Meetings and Asperger Traits

Background

Gavin is 38, lives in Sydney, Australia and was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS) at 36. University educated with a degree in Applied Science, Gavin is now an IT Manager with 18 years in the IT industry behind him.

Throughout his career, meetings have been a regular occurrence and something he has found demanding. Among the causes of this have been the “agendas” that are “played out” by different players, which are often political, and an inability to focus fully on subject matter that is outside that which is of interest and relevance to him.

The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.

Case Study

Meetings, many people hate them, but a career in management means that we have to cope with them. I have always found them a real distraction.

Nothing I learnt in school or university prepared me for my first meeting at work. One of the major problems I have found from having Asperger’s syndrome is that I don’t have the same level of people-interpretive skills as others. It’s easy in theory to learn people skills from books, but harder to pick things up on-the-run and in real life.

I’ve always been a bit insular when it comes to working. I have largely also been self-managed and able to achieve my goals to the required levels of [my] perfection without assistance or the involvement of others.

I usually feel that I know best, particularly in relation to my IT work and so I don’t enjoy discussing or making decisions about my work with groups of people who usually do not fully understand it

This facet stems from early experiences in childhood when I have never naturally felt pre-disposed towards, or part of, groups. I have always preferred to be independent.

It’s important, I believe, to understand the long-term ramifications of such exclusions on adults with Asperger’s which then transfer into work. People with Asperger’s tend to maintain focus mainly on their chosen subject and special interests and also have the added issues of perfectionism and lack of social decorum, which are compounded in a group or meeting context.

So, by the time I left school, I was already very accustomed to, and preferred to work, alone. My assigned teams rarely did the work to my standards of perfectionism and I alienated friends by redoing chunks of their work, not realizing that this could be objectionable to them.

I quickly realized that my fellow students, while interested in the project, would contribute little. I perceived this as laziness on their part instead of realising that they were simply a little out of their depth in some my special interest areas. I largely excluded them from assignments and, as a result, I ended up working on most of my projects on my own. I found myself becoming distanced from my peers; something that has transferred to a work context

When I did enter the workplace and joined the world of computers, I was simply “dropped into the computing department” with minimal access to systems and no training. I received little training in my first job, but learned through the systems manuals and online help. I was able to do this of course because of my technical skills, but the work also required inter-personal skills which were lacking.

Consequently, I started to instigate detours in my work practices. For example: when one of my superiors forgot to sign off again, I would use his excess rights to increase my own and ultimately ended up with Systems Administrator privileges. This enabled me to do things which I believed were beneficial and which otherwise I would have been unable to do.

Though it did cause some friction, I was never accused directly of anything untoward as the work I did was beneficial to him also. However, I was always careful not to make any major mistakes and so be held responsible which enabled me to proceed without total consideration for corporate hierarchies or protocols.

This approach extended to meetings A corporate systems revamp meant I was required to attend meetings; long meetings! I couldn’t understand why we spent so long in these discussing things that, to me were obvious. I simply took the system manuals home and learned the systems from them.

After a few months on the project, I felt better qualified than most of the contractors employed for implementing the system. I tried taking some of my ideas to meetings but nobody was interested in the thoughts of a junior on such matters.

I started doing a lot of the work, testing it and releasing it without asking permission. Eventually my boss found out, but because other managers had complimented his department, he was fairly lenient and it did not rebound badly on me. I kept up the practice of secretly doing work my way without formal permission and not noting them in the meetings.

I didn’t get any credit for this, but that didn’t matter to me. There were though a few backlashes, I was simply happy doing what I was doing and in the way I felt was right.

It did though put me in a potentially dangerous position. By not recording my actions in the meeting notes I was, in effect, exposing myself personally. Whilst my supervisors would be able to take the credit when things went right, the opposite would have been the case had they failed when they would deny involvement or responsibility. Ironically however, the only projects which did fail were those where large committees were involved in making well-documented last-minute decisions. As a result, there wasn’t any way the blame could be pinned on me.

Today my superiors know how I work and how hamstrung I feel by committee involvement and my ability to get work done outside of meetings.

All was OK whilst I was working independently, but I later became IT Manager in a medium sized business with no other IT resources. Consequently, I wasn’t just the manager; I was the trainer, the developer, the strategist and the helpdesk which meant communicating. I enjoyed the CEO’s full confidence and under my guidance our IT systems and external users had grown exponentially.

The CEO and the Company’s Board of Directors had begun to worry about the amount of power I had. In particular, they were worried about the detrimental effects on the company if I were to become unavailable. Because I had, in effect, monopolized IT and was the sole holder of a majority of key information and understanding of how to operate the systems, there was the danger that the company would be too reliant on me. I didn’t withhold any information deliberately of course; it was simply my way of doing things!

Consequently, they began to schedule a regular IT audit. What is more this would involve meetings; different types of meetings!

First was the introduction of an IT committee which involved “strategy meetings”. Here, I was expected to discuss everything I proposed doing with staff from other departments who knew little about IT. My first meeting ended in an argument when they all challenged my suggestions.

Then there were complaints about the minutes and the agenda – which I was responsible for- and that they were too complex. I had minuted the reasoning behind the decisions as well as the decisions themselves which did not always go down well as my minutes always pointed the finger firmly at any dissenter.

Next came “development meetings”. In these, decisions were made as to which components of the systems were “in and out of scope” or what features would be included/excluded in the development project. Unfortunately, since the systems were supposed to be “user centric”, and since IT was not supposed to be driving the business but simply servicing its needs, it was the end users of these systems who ultimately made the choices.

This did not go down well with me. In nearly every case, the choices were made on external (interfaces) or financial, i.e. not technical grounds, meaning we ended up with systems which had great interfaces were poor operationally.

I found it frustrating to be in meetings where someone would realise that we could save money by not documenting systems or excluding disaster recovery or data integrity options which, for me, were essential components. I’d often caution or argue against these decisions, but when the systems failed six months later or when development cycles ran completely over budget, nobody seemed to remember my objections. Certainly they weren’t minuted, since by now normal meeting minutes only recorded the outcome, not the decision process or stated opinions.

Looking back, I feel I failed to explain or communicate appropriately in these meetings. For example, when someone mentioned cutting disaster recovery facilities out of the application, I’d respond with “that’s just stupid, you’re not saving money, you’re increasing risk”. By using emotive, personal discourse I was inadvertently insulting the manager suggesting the cuts, something I didn’t appreciate at the time.

A better approach would have been to state objectively the reasons for my opposition and taken the issue offline in writing for later, further discussion. By deferring a decision I’m able think about it more and document my thoughts via an appropriately-worded memorandum to the entire committee explaining the rationale behind my thinking for reference.

Next came “corporate meetings”. Unlike the development and IT strategy meetings over which I had considerable input and control, these were convened by the CEO. I had no control over specific agenda items and so was at the disposal of the CEO and the other departmental heads about what was proposed and discussed. I found these meetings particularly challenging.

The CEO liked to open a meeting with a joke. His attention span was short and his attention to detail minimal. Available time for other input was limited. The atmosphere or culture of corporate meetings was very different and so I felt quite uncomfortable. This and the lower opportunity to directly contribute meant minimal participation on my part. When I did feel able to participate more actively, I was told that I “over-analyse” or thought too deeply about things.

Few decisions, I believe, are made at corporate meetings and nobody does any of the work to read the minutes or achieve any goals which may be set afterwards. The best I have found is sit there, not disrupt established protocols and pretend to participate as best I can. Importantly, this means concentrating on, and following, what is said and not allowing my attention to drift onto IT issues!

So what does all this mean from an AS perspective?

From my experience there are a number of things that go on in meetings. Learning about these, and how to deal with them, have proved enormously beneficial.

Minute taking: fortunately, the duties for minute-takers drop off considerably, the higher you go up the chain of command, but minuting things internally is vital even if I am not the official minute taker.

If something is important, I’ll conscious effort to remember or ask for “it” later. I have found that much of what gets “promised” at meetings is done so without any expectation of it ever being delivered. I used to do everything I was asked but would then find that my hours of research would sit in someone’s inbox until later. Often that would be a considerable time later during which time the supervisor would have changed or the records in the documentation would no longer be relevant. Now I evaluate, identify and decide what I actually need to do.

Sometimes however, I do have to minute take. As a junior, I was never given any formal lessons on minute-taking but was simply handed a piece of paper and a pen and told; “It’s your turn to take the minutes today”. I had to pretty much learn on the spot.

However, I have learnt some useful lessons and addressed a number of habits and rules around note-taking that demonstrated initially.

To keep appropriate time I use a trusted (usually experienced person) to inform me of time ongoing to ensure I keep the meeting largely to schedule. Early on, I would never ever write anything down that I didn’t feel that I understood perfectly. This meant that when it came time to revisit them, my notes made perfect sense for me, but not for other people”! Now I make a reference and, if need be, ask another attendee afterwards for clarification.

Another rule I had was that “event recording” was far more important than recording of simple written material or single-line answers. I developed a unique and unconventional way of storing my notes as pictures. I’d draw landscapes as a record of what was happening. I would be able to look at my pictures and by putting them together I could recall, almost verbatim, the meeting’s content.

This didn’t go down at all well with others. Everybody wanted to believe that the minute-taker at least, was paying attention and not making some silly drawing. They would often lean over and ask; “have you written that down”. Drawing during meetings was one of the first things to go as I moved into my professional life.

Then, of course, is distribution of any minutes. When I started there was no questioning my accuracy – my minutes were, if anything, a bit too accurate.
I would take the word “minutes” too literally and the left hand margin of my notes contained actual times: a minute-by-minute breakdown of the meeting.

I’d also include not only the resolutions to all discussions but the working resolutions too such as people’s peripheral views or opinions that were not directly related. When the minutes were circulated they were quite embarrassing for the people concerned.

Now whether I am formally minute taking or doing so from an internal perspective, I record only that data which is objective and relevant factually and try to exclude to others my interpretations of emotive behavior in them or my straightforward views of corporate politics.

Joking in meetings is something I still don’t feel comfortable with. Sometimes meetings are deadly serious and sometimes they’re all play and no work. Most of the time, they sit on some uncomfortable ground between the two extremes meaning that I am unsure when to joke or not.

I find serious meetings are easy to spot – where there is direct financial impact or where the CEO’s position is involved – for example. Here even the smallest smirk in these meetings will cause problems and I’ve found that I need to concentrate very hard on my facial expressions in order to prevent misinterpretation. Gaze avoidance is also the order of the day here – since not meeting someone’s eyes will often protect you from unwarranted criticism. Fidgeting/stimming in serious meetings is also something that someone with AS need to avoid.

The less serious meetings are harder to discern. Usually they take the form of general staff meetings or compliance meetings, such as business continuity meetings. While these concepts seem quite serious to people with Asperger’s, other staff members don’t seem to consider them important.

If anything, these informal meetings are even more challenging for a person with Asperger’s than the serious meetings and I have found I need to be on my guard. Here, gaze avoidance will actually draw attention to yourself and earnest or diplomatic answers to questions may expose you to ridicule. Of course, there are invisible rules in these meetings about who can make jokes and who can’t. In particular, the CEO is permitted to make any jokes they wish, regardless of how inappropriate or insensitive they are. It’s expected that everyone will laugh or at least smile at those jokes, even if they’re not funny or if they are poking fun at colleagues. Of course, while the CEO is permitted to indulge in extreme humour, other people are generally not and must respect prevailing boundaries.

In all these different types of meetings I have found that other influential factors also come into play and so need to be accounted for and respected.

Firstly, cliques. Meetings involving high-level management often involve cliquey groups. These are sometimes “yes” men and women who hang around the CEO or other meeting leaders. I have found they rarely hold real opinions of their own, but simply say yes to everything that the meeting leader suggests – no matter if they really agree with them or not. Getting on the wrong side of the meeting leader or any member of a cliquey group can, I have found, be highly detrimental.

This is the exact opposite to the normal pre-disposition of someone with AS who is included to say what they think or believe – literally. Refraining form doing so and remaining in congruence with important cliques can be a pragmatic and safe strategy.

Next comes’ honesty. Like most other people with Asperger’s I am extremely honest and means that when someone makes a statement that is either not strictly true, or which over-simplifies a given scenario, I feel inclined or duty bound to correct it. I have been prone to forget that the audience isn’t concerned with such things.

Sometimes I’ll be asked “what could go wrong if we attempt scenario x” or “what is the worst that could happen”. My responses are always particularly honest and instead of the much-sought after reassurance, I’ll explain exactly what the worst thing that could happen is. It’s an automatic answer, but it can cost a lot in terms of co-worker support and confidence. Something I find it difficult to “smooth over” once I’ve spoken. Again, I have come to realize the importance and prudence of retaining counsel in meetings in relation to such issues.

Knowing when to speak? It’s sometimes difficult for people with Asperger’s to know when to speak in normal conversations and on the phone, but the problem takes on entirely new dimensions during meetings – and even more so during voice conferencing.

One of the biggest problems is that people with Asperger’s often have is having quite a bit to say. We’re always thinking about things and we often feel the need to complete “our story”.

Most people in meetings don’t want to dwell on topics and be succinct to get things done. Their manner and voices give other attendees a signal that they want to move on, but these cues aren’t very obvious to an AS person.

I have found that, wherever possible, it’s best to sit near or opposite a colleague who can provide a signal that it’s time to move on. As far as speaking out in the first place goes, I have found that, although I may know most of the answers to questions, it is better to avoid taking over the meeting and retain some kind if distance by deliberately holding back from raising topics unless I am asked directly or until I feel sure that I need to respond to it.

Next comes’ the issue of excessive detail which has affected me in the context of meetings. The first problem is that my recall of past events is often much better than the average person, but my short term memory can presents problems.

Sometimes people in a meeting will ask “who decided that” or “why did they do the project that way”. If it is from the past I am able to answer effectively; but if it is something that has recently been said I find that I haven’t had time to code it.

Instead, I need time to access memory. Since I often remember meeting discussions verbatim, there’s a lot of “memory” to go through before I can retrieve the exact answers to the questions asked. Writing down my thoughts or key points during meetings helps overcome this. I ensure I do this discreetly.

Special interests can be a problem in meetings, particularly if you are, as I am passionate about something (i.e. IT) and pre-disposed to talk, extensively about them. If I am given the opportunity to do so I will, irrespective of time, colleagues of the wider agenda. Now, if I find myself talking about my special interest I trigger a mental block and try to keep my contribution to the minimum required and wind it up as quickly as possible and stop.

Distractability and fidgeting. Like other people with AS, I find stimming a useful relaxation technique. It’s often involuntary and sometimes I am not conscious of doing it. In my experience many people with Asperger who have reached high level business positions have learnt how control their stimming or have found relatively invisible ways to stim.

Fidgeting is less ostentatious but also damaging. Fiddling with a pen at meetings for example, but can detrimental consequences. If dropped for example, it draws attention to you and not remaining still may give the impression of being nervous and unsure.

Dealing with emotional colleagues in a meeting can also be problematic. If you attend a lot of meetings then sooner or later you are bound to meet colleagues who you find over-emotional and who have the potential to trigger a reaction in you.

Reasoning with emotional people is always difficult; combined with having AS makes it more so because their behavior may seem irrational or even excessively provocative. To react to them in a meeting environment may invite criticism of your own emotional stability and ability to empathize when dealing with others in a business context.

The best approach I have found is to not pre-determine that I will not react and attempt to calm the person down and suggest to them that you take it offline outside of the meeting. If the emotional person is part of a cliquey group I have learnt to be very careful how I phrase things so as not to incur displeasure or opposition from third-parties; by avoiding sensitive or politically inappropriate comment for example.

Review

Today, I am frequently involved in meetings and still operate within them in my own way with a focus on what is directly relevant to me.

However, I have also learnt to accommodate the wider agendas in meetings and implement a strategy that ensures I come across more effectively within them whilst avoiding some of the pitfalls.

Firstly, I record (internally) report (externally) those things which I feel will be noticed or are important/high risk, whilst pursuing projects relating to my own agenda which I do not bring up during the established meeting framework.

I divide my meetings into ones I feel are important and can impact on me and my area of operation, and those that don’t. I attend and participate in all required of, but only expect results or outcomes from some.

If I object strongly to something in a meeting I will attempt to make my position known. If I cannot secure my desired outcome, and if it remains important to me, I will propose that it not be resolved finally there and that it is taken “take it offline”. This is, for me, is meeting-speak for “this problem is too important and I need to talk to someone about it one-to-one without other participants being present”. I find this a useful safety tactic.

If I’m still unsatisfied by any outcome, I will ask the minute-taker to note my objection in the minutes. I can then rely on this in the event that some wider issue raising its head and if I look like assuming blame for someone else’s – mistaken decision. Of course, if I make a wrong decision, I will freely admit to it.

Finally, I make a conscious effort to concentrate in meetings and not let my mind wander to record its content. I avoid making contentious, emotive comments where possible and I try to follow the hidden-agendas that operate.

I still find meetings frustrating, but I have found that I can only go so far in the corporate world before most decisions needs to go before a committee for wider approval. I have, therefore, worked hard to develop my own personal strategy for them and believe that for someone with Asperger, it should be a key priority.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome