Barbara Bissonnette: Managing Stress

The following is the first in what will be a series of Q&A sessions that will be conducting with Barbara Bissonnette, a US-based coach who specialises in working with managers with Asperger syndrome.

Today’s Q&A will be on the stress; a subject that has certainly presented a number of challenges for me throughout my own career.

MJ: Firstly, anxiety is one of the most difficult aspects of working as a manager in a professional capacity that I have had to deal with as someone with Asperger syndrome, (AS).

Obviously, this is not a problem that is exclusive to someone with AS, so I would be interested to start with any general observations which may relevant and useful in this area?

BB: I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t experienced anxiety at work. Generally speaking, I think that NTs are better able to hide and manage their anxiety. Whereas the person with Asperger’s Syndrome may openly react, the NT will focus on actions that will improve the situation. NTs have a greater awareness that if they are perceived as anxious and uncertain, they will lose credibility.

MJ: I’ll come straight to the point with regard to the extremity in relation to stress and anxiety in the workplace for someone with AS, or what you describe as “the deleterious effects of tension and overwhelm”.

I have fortunately only really experienced this on a couple of occasions in a work context. When I have they have been the result of spontaneous events which I have been unable to foresee and resulted in a spontaneous reaction from me which was neurologically based. They are due, I think, to what you describe as an amygdala hijack”.

You then go on to suggest ameliorative actions.

Firstly, “accept that you cannot control the actions of other people and, instead, find ways to control how you respond to them”. I agree with this, but one of the things that I find difficult is that each [problematic] person is different meaning that the cause of my reaction varies.

Can you offer any advice or suggestions in these scenarios? Also, are there any actions outside of the way one respond’ that can be proactively instigated and implemented before any difficulties occur?

BB: Daniel Goleman described the amygdala hijack in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence. It refers to the biological response of the body to strong emotions like anxiety, fear, anger, etc. These strong emotional reactions trigger the fight or flight response, which in turn triggers the emotional part of the brain (the amygdala). When the amygdale is triggered, the individual is literally not thinking straight, and may impulsively say or do things that he later regrets.

At work, a person who exhibits strong, emotional reactions to situations or people can quickly get a reputation for being unstable, unreasonable or a poor manager. Others lose confidence in that person’s judgment. One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to think clearly under stress.

There are two reasons that I impress upon my clients that they cannot control the actions of other people. First, it is impossible, and second, trying to do the impossible only creates more anxiety and stress!

There are many reasons that a person can have difficulty interacting with someone. Perhaps the two communication or personality styles are very different. Some of my clients have gained insight into how others perceive things and communicate by studying personality typing systems, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Enneagram. The other person’s goals and priorities may be very different than yours. Or, it might be that you are taking things too literally. One of my clients became furious at her colleagues when they missed deadlines. To her, a deadline was a deadline. Period. However, in her organization adherence to deadlines was determined by the importance of a particular project. Due to her Asperger’s, she did not catch on to this unwritten rule. At her performance review, she was told that she needed to be more flexible about deadlines.

If high anxiety and stress are a problem most of the time, the individual may be in the wrong job or at the wrong company. I’ve had several clients who were doing fine at their jobs until they got a new supervisor. Some were able to adapt to the new expectations, and others had to move on to different organizations.

MJ: You also say – or hint – “never take their actions personally”. I understand why you say this also, but this is incredibly difficult for a manager with Asperger in certain areas: where the other party is perceived to be acting disreputably or unethically for example or where one is being personally attacked or targeted.

What recommendations can you make that would enable me to minimise the impact of such actions and increase my levels of internal acceptance?

BB: I do believe that, 95% of the time, people act to serve their own interests, not to make life difficult for someone else. The demanding manager might be reacting to pressure from her boss to produce results. Or, she might be in line for a promotion, and pushing staff members hard to complete an important project. Perhaps she is anxious about losing her job!

Of course there are times when an employee is targeted by supervisors or co-workers, or when colleagues act disreputably and unethically. Putting the event into perspective can help you decide the best way to react. After all, a colleague who surfs the Internet on company time is technically behaving in a way that is unethical. But this is not in the same category as a colleague who is embezzling company funds. It is probably best to ignore the Internet surfing, but not the embezzlement.

It can be difficult for people with Asperger’s to read people’s intentions, and to see options. Discussing a situation with an NT who you know and trust can be very helpful. In my book I suggest that Asperger’s individuals find a “work buddy” who can help them understand company politics, the motives of others, and “shades of gray” in situations that to the Aspergian seem black and white.

MJ: I’d like to explore a little further if I may about your statement that one “needs to find ways to control how you respond to them [people]”.

As I am sure you know/would agree, this is very difficult for someone with Asperger syndrome and is dependent to a high degree on the “learned behaviours” that I refer to above.

I have found previously that having techniques or actual examples that one can refer to is enormously helpful. For example, if someone criticises or attacks me personally I first of all ask: “can you explain what you mean by that or why you feel that why?” I find that this challenges the statement not the person. Any actual examples from your consultancy experience would be welcome.

BB: That is a very good strategy, because if you accuse the person of something, he or she will get defensive. That question invites the person to clarify intentions. You might discover that the person misunderstood something that you did or said.

Just last week a client of mine, Joe, was upset about a co-worker who kept telling him to smile, and who imitated Joe’s serious facial expression. The co-worker did this in front of others, who laughed. This had happened twice, and each time Joe told the co-worker to stop. After the third time, Joe was furious. We discussed that the co-worker’s intentions weren’t clear. Joe reported that he had a good relationship with this individual. We agreed that there might be ill intentions, but given their cordial history, it might also be that the co-worker was attempting to make Joe laugh.

The imitating bothered Joe enough that he decided to speak with co-worker in private. We rehearsed how Joe could state the facts (with no judgments or accusations), the impact of the co-worker’s behaviour, and what Joe wanted the co-worker to do: “When you imitate my expression, it makes me feel very uncomfortable. I’d like to keep my personal characteristics off limits in conversations, okay?” The last that I heard, the co-worker is respecting Joe’s request.

It can be helpful to read a business book about people management, as the examples will probably include situations that have come up in your workplace.

If you believe that you are being bullied or harassed by a colleague, discuss the situation with your human resources representative.

MJ: your suggestion of taking a break from pressurised or anxious situations is sensible and something that I try to instigate and put into practice wherever possible.

However, there have been scenarios – and one in particular which was awful and which resulted later in the loss of my job – where I simply couldn’t avoid it. It was a meeting which was jumped on the management team at the last moment which gave us no time to prepare and which we all [the management team] had no idea what we were walking into.

Is there any advice that you can give for such – albeit rare – difficult and enormously stressful situations for a person with AS?

BB: Nearly everyone can recall a situation where, in the heat of the moment, they said something that they later regretted. If this happens, focus on damage control – do not ignore the situation. Give yourself time to calm down and review what happened, with help from a trusted co-worker or two if necessary. Figure out who you need to apologize to. Make your apology within 24 hours of the incident, in person whenever possible. Even if you believe that the content of your message was correct, if your delivery offended, angered or frightened someone else, you should try to clear the air and re-establish a comfortable working relationship. Most times, people will accept an apology that is genuine (e.g. “I’m sorry that I over-reacted in the meeting. I want this project to be a success; however I was wrong to question your intelligence and judgment. I hope you will forgive me.”)

MJ: as participants in my University Transitions Programme will know a key mantra of mine as a manager with AS is that “if you want to change others the first thing you need to do is change yourself”.

The reason I say this is because it is the same point you make in your newsletter about there being attitudes or behaviours that someone with AS needs to change such as unrealistic expectations, perfectionism or insisting on one doing things in ones’ own way which result in self-defeating patterns.

Obviously one needs to be self-aware of these issues in order to make the required changes, but these can be very hard to identify. What practical tips or suggestions can you make that will allow a manager with Asperger to confidently and securely do this?

BB:Your colleagues are often aware of behaviours that you are not. Ideally, there will be at least one or two co-workers you trust who can let you know about self-defeating behaviours. Also, pay attention to areas for improvement mentioned in your performance review. Instead of obsessing about a criticism, think about why someone else might have that perception of you. Then figure out about what you can do differently to change that perception.

MJ: finally, over the last few years I have made a conspicuous attempt to improve my lifestyle. I exercise more assiduously, have taken significantly more care – though still not yet enough – over my diet, and I am beginning to explore psychological avenues such as yoga to enhance my mindset in relation to my working environment.

I’d be interested to hear of any actual/specific examples from your client base in these areas and positive outcomes that they have been able to deliver?

BB: These kinds of lifestyle changes can make a huge difference in one’s mood and stress level. A mid-level manager who had a very high-stress job admitted that when she got a good night’s sleep, she was much more patient with people. Another man discovered that giving up alcohol and junk food, and getting regular exercise relieved his depression and lowered feelings of anxiety (he lost over 60 lbs, too).

Pick one thing to change at a time. It usually takes two to three weeks to establish a new habit. Before then, it takes a conscious effort, and sometimes you just have to force yourself to make the change. Some people find it inspiring to keep a log of their progress.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome