Motivation and Work Performance

Background

Claire has worked in IT throughout her career. During the majority of this time she has sometimes – like many people with Asperger syndrome – found motivation difficult.

Her experience however, and the lessons she has learnt from it, have enabled her to locate methods that have significantly overcome this. These include implementing general strategies such as working in the right corporate culture and on tasks that closely match areas of personal interest and skill sets, to more subtle techniques such as viewing tasks that are non-motivating as opportunities to retain self respect and esteem to provide motivational stimulus.

The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.

Case Study

I am 30 years old, and first became aware of my AS about a year ago. I spent many years in counseling as a child, because my mother attributed my lack of interest in socializing with my "peers" to my difficulty accepting the divorce between herself and my father.

Looking back now, I know that I simply had no interest in socializing with people who I found difficulty holding a conversation: I tended to quickly become bored by most topics of interest to others in my age group. It was a question of motivation; I simply had difficulty becoming engaged with people that I didn’t resonate with personally.

I have not been diagnosed with AS, but have always been different from others - difficulty with eye contact, sensitivity to light, difficulty in understanding anything not directly said, lack of voice modulation, and the ability to obsess over anything I take an interest in. I also have a lot of trouble accepting positive feedback - it embarrasses me, and I prefer that compliments be kept to a minimum - such as a "good job". I also tend toward perfectionism, passionately hate making mistakes of any sort, and have a hard time focusing on anything I'm not interested in.

This perfectionism has affected my motivation levels. If I don't think I can accomplish something to my satisfaction, I don't want to bother at all. Obviously, I cannot automatically take this view whilst I am at work. I also have difficulty with motivation to finish a project against a deadline, since many times the deadline forces me to work below the standard to which I would prefer to work towards
However, I've always had trouble with motivation in general, and frequently think of myself as a procrastinator: it's hard for me to take up a new task, and it's even harder to keep at it. My grades in school fluctuated wildly, depending upon how interesting the subject in class was.

These issues have translated in the world of work where I have been working in information technology since I was 19 years old.

About three years after I started in data entry, I was promoted to an IT based job supporting database needs. This promotion came with a raise, and the uninspired title of Technical Assistant, which to me felt like I should be working at a help desk, not managing a database and reporting system which could impact greater influence on the organization. I regarded it as an uninspired title that seemed to marginalize my importance to both my department and employer.

I did, however, get to spend most of my time maintaining the database and writing reports which was what I well and truly enjoyed doing. To me data, whether being input to, or output from, a database is a satisfying and appropriate use of my skills. It is fact based and something I can resonate with; data, to me, can result in a great-looking report that runs correctly and reflects clean and accurate information of importance to the business!

About a year after my promotion, I had a great opportunity came up. My employer was converting to a new cross-functional database system. I was able to secure a place on the committee to help choose the database, as well as to work with the database company we chose to implement the changeover. I saw this as a great chance to further my knowledge of a database system, and to enhance the technology used in our database and reporting systems. The thought of just commencing this work was highly motivational in itself.

I was ecstatic about the opportunity, and accepted the challenge with unmitigated enthusiasm. The time-line was to choose a vendor within six months, and be fully functional in the new system within two years. For me, two years sounded like a very long time to stay focused on one thing, but I was certain that it could be done. The amount of work involved and the scale of the project matched nicely with the timeline, and it seemed to me that my time would be full - but not overly so - with the tasks that would be required to complete the assignment.

Staff was chosen to be assigned to functional (departmental) committees. Each committee would work with the vendor to ensure that their department's needs were seen to. Each functional committee would comprise of 1-2 people representing each of the five locations that would be implementing the new database system.

Additionally, each location was to a have a committee of all the members who served on the functional committee. Each functional committee was also assigned a company representative to ensure that we knew what the system was capable of as it stood, and to help us structure our changes in a way that made sense to the programmers at the company. This meant that nine committees, total, would have to be working together on this project – that was a lot, and I saw this as the biggest challenge in the process - all the politics that would be coming into play meant the possibility of being distracted from performing my technical duties.

The vendor selection went badly for my departmental committee. The needs of the other departments had been weighed more heavily than ours, and the vendor that was chosen had a very poor module for our needs. In spite of this, the first year went remarkably fast, and we made great progress on data-mapping. While not in committee meetings, I spent my time preparing data for conversion. At the end of the first year, the IT person I had been working with went out on stress leave, and did not come back. I was not happy with this – it meant that all progress on data conversion stopped.

Luckily, as I was worrying about how this would affect our timeline, I found another part of the project to focus my attentions on instead - that meant I remain engaged personally. However, around this same time, we were assigned a new representative from the vendor, and I found out from him that some of the parts of the database that we had planned on converting data to had been discontinued by the vendor. I was forced to go back to my data conversion map and review it with our new representative to find new places to store this data. I became frustrated by the waste of time previously spent on this, but determined to fix the problem and keep moving. At this point, I felt that we were still on track for time which ensured that my levels of motivation remained high.

However, with these new frustrations, our functional committee began to pull apart. One member in particular started behaving rudely in sessions, trying to bully the other members into accepting all her opinions, although many of them did not make sense at locations other than hers, and violated rules that had been set in place in order to keep the various departments on good speaking terms. We started meeting more often, and longer, in order to work together to work on remapping data.

The ongoing debate and squabbling started to sap my interest and motivation. I was 23 years old at the time, and I had always been a very quiet, very timid person, so I began to find the internecine politicking draining. I was accustomed to working in an environment where everyone was respectful of one another's opinions. Our departmental committee had started out this way, but over the past year, as the others in the committee began to feel the stresses of the project, our group had become one run by the opinions of the loudest and most assertive members. Decisions were made that I felt were bad for the long-term goals of the project, and my concerns were not being heard.

Finally, in one of our week-long meetings, I became so frustrated with being talked over that I finally became sufficiently assertive to stand up and voice my opinions. However, though this helped me to feel better about my place within the group in the short term, it afterwards had the opposite effect. I resented the members of the committee whom I felt responsible for forcing me to act in ways outside those I felt right about and comfortable with, and would stubbornly oppose any ideas they had that did not make sense to me, even if they did not effect the data stored at my location.

I knew that I was being irrational about this, and I felt guilty for doing it, knowing that sometimes I was holding up progress for no reason. However, without doing this I struggled to find the motivation to continue being, as it meant that I was not working within parameters that enabled me to be effective.

Over the next six months, we got behind schedule, and things got worse. When we started reviewing data entry screens, we found them to be badly designed and missing data that we were counting on being able to enter. It was becoming apparent that the vendor's system was designed for a business much smaller and less complicated than ours. We would have to work with our representative in order to redesign these screens, and I believed that this would put us even further behind than we already were. Again, this had a de-motivating effect!

With one month before our initial go-live date, we told the President that we wouldn't be able to complete our task on time. Luckily, she was very understanding. All the other functional teams were reporting the same thing, and we were instructed not to okay a go-live until we were satisfied that we would be able to offer our customers the same level of service from the new system as they were accustomed to from the old one.

However, the task overall was wearing thin for me by now. My boss was extremely resistant to the change-over, and would nit-pick any data entry screens I would show to her. It seemed that if her complaints were addressed, she would always find something else that was wrong. I felt that making her happy was an impossible task, and this made me feel uncertain about my abilities - she had always been happy with my work before.

Worse still, I began to question my ability to ascertain whether any of my work was "finished" enough to review with her for feedback. I had always been the most critical person of my own work before and now that was not longer the case. About two and a half years into the project, we finally got a new IT person to work with us on the project, and I immediately took a week of his time to update him on the project, and our department's immediate needs.

This person was both understanding and highly supportive. His presence as a knowledgeable IT person helped re-motivate me, as I could see that the project was again moving forward at a good pace. With his support I felt I was, once again, on the right path, something that I find essential as someone with AS, as I need to know where I am going, that I am on the right path and doing what I believe to be right. As a result, my motivation largely returned.

We spent almost six months reviewing data conversion plans, and making sure that where data had to fit together, it did. We did a successful test conversion of some basic customer information, and I used that information to start writing reports. All was going well, I felt, at this point, and I was reassured that we doing what needed to be done.

This progress helped propel me through the next few months. I did more data cleanup on the remaining data, as well as working with our functional committee to write requests for entry screen and batch process changes.

My boss’s view subsequently changed. She was supportive of the efforts, and encouraging of my work, telling me that she felt like we were making good progress. She would approve data-plans, and entry screens that I presented to her. This provided me with welcome re-assurance.

However, in spite of this, that wasn’t the message she sent to others. Her displeasure with the vendor caused her to make disparaging remarks about the project in general, often at times in front of me. Though she would tell me that the project was going well, she would tell others in the department that it was not. This led to further resistance in the department.

This contradictory approach was a source of de-motivation as I felt that she was not speaking her true mind. I started to become unable to trust anything she said to me and began to feel isolated on the project in relation to the rest of my team. I was told by many people in the department that they hoped they could retire by the time the new system was online.

About a year later (around three years into the project) I had converted enough data, and had sufficient reports written, to enable me to feel it was time to instigate a training session for the department. Turnout, however, was low as people lacked confidence in the system because of the disparaging remarks my boss had made about it. I felt this personally reflected on me: that I had let down the department and that I hadn't come anywhere near the goal of making the system easy for the end-users.

At this stage I had lost virtually all motivation towards the project. The department disliked the product by now, and many of the changes they wanted were going to be turned down due to interdepartmental politics. My boss had been one of the most vocal people in the training phase and expressed how poorly she felt the product fitted our needs. I was depressed by my failure to deliver on my promise to make this system meet our needs and live up to the potential that the underlying database structure was capable of.

After reviewing the negative feedback, I took a four day weekend to refresh myself for the upcoming task. It didn't work. I returned to work but got nothing of significance done.

However, the situation forced me to re-evaluate my position and outlook. I took time to think about the situation at work and, as a result, decided that I would never be able to forgive myself if I left the task incomplete. This in itself provided a real source of personal motivation.

I promised myself that I would complete this task, not just for the other people at work, but for myself. I decided that instead of treating this as a collaborative project, I would treat the implementation of the product in my department, at my location, as my own personal task, and I would let nothing stop me from accomplishing it. In other words, I decided that this part of the project was MINE and this provided the motivation that was missing and which I required.

It was this decision that spurred me for the next two and a half years that it took to complete the data conversion, finish the reports, and work with our IT department to create a view-only online version of the database with better search and display functionalities in order to make the rest of the department accept the "new" product.

I achieved this which was the source of enormous personal satisfaction. I left for a new job after almost six years of working on the conversion. I did so knowing that I had not only finished the task but also with the knowledge that I would never undertake another project of this nature again, involving as it did so many political issues, committees, and such high levels of resistance that prevented me from accomplishing my assigned task.

Review

The experience working on the project, though at times stressful, provided me with a number of invaluable lessons going forward with regard to my AS and motivation.

Firstly, the importance of working on something that is of interest, and personally important, to me. Though I accept that this is not always possible, I now strive to locate roles and job tasks that fulfill this requirement as I know that they are the source of self-motivation.

As much as I hate using buzzwords, ownership (or to a significant degree) of a project is also very important to me. I need to believe that I am making a contribution. If I don't feel that I am part or contributing to the important decisions regarding how the task is to be accomplished – as least in relation to my own task requirements – then I tend to feel less capable of completing it.

Knowing where I am heading from a personal perspective is also important. If I have clear direction personally it provides a structure for me which, in turn, provides re-assurance. If I know that I am working towards a clear objective, one where I can see an end point, then this also provides motivation as I know that I will not be working on something in perpetuity. Doing this means I am aware that I will be able to move onto something different and fresh which in itself, is also motivational.

Allied to this is the feeling that what I am doing is right. If I believe that I am fulfilling my responsibilities, it provides not only the re-assurance I require, but the spur to drive on and complete. The opposite occurs if I am unsure: it creates uncertainty, and with it, anxiety which, if I am not careful, offers the potential to escalate.

Whatever I work on now, I ensure that I am totally clear what my objectives and responsibilities are and when I am required to deliver. I also ensure that my superior is in agreement with this and is aware on an ongoing basis that I am satisfying these requirements. Doing so provides approval – and with it further motivation!

However, it is not just working on something that is of interest that is important; having purpose from a personal perspective is also vital. If I believe that the work I am undertaking will make a real contribution, or that it progresses my career or skills from a personal perspective, then this provides real incentive. In the case of the data project, working towards an outcome which I did not believe was right for the firm or would satisfy the technical work requirements was de-motivating – not motivating; acquiring new technical skills was an incentive.

Of course, I accept that all of this is not always possible and that in a work context I will have to undertake tasks which I find non-stimulating. If so, I instigate a different approach to source motivation: as with the data project, I look on it as a source of potential, personal pride so as to maintain my respect and self esteem.

Motivation at work is very much possible for someone with Asperger syndrome. What I have found important is the way to go about it.

If I implement the requirements listed above, it is very much achievable. It also means that my productivity and output can also match that of my colleagues. At times, it even means that I can exceed it; in fact, I have been asked by my previous employer to work as a consultant writing a few reports that my replacement is having difficulty with.

Compliments

Of course there are compliments and compliments. I find it hard to be flattered by someone who clearly doesn't know much about the skill I'm being complimented on. For instance, I had a LinkedIn connection I'd never met endorsing me for a skill I'd last used over 10 years ago.

I can really identify with this.

Having been in IT for about 16 years, I can certainly identify with your situation. It's only been in the last two years that I've had a "complimenty" boss - and while it's nice to be appreciated, I feel like cringing whenever I receive compliments. I'm just not geared to handle them.

The perfection issues you mention are a major problem for me too. I've always had trouble finishing a project to my preferred levels of perfection and have had to be told on occasion - "let it go, it's more than good enough".

I don't think I have motivational issues except when I'm on a group project. I prefer working alone.

Over the years, I've developed a trick of taking tiny (IMHO, rubbish) projects to committees while secretly sneaking the huge systems through. Many times, I've built new systems from the ground up, tested them myself and then launched them on an (almost) unsuspecting workplace populace - with only a quick email of warning.

In all cases, so far, they've been unqualified successes.

Recently, due to changes in the structure of my organization, I've been required to report more and more frequently on progress and work. I've had to do time sheets though I usually only make up the figures at the end of the month. If I put down my real figures, people would freak out as I tend to work much longer hours than most to achieve perfection.

Recently too, I've had my work, specifications and projects examined by committees who revise the scope, add or remove features and generally make changes to the project which make it impossible for me to meet my perfectionist ideals. As a result, we've had a lot of user-acceptance problems of late and I've been told by several of my colleagues; "we never used to have those sorts of problems when you were just doing it by yourself".

I just can't seem to work in a committee - I see them as major damaging influences on all projects. Unfortunately, in this day and age, doing things via committee is considered to be a form of risk mitigation even though, in my opinion, they significantly increase the user acceptance risks.

Gavin Bollard
My Blog: http://life-with-aspergers.blogspot.com