As visitors to Aspergermanagement.com, and also the related area on linkedin.com, will know I have been liaising quite closely lately with Barbara Bissonette a specialist coach for people with Asperger syndrome, (AS). I have come to respect and value her views enormously and so was really looking forward to reviewing her new book “Asperger’s Syndrome: Workplace Survival Guide. It did not disappoint.
One of the opening statements is: “At work it’s about figuring out what people want, which is hard for someone with Asperger syndrome”. This quote nicely sets the scene for the tone of the book, which is about working with Asperger’s in corporate/office/management style positions; precisely in other words, what Aspergermanagement is all about!
The author talks initially about the usual issues: socializing, dealing with change. But it also takes the perspective of those on the other side of the fence. Clients with AS want to learn techniques about prioritizing better or improving their time management; basically they want to learn what NT’s want!
The book describes Bissonette ‘s approach to coaching which, fundamentally, is not about changing the [AS] person; it’s about changing how one approaches a situation and interacts with others, so that they can function more effectively at work. It is about finding a role that capitalizes on the strengths inherent within AS, whilst discovering ways to minimize or work around associated limitations. As someone whose mantra is “if you want to change others, the best way is to change yourself”, I immediately resonated with the overall approach adopted.
The book uses practical/real-life examples to illustrate how certain methods can avoid misunderstandings with co-workers, clarify expectations with supervisors and deal with specific problems. As the author rightly says in my opinion, until the day when companies are “Aspie-friendly”, the onus is on the AS individual to find ways to fit in. Most NT’s know little about Asperger’s and don’t understand the condition and so believe in the stereotype of the loner who “doesn’t like people” and who isn’t empathetic.
The book focuses significantly on communication and how this is the source of a number of incipient difficulties. Within the workplace, the lack of understanding means that communication errors are treated as attitude or behavioural problems which makes learning how to communicate well enough vital in getting along with co-workers. The advice is sound: ask NT’s for help and do not allow bad experiences from the past to make you angry or bitter. Instead think about how you want people to perceive you.
Readers are correctly reminded that everyone has to fit in with cultural expectations and norms and have to work with people who they dislike or adhere to policies they feel are misguided. For me, these points are important and, when I reflect back on some of the difficulties I have personally encountered, I can see how adopting an alternative mind-set as suggested could have been really beneficial. As the author presciently asserts, whenever people in general get together there will inevitably be frustrations, conflicts and power struggles.
The book aims to assist in understanding what employers want from the employee so as to, hopefully, avoid some additional common problems. To start with it is advocated that one or two areas are selected and focused on so as to avoid trying to do too much at once which can lead to overwhelming change.
This, I believe, is very sound advice. As change is difficult for a person with AS, taking on too much at once is likely to significantly hinder the chances of success overall. In addition, I have found that doing so personally has meant that I have flicked between tasks because of my low attention span which has hindered my productivity.
Action in the form of small, consistent steps taken over time is advocated as the best approach, as is not to do everything personally as it will take time to master new skills. The most successful clients the author has dealt with are those willing to practice new attitudes or behaviours even though they initially feel uncomfortable. However, the more they do, the more they feel at ease with it.
My experiences confirm this, as are the next points made. Motivation is vital and focus and determination are required over an extended period to achieve realise required objectives. Setting a meaningful goal can assist here as will experimenting with change: decide what you will do differently, try and assess the results.
The initial text concludes with what I feel is an important mental requirement: do not give up. If you become discouraged, seek outside support. The key is to learn from your experiences and be willing to change.
Choosing the Right Career and Getting Hired
The first chapter looks at careers and securing a position. Success at work depends on many things: talent, interest, skills and education. Availability of jobs, the right environment and advancement opportunities are also important.
The author lists some of what she considers important factors in relation to AS: interest doesn’t automatically mean you will enjoy or make a living a specific field; for someone with AS the environment is even more important that job tasks; personal “eccentricities” are more readily overlooked if your skill is in demand and careful research before investing education can save a lot of money, time and energy – all useful advice.
Evaluating your skills and talent is important. For a person with Asperger syndrome understanding what your limitations are is vital and is incorporating AS-related factors when considering any profession.
The book then lists a useful process for identifying a career:
1: develop a list of possible careers: this is useful even if you think you know what you want to do;
2. Identify important work criteria: does work need to engage you intellectually or is job stability more important? Clarifying important personal criteria enables you to evaluate whether certain careers are a good match or not;
3. Conduct preliminary research: identify at least five possible careers from stage one and then research and learn all you can about them. Write down what you like and dislike and grade your interest. Look at actual job postings, look at the tasks and identify the skills required. Consider multi-tasking, teamwork and people skills;
4. Conduct applied research: it is difficult to consider a career unless you have experienced it. Volunteer or job shadow to gain first-hand exposure.
I liked the suggestion of informational interviewing which allows you to learn about a career by talking to people in the field. This is not a job interview, but an opportunity to enquire as to what exactly is involved in an informal fashion.
The next advice is also valuable. If you are not getting hired assess why. Looking at non-AS related factors is beneficial to ensure that AS is not automatically assumed as the reason for non-hire. Certain fields (arts, law, television etc) are highly competitive; others very specialized with few openings. Economic or technological changes can make roles obsolete. You may lack the necessary skills. These, are feel, are important messages. Too often in the past I have been guilty of automatically assuming that my – AS – personality has been the reason why I haven’t secured a position when, in fact, it has not been the case.
The next point is similarly relevant. Do not disqualify yourself if a job requires “good people skills” or the “ability to multitask” as these vary on the job, industry or company. Keep an open mind and do not immediately preclude yourself.
The chapter concludes with an important requirement. Avoid unrealistic expectations and spend sufficient time on the job search. It is imperative also to communicate effectively at job interviews so seek professional help with interviewing skills.
Communications Skills at Work
This next chapter looks at the subject of communication and associated issues in much more detail. As Bissonette says, problems with inter-personal communication account for 85% of the difficulties faced by an individual with AS in the workplace. Learning “good enough” communication skills is the most important requirement for your career; I personally wouldn’t disagree with this.
Too often, according to the author, the communication problem is treated as an attitude or behavioural problem because of differences in processing information: NT’s use a “we”; AS a “me” orientation. The latter respond to situations based on their point of view, presuming that others understand and agree with it. I have to increasingly appreciate over the time that this is rarely the case.
This point struck home strongly with me personally. I can see how, with retrospect, I have assumed that people will automatically see my point of view, the one that stems from the insight emanating from my AS when, when with hindsight this could not be the case!
The book outlines well how NT’s base much of their communication on an intuitive grasp of the “Big Picture”. They integrate information from their senses, memory and emotions to size up a situation and make a response. Aspergians on the other hand focus on detail, and piece together small details until the big picture emerges. This can be a time consuming process and the big picture may get lost along the way.
Emotions also play a role in NT’s communication. They anticipate how someone will feel about something and take into account the person’s characteristics. Useful practical examples are provided. “If recognition is important for Paula I will thank her publicly at the next dept meeting”.
The author then talks about AS “scripts” which she believes are of limited value in the real world. It is impossible to draft responses for every interaction that may happen. However, they may be useful for explaining unexpected behaviours, making requests or initiating basic conversation. I can think of specific examples which are useful for me: asking people to state facts when being challenged or criticised for examples.
The question is next asked: what is “good enough” communication? According to Bissonnette it is the ability to interact with others in a manner that is perceived as professional and personable. You understand what is expected of you, know how to clarify anything you are uncertain of and be able to work with others in a group. It does not require you to be phoney or anything that you are not. An important caveat is added: that it is important not to violate cultural norms. People do not want to work with those they feel uncomfortable with so there is a need not to alienate them.
I found the next point directly applicable as a manager with AS. Namely that: mental exhaustion comes from having to work things out cognitively not intuitively. As meaning comes from how words are spoken and non-verbal communication, I know that this is an area I need to focus more on and address.
Some relevant examples are provided for a manager. Context enables people to adjust communication to fit a particular situation, i.e. speaking more formally to a senior member of management than a co-worker. When talking with a customer, the needs of the client should be focused on.
I found also the explanation provided on central coherence which refers to the big picture or “getting the gist” of the situation hugely beneficial. In order to identify the correct thing to say, one needs an understanding of the overall situation to focus on the pertinent information and not irrelevant details. For me, this obligates the need to look very much outside my perspective.
Awareness of another person’s point of view is the third component of communication; the ability to recognize that other people have thoughts, desires, knowledge and motives that are different from yours. Theory-of-the mind (TOM) allows you to make an educated guess about how someone will respond to a situation, what they are feeling or what they would like to do.
Again useful examples related to this area are provided. With a meeting: who is attending? What is the reason for the meeting? Where is it being held? What do the other group members know about the topic? Small talk helps establish relationships, so identify appropriate questions. Choose appropriate dress. Considering these areas and making adjustments can be really beneficial.
2. Making the Right First Impression
Impressions are then investigated. Once an opinion is formed, it is usually hard to change. A person will be evaluated not only on technical capability, but their ability to “fit in”. As the author rightly says, all companies hire people on a conditional basis, whether stated or not.
For a person with Asperger syndrome this can obviously present difficulties. However, as the text outlines there are several things that can be done to make a positive first-impression on colleagues:
i) treat the first few days and weeks as a time to learn about specific tasks, your co-workers and how to get things done. Do not suggest different ways to do things until you understand how and why tasks are done in the current manner;
ii) listen and follow instructions: do not insist on doing things your own way as this may irritate others. Stay within your assigned areas of responsibility;
iii) arrive on time, appropriately dressed: appearance is a form of non-verbal communication. You want co-workers to focus on your abilities, not your poor appearance;
iv) refrain from making negative comments: be pleasant and enthusiastic; do not vent frustrations on others. Until you know who can trust, keep your communication private, and make only positive comments at work;
v) wait until people finish speaking before you begin talking: interrupting makes people think you are not listening or interested in what you have to say;
vi) practice active listening: make appropriate eye contact, nod in agreement and make occasional comments like “I understand”. Observe others to acquire relevant skills.
3. Communicating with Body Language
Facial expressions, posture, gestures and physical proximity to others – all important considerations for a manager with AS. Working on your body language can help. Don’t stare at the floor, fold your arms or speak in a monotone voice. Smiling also helps to convey friendliness and helps avoid making NT’s feel uneasy.
4. Small Talk: The Key to Relationship Building
This section was thought-provoking. It explains how small talk is important at work and is the first step in establishing relationships with colleagues. Most NT’s place a high value on workplace relationships; a good relationship with ones’ supervisor is a major source of job satisfaction.
Trading a few friendly remarks in the canteen sends the message that you consider yourself part of the group. Sharing small talk with more immediate work colleagues is the basis for building camaraderie and trust. NT’s want to work with people they like and believe are dependable. They are usually much more forgiving of errors and eccentricities if they perceive you are friendly and cooperative. These messages should, in my opinion, be full taken on-board.
Relevant, prescient and important tips are further provided. Greet with co-workers, smile at them/join them for lunch; show an interest in them. Act so as to appear that you are having a good time, even if you are not!
The basic formula advocated for small talk is to discuss general, neutral subjects for a short period of time. Avoid topics that polarize people: politics, religion or race, or those that make people feel uncomfortable i.e. sex or gossip about other employees.
As the author rightly asserts, building relationships at work takes time and consistent effort but is vital. Behave in ways that demonstrate a willingness to connect, i.e. leaving the door open in your office to be seen as accessible for example.
As Bisonnette also usefully says however, you do not need to be interacting with people all the time or become a world-class communicator to fit in. The key is to do enough to establish yourself as friendly, open and trustworthy. If you make a sincere effort to have a positive working relationship with others, people will likely sense and accept some awkwardness and make an effort to interact with you. Whilst at the BBC, this was precisely how my colleagues viewed me!
5. Why You Need a Work Buddy
This section I believe is very important. The advice given is, instead of trying to fit in with numerous people at once, identify someone who fits in well with others and allow that person to instruct you as you go along. The “unique way that things get done around here” can only be learned on the job and from your co-workers.
A work buddy can really help to achieve this. They can translate unspoken rules, who one can trust, explain office politics, (who has the power, how decisions get made, how departments interact etc). They can also provide ideas on how to work efficiently.
From a personal perspective, I have found that identifying a supporting person is, perhaps, one of the most beneficial things for a person with AS in the workplace and the authors’ suggestions in this area are invaluable. Choose any work buddy with care. You need to trust them explicitly. Good character traits include patience, volunteering information that is beneficial to know, introducing you to other people and making sure you are included like being invited to lunches. The word trust, is for me, the key.
Once identified, it is not necessary to ask that person to be a work buddy; it will happen naturally over time. Be careful not to overwhelm that person with questions and requests for advice; build the relationship through interaction and by becoming friendly. Express gratitude for any assistance received. Be alert for ways to reciprocate.
6. How to Be a Team Player
There is prescient advice in this area also, starting with: talk less and think more about what others are saying.
Being a team player means working collaboratively with others to reach a common goal. Each team member needs to understand how their expertise and skills contribute to a project’s success. In any group individuals’ will have different needs, values, personality styles and personal objectives. This may, at times, result in conflict as there are un-stated ambitions and objectives involved.
An essential part of team work is listening to, and respecting, the views of others – whether you agree with them or not. Pay full attention when other people are speaking so you understand their issues, problems and point-of-view. This information will help give you a sense of the big picture and assists in presenting your ideas in a way that address the concerns of others in the group.
Allow others to finish speaking before you respond. Do not interject with negative comments or correct minor mistakes as this may be seen as condescending or arrogant; they may also hinder being seen as a team player.
Other people may well – certainly as a result of dealing with AS – not see a situation the same way as you or draw the same conclusions. If you are behind with something for example, let people know. Find out what others are working on as this demonstrates a team orientation and shows how your works fits in as a whole.
Good team players express enthusiasm. Do not impress this in-authentically. Ask questions as a means of demonstrating enthusiasm, making supportive comments, share helpful ideas and listen intently when people speak. Company culture dictates team work. Observe how your colleagues interact; match their levels of social interaction. If you do disagree – which is acceptable and sometimes desirable according to the author – state your opinion in neutral or positive terms “I see the situation differently” and avoid judgemental or negative comments.
What this section is saying to me is: “do not allow your AS to dictate that you act ego-centrically”! Its is an important message.
Managing Your Career
According to Bissonette, there are two parts to managing your career. The first is meeting expectations and interacting effectively with colleagues so that you will remain steadily employed. Multiple job losses lead to not only loss of earning, but loss of self-esteem, depression and stress.
The second requirement is professional development: keeping your skills up-to-date or improve them. Be aware of significant changes in your industry, create a professional network and build on your strengths. How can this be achieved?
a) Build on Your Strengths
The AS mindset means that it can be easy to be negative and think about all the things you find difficult. Try instead to be positive and remind yourself of all the things you can do and learn. As the text emphasises: you are not disabled, you just have differing abilities and building on your strengths is a very important career strategy for someone with AS, as it means you can compete on the strengths of the Asperger mind. People with AS develop greater expertise within a narrow area and so using these strengths to capitalize and outweigh your limitations is a sound strategy.
I liked how the author described working with clients in their 40’s and 50’s who had no idea where their talents lie. The result is that they often are in careers that emphasize their challenges instead of their assets. Even when this is apparent and they feel uncomfortable with change they remain in very difficult jobs that drain their energy and leave them in constant fear of being fired.
Strengths can be negotiating tools so the advice given is to highlight strengths: talents, skills or specific competencies, i.e. computer programming, personal characteristics such as persistence, education and personal experience in situations where you have applied your talents and skills. Once these are understood a plan can then be formulated to exploit them fully and develop skills throughout a career. Look for ways so that your abilities can be used to fill a work need.
Like me the author believes there are opportunities to develop skills outside a job – volunteering for example. However, when building on your strengths be sure that you do not neglect other critical business skills such as only being able to work in isolation. Every improvement made in communication, time management and organization will pay off many times over. I couldn’t agree more!
b) Why You Need to Network
I haven’t networked sufficiently effectively in my career so I read this part of the book with great interest.
As the text asserts, contacts can make you aware of new resources, advice and how to solve various issues as well as career research. Every profession has trade groups can be used for meeting people. These and Associations provide structure and ready-made topics for discussion and which can facilitate social interaction. Serving on a committee is suggested as a useful activity.
Prepare before you attend any meetings: identify information, formulate questions. Challenge yourself to speak to people even if it means only asking a single question. Practice builds confidence over time. Join online groups and write articles for submission to build credibility.
Stay in touch with former co-workers you got on well with previously via sites like Linkedin, but keep postings professional not personal. Read other people’s updates and respond where appropriate: where a colleague has been promoted for example.
As Bissonette says, any outreach doesn’t have to be frequent, but it is important to express genuine interest in learning about how the other person is doing. If you contact people only when you need a favour, they will not want to stay in touch with you. With my current job search I have certainly found this, a shortcoming which I am now seeking to rectify.
c) A Primer on Office Politics
This section starts with a point that, I feel, is wholly necessary for someone with AS to appreciate and assimilate. As NTs are socially focused, success at work requires more than having just technical skills; individuals need to fit in to the organization’s culture and figure out who has the power to get things done. Corporate culture is based on shard values or beliefs about what is important: short-term sales, building value etc.
As someone with Asperger may well have – and concentrate on – advanced technical skills, understanding office politics to figure out who has power and authority, specialized expertise or ability to influence others is essential. As the author rightly says, long serving employees have an understanding of processes, procedures and people and make it their business to learn the needs of others so as to use this information to influence the decisions of others. I know from my own experience just how valid this argument is.
As Bissonette goes on to say, grasping unspoken rules means things start to make sense: you know who to go to for help, you stop taking the actions of others personally and the bigger picture becomes clearer. A lack of political awareness makes it hard to influence others as decisions can be politically motivated and can appear contrary to stated business objectives. As readers of my book managing with Asperger Syndrome will know, learning about, and understanding fully, corporate politics has been one of my key development objectives.
Though difficult, developing awareness of these processes can be enormously helpful for someone with AS. Make yourself available to help others who are behind with things, taking an interest in what colleagues are doing, being supportive when they have professional or personal problems, are all beneficial actions.
This is all sound advice; as is the next guidance suggested which I have tried to practice: increasing awareness can be achieved by becoming an astute observer, by understanding the social networks, talking to people to learn about office politics. However, it is also important to do so in a politically correct way: by asking a trusted co-worker to explain the politics, accepting that political motives – not logic – can drive decisions and using this to know when to compromise.
The next advice leads on from all this and is equally beneficial. If things get really difficult, try to stay out-of-the-fray. Ignore gossip, don’t take sides and focus on your assigned tasks. If you can’t better your situation, seek employment elsewhere. However, resist the urge to simply quit as it will make it harder to find another job. Wherever possible, leave on your own and good terms.
d) How to Handle Conflicts and Disagreements
An incredibly important section. Having AS may mean an abrasive personal style. As some people have said to me: “it’s not so much what you say but how you say it”. The reason being as Bissonette quite rightly identifies, is that people may feel they are being criticised and belittled. You need to be collaborating.
Whether disagreements can be resolved before they become emotionally-charged depends on a number of factors. As the text outlines, there is not a lot you can do about management conflicts unless you are at the same management level or a trusted advisor.
You do not need to like a person, but by focusing on business objectives and being prepared to interact with others who have different perspectives, differences can be significantly reduced. Listening to opinions and respecting others are vital. You can disagree with other people providing you don’t overstep your authority by interfering in other departments or attempting tasks that are outside your skill set or experience.
When you do have to feedback or disagree, avoid statements that imply judgement as these make people defensive. Use instead neutral language. If you are upset with a colleague, do not react until you have calmed down. Put a single action into perspective and consider your history with the other person – everyone can have a bad day.
Unresolved conflicts can worsen over time so it is important to take corrective action. If such differences occur, speak directly with the person first in a private location. (a useful process that one can go through is provided and, if that doesn’t work, it is suggested that you speak to your supervisor).
e) Feedback and Criticism
There is also invaluable advice given here. Feedback is a way to identify areas of improvement and when receiving criticism listen specifically to what it is and try to understand why the person is saying it. Do not take it as a personal affront or attack; criticism provides opportunities to make changes and be successful.
People will react to you how they perceive you. If you are perceived as unfriendly or strange it will have implications. You need to be aware of the impression you are making on others.
This is prescient insight. The key I have found here is striking the right balance between being friendly and assertive. I have found that, if I am too amenable, people will regard me as a soft touch; if I am non-friendly or excessively aggressive in my demeanour, I will antagonise. Remain calm to provide an appearance of gravitas and authority, whilst assertive in communicating ones’ needs. See: http://www.aspergermanagement.com/standing-up-oneself
f) Dealing with Authority
Supervisors do not work in a vacuum; they have superiors and responsibilities too. They may also have to implement policies they don’t agree with.
The author outlines some common difficulties for people with Asperger here that may prevail with their manager. They include:
• Believing the boss doesn’t deserve your respect because they are intellectually inferior. In these instances contempt may well be sensed;
• Continually questioning or challenging assignments: you must accept that the boss has to direct people and the less complex the job the more control they will have. If you do question a superior choose your battles carefully: differentiate between seeking a legitimate improvement and simply wanting to do something your way;
• Treating your superior as an enemy: if you come into work prepared to do battle you will find it!
• Treating your supervisor like a peer: exercise some degree of deference; be sensitive to behaviours that could embarrass or question their authority;
• Refuse to do something because you think that it is dumb: try to understand the reasons behind a decision and use conciliatory language.
All this, I believe, is very sound advice.
Executive Functions at Work
Executive functions are cognitive processes that enable a person to develop, organize and execute a plan. Good executive functioning enables an individual to analyze facts and draw conclusions, prioritize, solve problems, predict likely outcomes, evaluate results and change course if required.
Data can be synthesized from many sources to form an understanding of the bigger picture. Similar experiences from the past can be used to inform current decisions. Difficulties may be encountered when starting a new task. Flexibility is also required so that an approach that is not working can be adjusted and other options identified.
All of this is relevant to me personally which meant I found this section also of great value.
a) Working Memory and the Myth of Multitasking
According to Bissonette, the reality is that when people in general multitask they are not literally doing more than one thing at once; they are rapidly shifting their attention from one task to another. Doing so requires the ability to quickly process information and having a good working memory.
Addressing the latter – and not completely fixing it which, according to the author, is impossible for someone with AS – involves utilising some useful tips provided:
• Find a quiet space and limit interruptions during the day;
• Schedule two or three specific times during the day for checking voice and e-mails. As someone who is always looking at e-mails I can empathise strongly with this;
• Do not assume that you have to start everything from scratch. Look for connections to what you already know;
• If an assignment is completely new, find an example and create an outline and add the specific details from your own project. This is very useful I have found as it removes some of the anxiety of commencing a new task and, also, provides a degree of reassurance that one is on the right path;
• Practice information “chunking”: group information into categories to use less working memory capacity;
• Create daily routines to plan activities. I used to advocate drawing up a weekly schedule. Though I still do, I have now further, at schedule one at the start of ach day whilst, at the same time, referring to my weekly/monthly schedule, to incorporate the wider picture;
• Write things down using a pen/paper – not a computer keyboard – to aid recall; make use of electronic devices to organize information, store information and remind yourself of any commitments.
Again, I believe that this is all incredibly useful advice.
b) Project Planning
Planning is a critical executive function at work and one where I think the majority of managers with AS fall short.
Acting without a plan can have a number of negative consequences: not knowing how to get started, becoming stuck midway through a project, vastly under-estimating how long a project will take, discovering too late that important parts are missing or losing sight of the original goal.
The text identifies four basic steps to effective planning: establish a clear goal or task; create specific, manageable steps and gather/obtain information/materials needed to complete, (a working template is provided).
c) The Importance of Flexibility and Processing Speed in Decision-Making
Flexibility is essential for good decision-making. Company policies change, new managers arrive and economic events transform industries. As I have found from own experience, and as the author outlines, the more flexible your mindset, the more easily you can adapt to change and consider other options.
Slow processing speed makes rapid attention/switching difficult for multi-tasking and group interaction. Slow processing can be compensated by asking for clarification of what someone said if you don’t understand; that information be repeated slowly and/or provided in written form; explaining your difficulty in a neutral way (I need some time to think about what you’ve said); requesting an agenda in advance of meetings or ask to see notes afterwards.
d) Three Simple Management Tips
Bissonette advocates time tracking exercises to help to manage time better. Ask co-workers how you can increase the pace of your work or efficiency to identify “unspoken rules” so as to identify what are priorities and what are not.
Look at your personal habits: are you adding unnecessary time by striving for perfection or spending too long on a problem instead of asking for help? Do you always start from scratch instead of using existing work/examples?
I resonated with the next point: that e-mails can create misunderstandings and are not good for complex matters. Whilst effective for simple messages or basic information, it is not an appropriate medium for discussing emotionally charged or complicated issues. The advice given here is, I believe, important: use the telephone or arrange a personal meeting. I can see how in the past my e-mails have been viewed as too blunt and so have been misconstrued due to the absence of personal consideration or a “personal touch”.
E) Asking for Help is a Good Thing; Being Too Helpful is Not.
This – for me – is a highly prescient statement and an important lesson that I have had to learn. All the author’s Asperger client’s have been reticent about asking for help. Related mistakes include telling people that something is understood when it is not for fear of appearing foolish which leads to errors.
However, it is possible also to ask too many questions which may annoy something which, I know, I personally have been guilty of. Queries can serve as a means of double checking or receiving validation that a good job is being done. However, demonstrating concern about doing something exactly right can also irritate, cause unnecessary queries and raise concerns about competence.
The guidance offered here is sound. If you are new on the job or learning something fresh such as a strange computer system, it is assumed that you will ask questions as procedures and policies will be new. Asking about what you don’t understand is a smart thing to do as it allows better solutions to be identified in less time. (Savvy managers know what they don’t know and surround themselves with experienced/capable people).
Again the advice is prescient. Determine who you will ask for assistance. If the query is significant, involve your supervisor. Keep notes about who to contact with what so you don’t ask the same people time and again. Asking too many questions may be a sign that you do not understand a fundamental part of a task and is something one should avoid doing.
If colleagues continually resist answering your questions, it may be a sign of a bigger problem and means that you are expected to find the answer yourself. Listen carefully when answers are provided and make notes to ensure that you don’t have to ask again.
Use caution and discretion when asking questions about social skills, basic communication and interpersonal relationships. Don’t, for example, ask your boss how to make small talk; seek help outside work.
The question of what, if you want to offer help to others, to do is then considered? You may have done so and been accused of being selfish, rude or intrusive. An example is refusing to follow company procedures or correcting people who make pedantic mistakes. These could cause others difficulties or them perceiving a person with AS as arrogant something which, I believe, is always a danger for someone with AS, (though almost always, as usual, unintentionally).
The author suggest a good general rule when offering other people help: be sure that the other person wants it! Unsolicited advice and error correction are usually unwelcome. Be certain that any advice doesn’t violate company rules or policies.
F) Meeting Employer Expectations
“Find what your employer needs from you and prioritize on that, not what you want”.
This – again – is an important message. Often supervisors inform about job shortcomings, but in ways that the person with AS may not understand. Understanding expectations requires strong communication and executive function skills. Misunderstandings can happen if instructions are interpreted very literally or non-verbal signals are ignored. As a manager with AS, I know I have to further address these issues.
As NT’s are big picture thinkers and assume that details are implicitly understood, they may not explain the fine points you need to ask! The solutions are again solid and worth incorporating: Request:
• A review or written instructions;
• A sample or submit an outline if instructions are vague or what an unfinished product should look like, (request an example of what is required) to ensure clarification;
• For assistance if you are unsure of how to get started;
• Summarize your understanding of an assignment using your own words (do not repeat verbatim what the other person said);
• How often your manager wants to be updated and, if applicable, what decisions you can make personally;
• Observe your peers to understand “unspoken” expectations.
According to the text another way to gauge how well you are meeting expectations is to ask for feedback about your performance at regular intervals. This is a technique that I personally have implemented assiduously.
The frequency of request should depend on your job and length of employment. If you are new it can be more regular. If you are a manager ask for a one-month review. Be guarded about asking for feedback too often as this can make you appear uncertain and insecure about how to do your job.
Frame any requests in a positive manner: “I want to be sure that I meet expectations”. If your supervisor recommends areas for improvement, ask when they would like to have a follow-up meeting to review progress. If an assignment is not clear, ask, don’t guess or assume what to do. If problems persist define the specific issue, describe the end result you want and brainstorm possible solutions and predict the likely outcomes to identify answers.
The section finishes with a useful appraisal of the different ways of learning. 1. Visual. 2. Auditory. 3. Tactile/Kinetic – literally “hands-on”; participate or learn whilst doing- and then how writing down the sequences which things are done may be advantageous.
As Bissonette describes, most people are a mix of the two. A visual/kinetic learner might read about a procedure and then try the steps for themselves. It is suggested that one experiments and finds what best works for them. For me, it is visual/kinetic learning and it has proved hugely beneficial.
g) The Importance of a Goal or a Plan
Set goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable and time-orientated. I thought hard about this section because the most difficult manager that I have ever had to work for set dates, times and deadlines in an almost child-like fashion. I resented this and found it at the time counterproductive. However, I have increasingly some round to the view that doing so is important for me as manager with AS, provided I do not allow the timelines to exert undue pressure providing, of course, that the process is perceived/viewed as constructive.
As the Workplace Survival Guide say setting goals is easy: it is the follow-through needed to reach the goal is harder which is why I have come to believe they are essential for me as a manager with AS. If you are having trouble implementing a plan the book lists certain “inhibitors” that may get in the way:
• unsure of how to begin or what the specific steps are;
• anxiety or fear about a specific step;
• boredom with tasks;
• negative attitude/paralyzed by thoughts – “I can’t do it”;
• bad habits consume the time needed to work on a goal, i.e. non-job related internet surfing;
• no structure to the day or week; too much unstructured time can make it hard to get the work done;
• trying to make a change with little of no support;
• action items that are too large, not specific enough or overwhelming.
All these facets have applied to me at some stage in my career which is why the solution advocated – a good action plan that establishes specific steps and when a goal will be reached – is advantageous. However, as the author states, any plan MUST be realistic. Success will be more likely if the goal is meaningful and important to you. Action steps must be detailed and have specific milestones. If you feel anxious or overwhelmed with creating or following through on weekly action plans, then make revisions.
Another successful technique identified is to make yourself accountable to another person: arrange regular, frequent check-ins to monitor your progress. Tell the person beforehand what they should do if you not follow through on your commitments.
If you take action and it doesn’t work, brainstorm and seek a different approach. Too often people with AS allow one or two setbacks to completely stop their progress. Take small, consistent steps over a reasonable period of time and experiment with new techniques.
This, for me, is one of the most important, delicate and sensitive areas for any person with AS to consider; for a manager with AS it becomes even more pertinent.
According to Bissonette disclosure “depends”: on your performance, nature of the job, specific challenges, any disciplinary action and the comfort level associated with disclosure.
The usual benefits/drawbacks are discussed. Disclosure can protect against job loss, but can also mean a job offer being rescinded, a promotion denied or a job loss without the real reasons being stated. However, some valuable discussion is then provided in relation to these criteria which allows for further, considered thought and evaluation.
A good overview is provided about the difficulties of proving a disability in relation to job tasks and what is regarded as reasonable. The advice sensibly also suggests asking for modifications without disclosing as a general request may suffice and also how, the more prepared you are, the better the chances of getting accommodations, (the text lists some accommodations that have been granted to clients, i.e. permission to take breaks when stressed).
How to Disclose in a Solution-Focused Way
As the author importantly outlines, if you do disclose it is important to do so in a solutions-focused way. Proactively suggesting solutions greatly enhances the likelihood of an employer implementing them and an outline for achieving this is provided in the form of a three step strategy for disclosure:
i) What to Disclose: list all work-related challenges – not just personal problems such as exhaustion at the end of work. Describe their impact on your employment and performance so as identify required accommodations;
ii) How to Disclose: make any disclosure short and simple and ensure that the HR Department is included. Summarise the situation and challenges and explain required accommodations. Do not provide a long explanation or history of AS. Mention what you are doing well and your commitment to excellent performance. If you want to keep the information confidential, say so;
iii) When to Disclose: in your cover letter, at job interview, when you receive a job offer, after you have been hired, give reasons for disclosure at each stage, i.e. disclose if, after you been hired, you receive a two week notice to improve.
If you do disclose and still lose your job, treat it as a learning experience. Find out from the employer specifically what went wrong and where you need to improve; do not become discouraged. With determination and practice you can learn new skills and improve personally which increases the chances of finding satisfying employment. From my own experience I can confirm that these are important – and potentially hugely beneficial and re-assuring – suggestions.
Managing Anxiety, Frustration, Anger and Stress
Next how managing how other people perceive you is important is investigated. Managing anxiety, frustration and stress is vital for this, as is being able to recognize emotions before they become completely overwhelming which can be a challenge. I can’t emphasise personally how important I believe this to be. Why?
Emotional overwhelm can lead to impulsive actions and poor decision-making. As the book outlines, strong emotions lead to an “amygdale hijack” or the emotional part of the brain reacting automatically before the cerebral cortex (the thinking part of the brain) can kick into action. When the latter passes, a person with AS will usually realize that their emotional reactions were inappropriate: I can give more than one example personally when this is applicable to me! As the author says, being unable to control stress levels risks damaging your reputation, credibility and possible job loss.
The first – ameliorative – step is becoming aware of what triggers anger, frustration, anxiety or other feelings. Techniques suggested to “short-circuit” a rising emotional current include: taking a break, not responding excessively or prematurely to others or making decisions when upset, use positive self-talk, exercise regularly, getting enough sleep and releasing unrealistic expectations such as striving for perfection. This is all sound advice.
How to Avoid Cognitive Distortions
According to Bissonette, the secret to significantly reducing levels of frustration and improving work relationships is accepting you cannot control the actions of other people.
It is a given that you will encounter people who annoy, frustrate etc de to their own values, preferences and goals. It is impossible to control what other people do. All you can do is control your own reaction and you do according to the author have choices in how you can respond. Again, I believe, this is enormously prescient advice.
As the author correctly asserts, people with AS often take the actions of other people very personally. Their assumption is that another person’s words or actions are intended as a put-down or attack on them. I have found myself that not automatically assuming this is important.
Taking things personally is an example of cognitive distortion: a habitual pattern of negative thinking that results’ in misreading people and situations and which can have enormous negative repercussions. Instead, what often happens when AS is incorporated into the mix is that something happens meaning that a person with AS immediately forms a conclusion why and doesn’t stop to consider if it is logical or makes sense.
As Bissonette points out though, cognitive distortion is not unique to people with Asperger Syndrome. However, when negative thoughts patterns are combined with impaired TOM, weak central coherence and anxiety the potential for misunderstandings are increased.
Common distorted AS related thinking patterns include: misunderstanding the intentions of others, black & white thinking with no room for compromise or alternative explanations and magnifying the severity of a situation. The big indicator that perceptions are distorted is the lack of evidence to support them. Rectifying the latter is an approach that I have worked assiduously to implement. Now, I force myself to NOT assume automatically that I am to blame!
According to Burns there are ten common patterns of distorted thinking and which I personally can strongly relate to, all of which relate to a work or management context:
• All or nothing thinking: seeing people or situations in absolute terms, i.e. good or bad;
• Catastrophizing: exaggeration of the potential for negative outcomes;
• “Shoulds”: strict sets of rules about how people are supposed to act and exaggerated consequences if a rule is violated;
• Personalization: assuming that you are the reason that someone has behaved in a certain way without considering other explanations;
• Jumping to conclusions: mind reading others without any evidence or “fortune telling” – anticipating what will go wrong as an established fact;
• Labelling: assigning negative labels to yourself or other people without evidence;
• Filtering: paying attention to negative information only and filtering out the positive
• Disqualifying positives: insisting that positive experiences don’t count; “anyone could have done that”;
• Emotional reasoning: the belief that your feelings are the truth: “I feel stupid so I must be”;
• Overgeneralization: global statements about one-off events. “I have had a problem with that person so I can’t manage”.
For me, all these factor are worthy or consideration for a manager with Asperger syndrome.
Changing Distorted Thinking Patterns
The next points investigated are also worthy of time and measured consideration. Distorted thinking patterns originate with the thoughts a person with AS may have about events and not the events themselves. According to the author, thoughts create feelings that drive actions. When negative thoughts prevent the logical, objective analysis of a situation things become problematic.
As I can only too easily concur, changing distorted thinking patterns, as Bissonette says, is never easy. The first requirement is to connect any thoughts to the behaviour that you want to change, i.e. I am not – automatically – to blame. Secondly, challenge your negative thoughts and replace them with realistic ones. Take your time with this step as you must believe in any new thoughts so that you can implement them.
When a new thought pattern is created you need to practice and reinforce it. Read about an issue, role-play. Set a goal and take steps to reach it, focus on positive outcomes; repeat the thought and put it into practice.
According to the author anxiety is a dis-ease and concern about what might happen in the future. Most of the things that people feel anxious about don’t actually happen. I wish I could always bear this in mind!
Anxiety becomes problematic if it prevents you performing job tasks. As the book outlines, severe anxiety can be debilitating. Ruminating about what “might” happen saps energy and leads to more stress. Again, I have tried hard to ensure that this does not occur for me in a management context.
As the author rightly asserts, assumptions are dangerous because they are based on past events you fear will be repeated in the present. To prevent this it is advocated that you first establish facts. Next prepare to feel in control of the situation and practicing doing so can dramatically lower anxiety levels. So can realistic expectations: shift your focus onto trying to do your best, assisting someone else or learn a new skill. Reframing existing perceptions can also help reduce anxiety – by looking differently at a situation by focusing on the positives for example.
Other issues explored and commented on include:
i) Sensory Issues on the Job: sensory stimuli can make it difficult to concentrate. If your sensory problems are severe then disclosure may be appropriate, but also suggest solutions: wearing layered clothing that can be removed if heat becomes an issue;
ii) Dealing with Change: most people dislike change, but people with AS dislike it a lot! The problem is the [corporate] environment is always changing: managers come and go, companies are bought and sold etc. Human beings tend to resist change by working as they always have, refusing to see any benefits in change, pointing out why change won’t work, questioning the need for change, or sabotaging it via passive-aggressive behaviour.
As Bissonnette rightly says however, resisting change is ineffective and can potentially lead to job loss. The advice advocated is to not panic if you suspect change is coming. Talk the situation over with someone you can trust and do not project your thoughts too far into the future. Continue to do your best and avoid taking part in the rumour mill.
When change is announced listen carefully to what is said and take constructive action to adapt. Look for similarities between what you do now and what will be required in the future; what knowledge and experience can you carry over; listen carefully to new management’s priorities.
Ask questions about things you are uncertain about; save specific concerns for your supervisor. Frame your thoughts in a positive way and refrain from making negative comments to avoid people wondering why you cannot get along with others.
Do not resist if asked to do your job in a different way. Do not talk about the old ways and try to learn new skills/methods. Observe the new supervisor’s working style.
I have found that accepting and adapting to change is a real challenge for me as a manager with AS. However, as the book outlines, it is inevitable and something that I have had to come to terms with, something which, I believe, I have successfully to a degree achieved. All of the above advice therefore is, I believe, highly relevant.
iii) What to Do If You Are Fired
The author then investigates this difficult and vexed subject. Involuntary job loss is naturally stressful and can erode self-confidence and self-esteem. As Bissonette sensitively asserts, having AS means it presents special challenges.
The [AS] individual may not understand why it happened which will make it harder to handle in the future. The important point is to appreciate that it doesn’t reflect on you as a person; instead, ensure you view it – as it does – on your skills/abilities in relation to a particular position.
The advice given is to try and find out why you lost your job, but don’t go back if there was friction. If you were viewed as difficult, look to develop your communication skills. Understand controversial topics, don’t challenge continually the ideas of other people or refuse to follow instructions.
If dismissal was completely unexpected, clarify assignments in the future to avoid literal misunderstanding. If you have tended to lose your temper, learn to control your anger and stress. If you are bored, proactively leave and on good terms. If your productivity was low, concentrate on priorities or consider the environment.
If the issue was one of confusion about expectations, that too many/few questions were asked or that you did not take the initiative, clarify them in the future. If you have continual problems with maintaining work, seek professional career advice.
Difficult though it may be, accept termination quietly and vent emotions privately away from the workplace. All of this is, in my opinion, relevant, beneficial and very sound, practical advice.
In The Final Analysis
According to Bissonette, people will very shortly be well aware of what AS is and what it constitutes. Understanding of AS, and the real benefits it can afford, are becoming increasingly apparent. However, as the author says, until “Aspie-friendly” becomes the norm the onus is on the person with Asperger syndrome to fit in; to continue to develop your skills and abilities.
I can’t emphasise how important this advice to a manager with AS is. As readers of my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome will know, and as I stated at the start of this review, one of my key mantras is: “if you want to change others, the best thing is to change yourself!”
As the author says, research what jobs may be appropriate and if something doesn’t work out – change. I strongly suggest being open to trying some of the ameliorative techniques described in this book which finishes with a very useful short guide on Asperger Syndrome for employers.
I can’t emphasise strongly enough how important and beneficial the Workplace Survival Guide is for anyone with AS (or managing a person with (AS) working in a managerial position. The advice is enormously practical, relevant and prescient.
Few authors/people I have liaised with have developed the connection that Barbara Bissonette has with the issues that affect those working with Asperger syndrome in such contexts. Her ability to strike the appropriate balance between understanding and – sensitive yet forceful recommendations – means that the book really is, for me, essential reading. It will probably, in my opinion, become a definitive text in its field.
Asperger’s Syndrome: Workplace Survival Guide (ISBN: 978-0-615-40759-3)can be purchased directly only via Barbara Bissonette’s website at www.forwardmotion.info.