Barbara Bissonnette: Dealing with Office Politics

MJ: you start by stating that “like it or not, office politics is a fact of working life and how it is about unspoken rules about who has the power in an organization to get things done”.

I would certainly concur with this. You then go on to say how understanding the motives’ of others is also difficult. I would agree with this as well.

If you were to list the three things that a person with AS should identify and understand in relation to Office Politics what would they be? Mine are locating where the power resides, relating to this, i.e. how it plays out and manifests itself, who the “Important Others” (influential people) are and, reading where the land lies/where it is going and how this relates to me in terms of corporate direction?

BB: The most important things to be aware of are the unofficial organizational chart, people’s motives, and company culture.

If you have worked in business, you probably know that the official organizational chart usually bears little resemblance to the actual power structure of the company. Careful observation reveals who the real decision makers and influencers are. This is why it is so important to pay attention to other people in the company. Notice whose opinion senior managers seek out, and who your co-workers go to when something needs to get done.

People with Asperger’s Syndrome tend to analyse situations logically, without realizing that neurotypicals (NTs) can be driven by hidden motives which also influence the political landscape. Susan is a client of mine who was very frustrated by a colleague who set an unrealistic product release deadline. “I don’t understand why she would do that, since our resources are stretched so thin, and this product will not make a lot of money for the company,” Susan explained. From Susan’s perspective, the decision was completely illogical.

However, Susan’s colleague was being considered for a promotion, and releasing a product ahead of schedule would make her look good to the management team. This colleague was driven by both the company objective of releasing a new product, and her own agenda of increasing her odds of a promotion. Viewed from this perspective, Susan saw how the co-worker’s actions made sense.

Company culture also influences office politics. Culture refers to the way things get done in a particular company, and might bear little resemblance to corporate mission statements (which are really marketing documents). One of the best ways to get a sense of an organization’s culture is to notice what gets rewarded. A company may say, for example, that it has a culture of innovation, but then fail to back any original ideas.

MJ: I’d like to probe you a little more about why you start your piece on Dealing with Office Politics by emphasising the importance of assisting others, taking an interest in what they are doing and being supportive when they have professional/personal problems.

I feel I have done this on an ongoing basis throughout my career, but I don’t feel I have generated reciprocal support. It maybe because people feel that I am being intrusive or self-seeking in some way by enquiring in the first place and which may stem from the way I approach or speak to them. In other words, my intentions are deemed as self-serving.

Do you have any thoughts or comments on this?

BB: Reaching out can backfire if people sense that you don’t have a genuine interest in what they are doing, or if your assistance is perceived as intrusive. Relationships with co-workers are built over time. If you are approaching colleagues every few weeks to offer unsolicited opinions or advice, they will question your motives. (A good rule of thumb about advice: if people don’t ask for it, don’t give it!)

Sometimes clients have challenged me, saying that they simply are not interested in what their co-workers are doing, and don’t want to waste time pretending to care. These are the same people who miss out on promotions, or get negative feedback about teamwork on their performance reviews. They miss out on information that can help them do their jobs better. I don’t know of anyone who works in a vacuum, and sometimes the reason that certain decisions are made becomes clear only when you see it in a larger context.

It is worth taking the time to learn about your co-workers, and make yourself available for interaction on a regular basis. One man realized that he was sending a negative message to colleagues by staying in his office with the door closed for most of the day. When he tried to introduce new ideas during meetings, he didn’t receive much support from other people. They didn’t perceive him as being part of their team.

Assisting others, and showing on interest in them, is not a one-shot proposition. It is part of relationship-building, which takes time and consistent effort.

MJ: I like your suggestion about becoming an “astute observer”. One of the things that I have trained myself to do is to observe competent, effective workplace operators and see how they respond to criticism or personal attack. It has proved immensely useful.

You mention later about asking trusted colleagues who they think wields the influence? I do this and have also found it very useful.

An issue related to this however, is ascertaining who is able to offer relevant and pertinent insight and then gauging whether what they say is something that should be accepted and acted upon.

Do you have any further thoughts on how to exercise effective judgement on individuals given that a manager with Asperger syndrome may have difficulty ascertaining trust and underlying personal motives?

BB: Start with relatively insignificant issues, and evaluate a person’s judgment over time. If a colleague suggests a radical action, particularly if this is a person you don’t know well, get some other opinions before proceeding. Do other people in the organization often turn to this individual for advice? Does he or she get invited to a lot of meetings, which suggests a certain amount of influence? Is the perspective offered a balanced one? Consider as well the length of time that the person has been employed at the company, and whether he or she has received any awards or promotions.

MJ: Leading on from the last question, you are right, I believe, to also draw attention to the fact that political motives, not logic, can drive decisions. This is particularly important I have found with regard to personal agendas.

It is also a very hazardous area for someone with Asperger syndrome. The reason I say this is that personal agendas may often involve unfair treatment. This can involve targeting someone personally or engaging in underhand or even unethical behaviour.

For someone with AS who may be the target because of their “differentness” or who, because of their pronounced sense of honesty and fairness, finds such behaviour unacceptable, this can present real problems.

What would you advise in helping to mitigate potential problems in this area?

BB: Office politics and personal agendas can absolutely result in the unfair treatment of people. In the United States, some companies are described as “toxic” because the environments are so competitive and politically charged. It can make it extremely difficult for employees to do good work. These environments can be particularly hard for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, because underhanded and unethical behaviours can be subtle and hard to prove.

If you find yourself in this kind of situation, get a “reality check.” That is, find out whether other employees are experiencing the same kind of treatment. As you know, I encourage people with Asperger’s to find a work buddy – someone they trust who can help translate some of the politics, expectations and culture of a workplace.

Before speaking up about something that seems unfair or dishonest, discuss the situation with trusted co-workers, your supervisor, or someone outside of the company. Things may not be as black and white as they appear. A manager, for example, may be under pressure to save money or increase efficiency. This can result in new guidelines for productivity, or a decision not to fill an open position. The manager may not agree with certain policies, but has to implement them anyway.

Several years ago I worked with a client who felt that his company was treating customers unfairly because they sold software products knowing that there were bugs in the code. He felt that the programmers should be given whatever time they needed to produce perfect products. What this man didn’t think about was that it would be economically unfeasible to hold products until they were “perfect,” and that customers expected to find minor bugs in new software. This man’s perception of what was unethical wasn’t accurate.

This said, there are certainly cases where employees are terminated because they do not fit with the company’s culture. I work with people who are very frustrated and unhappy with their work environment. Changes to culture and politics usually happen slowly, unless there is a dramatic event such as a sale or merger. If the work environment is causing someone a lot of stress, it is probably best to look elsewhere for employment.

MJ: I learnt Organizational Behaviour on my MBA many years ago under a famous Professor who was a re-known expert in this field. At the time, the information afforded didn’t really resonate because I had little actual business experience that I could relate it to. The reality of the workplace soon changed that.

I have made learning about OB and corporate politics a key personal development objective. Like you, I believe that it is incredibly useful to gain a real understanding.

However, you don’t mention culture in relation to organizational behaviour which also comes under this heading. From the perspective of a manager with AS this is I feel highly important as there are some cultures – ruthless, cutthroat, non-collegiate etc – which I believe are almost impossible for someone with Asperger to operate within.

I would be interested in your thoughts on this area and what, if any, practices can be instigated to assist a person with Asperger who has to work in such a context?

BB: I have long believed that for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, the work environment has more to do with their success than job tasks (assuming, of course, that the individual is qualified for the position). Learn as much about a company as possible before accepting a position. In any industry, word usually gets out about what it’s like to work at a particular company. This is why networking is so important, and not just about finding a job. If you network with other people in your field, you will pick up information about the best and worst companies to work for.

MJ: I’d like to ask now about a situation that I have experienced a couple of times in my career and which is related to corporate politics: when faced with unavoidable change and not being in control of ones’ destiny.

In the biggest disappointment of my career, I was unable to exert the necessary and influence and change because the organisation’s culture precluded me from doing so. Hard as I tried the senior management just weren’t interested in addressing the issue.

The problem was that I was extremely happy in both the role and the company and didn’t want to leave. Looking back, change was inevitable and my personal position was always going to be exposed. However, from a personal perspective, my Asperger was also pulling away from facing change which, of course, I didn’t like.

Related to this scenario was the fact that there was another factor involved: the fact that an important and highly influential Director disliked me personally and was never going to accept what I was advocating.

The reason why the relationship soured initially was because of his “unfair” behaviour towards: putting me down and continually criticising me (I was later told by a colleague after leaving the company that there was always someone that this manager had to put down to deflect potential criticism/unwanted attention away from him. Upon joining the company as the youngest Executive that person became me).

Because of my AS and inherent sense of honesty, integrity and fairness I reacted when first attacked and the manager concerned picked up on this dislike of his behaviour. The reality was, of course, that he had the power meaning that there was nothing I could do about his subsequent bullying going forward.

Blocking the transference of disapproval of someone else’s “unfair” behaviour is something that I believe is essential for someone with Asperger Syndrome in the corporate workplace as I have found it can be highly provocative.

Do you have any suggestions as to practical techniques that can assist in achieving this?

BB: In the United States, blocking the transference of disapproval is referred to as “sucking it up.” This means not expressing personal feelings of anger, disgust or disagreement about a person or situation, and focusing on the job at hand. It doesn’t mean that one never disagrees with anything. It refers to situations where unpopular decisions are made, usually by senior managers, that will not be changed. An employee who ignores or repeatedly challenges these decisions will not be viewed favourably.

The most important thing to realize is that change happens all the time in business. Resisting the inevitable can get people fired. I know of a man who lost his job because he continued to challenge his supervisor about a policy, even though his colleagues had accepted it and adapted. Like many people with Asperger’s, he saw the situation in black and white terms: the new policy was bad. However, the change occurred anyway, and he alienated his supervisor and colleagues.

Things happen in the workplace that are not fair. They can be driven by profit motives, politics, personal agendas, and differing opinions or management styles. Individuals have to decide what they can tolerate and not. Prolonged and strong feelings of anger or frustration can signal that it is time to move on; or that a person is over-reacting and needs to adjust his expectations.

I’ll make one other point, since you mentioned it a couple of times, and it comes up regularly among professionals I coach. This is the belief that one is being personally attacked if co-workers disagree with them, a manager doesn’t accept their ideas, or if they receive criticism. I am not suggesting that personal attacks do not happen; they do. But I also know that Asperger’s Syndrome can make individuals very sensitive to perceived slights. This can be due to misunderstanding the other person’s motivation, or missing the situational context in which something was said or done.

If you find yourself in a situation where you believe that you are being personally attacked, talk to other people about it. The ideal is someone you know and trust in the company. Otherwise, seek out people whose judgment you trust, and who don’t have an emotional investment in the situation.

MJ: Barbara, once again: many thanks

Barbara’s profile and her work can be explored further on her own website at www.forwardmotion.info

Managing with Asperger Syndrome