There is a very well-known politician in the UK called Tony Benn who is re-known for his strong, independent views.
I have to say that, historically, I have never really concurred with his political viewpoint, but I have always found him stimulating and interesting a listen to.
A few years ago now he was interviewed in a very famous BBC Radio series called In the Psychiatrist’s Chair by the late Professor Anthony Clare. The series ran for a number of years and put famous personalities “In the Psychiatrist’s Chair” whereby Professor Clare would probe and investigate their personality to try and find out what “made them tick”.
The Benn Interview took place in 1995. I have read and listened to it a number of times since as it has had a profound impact upon my thinking.
It starts by asking him about his radical views. As with most things psychological, he states that they go back to his childhood and how – rather than his formal education at Oxford University – his personality was shaped by experience.
My personality has been distinctly influenced by my experience of finding out in my mid-thirties that I was afflicted with Asperger syndrome (AS). Up until then, I had little idea as to why many things were occurring and happening to me. Since then I have, as a result of my experience, gained a number of invaluable insights.
One is of the need to ask for help or assistance. However, the situation is not simply a case of asking for assistance; as a person with Asperger syndrome, it has other, related implications such as – at times – not asking for assistance when I need it.
Having Asperger syndrome has unquestionably meant that I have harboured internal, self doubts. It’s partly a result of being consciously aware of being different, but also, I suspect, of the need to know that I am doing something correctly – at least the first time around – so as to acquire the confidence that I am not off track.
Once I have acquired the knowledge about how to undertake a task, I can perform it easily, often even when I am under quite a bit of pressure However, it usually takes me slightly longer initially to learn how to do something.
One of the things that I have failed to do sufficiently is to ask for guidance when I have perhaps needed it.
In an organisational or management role not asking for help can, of course, have significant implications. There is a need to strike an appropriate balance between asking for assistance and not becoming too dependent on others so as to create a positive impression. It is a balance that I have often struggled to get right.
Having Asperger syndrome I have found, therefore, complicates the situation. Central to the former is the danger of attempting to do things whilst not be being qualified and fully prepared and, consequently, not only of failing to do things satisfactorily but also of appearing “arrogant”.
Professor Tony Attwood in his seminal text The Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome addresses this issue directly.
A form of over-compensation is developed for feeling defective in social situations by denying that there is any problem and that [a child] cannot ever make a mistake. They do not feel they have the need for any assistance or should be treated any differently to other children.
I am not sure that I believe that I do not need any education/training or cannot benefit form the insight of others; indeed, I usually believe that I can undoubtedly benefit from others and new form of knowledge. Watching experienced managers has been a key source of my learning.
What I have always sensed however, is the conscious need to not appear to have to frequently ask for assistance to prevent creating an impression of appearing incapable or too dependent on others. Conversely, by taking on things when I have not been fully prepared, I have sometimes fallen short and, I suspect, indeed created an impression of being inflexible and “arrogant”.
The reason for this is, as Attwood points out, not wanting to publicly acknowledge limited competence and so conceal any difficulties to avoid appearing incapable or foolish. This is what makes the person with AS appear arrogant and of having an inflexible attitude.
This approach can alienate a person with AS from others – colleagues in a work environment – and increase the gap between both parties and hinder working relationships.
The flip side to this is asking too often for help and so appearing to be less than capable or devoid of the necessary propensity to learn.
My Asperger has impacted in a number of ways in this sphere in the workplace. Firstly, because of my difficulty – and at times fear – of learning certain new forms of knowledge or ways of doing things, I have tended to perhaps ask too readily and often for the assistance of others.
I have often found that, until I have grasped a new concept, I lack the inner confidence to have a go and try and acquire the necessary skill; I need a certain degree of re-assurance before I can work fully independently. This is, of course, exacerbated if I am under pressure at work to learn something which invariably causes a degree of anxiety.
Another issue is that I tend to ask for the same information repeatedly. I can remember a colleague at the BBC saying, after I had asked him the same question again, that he thought I was pulling his leg and having a joke.
What can be done to overcome these issues?
Well, the first thing is not to take on a role or specific responsibilities that are beyond my immediate capabilities. A balance needs to be struck in this area of course; if one is not proactive as a manager then you will be unable to drive things forward and appear managerial.
However, it is also about making effective judgements about when one as an individual is ready for additional responsibilities whilst, at the same time, feeling able to take on tasks that offer the opportunity to learn and develop. The mantra I adopt in such situations is: if in doubt, leave alone – or seek assistance.
If I haven’t done something before, I look for an existing example that I can use as a template. A good analogy is a recipe. If I have cooked a fish-pie before I use a recommended version – and then adapt it later once I accrued experience of making it.
Another technique I adopt is to try and learn outside of day-to-day responsibilities. Like most people with Asperger syndrome, pressure creates for me anxiety. When I am anxious I cannot learn effectively; I cannot largely see the “wood from the trees”.
I have recently started to try and develop my Excel spreadsheet skills. I do this by learning a new task or function individually and slowly and gradually, build my capability.
If I try to do this under pressure I know that I will not assimilate the methodology. I also know that I need to undertake something more often than other people before I can fully assimilate the technique. Writing down the instruction involved for later reference also helps me greatly.
What I have also found important is, not just asking for assistance when I need it, but being mindful of who I ask! There are some colleagues I know who will always be helpful: my current IT Manager is hugely amenable, patient and always willing to assist. If I have to ask him something more than once, I know that he will not take umbrage or think negatively of me.
That is not always the case. Some people will become irritated and I have learnt that I need to avoid asking them for assistance unless it is absolutely necessary and unavoidable. Some people I have found in business will not only take offence but will let others know which can be highly detrimental to me personally.
I have spoken often about “Important Others” or individuals within a business who exert disproportionate influence. I have made building effective relationships with such people a key personal priority; not antagonising or alienating them is another.
Asking Important Others too often or unnecessarily for assistance can, I have found, have enormous, negative repercussions. It will create an impression of lack of competence.
So what is the best strategy? Here is my checklist.
1. Proactively learn as much as you can independently – and new tasks – outside of work wherever possible. This helps prevent asking others for assistance unnecessarily, especially when under pressure;
2. If I have not done something before, and am uncertain about how to go about it, then I find an analogous example and use that as a benchmark. Having used it, I afterwards then explain to colleagues what I have learnt and what additional actions I will add later when I repeat the process;
3. If I need to ask somebody for assistance I do so. If I do, I make notes afterwards about what they suggest for future reference to avoid wherever possible going back to them. I also make sure that I thank them and acknowledge their expertise, knowledge and contribution; this prevents any appearance of “arrogance” and helps keep them on my side going forward;
4. I gauge carefully who I can ask. If I suspect that someone may be reluctant or unwilling to assist or, if they do, they may use it against me – by telling other people and portraying me in negative terms for example – then I avoid approaching them. This is especially true with influential people or “Important Others”;
5. I only try to take on tasks when I am ready and say no if I feel they are outside of my capabilities.
6. Finally, I try hard to fight any feelings I may have that having Asperger syndrome makes me in any way inferior or less than capable. Doing so helps prevent me from taking on tasks for which I am not prepared and to ask for help when I do genuinely need it. This helps me from getting into problematic situations at work in the first place and avoiding appearing “arrogant”.
It’s about getting the balance right: being seen to have the humility to ask for assistance when I need it, but not less than capable by seeking it when I do not.