As a manager with Asperger Syndrome (AS), I have found the ethical side of what goes on in a business both challenging and, at times, very difficult. I can remember one manager saying to me after I was made redundant: “you don’t like the politics do you?”
I have reflected on this a number of times as to why.
Firstly, my innate honesty and sense of right and wrong that is inherent with a person with AS is one reason.
Secondly, I struggle to “play the game”: I cannot be something that I am not. If I believe something, then that is – largely – what I have to do/be. Another example, is that I cannot be disloyal to a superior who has been good to me.
Thirdly, I generally have always put the company first before myself. There have been times when really I needed to move for example so as not to have become exposed personally. I recently did the opposite when I left a job after just one year and did feel quite guilty about it.
As said in Hamlet: “be true to yourself” and I have often stated that a person with Asperger simply cannot be anything other. I cannot fake things and am usually sussed pretty quickly if I try. The introduction to my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome recites a crunch meeting with a hard, give-it-to-me straight Director who quickly picked up on my discomfort: “I should warn you young man, I have a nasty habit of checking these things!”
It was for the above reasons that I was so interested in an article in The Financial Times recently by one of my favourite columnist’s Luke Johnson entitled “Lies, Damned Lies and Running a Business”.
In this it begins by saying that “lying in business is endemic”. As he goes on to say, “they [lies] are not told with wicked intent, but it fantasy to assume that everyone is always honest”.
It seems obvious of course, but I have often reflected on how naive I have sometimes been as a manager in relation to this and how, as someone with the very high integrity and honesty inherent in AS, how I automatically have expected others to exude the same principles.
What has perhaps been more damaging to me is how I have not challenged people when they have clearly lied or acted unethically and assumed instead that it is my fault because, in some way, I am different because of my AS and to be at fault.
There was one occasion when my key protagonist in one organisation automatically accepted the word of someone who lied, cocked up and passed the blame onto me an subsequently threatened me personally, stated they would formally discipline me, insulted me in front of colleagues and then took it upon himself to go blazening around Head Office dragging my name though the mud.
The field I have largely worked in – marketing – throughout my career is particularly susceptible to this. As Johnson says in the article, “some of the marketing efforts undertaken by banks in recent years are laughable”.
He then goes onto to refer to selling which is of particular interest to me. The chapter in my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome, “If You Meet That Person” was about the most unreasonable, reprehensible and difficult individual person I have ever met/worked with in my career. He ultimately sacked me unjustifiably and caused with immeasurable anxiety and mental pain.
I have reflected often on how I could have handled him differently. Ultimately, I still believe, as the conclusion of the chapter states, the only course of action open to me was to leave. However, having had to work with him – initially at least – then my best tactic would have been to have “acted” or practised empathy.
He [Tom] was a salesman. Salesmen sell and are prepared/need to twist the truth somewhat to secure that all important sale. Is that lying? At best it could probably be described as Machiavellian. As Johnson says, “what salesman ever pointed out the defects of their wares? Salesman need to have affection in one eye and calculation in the other”.
He then goes on to say how certain industries have duplicity build into them. Cosmetics’ is one: customers want to believe that the products are beneficial for them.
CV’s are also often embellished. A crisis is another occasion when companies must be thoughtful of what they say. Tom was brought into the company in question above because – unbeknown to its employees – it was in financial crisis. By cutting the costs in the way he did, Tom saved the company. But sacking people unjustifiably to do so or humiliating people who were not responsible because they wouldn’t do his unpalatable work wasn’t in my [Asperger] eyes.
As the article says “human behaviour is riddled with white lies and half-truths”. Most of us make promises we can’t keep, offer bogus excuses, pretend to like people we don’t like and learn how to fake it to get along in life. My protagonist in the first company cited at the beginning of this article was in mind, without doubt, the best office politician I have ever met; he played “the game” brilliantly.
For a manager with Asperger Syndrome I have had to learn the hard way that you must a) simply accept this and; b) importantly comes to terms with the fact that it may not be possible to compromise your morals.
The latter is about “being true to thineself” and can be very hard for someone with AS; it’s about protecting your position but also acting with integrity.
Other practical advice? Well, firstly I try to explore what corporate culture pervades an organisation. As Johnson says there are certain industries that are less duplicitous than others; in more stark terms, less aggressive. I am currently working in the education sector and the collegiate, supportive and constructive outlook is more congenial to my Asperger personality than – say – an overtly sales context. UK companies tend to be less ruthless than American ones.
Perhaps, above all, I have learned the need to be simply less naive. Business is about survival and making profits, not about my personal requirements/needs per se. I have had to learn and mentally condition myself to accept that I am there to contribute towards those objectives. Having Asperger may mean that I am different, but not that I automatically can expect to be treated differently.
The article concludes by saying “experts claim trust is important in business, but the truth isn’t that simple: in business only the cynical survive. As Groucho Marx said “the secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!”