Penelope Trunk, Brazen Careerist, Penelope is the founder of 3 startups — most recently, Brazen Careerist, a social network to help young people manage their careers. Her career advice appears in more than 200 newspapers. In a review of this blog, Business Week called Penelope’s writing “poetic.”
The first step to growing a good career in the face of Asperger’s Syndrome is to recognize that this is a social skills deficit, by definition, and work, by definition, is a social skills decathlon.
I have written before that for me, the biggest problem at work stems from my own sensory integration dysfunction – something that typically tags along with an Asperger’s diagnosis. But for someone with Asperger’s, it’s not enough to deal with sensory integration dysfunction; in order to succeed at the workplace, you need some guidelines for bridging the gap between other peoples’ social skills and your own.
So, based on my own experience, here are some concrete rules for doing better at work if you have Asperger’s, and maybe if you don’t.
1. Spend limited amounts of time with people
One of the things that is alarming to non-Asperger’s people is how few friends and relationships people with Asperger’s have. But I have never heard anyone with Asperger’s lament this. (Temple Grandin is a good example.) It’s not something we feel a loss about. We only need a small amount of closeness in our life. What I do hear Asperger’s people being sad about all the time is a lack of employment opportunity.
The way to improve this is to spend less time with people. We can be normal in small spurts. We can look charming and quirky in small doses but in large doses, it’s overwhelming. So go out to dinner, but then go home. Go to the company picnic, but just talk with people for a little bit. Then leave.
At work you do not need to spend tons of time with people. You can be the weird, smart one. As long as you’re not too weird. Get along with people for a little. Then go back to your cube.
MJ: good advice. The only thing that I would add to this is that having one close “friend” or mentor at work – ideally your boss – can be incredibly useful, in fact, in many ways, essential.
As I have written before, such a friend can act as a protector and guide you in areas such as corporate politics, or as a mediator if a dispute arises with a colleague.
The bit about “not being too weird” is, I think, a good balance. Its about keeping ones’ eccentricities or “differentness” to manageable proportions.
2. Don’t tell your boss
People don’t care about your random, personal crap. I know, that’s crazy to say on this blog. But I’m entertaining or useful, and when I’m at my best, I’m both. Also, your boss won’t know what to do. She can’t read 400 pages on Asperger’s.
Instead, ask your boss questions about social situations. For example, at Brazen Careerist, we just closed a small round of funding. And my boss, our new CEO, sent a thank you to the investors. I emailed him to find out: Should I send a thank you as well? And he said yes. So I did.
When you ask specific questions about social situations, your boss will appreciate that you know you don’t know. And your boss will think you’re coachable. That helps when your boss sees you being a social moron. The biggest problem with people who have poor social skills is that they don’t know what they’re missing, so they are not coachable. You will differentiate yourself from this crowd when you ask for help.
Ryan Paugh has great social skills. So I ask him a lot of questions, and I watch him. When Ryan Healy’s parents came to visit, I knew I needed to talk with them, because I was the CEO. I know that’s a social rule. But I absolutely completely could not figure out what to say. I listened to Ryan Paugh go first. He said, “What do you have planned for the weekend?”
That was a great line. I wouldn’t have thought of it. But I know for next time.
People who are typical will think this is an easy conversation to have. They’ve had it before, in another form. People with Asperger’s cannot generalize social rules. We have to learn the thing to say in every single situation.
MJ I personally feel that the onus is on the person with Asperger syndrome to inform their manager about what Asperger is and their consequent requirements.
Of course, it is unrealistic to expect a superior manager to read a great deal about the condition when they have more important and pressing matters. However, where I have divulged my condition (admittedly not often) I have always found them receptive and interested and keen to learn more about what Asperger is.
I think that asking the boss what to do is the right approach and what too have done on many occasions.
A manager will not be able to know what to do if you do not inform him. Even if they do suspect that something needs changing they will normally utilise the neuro-typical approach of communicating in a subtle, less-than-direct way. Consequently, the required message may not get through.
Asking direct questions usually means receiving direct answers. Watching other, great socialisers at work is also enormously beneficial and one of the best ways I have found to learn skills in this area.
3. Be great at what you do, and a little odd
I write obsessively about how important it is to be a star. It is actually more important for people with Asperger’s. This is the only way to stay employable. You will always be difficult to deal with. You need to make it worth everyone’s time.
Often, people who are really likable don’t have to be good at what they do. People just love being around them. And it’s fair, because someone who everyone likes actually does make the team more productive.
Many people who work with me know that I’m weird. The first thing Ryan and Ryan said when they got to Madison was that I am totally eccentric. They put up with it. They stayed because I have built such a good career for myself. They wanted to work with me because of that, so they excuse the poor social skills.
By the time you get to the mid-point in your career, it’s clear that the people who stand out as great at what they do are also weird, and they are thinking in odd ways. It’s what makes them stand out. So the more successful you are in your career, the more okay it is, and the more expected it should be, for you to be odd.
MJ Again, this is very valuable insight. If you can create an area of expertise for yourself you become very advantageous to a company who are then less disposed – and able – to get rid of you!
The problem I have found is identifying that niche and developing the skill that brings this situation about. I have tremendous analytical skills, not least of all, because of the unique insight that my original, Asperger-mode of thinking gives me.
Finding the vocation or slot where this can be exploited is far form easy. However, it is worth searching – and persisting – for as, ultimately, it is invaluable when achieved for the reasons the author so well outlines.
4. Do office politics by being totally direct
There is office politics in every office. Because office politics is about how people get along. If you have Asperger’s, there is not a good way for you to know all the nuances—we don’t understand mean, vindictive, passive aggressive, these are all way too complicated. So we don’t do them. This should make people like us, if we do it right. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that much of how I act comes off as mean, even if this is not my intention.
So you need to really look at peoples’ faces. And if you get a bad reaction when you say something, even if you think it’s not a bad thing to say, you need to stop and ask if you hurt someone’s feelings. I ask this four or five times in any given day. “Are you angry?” Most of the time people are surprised that I don’t know. But I keep asking. There is no other way to find out.
MJ Not bad advice either. However, I think you need to be prepared to accept the possible, negative consequences.
If you upset someone in power then, in my experience, it is very hard to defend yourself. Asking them could be a good way of mitigating the downside; Affording some respect as well usually goes a long way.
The problem with the latter is that, if you do have Asperger and you feel that the person involved, is being unfair or is undeserving of respect, then bringing oneself to do so can be close to impossible.
5. Don’t get frustrated by the rules
Recently, I’ve been reminded about how hard it was to learn business rules because I had to learn dating rules. I got frustrated about dating. Like I’ll never learn. For four dates I didn’t understand why people drink on a date. I don’t understand why you don’t say at the beginning of the date if you want to have sex at the end, so you know what you’re leading to. But I tried to just do what other people are doing. It doesn’t make sense to me, but I just try to fit in.
There are rules like this for the office, as well. Just follow them. Don’t ask for any rationale. It won’t make sense. That’s okay.
MJ The problem for me I have found in this area, is understanding what the rules are in the first place.
Managerial hierarchies, power bases, service longevity etc are all things that were not immediately apparent to me. I have had to learn by experience – or the hard way.
It comes with experience of course; and often the lessons are learnt in a difficult manner. What I have found assists is “if in doubt, stay out!”. If you are unsure of anything then the best thing to do is play safe.
One example: many years ago I antagonised a manager who, unbeknown to me at the time, was destined to directorship. He was unfair to me initially, but that was the layout of the corporate structure.
With hindsight what I should have done is given him a bit a leeway: accepted the [unfair] criticism on the chin and to have tried to be seen as reasonable, amenable and accommodating.
Doing this would have afforded me two benefits as someone with Asperger. One, it would have prevented the antagonism in the first place and, secondly, would have removed the feeling that I often feel that my [Asperger] personality somehow contributed to the friction initially.
If I can remove the latter, I find that it makes me much more confident and able to confront someone/unreasonable behaviour later.