Perception in the Workplace: How it Does and “Will” Impact

Background

Kevin lives in the US, and works within the real estate industry. Throughout his career he has become increasingly aware of the importance of intangible deliverables in a work context, as opposed, to simply performing the technical requirements of a role satisfactorily.

Issues such as being conscious that you are under a constant gaze, adopting different approaches when inter-relating with superior managers with different management styles and personality profiles and promulgating conspicuously what you are doing and the achievements one has realised, have all enable him to effectively raise his profile, operate effectively and enhance his profile at work.

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

Case Study

Perception is one of the foundations of our society. It’s what causes the stock market to reach fantastic heights or, as we have all seen recently, abysmal lows. Financially, professionally, even personally, this is a very important aspect in our lives. Nearly every waking moment, people simultaneously play two roles in the game of perception, those who are perceived and those who do the perceiving. Each role is crucial in future growth and success.

In my first job, I did not take perception as seriously as I should have. I figured success at work was simply a matter of me doing a better job than anyone else. For a while, I met these expectations, doing my job fast and efficiently, thinking that I had mastered the art of success on my first attempt. After a while, I stopped shaving and in some cases even missed a few showers, thinking that my physical appearance no longer mattered as long as I was performing efficiently. This lasted for a good amount of time and then came the performance review. It had stated I had done very well on the performance side; my work was of high quality and had no deficiencies. But the other section was full of negatives; employees confidently complained to their managers my grooming was not acceptable, I was not being respectful of others and I did not take the job I was working in seriously.

I was devastated by my overall “poor” performance review. It had never occurred to me that this would happen. I knew I worked hard and did a good job, everyone there admitted that my work was better than everyone else’s. I struggled to understand why such excellent and efficient work would lead to such a “poor” review. Logically, it made no sense to me; I thought I should have at least gotten an “OK” review. While it was a painful way for me to learn this lesson, I later found it was due to in most part to perception.

I had done my work above and beyond what anyone else in my position did, but I had not shown much interest in communicating or in some cases, keeping clean and respectable. As a result, people perceived that I did not take the job seriously. While still upset at the results of my recent review, I decided to test a theory. I decided to see what would happen if I was really clean and very outgoing, but did not work as hard or barely at all. To my surprise, my following performance review was a marked improvement from the previous one. Even my efficiency was rated at a higher level. In reality, I knew my efficiency was actually lower than before (due to my “experiment”), so the reason for the higher rating was likely more due to a perception that my improvements in communication and cleanliness led to increased work output.

I wondered to a certain extend how much of a role perception had played into my performance. For a few weeks, I had actually done nothing at all except looked and acted good at work. The ruse worked, although temporarily. My manager approached me, and warned me that there were some complaints on things not getting done. Of course, I went back to working hard, but I was certain at this point perception played a major role. Had I have come in not having worked and not been social or even clean, I would have certainly been removed from my job.

Ultimately, I learned that perception is an important element of success in any job. In some cases, it can actually supplant real performance. While I do not think that this is the way it should be, this is the way it is. Being successful at any job is not merely whether or not you work hard, it is also reliant on how you look and how you interact with others. For people with Aspergers’, this can be often hard to conceptualize. But people without Aspergers judge a person, fairly or not, in many cases on perception alone. Often, a mix of actual hard work and being perceived as a hard worker are the best mix. Too little of one thing can be just as bad as too much of another.

Here are some tips I have learned to being seen as an “excellent” worker.

Understand the Boss: Many bosses have different personalities and expectations. I have literally gone from an easy-going boss who didn’t think much about the standards, as long as the person was socially popular among the group, to a boss who was very adamant about always exceeding performance standards and had no tolerance for socializing. Both bosses can be effective in their positions, but their perceptions were markedly different when it came to employees. Basically, you can look “good” to the boss by imitating some of the actions of their favorite subordinates or by adopting some of those traits.

Beauty and Appearance usually beats Brains at work: It’s sad but true. Usually I have found that the people who are naturally more attractive or people who work hard to look attractive tend to get treated better and kept longer. For example, I am no Brad Pitt, but I try to look as handsome and appealing as possible. It makes a difference, believe me. Brains at some places take you only so far, but sadly, in the majority of work environments, this is often overlooked. People with Aspergers tend to not judge people on their popularity and beauty, but it is helpful to note that people without Aspergers often do. In some cases, just looking your best can take you far.

Get Noticed: Getting noticed is critical to success. People perceive you as a more productive employee when you’re noticed. I have noted on many occasions in which other co-workers worked very hard on something but did not advertise it enough. As far as their superiors were concerned, they perceived them to not work as hard as they co-workers who did advertise and promote their achievements.

It is important though to ensure that there is substance behind the claim. Some of the ones who advertised their work had actually designed solutions inferior to their counterparts who did not advertise and get noticed. This is a risky thing of course in having Aspergers, sometimes this has backfired on me. People at work often joke with me on my Canadian blunder. (Once, at a company wide international TV conference, the CEO asked everyone which employees were from Canada. I had misheard, and thought he had asked “who has been to Canada”. I raised my hand and he had asked me “which part from Canada are you from”. Not having a response to the unexpected question and tired after a long day, I gave a very odd response in which I denied I was from Canada. The employees perceived that I was not very intelligent at that moment, since I appeared to be unsure as to which country I was from. Naturally, it was broadcast to 1000’s of employees as well, so I ended up embarrassed in front of the CEO and all the employees worldwide).

Inter-Personal Relationships: This is typically harder said than done for most aspies, but is still critical to success in any business environment. If possible, try to join social functions like happy hours or a sport if your company has a team. One trick I would use often at “happy hours” would be to pretend to drink. This way I’m actually more socially aware than my co-workers who have, perhaps, enjoyed a bit too much. This is also a good strategy to leave a “good” impression. The same goes for sports, as it really doesn’t matter if you have skills or not, just concentrate more on the relationship building than the actual sport. Although, having a talent in any sport is a major plus, this often raises you in the estimation of your co-workers.

Your Being Watched: Every time you sit at your desk, someone is watching you, consciously or sub-consciously. This can also include security cameras and if you are working in a retail store, obviously, the customers. I had many “bad habits” that I had developed so well, I was unaware I was even doing most of them for a very long time (e.g. biting my nails at work). Turns out my co-workers noticed, but typically they do not let you know. One recommendation would be to analyze yourself very closely and keep a personal log/record of how often you catch yourself in a bad habit or fidgeting, even a habit that you may not think is bad could be perceived as such. This also relates with personal appearance as well. I actually looked at what my co-workers were wearing and copied the style almost exactly. This helped since my clothes “fit in” with the rest of the group.

Finer Points of Social Agreement: Often, in group meetings, this is a very difficult situation for many aspies. Sadly, many of my co-workers have a hard time understanding or accepting what I have to offer in terms of ideas. I have found this to mainly come down to two issues: how I present the idea, and if the person I am presenting to can see the logic. Despite popular opinion, for the most part, I have found that people do not change their stance, even if wrong. In many cases, this can seem hopeless, so often I will attempt to compromise. This is not so easy to do, as the “groupthink” concept tends to take over in some meetings. This [groupthink] is when everyone in the group is led by a “leader” who convinces everyone else of an idea (rational or not) by the sheer social and persuasive skills they possess. A good strategy in these cases is to make an argument with the “leader” (usually the person who suggested the idea in the first place) who is attempting to compromise your idea within the group. Directing the argument at each individual, while letting the others hear the argument, is the best way to get your ideas into a room with an active “groupthink” mental block in place.

Stating Opinion: Personally, I value a good opinion. This tells me that the person who is giving it is at least able to defend their ideas. It tends to be mixed with most people, as some welcome opinions whilst others do not want to hear any opinions no matter what the source. This usually only applies to your superiors, since those under you often will not complain when an opinion is offered. The best way to see if opinions are welcome is basically to test the waters. When talking casually with your boss, bring up a movie (for example) you and the boss have both seen. Give your opinion and see the reaction. You’ll either get a friendly response or an avoidance response (typically they lose focus on you and quickly drop or change the subject).

Perception as a Manager: When, or if, you become a manager, it’s good to concentrate more on the politics than on the technical end in most cases. How your subordinates view you is critical, since they want a leader they can look up to when they need help. Avoid micromanaging as my experience on both ends has showed this often leads to both manager and employee being upset with the job and each other. There are some exceptions (e.g. some projects need extreme accuracy) when micromanaging may be necessary, but this should be kept to a minimum.

Emotion: Keeping your emotional responses in check is also important. The best way to handle this is to imagine that an employee were to come up and strike you. Obviously, your first reaction would be to get angry and visibly upset. Train your mind to accept this imagined “attack” as a reason not to get angry. Almost as if getting “attacked” by your employees is a normal activity and what they should do. While the example is extreme and not likely to happen, it does prepare you for dealing with employees in a calm manner. Employees, even if they are not aware of it, expect a manager to be that calm island in a stormy sea. If something bothers you with an employee, instantly let it go. Stay calm by pretending they are saying what you want to hear, and take notes (this gives the impression the employee is being listened to carefully). Most often than not, people tend to forget the reason for any conflict after a while. Downplaying also works as well, but use only with work related matters and not personal matters.

Going the Extra Mile: Put that experience and knowledge you have to productive use. If you’re an aspie, you have a major plus in that your analytic and technical skills are usually top notch. Often, you may understand these concepts more quickly and intricately than everyone else. One note of caution though is to be careful; some superiors see too much of the “extra mile” as a potential threat. If possible, go the extra mile or beyond by helping others with their work. This is usually a win-win, since not only do you have an opportunity to improve relations with co-workers, but you can also develop social relationships at the same time. Your superiors would also not really see the extra mile as a threat when helping others, since this is seen as (or presented to be) a teamwork goal.

Summary

Perception is 90% of the battle in a work context. People with Asperger tend to neglect this as they perceive it to be unimportant. The reality is the exact opposite and making simple alterations in the above areas can deliver real tangible benefits.

Pay close attention to how you appear and act in front of others. Try to place yourself in their shoes and see how they are likely to perceive you from their perspective. Take steps to cut out those aspects of the Asperger character profile, i.e. echolalia that could be misconstrued and, possibly, used against you later and adopt practices that are more I tune with how others act, inter-relate and appear.

Be conscious of the perception being formed of you at all times and never assume that you can avoid being judged by others or be immune to the consequences of any negative opinions.

Above all remember: perception is reality!

Managing with Asperger Syndrome