Social Energy: Coping in the Workplace

Introduction (Names and situations changed to preserve confidentiality)

Mike was 42, and lived in the suburbs of London in the period when this case study was written. University educated, with a degree in Mathematics and an MBA, he has had a diverse career covering consultancy and line management roles in a range of sectors, and now works for a major consultancy practice.
The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.

Case Study

Background

I grew up before the days of any support or diagnosis and had a very unhappy early childhood. My parents were trying to do the best for me, but despite their support my main memories were of not fitting in with comments like ‘ if only you could be more sociable like so and so’, ‘why don’t you have any friends’, ‘you will never be successful if you carry on like this’ etc.

These experiences shaped my attitude at University and in the early part of my working life, when I made a conscious attempt to overcome these difficulties. In the short term these efforts probably made life more difficult, as I fought against my natural instinct to seek a quiet life – although looking back this was probably a period of pain that I had to go through.

As school progressed; I enjoyed the academic challenges and did well in exams, but, outside of the formal, structured classroom work the social demands of break times and after school activities was very demanding. Team games in particular were difficult, where the lack of gross motor coordination that many people with Aspergers have, combined with the need to fit in was pretty demoralising – not helped by being last to be picked when there was a choice!

Life became a bit easier at University – although the lack of structure and difficulties around working out the social rules of the place meant that I considerably underachieved academically.

Unlike the experience of some Aspies, who find University a safe haven, I was continually trying to challenge my difficulties – joining various clubs including one sponsored by the Industrial Society. I learnt a whole new vocabulary: ‘interpersonal skills’ ‘team player’ ‘leadership’ – and it became clear that I had a lot to develop.

Still I made some friends – for the first time including a couple that I still see to this day. This did, however, mean that it was probably easier for me than most to get started in management and in retrospect, laid the foundations for survival in my early career.

It is something that I would recommend to current University students thinking of making the transition to work because it did provide me with some skills in a safe environment, and a realistic set of benchmarks against which to assess my first entry onto the world of work.

For example, I decided to apply to the big accountancy firms rather than the major strategy consultants, because I felt that realistically the gap with the latter would be too big for me to bridge. I also made sure that I picked a firm which I felt had a sympathetic, relatively non- aggressive style. Again, this was one of the advantages of the University society – I had met a number of employers before the start of the formal recruitment process.

The training contract was a mixture of technical training – for the accountancy examinations which were pretty straightforward and on the job assignments at different clients – which gave me good understanding of various businesses and their different cultures – again I would recommend this as a way into the world of work .

My Aspie characteristics did however create some challenges: for example, in understanding the acceptability of business judgements being balanced against accounting rules.

If I were advising newcomers to choose the type of graduate training scheme I would recommend ones with a technical component, since I think this does provide a counterbalance to the people skills element and also can help with morale if the latter is proving difficult.

I also firmly believe that people skills can be taught to Aspies – we just need more time and a more explicit conceptual framework. We must also recognise that while such training will help plug deficits, people skills will probably never be our strong suit at work.

I left accountancy to go into industry after qualifying and did a range of jobs – sometimes moving sideways and sometimes getting promoted, before I decided to move back into consultancy at a relatively senior level – I missed the intellectual stimulation.

Looking back on these experiences, I would say that one of the most important insights for me was the realisation than technical competence – for example the ability to analyse a business problem and come up with credible solutions – is insufficient on its own for anyone wishing to progress in a conventional business organisation.

For example, I remember at one client there was a very bright individual who explained very lucidly what needed doing and who needed to do it. Yet he hadn’t been listened to – mainly because he did not fit in well, was not interested in football and made that very clear, and had the tendency to tell more senior people bluntly what he thought. A useful principle that I applied – and still apply in new situations is to think of three types of question:

Power Questions: e.g. who has the power? Where does that power come from? What are they trying to achieve? Who are their supporters?

Socialisation Questions: e.g. out of work activities? birthdays? , what jokes do you laugh at and which ones you don’t? , how much do you drink at the Christmas party? What do people do at lunchtime?

Technical Questions: the ones relating to the core task

For Aspies wishing to progress into management, my suggestion would be particularly to focus on power questions which have in my experience the greatest explanatory and predictive value. I’d also recommend a period in consulting (or internal / external audit or business review) – in a technical discipline that you feel comfortable with, because it exposes you to different opportunities to practice skills over each assignment.

The Consulting Environment

The consulting role can be particularly pressurised – at least 50 hours per week on average with quite a bit of travelling. I was also expected to socialise with clients and colleagues frequently – in part this is because the work involves staying away from home quite a lot.

A particularly stressful time is Christmas, because of the number of parties where the complex social rules involving ‘letting you hair down’, but also staying within the norms of behaviour of the employer. Prior to my consulting role I had had jobs when I had got the reputation for being ‘stand offish’ for leaving social events early or not ‘joining in’. So I knew that I had to participate more, while still holding down a difficult job.

In addition, having progressed up the career ladder to a reasonably senior position, I was expected to network to build contacts. In essence this involves meeting people who have some connection with my employer’s businesses either currently or potentially in the future.

Like many Aspies I find dealing with lots of new people tiring, and trying to work out who to prioritise difficult. Frequently, I returned home exhausted and have no time or energy to go out with my girlfriend who I had been seeing for three years. I didn’t have the time or energy to do it all properly and, worse still, excessive social pressure (in my case at least) leads to the risk that I may be short tempered, or make more serious social gaffes.

Both of the above situations involve features which I think are far more likely to be issues for people with Aspergers than others:

• Difficulties in making judgements about people –e.g. how do I determine faced with a number of social activities or networking activities which ones to prioritise
• Difficulties in sustaining social contact with people, especially unfamiliar people in complex situations.

To help overcome these difficulties, I developed the concept of social energy to help myself manage these challenges

Two Conversations that helped me think about the concept of Social Energy

Working in management has meant I have come across a wide range of models and tools. Many of these have helped me understand generic management issues such as team work, individual and group differences and functional activities such as marketing and production.

However, few of them appeared to address the two issues above well. Essentially, I think this is because the majority of individuals who do not have Aspergers, even if they have an introvert preference, are likely to have other issues that are of more significance to their career development than the above. Two conversations did bring me some insight indirectly:

• The first was with a Multiple Sclerosis sufferer. Her condition meant that she was physically tired a lot of the time and had to ration physical energy – e.g. she couldn’t do the shopping and change the beds in the same day.
• The second was with one of my managers. He said that one of the most useful skills any manager could bring to their teams was to tell them to stop doing things – in many cases the problem is that there are too many good arguments for taking on new work for the resources available.

I could see parallels with my own situation. Like the MS sufferer, I had to ration energy – but in my case it was social energy, not physical that was in short supply. And like my manager, I had to learn to prioritise – but with a focus on prioritising social relationships.

Why Social Energy might be significant for people with Aspergers

In thinking about why forming social relationships is more demanding for me (and probably most people with Aspergers) it seems to me that there are a number of plausible explanations including:

1. In general, we have a far less intuitive ‘theory of mind’ – which is required for successful complex human social interactions. Therefore, we need to invest energy in constructing a theory of mind and using non-intuitive cues to do this – e.g.: by applying heuristics derived from management or psychological theories. For example, most managers will wish to preserve their power base; managers with a high need for dominance are more likely than average to regard this as important. Suppose that Sally (who shares both of these characteristics) opposes a proposal for a new service on the grounds that the business case is not strong enough. As well as re-examining the business case we should , in developing a theory of mind about Sally, have regard to a likely concern about the impact of the change on her power base. This all takes time and effort – the average neurotypical manager will have worked this all out in a few seconds;

2. We often have more difficulties with parallel processing of information. Social interactions , especially in groups, are likely to demand a very high level of parallel processing as different threads of the conversation pick up different themes and the tempo may change from work, to home life, to jokes and so on all within a short space of time. This is particularly true at events such as Christmas parties, when the ability to fall back on ‘safe’ work topics can make one seem dull (this has happened to me on occasion);

3. The literal style of Aspergian thinking and thus the difficulty in creating appropriate responses to ordinary social interactions, means that we often have to use coping mechanisms which themselves are very resource intensive. For example, suppose a senior manager says ‘last night – I was gutted!’ referring to a defeat of the football team he supports. Many of us would find difficulties in relation to the pragmatics of what most neurotypicals would respond to intuitively. For example, do we understand the rules of deference which imply that we will sometimes be expected to take a serious (but not obsequious) interest in this comment, while this might be less critical for a less powerful member of staff? Can we calibrate our response, which balances the masculine bonding type response (assuming we are both male), with the recognition that this is a work situation? Do we understand the principle that in relation to football a little teasing and boasting is often expected (e.g. about our own team) – even in relation to a more powerful person, but that this must be contained with limits? To handle these kinds of situations we often develop rules which have to be learnt – looking at some of the other case studies I think bears this out. While this is helpful, it also demands more energy than an intuitive response.

Review and Application

In summary then, I would hypothesize that the significance of social energy for people with Aspergers is related to its relative scarcity as compared with other forms of personal energy such a cognitive or physical. Among the practical applications I have developed are:

1. Prioritising social engagements – e.g. At Christmas, facing invitations to a number of work related social events I have tried to segment the invitations between high priority (general principle: stay as a minimum until the key person leaves) and medium priority (general principle: make an appearance, be sociable, try to say some positive things to as many people as possible, but make an excuse to leave early if tired)

2. Choosing appropriate settings for business critical interactions – I think there is a hierarchy of demands on social energy associated with different business settings. Starting with the lowest demand on social energy: e-mail – telephone – 1-2-1 meeting – structured discussion, e.g. formal meeting – unstructured group discussion e.g. party. (This relates to the hypothesis already described in the previous paragraph). Different types of business objective will be better suited to one level rather than another, e.g. e-mail works for information transmission but not for communicating bad news. Therefore, I think through how I can ration the more demanding business settings in terms of social energy using them only for those things where lower levels would be inappropriate.

3. Personal self management – I regard social energy as a personal resource – in the same way as physical energy. So if I am in deficit – because of excessive social demands – I try to budget in recuperative activities – e.g. going on solitary walks, private reading, gardening etc.

Conclusions

From my experience I have arrived at six key conclusions and lessons for a manager with Asperger Syndrome.

1. Social energy is a resource to be managed like any other;
2. Understand the relative demands of different types of common social interactions: be honest with yourself regarding how much you can take on;
3. Prioritise your business interactions and relate them to the most appropriate social setting – ration those activities which are demanding of social energy;
4. Think about your key strategic relationships – the people for whom you must jump if they say jump. Focus your social energy on meeting their needs;
5. Recognise that the implication of point 4 is that there will be people who you may very much like or admire who you have to give lower priority to;
6. Budget for social downtime to counterbalance periods of great pressure.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome