Are You Sure We’ve Got This Right?

As with most people with Asperger syndrome, (AS), I like and need a degree of routine and an environment that is largely predictable. I also have “my way” of working which satisfies the parameters within which I can control and contain some of the negatives that emanate from my condition. Having a secure, predictable environment is one such condition; not working in a non-constructive or hostile corporate culture is another.

Looking back over my career I can see how, when these requirements are not satisfied, or when the environment or people I work with are contrary to me personally, it induces reactions or behaviours that are negative and, at times, destructive. The most pertinent example that immediately springs to mind is when I am confronted by an aggressive type of manager or, to put in bluntly, a bully.

In a recent article Professor Adrian Furnham of University College London talks about how certain vocations attract certain personality types: the paranoid the security sector; the narcissist to showbusiness. As he goes on to say: vocational choice is a function of personality, ability and values. What job one actually ends up in however, is also determined by education, parenting and chance.

The central piece of the article focuses on the obsessive-compulsive personality profile and how many jobs are suited to it: quality-control, internal audit, health and safety. This immediately caught my eye as these facets resonate strongly with the Asperger-syndrome personality profile: obsessive attention to areas of interest, compulsive behaviours such as adherence to routine etc. As I know only too well from my own career, if I am working on something that is of interest it overcomes so many of the difficulties that appear if the opposite is the case: motivation, attention to detail, work productivity, memorising facts and data, being seen as competent and adding-value among others.

It is when the opposite is the case of course that difficulties begin to arise. As Professor Furnham goes on to say, there are degrees of obsessive-compulsiveness. At its extreme it can be characterised by intrusive worries and repetitive thoughts and acts revealed by ritualised behaviour. Compulsives are constantly checking things that may help them at work. They like certainty. They talk about “getting it right! And like rules, processes and procedures that do just that. They also believe in all sorts of control, particularly the control of their own thoughts and passions and that their own thoughts have the power to cause or influence every situation and action.

I was wondering when I read this whether he was talking about Asperger syndrome not just obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD. Because of this, it also made me feel slightly uncomfortable!

The reason for this is the explanation that Professor Furnham goes on to provide about what happens when the very orderly lives and rituals that people with OCD follow are disrupted, threatened or curtailed: the reaction can be extreme. As Professor Furnham goes on to say this often happens when someone challenges such a person. I resonated with this trigger immediately because – again looking back – I can see how this has been the catalyst for many of the most serious difficulties that I have encountered in a workplace setting.

Being confronted aggressively or negatively occurred in my prime example. As readers of my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome and visitors to my site will know, the bête noire who did much to irreparably damage my career at one stage did so as a consequence of him aggressively confronting me initially which induced a commensurately aggressive and negative reaction in me. In the case of the most difficult person I have ever encountered and had to deal with (see Chapter 11 of my book entitled: “If You Meet That Person”) in a work context, I accurately foresaw the way he was going to behave and react going forward which induced in me the passive-aggressive response that Professor Furnham believes that OCD’s respond with initially; something which then develops into “something more direct!”

Professor Furnham describes passive-aggression as “a leisurely ignoring of others’ requests and becoming cross when asked to do so. In the past whilst at work, my Asperger has determined that when confronted with situations such as those described above I become passive-aggressive: I refuse to kow-tow to people or be “respectful” to those in authority if, I believe, they are acting unfairly.

The last point emanates I believe from the next point that article talks about: how the famous psycho-analyst Freud believed that OCD’s had feelings of extreme morality. Because of the high degree of integrity that my Asperger affords me, or perhaps my propensity to be “honest to a fault”, I perceive a high degree of ethicacy in my actions and those of others; I admit that I can be very judgemental of others which I have found can be very dangerous in a work context.

The article states that all analysts believe that aggression or hostility towards specific people is often not openly expressed, but manifests itself in an unconscious form. Ergo my Asperger! Apparently Freud believed that obsessives were uber-moralists as a result of a defence mechanism called reaction formation against latent aggressive impulses. Reaction formation is a primitive coping strategy that attempts to calm and eradicate unacceptable socially unacceptable impulses but outwardly adopting the opposite behaviour.

Consequently, the OCD person becomes very moral to try and cope with these thoughts. The problem is that, for most people, the strategy only partially succeeds and the negative impulses return because they are not part of the self-concept of the moral OCD person.

I found this not only interesting but, if truth be told, very uncomfortable to read and think about. Again, referring to some of the most difficult, challenging and damaging occurrences that I have experienced during my career, these negative impulses have been apparent. As someone who would never consciously or deliberately seek to offend or upset anyone, the negative reactions to me and the impressions that some people have subsequently had of me can be highly upsetting. Being unfair or aggressive is certainly not ethical or moral in my eyes!

The article then starts to touch on the next consequence which also made me think and, I believe, ask myself some difficult and searching questions. Namely that: the OCD person’s excessive feeling of responsibility is not a real concern for others but over-compensation for aggressive and calculating reciprocal behaviour. As a result, the OCD person develops a dislike for those who won’t comply with their demands and so become sources or targets of anger and resentment. A vicious and damaging circle begins.

Again, all of this is something that I can only too readily resonate with. If someone doesn’t comply with my requirements, or acts in a way that is contrary to my Asperger perspective, I not only struggle to interact with them, but – with hindsight – I can see how I have adopted a moral or “holier-than-though” stance. I can also see how, looking back, this can affront people. There are times of course, when the action and behaviours of others in a work context justifies adopting such an impression and perception, but these are very rare.

So, what are the actions that a manager can introduce that can prevent these outcomes occurring? Firstly, I have tried very hard not to allow personal feelings or my heightened sense of [perceived] values, honesty and perceptions intrude into a business context. As I read somewhere everyone has the right to their good name and no-one has the right to denigrate that without very good reason.

As Professor Furnham’s article rightly states, the problem arises when one crosses the line beyond mild OCD behaviours. Moral behaviour is valued and often rewarded. The danger is when the highly principled or moral person is challenged: when, for example, the long-term interests of an organisation are being damaged or a person is being treated “unfairly”. This is when the latent aggression starts to manifest itself.

Too right! I can see how this causes problems for me. So what else can I do about it? Worrying less about what others say and do is helpful. Accepting that, ultimately, the organisation I work for and its senior management have the right to determine the future direction of the organisation and the actions they believe are needed to reach those objectives. If I don’t agree or believe that they are detrimental to me personally, then I ultimately need to go elsewhere.

Above all I have learnt that I need to understand better – and control – those Asperger-related facets of my personality and behaviour referred to above which have been, I believe, the source of so many difficulties. Yes, I believe that other parties have acted unfairly or in a manner that is detrimental to my company and me personally, but that is the reality of the situation.

Part of the answer I have discovered is “how” I deal with it. Not being too “holier-than-thou” is replaced by a more controlled form of assertiveness. If I am unhappy with something or someone then I try to approach the issue with a sense and desire of reconciliation by focusing on the facts and not the individual personally.

As mentioned, I also question my right to judge others morally or, albeit sub-consciously, enforce that judgement on others by adopting and trying to implement what I want personally. I have come to appreciate that I need to act in ways that demonstrate to others and not just myself the self-concept that I believe I possess and want to project. In other words I try to feel and show genuine concern for others and not the ambivalent attitude towards others that the article outlines. I also try to accept it when other people won’t comply with my demands and not hold anything against work colleagues if they fail to do so.

Its about as the article goes on to say, expressing negative emotions in a mature and socially competent way. If I can achieve this, I know that the anger within me has less chance of manifesting itself aggressively when I am challenged.

The article is entitled “Are You Sure You’ve Got This Right?” Hard as though it has been to accept at times when reading the article, I have to admit that I perhaps at times I have not! It’s the same old adage though: the most beneficial lessons come from the hardest experiences which I will follow once again with my own personal mantra: “if you want to change others, the first thing you have to do is change yourself!”

Managing with Asperger Syndrome