civil Service would use my potential more fully if it was willing to abandon this rigidity and bureaucracy.
In late 2002, despite my internal concerns, I decided to seek promotion to a more senior role within the Civil Service in a totally different part.
Almost immediately, my internal thought processes started to say that I was happy where I was, that I was settled; I began to hope that my application would be lost and forgotten and the process halted on its on volition.
However, it wasn’t. In early 2003 I was invited for interview which went well but my mindset was confused and contradictory. One side was horribly against the process and telling me that I was happy where I was and that I shouldn’t move; the other, that – aided by the encouragement and support of my line manager – that I shouldn’t let the opportunity of progression pass and that I would be failing myself if I allowed it to do so.
Mentally I wanted to stay where I was and I was cherishing every day driving into the security of what I knew in the form of known and understandable surroundings and dreading the movement into something uncertain and different. With hindsight the thought process became self-fulfilling meaning that the eventual outcome was entirely predictable.
At my leaving occasion I failed to thank my line manager and colleagues for all the support they had given me; a clear indication that the pending anxiety had upset my internal equilibrium. As a consequence, a feeling of guilt permeated me.
Upon arrival at my new place of work my feeling was one of “Oh my God!” Very quickly I came to regard the move as the biggest mistake career wise I had made and the thought that I had left an ideal position behind me compounded my regret.
My new manager was aware of my Asperger at the time she had offered me the job. Initially, however, she was unwilling to make the necessary allowances to help me adjust. With hindsight I feel that probably it would have been a great help if she could have spent some time examining what I did in my existing job, the circumstances and the way I was managed to see what I was used to, and assess fully with me what would be different with her style of management, whether I could cope with it and therefore whether it was appropriate to offer me the post. In particular, I think she needed to see the ways I was trusted to know what I was doing, treated as highly competent, and largely given autonomy in ordering my tasks and managing my working day. She could then have formed an idea of whether on balance it was better for me to remain where I was.
I don’t think that her approach was in any way malicious; it was more a case of not understanding me, and the atmosphere that prevailed in my new place of employment, wasn’t for me encouraging nor likely to get the best out of me. There was a conflict between herself and the other person she was then managing, which made me uneasy. Also she was apt to make an issue of it when I misunderstood what to do on a part of a task, slow to express appreciation when I spotted errors, and showed a lack of patience when I didn’t know something she expected me to know already or didn’t grasp something new as quickly as she expected – I felt very much that with this somewhat control freakish style of management she’d have done me a great service by not offering me the post.
The result was that I not only struggled but became overwhelmed by the situation internally. I struggled to grasp the new job requirements quickly something which led my new manager to suggest that my previous job – and the achievements I had realised within it – was simply easy. I later discovered that they even thought that my former manager had written a complementary report to get rid of me. Personally, I felt discredited and that my previous success was not acknowledged or rewarded through the [Civil] Service.
I did, however, learn an enormous amount from the experience. Firstly, that timing is all important for someone with AS when looking to switch jobs or move to more senior positions.
With hindsight I was ill prepared internally to change when I did. My recent diagnosis meant that there was so much going on in my mind that I was simply not ready or equipped to take on a major job change. It wasn’t necessarily that I could not have performed the new job role per se. However, my moving meant that, unfortunately, the equity in terms of the self-esteem and self-confidence was all undone very quickly.
As a result, I went on sick leave but after a period of recuperation, I returned determined to prove that I was capable of undertaking the tasks required of me.
My determination was rewarded. My line manager was highly impressed with the efficiency and dedication with which I approached my tasks. I even began to feel settled in my new surroundings for a few months.
Unfortunately, over time, the culture which prevailed in the organisation began to exert pressure. It was autocratic, and the demands that the environment placed on me by expecting me to assimilate a huge amount of data and facts that were not directly related to my work role, along with the vociferous nature of my line manager, became too much. The support network was simply inadequate.
I moved departments again. Though my new surroundings do not possess the informality or – to me – idealness of my former one, the demands and expectations placed upon me are more reasonable and ones which I feel I can cope with. I am encouraged and not subjected to untoward and negative criticism.
I have got my confidence back. So much so, that I intend to apply for another senior position within the Civil Service – that of Executive Officer. As part of the process I am required to sit a “Situational Judgement Exercise” – a test under controlled conditions within a fixed time limit. I will need to prepare for this, along with the type of questions I will face at interview.
And this is the key. Knowing what I do now as a result of my previous experience, I consider the following issues in relation to career development or job change.
* Ensure that I am in the right frame of mind before accepting any change in circumstances. This means being on a cognitive equilibrium by being focused on the pending change, not having any distractions and being prepared mentally to face the change that will inevitably occur.
* Job evaluation. I would investigate closely the conditions that will prevail in any new organisation and position: culture, work colleagues, immediate superior and required job tasks. I would evaluate these critically and make a judgement as to whether these contain the elements I require to enable me to work effectively.
* Opportunity cost. Do the benefits of moving outweigh those that I enjoy in my current role? The right working conditions, ones which I enjoy and feel comfortable with, are not easy to find and so are worth preserving. If I feel they are not present in any change, I err on the side of safety and stay put.
* Support network. Key here is the superior I will work for. Are they supportive, sympathetic and of the calm demeanour I require. Are they able to offer guidance and advice?
I am well aware of, and concerned about, potential problems of moving into more senior and demanding management posts. However, I am also aware that I can become stale by remaining in conditions that do not stretch or challenge me for too long. Advantageous working conditions can turn negative as well and that is also something that needs to be borne in mind.
The decision obviously depends on individual circumstances and evaluation. However, I believe that if I don’t try there is the possibility that I could reach retirement without fulfilling my true potential without ever knowing it. It may well be better to stay in a lower job that you are happy in, rather than move into a higher, unsuitable one.
However, without trying you will never know. If the right opportunity turns up, as it has with the Executive Officer, position, then I will go for it. My experience, though at times difficult, has proved to me that Asperger syndrome is not an insuperable hurdle to assuming more senior, challenging roles, nor is it an impediment to succeeding in them.
Indeed, the deep, inner determination inherent within the condition has ultimately enabled me to do so!