Barbara Bissonnette: Barriers to Change

In this month’s Q&A with Barbara Bissonnette, Executive Coach and proprietor of ForwardMotion, I discuss the subject of change and how for a manager with Asperger syndrome this can present real challenges in the light of certain barriers.

Barbara offers as always some salient advice on how to manage change proactively in the workplace and how, in relation to this, issues such as productivity can be improved.

MJ: You talk about resolutions being only a catalyst for change and how the real change driver is consistent action over a reasonable period of time.

As a person with Asperger syndrome I feel that I am not very good at this. Do you have any views or thoughts on why may be specifically so, especially in a work context?

BB I think that there are several reasons why it can be hard for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome to maintain consistent action. Some of my clients have a pessimistic outlook, and tell me that they expect that things will not work out. This kind of thinking makes it tough to keep going. These individuals tend to give up after one set back.

Executive function deficits make it hard for a person to see how their individual actions fit together toward a goal. Some people tell me that if one step of a process isn’t clear, they stop. And I have found, almost without exception, that people with Asperger’s Syndrome are reticent to ask for help. Sometimes people have trouble remembering what they need to do, and that blocks consistent action. And of course, anxiety can cause action paralysis.

MJ: I like your suggestion about breaking down tasks or objectives into manageable steps. One of the things that I find problematic is, as you say, my mind starts to become cluttered when I think about all the things that I have to do which then leads to pressure. The result is that, when I start working on one thing, I have already started mentally to think about the next. This can lead to associated problems like rushed work or work of a poor standard.

However, the thing that I find hardest of all is simply making a start. I think that it relates to the preceding point about the numerous things on my mind. Once I do start, I tend to ease myself into it and then begin to make progress. Once I am established in this pattern I can work calmly, consistently and productively.

The mental effort to “make a start” is the hardest thing of all. Do you have any thoughts as to how I could overcome this?

BB: This is a great question, and I made overcoming inertia the topic of the April issue of my newsletter! I see three patterns in clients who know what steps to take, but get stuck on the doing. Some, as you say, clutter their minds with anxious thoughts and become overwhelmed. Others become distracted and lose track of time. A third pattern is the conscious avoidance of tasks that aren’t interesting.

Sometimes, the solution to inertia is as simple as forcing yourself to get started, on one thing, now. Many people discover that once they set themselves in motion, the actual doing is not that difficult. Choose a task that you have been avoiding. Set a timer for 15 minutes, and focus only on that task until the timer goes off. Assess your progress. You will probably feel a real sense of accomplishment, which in turn will motivate you to do more.

Routines and schedules remove the guesswork about what you need to do on a certain day or time. Rather than ruminating about everything that needs doing, one simply follows the predetermined plan.

A great idea from the book, Find Your Focus Zone, by Lucy Jo Palladino, PhD, is to use a “3-item to-do list.” Instead of working off a long, long list of tasks, choose “the next three things to do.” When those are completed, select the next three, etc.

Finally, find meaningful ways to reward yourself for taking action. The reward doesn’t have to cost money. My clients have rewarded themselves with things like Internet surfing time, bicycle rides and reading a book.

MJ: The thing that also disrupts my productivity is interruptions. They completely throw me off kilter and get me back to stage one: i.e. having to make a start once again. This is inevitable in a work context and so I know I’d like to know how I could effectively manage this occurrence?

BB: This is a problem for NTs (neurotypical’s) too. They key here is to create some uninterrupted work time during the day, while still being available to your colleagues. One idea is to hang a “do not disturb” sign on the entrance to your cubicle. If you have a private office, closing the door will signal to NTs that you do not want to be disturbed. (Keeping your door closed too often will signal that you are not available, and should be avoided.) It may be also be possible to spend some time working in an empty conference room, or the lunch room when it’s not busy. More and more companies in the U.S. allow employees to work part of the time at home.

MJ: Leading on from the first two points. I find that, even when I do start to work consistently and productively, there is a limit to how long I can work. I find I become mentally tired and can only work at heightened levels of concentration for a limited period. This is especially true when working on demanding material that requires high levels of cognitive input. What would you advocate in such scenarios?

BB: Prolonged periods of concentration can wear anyone out. This kind of fatigue is compounded for people with Asperger’s, who use a lot of mental energy just trying to figure out the neurotypical world.

It is well known that mental fatigue results in more errors and less overall productivity. One of the best things to do is take breaks. A brief walk outside, trip to the cafeteria for a soda, or even shifting to a different, less challenging, task can work wonders.

Sometimes people challenge me on this, because it sounds too simple. I push them to try it and they are amazed at how refreshed they feel after even 5 or 10 minutes. Of course, the breaks can’t be too frequent – one man I worked with got a negative performance evaluation because he left his desk every 45 minutes. But two or three a day, for 5 or 10 minutes each, would be reasonable.

MJ: As previously mentioned, you talk about motivation and how it is catalyst for change. When something new appears I find I am become highly motivated, especially when it is something that really interests me. The problem is sustaining that motivation. I find that my interest wanes, and, looking back if I am entirely honest, I am not a satisfactory “starter/finisher”. How can I overcome this given the traits associated with my AS?

BB: Keeping the end result in mind, if it is personally compelling, can provide the motivation to keep working, even when you’re bored. There are times when fear – of missing a deadline, angering a boss, or losing a job – can be a terrific motivator, as long as it isn’t used too frequently.

When possible, create short-term as well as long-term goals. The sense of accomplishment in reaching a desired outcome provides energy to take the next step.

I know that the dislike of change can get in the way. One young man, who very much wanted to get a job, admitted that he also wanted things to stay the way that they were. We figured out all of the reasons that being employed was attractive to him, and he reminded himself every day about them.

MJ: The second idea you advocate relates to unachievable goals and being sure that one has the knowledge, skills, abilities and resources necessary for success. I can concur with all of this.

However, a key barrier that I commonly come across with people with Asperger syndrome is the assumption that, because of their disposition, they simply cannot work in senior management positions. Needless to say I completely refute this counter very strongly when I hear this said. I passionately believe that the opposite is the case.

Against this, I know I must not take on roles or responsibilities before I am ready and capable. Doing so can exacerbate many negative traits of AS, i.e. working under excessive pressure, meaning that ultimately I am likely to fail. It is all about finding the right balance: locating and undertaking roles that stretch me so that I don’t undersell myself and; avoiding tasks before I am adequately prepared.

Do you have any practical suggestions that can assist with this process?

BB: It is important to take stock of personal talents and capabilities, and be clear about what you enjoy doing. A couple of years ago, I had a client who was very upset about not being promoted to the role of director. The job required a lot of interaction with people in other departments. One of the things this man struggled with was working with senior managers, who he often felt were looking down at him. When I pressed him about why he wanted the director job so badly, he explained that two of his peers were recently promoted, so he felt that he should be as well. He admitted that he was very anxious and insecure about having to work closely with the senior management team. Despite the fact that the job duties didn’t match his skills or interests, he was determined to become a director.

This is why it is so important to know yourself. I have seen plenty of NTs get promoted into positions that they didn’t like and weren’t suited for. The higher one goes within an organization, the greater the requirements for sophisticated interpersonal and executive function skills. If these are areas that present real challenges for an individual, it would be wise to re-think a job that emphasizes them.

Company culture can play a strong role in one’s success as a manager. For most people with Asperger’s Syndrome, managing other people would be a very difficult task. I have a number of clients, though, who are successful managing programs and processes. “Bill” is an interesting example of an Aspergian who manages many individuals. He heads a division and oversees about 100 staff members. As I recall, he has 7 or 8 direct reports. This would appear to be a bad fit for someone with Asperger’s.

I asked Bill how he coped. He explained that he worked in an engineering firm, managing other engineers (“We all think alike”). He read many business books, and studied people management in a very logical way. “I was also very up front about my Asperger’s Syndrome when I started here,” Bill said. “I disclosed to my supervisor and a few colleagues I interact with frequently.” Bill also acknowledged that the down-to-business culture of this company matched his style. “If I was in a touchy-feely kind of company,” he said, “there’s no way I could be successful.”

MJ: I was particularly interested in your third reference point – isolation. You talk about a supportive network being a pre-requisite for sustaining the effort required to reach a goal and how you should select people who offer encouragement, ideas and resources. I like also your suggestion of regular, scheduled “check-ins” with people so that they know you are following through with intended actions. However, you also emphasise the need for trust.

I have found that one has to be very wary about who one can trust in a work context. Indeed, at times one has to work with people one intuitively feels are untrustworthy which, for someone with AS who exhibits heightened levels of honesty and integrity, can be a real challenge.

Are there any techniques or methods you feel can be implemented in such cases that can afford some form of protection here?

BB: Knowing who to trust can be hard; I’ve been burned a couple of times in my corporate career. One important thing to remember is that getting along well with someone at work doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a personal friend. Trust develops over time. A good rule is to treat even the most cordial workplace relationships as business relationships. Pay attention to how people interact with each other. Refrain from making negative comments about co-workers, supervisors or the company.

It might be best to find support outside of the office, particularly when it comes to reaching personal goals. This eliminates potential conflicts of interest or political manoeuvring. Sharing too much about one’s insecurities and difficulties could be a mistake if, for instance, the co-worker you share them with gets promoted to be your supervisor (I have seen it happen many times). Cultivating relationships with people who are in your field, but don’t work at your company, can be a source of mentoring. Professional and trade associations are good places to meet others in your field. The business orientation also makes conversing easier.

BB: Barbara, as always: thank you very much indeed.

Further details about Barbara Bissonnette and her work and the services she offers can be found at:

Managing with Asperger Syndrome