Barbara Bissonnette: Building Confidence

MJ: I have long felt that people with Asperger syndrome (AS), lack confidence in general.

I think that there are so many challenges that one has to face in a work environment that exacerbate factors that can reduce confidence – dealing with a critical person is one example that immediately springs to mind. Unlike in a non-work context, it is often difficult to extricate oneself from it.

I personally feel that I lack confidence to a degree, only under normal circumstances – like many other people with AS – but underneath I believe that I am very strong and resilient. The issue becomes more pronounced in a business context.
Do you have any thoughts specifically on this?

BB:The lack of confidence is not surprising, given how difficult it is to understand what other people are thinking, feeling and expecting. I don’t recall a single client who did not experience significant challenges beginning in grade school. Being teased, bullied, ostracized and criticized will quickly wear down confidence. Many people tell me that they realized very young (at ages 7 to 10) that they were different than their peers. The awareness that the people around you understand a certain “code” that you don’t will create self-doubt.

As adults in the workplace, one still has the pressure of needing to understand and meet expectations that may not be specifically spelled out. There is no team of professionals to step in and explain assignments, or the social gaffe you made at lunch. I completely understand why so many people experience anxiety at work.

I see inner strength and resilience in the people who do not give up no matter how many set backs they experience.

MJ: I was very interested in the example that you provide at the start of the article, namely how the person’s supervisor and co-worker’s ask if Ally is OK and if she herself was aware that her anxiety was very noticeable.

One of the hardest lessons that I have had to learn in a work context is hiding my anxiety. Looking back, I see a number of occasions when I have looked stressed and agitated in front of other people. When this happens, I believe I lose “gravitas” which, as a manager, is not only highly detrimental but also dangerous: it weakens my stature in front of others.

The key technique that I have developed to try and counter this is to not react under any circumstances. I have also learned that I need to “act”, to hide my true feelings.

However, this is far from easy when the pressure is intense or, worst of all, when I am experiencing a “meltdown” which I unfortunately have on two occasions at work.

The problem in both cases however was that the problem appeared “suddenly” inducing a spontaneous reaction; one which is hard to foresee and control; it is a physiological response.
I’d appreciate any suggestions that you may have on techniques as to what to do in a situation like this or, better still, or to prevent it in the first place?

BB:Many people tell me about their difficulty knowing how to react to situations in “real time.” That is, they understand the theory of what do, but have a hard time applying that knowledge in the moment.

The higher a person’s level of stress, the more likely they are to react without thinking the situation through. Finding ways to relieve stress (by exercising, getting enough sleep, mediating, etc.) will reduce the chances of an “explosion.” Simply getting enough sleep can make a person less irritable, and better able to put problems into perspective.

The other thing I notice is that NTs are more able to find short cuts and determine what is a true priority. This makes it easier to cope with high pressure environments. Aspergians may not even think about doing work that is “good enough” versus “excellent.”

Asking a colleague for suggestions on how to manage a heavy work load can be very helpful. Of course, you must be willing to work differently. One client was told by a co-worker that her very detailed project notes were not a good use of her time. This client admitted that her co-worker was right, but she liked her way better and didn’t want to change. So she continued putting in five or six extra hours per week.

MJ: You’re next example refers to Steven and how he was passed over for promotion because “he couldn’t sell his ideas”.

This point resonates with me very strongly. In what was the biggest disappointment of my career, I was unable to instigate and implement a strategy that I knew was required (because of my training and Asperger I could see things which other managers did not!).

The major problem was that the prevailing corporate culture was the anti-thesis of what I believed in and, as a result, top management didn’t believe it either because they were imbued with that culture.

In addition, because I felt uncertain of my position I lacked the confidence to really lay my neck on the line and say what I really thought. To be fair to myself, my job meant in a way TOO much to me which meant that I perceived I had [too much] to lose.

I desperately tried to per persuade my boss to clarify my position which would have given me the confidence in knowing that my position was secure. This would have given me the security of feeling the confidence I needed to state my case.

I simply couldn’t convince my boss to do that and I can remember him saying at one of my appraisals that he wanted to send me on an assertiveness course.

I’d be interested to hear exactly why you feel that a person with Asperger struggles to convey this sense of “gravitas” in a business context, especially when, as was certainly the case in the above example, the unique insights I was able to derive as a consequence of my original mode of thinking enabled me to see the issues.

To round this story off: someone else – a “big hitter” – was then brought in to rectify the situation – and he did exactly what I was advocating!

BB:Influencing other people involves much more than stating your rationale. A manager must consider the concerns, desires and motives of the other people involved. How will the proposed change impact their jobs or departments? Is the idea positioned in a way that others can see the benefit to themselves? What is the risk, and who will be responsible if things don’t go as planned?

From your example, it sounds like you were concerned that presenting your idea could cost you your job. Your statements about putting your neck on the line and saying what you really thought make me guess that the situation involved more senior managers who you believed were making the wrong decisions.

Speaking up can result in job loss, if the comments are seen as insubordination, or as undermining the authority of someone high up within the organization. It is inappropriate for someone whose rank is manager to suggest changes to the senior management team. Similarly, proposing a change involving a different department could be seen as over-stepping a boundary.

Challenging management can result in job loss, and may not be worth the risk. Sometimes, the best action is to find work in a different company where management shares your vision.

MJ: I won’t say much more about interviews other than I believe that it is the one area of job searching where I believe that a manager with AS should actively seek out professional training and guidance. The artificiality of the situation makes an interview a very challenging scenario for someone with Asperger.

I would like to probe you further however on your comments about neuro-typicals also experiencing self-doubt, but being better at disguising their inner feelings. Doing this as someone with AS is far from easy or straightforward.

Firstly, the innate propensity of a person with Asperger to be honest, and their objective viewing of situations and people, can make this very difficult to achieve. Moreover, occurrences and events in the business world demand almost sub-conscious recognition and inference of issues at work. To a degree, this is almost impossible for some with AS.

Do you have any thoughts on this?

BB:Yes. People with Asperger’s Syndrome can get themselves into trouble by saying the truth as they see it. “Truth” is not always absolute. It may be true that a person’s weakness is procrastination, however, on a job interview this is not something to mention. In that situation, one could find another weakness (also true) that will not disqualify him or her as a candidate. Whenever possible, anticipate and prepare for situations in advance.

Of course, it is not possible to pre-plan every interaction. Your point about subconscious recognition and inferences is spot on. Autism as Context Blindness is a new book by Peter Vermeulen that addresses this very subject. Dr. Vermeulen explains how neurotypicals can recognize situational context within a fraction of a second, and this instantaneous processing enables them to know how to react in “real time.”

Individuals on the autism spectrum must consciously and methodically think about how all of the pieces fit together, and may miss important contextual cues.

Some jobs require very sophisticated levels of interpersonal communication. Not everyone is suited to or able to manage those requirements.

MJ: I want to probe further in this area on one point specifically in relation to hiding inner feelings. The scenario where I find it hardest to hide my feelings is when I meet a person who exhibits personal traits and behaviours that are the complete opposite of those which my Asperger believes in – and demands!

It its extreme form this is a bully. I have become better at dealing with such people, but still find it incredibly hard. As a chapter in my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome states, there are some people with whom I believe a manager with Asperger is simply unable to relate to or work with because of the traits inherent within the Asperger personality profile.

Do you believe this to be the case also and how can one build confidence in dealing with such difficult people?

BB:Before I started my coaching practice, I worked in business, and had management-level jobs. There were times when I had to deal with people I disliked, and who went out of their way to cause problems. This happens to almost everyone. The workplace is a collection of people who wouldn’t meet otherwise. There will be different personality styles, management styles, temperaments and motivations.

I have two suggestions for building confidence to work with difficult individuals. First, find a book or two about the subject. On Amazon.com, I put the keywords “dealing with difficult people at work” and got almost 100 results. Proof that this is a problem that affects many! Books about business management will also discuss this topic.

Another idea is to learn about different personality styles, to understand how different people can interpret and react to situations. Personally, I have found the Enneagram to be very accurate; the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is popular. There are books specifically about these tools within the workplace.

MJ: moving onto the techniques you advocate to assist in overcoming some of these difficulties.

In general, I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestions of controlling extreme nervousness, talking too quickly or softly, looking away from people (plus maintaining eye contact I believe), slouching or asking too many questions, (my boss at the BBC commented on my propensity to do the latter!).

There is one area that you did not mention in your article: appearance and dress code. My wife has been an incredible asset here. She insists on me wearing up-to-date, fashionable clothes; ones that are not jaded or outmoded in any way. I very belatedly have come to appreciate the importance of this, not least of all in mitigating the Asperger “differentness”. Doing so also makes me feel good which, in turn, assists me in feeling confident.
Is there anything that you would like to add in this area?

BB:This is what NTs would describe as “looking the part,” and it influences both the individual and how others perceive him. NTs begin forming impressions within seconds of meeting someone, and this is often happens subconsciously.

When I am teaching about nonverbal communication, I show a picture of a 1960’s-era hippie. The man has shoulder length hair, held back with a macramé headband. Small, wire-rimmed glasses sit at the end of his nose. He is wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, and making the peace sign. People laugh when I show this photo within the context of discussing the workplace, because it is so obviously out of place. However, the same principle applies in subtle ways, particularly for those in management roles. The right clothing communicates personal attributes such as confidence, authority and expertise.

As you mention, clothing can also make the wearer feel more confident, and others will pick up on the self-assuredness.
MJ: Setting Realistic Goals

Again, this is an area that I have quite belatedly come to understand and appreciate the importance of in terms of the difficulties that I have encountered as a manager with Asperger syndrome.

I came out of Business School with an MBA and believed with hindsight that it had turned me into something I was not! My first work experience post-study was not a successful or pleasant one.
Looking back, I believe that I was and, at other times have been, quite naïve. I simply did not have the appropriate level of self-understanding regarding my Asperger that was required to make an accurate judgement in these areas.

You talk about having the right knowledge, skills and resources to achieve any aim and I would certainly concur with this. Do you have any tips as to how one can increase ones’ self-awareness of ones’ ability and limitations to arrive at the right balance in progressing rather than over-extending oneself? Confidence is obviously – again – a factor.

BB:Thinking about the people I have coached who have been the most successful, there is one thing they have in common. They say, “One thing that I have learned about myself is…” or, “That experience taught me that I… .” In other words, they continually expanded their self-knowledge, and learned from their experiences.

Learning from experience is hard for some Aspergians, because they focus so much on individual details that they don’t see the similarities of situations. People may have four, five or six bad experiences with their co-workers before they see that there is a pattern, and that they need to change some of their behaviors.
Don’t get defensive about feedback from other people. Over-confidence can be as much of a problem as under-confidence.

When things don’t go well, use it as a learning experience. Think about how you can handle a similar situation differently in the future.

Be sure that you understand the purpose of a project before plunging in. You might draft an outline, ask to see a sample of what the finished project should look like, or divide the project into specific sections and get feedback on each section before moving ahead. If you are uncertain, ask a supervisor or co-worker for assistance and advice.

MJ: Avoid the Perfection Trap

This is an interesting one. Trying to be a perfectionist is something that is often cited by commentators about people with AS.

I personally don’t see myself as a perfectionist. More accurately, I would describe my working style as detailed and comprehensive. Mentally I don’t believe that I need to strive for perfection.
What I do find difficult however is dealing with the aftermath of mistakes. As you say, mistakes are how we learn.

I have found the corporate world however to be far less accommodating. Mistakes are highlighted and there are some people who will implicitly notice these and, if they dislike you, will use and exploit them against you.

I don’t believe that I have located a successful technique to dealing with personal mistakes. Admitting that one is wrong when one has made a mistake is essential, but exuding the confidence of demonstrating that I have AND have successfully put it behind me in terms of my demeanour and non-verbal communication is not something that I have effectively been able to do. I also find that my inner feeling is often one of residual damage which relates, I suspect, back to lower confidence levels.
How would address these factors?

BB:Mistakes come in various shapes and sizes. Unless there is some mitigating factor (such as a charged political situation), the consequences typically match the magnitude of the error.

Sometimes, people interpret a simple correction from their supervisor as evidence that they are about to be fired. Anxiety gets the better of them, and they turn a simple situation into a big problem. They may apologize profusely for a minor typo, or bring up the incident again and again. These actions can cause them to be perceived as lacking confidence and good judgment.

If you make a mistake, the important thing is to show that you have learned from it, and won’t repeat it in the future. Begin by making an apology that is in line with the mistake. State what you will do differently in the future.

MJ: Go for Small Wins

Again sound advice I believe as these have definitely helped me to build personal self-confidence levels.

However, there are times in the business world when you don’t have that luxury. I can remember in one role being put on a big project very early on and not being able to avoid it.
What would your approach be in a situation such as this?

BB:My approach would be breaking a large project into smaller segments, and establishing benchmarks. Ask the appropriate people to review progress after each benchmark is reached. This way, if something needs correction, you will find out when errors are easier to correct. Phrase the review in a positive way. Don’t say, “Would you check this and see if I am screwing up?” Be confident and say, “I have reached the first benchmark, and want to review my progress with you.”

MJ: Create Interim Goals

I am practicing this currently as I want to find a new job. I made a list, but then found that it overwhelmed me somewhat. The end result was that it put pressure on me personally meaning that less got done.

To overcome this I set myself a target of developing or addressing one lead a day. I did this, it’s done and I feel really good afterwards as I believe that I have achieved something tangible. I also mentally tune myself to accept that I cannot realise all my goals overnight.

In your piece you don’t talk about checklists. These enable me to identify what I know I have to do, work through them slowly to complete and create “small wins”. Doing this increases my confidence as they allow me to realise the feeling of having done things.

How important do you feel these are?

BB:For some people, checklists are very motivating! They are visual, so a person can literally see their progress as they tick off each item. Keep them manageable. A daily checklist that contains 30 items will probably create a feeling of overwhleming.

MJ: Act “As If”

Whilst I fully agree with the methods that you advocate here to appear more confident – standing up straight, looking at people when speaking to them, using decisive language and smiling – I would like to look at another form of acting or what is known in the UK as “playing the game”.

In my experience, the people who know how to act politically correctly, understand what the prevailing politics are and are prepared to compromise their own behaviours – and this means to a degree at least acting unethically in my opinion – are those that tend to survive and get on.

There are some real paradoxes here for a manager with Asperger syndrome: not being oneself, trying to be something you’re not, telling “white lies” being disloyal…the list goes on.

I truly believe that people cannot be something that they are not and this is especially true in the case with Asperger syndrome. However, as I previously mentioned, if you do behave in this way there are often detrimental consequences. I have found it to be something of a paradox.

I know I need to “act” to address these issues. How do you believe that I can reconcile the above differences?

BB: Your statement about compromising behaviour, which you see as acting unethically, underscores a major difference between Aspergians and NTs. What to an Aspergian is interpreted as being dishonest or disingenuous, to an NT is editing behaviour to fit the context of the situation.

Politics exist in every organization, although in varying degrees. Everyone needs to make certain compromises. Work is not simply about performing certain tasks. It is about working as part of a group. Participating in any group endeavour involves compromising certain ideals in order to get along with others.

MJ: Thank you very much indeed.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome