Asperger and Agreeableness

I was reading an article in The Sunday Times (UK newspaper broadsheet) by Adrian Furnham, Professor of Psychology at University College London, about why nice bosses find it so hard to succeed in business.

According to the article, it is down to a personality dimension that researchers have labelled as “agreeableness”. According to Furnham, agreeable people are forgiving, trustworthy and straightforward. They are also generous, tolerant, altruistic and warm-hearted and make good friends and neighbours. To be labelled “an agreeable sort of person is a compliment.

Most of this, I thought, was applicable to a person with Asperger syndrome. I also thought that most of it was highly commendable but, perhaps, not always beneficial or automatically advantageous for a manager who, at times, has to make difficult decisions.

The piece therefore struck a chord with me because I can see many of the traits present as a result of my Asperger personality have impacted upon my ability to operate effectively as a manager in a work context. One of the reasons for this is because of the fairness and sense of “goodness” (for the want of a better word), inherent because of my Asperger. I have, at times, therefore not been as firm as I needed to be as a manager and have lacked required assertiveness.

Another reason is that I have found that I want to be liked; perhaps a little too much – I want to be an “agreeable person”. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that, because I have been consciously aware of the fact that I am “different”, it has meant, at times, I have – erroneously – believed that I have been to blame when I have not. Consequently, I have tried to make compensations for being “different” by being more agreeable than I ought to have.

There are other examples when I have allowed myself to not be forceful as a manager when I have clearly needed to be. These include wanting to avoid confrontation and the – negative and uncomfortable – sense that I feel when dealing with contentious or problematic issues. Many of these occurrences have revolved around inter-personal issues.

The downside in these instances is I have allowed issues to pass or fester, when I should have dealt with them; issues that have then come back to impact on me in a negative fashion. Not being firm enough with third-party suppliers or difficult/underperforming staff are two pertinent examples. As the article goes on to say: “one of the main functions of a boss is to confront and rectify poor performance”.

The problem, as the article points out however, is that agreeable people often come second or last in business. Unfortunately, the disagreeable inherit the earth and most easily climb the corporate ladder. Agreeableness can, therefore, be a significant handicap in business.

However, the article then goes on to suggest that being competitive, critical and sceptical of other people’s behaviour and their motives works well for people in business not easy for someone with Asperger syndrome who is innately honest and less able to infer the intentions of others. You have to be vigilant for the tricks of your competitors. Business is about survival of the fittest: it is not a gentlemen’s game.

Quite right! My own experience has taught me, to a degree at least, just how very true this can be and, as a person with Asperger demonstrating some of the aforementioned traits, there is a clear conflict and difficulty here.

However, as visitors to and readers of my book “Managing with Asperger Syndrome” will be very aware, I passionately believe that a person with Asperger can work as a senior manager in business and can realise high levels of attainment and success. Why?

Take the example of the agreeable boss. As the article also says these are “the ones that most people would like to work for and who is “a warm, caring and sharing straightforward individual”.
The best bosses that I have worked for all exuded these qualities. They were – contrary to what the article says is detrimental – forgiving and willing to give people a second chance. However, they were not, as the article then goes on to say: “easily manipulated, conniving or know as being a soft touch”. Nor did they “labour under the erroneous assumption that rewards rather than punishments work”.

These are, of course, precisely the management style/qualities that are likely to bring the best out of someone with Asperger syndrome. What this means too is that I passionately believe that it is the way I should manage people also; in other words, I should try and manage people in the way I would like to be managed (treated) myself. If I was to be perfectly honest also, I am unable to manage any other way.

So what makes the effective managers that I have worked for successful where I have, at times, fallen short? Well, firstly whilst they were all undoubtedly fair, they were firm and decisive as well. None would tolerate poor performance and would confront it when necessary – including with me.

What they would also do however, is deal with those issues in an appropriate manner. None of them would get angry, allude to personal dislike or hold residual displeasure once the issue had been dealt with. All would also stick assiduously to the facts and communicate clearly and precisely what was wrong and where improvements should be made. Never at any stage would the hint of personal dislike enter into any interaction.

As someone with Asperger syndrome that is, of course, what I need: instruction spelt out literally in a positive, constructive and supportive manner. But this is the same however for anyone else in business: clear , fair….. but firm.

It has been put to me during my career on more than one occasion that I lack assertiveness. I had always found this assertion surprising. I have normally not found it difficult to express an opinion. However, the caveat, as I have mentioned in other articles on Asperger Management, is I can be assertive- but normally only providing people are engaging constructively and positively with me.

Another essential I have found is not to allow the above mentioned sense of guilt or blame where unjustified to prevent me from assertively expressing what I need to as a manager. This is especially true when I have been attacked personally in an unfair way and where I have allowed myself unjustly to feel that I have been part of the cause.

Not reacting, of course, or antagonising the situation or person on part is also an important requirement. One way I have found I can help myself to achieve this is by developing and moderating my discourse and manner. I too have found that I need to stick solely to the facts and remain calm and un-emotive.

Too often in the past I have allowed myself to become emotionally embroiled in the issue which has clouded both my judgement and delivery. By standing back, remaining calm – and assertive – and staying focused on the [business] facts, I have been able to achieve my objectives without ruffling feathers – in an agreeable manner.

This approach takes on board the first of three techniques that Professor Furnham argues can enable a manager or agreeable person to reach the top.

The first is: learn the scripts. Professionals like the police and doctors are trained to deliver bad news; they learn the words and phrases. According to professor Furnham many jobs are scripted and scripts help with consistency and help remove the potential for embarrassment. There are scripts for underperforming staff which can be learnt and practiced on assertiveness and counselling courses.

Secondly, use procedures and practices. Most organisations contain regulations and procedures that cover areas such as bullying, absenteeism and incompetence. Agreeable people can, to a degree according to Professor Furnham, take themselves out of the equation by the simple application of these procedures.

This, I think, is sound advice for a manager with Asperger syndrome and a course of action that one would be well advisable to utilised. By focusing predominantly on established procedures the personal angle can be largely taken out of the process.

For me as a manager with Asperger syndrome, this is hugely beneficial: “this is about work and not you as a person”. In other words, it removes the feeling I sometimes have of being a contributor to the difficulty or feeling uncomfortable about dealing with a personal issue.

The final suggestion is: “read the tough-love literature”. Agreeable bosses it is asserted, cause business failure which is hardly an altruistic or beneficial act. They are, consequently, overtaken and sidelined by those who really understand business. Sceptical, antagonistic, competitive people win the race.

I am not sure personally that the latter point is a given. Indeed, I passionately believe that this is not automatically the base which is why I am responding to, and writing about the above article.

What I do believe, however, is that an understanding of business is a powerful weapon for any manager, but particularly one with Asperger syndrome, to effectively deflect criticism and untoward attacks and pressure.

Technical knowledge in any given role is important because it acts as a buffer against personal criticism. Moreover, if you are using that knowledge to the benefit of the organisation it, in itself, can make oneself less dispensable personally. Non-team players or those who fit-in less easily are more readily tolerated and accepted.

One of the best sources of knowledge can be the views of critics; especially those who are what I have described as “important others” or “opinion formers”; people who “punch above their weight” or exert disproportionate influence.

These people I have found are hugely important and a personal bete noire in a previous job came into this category. However, by deploying – where appropriate – their own arguments back to them, significant criticism can be mitigated. Again, it is about challenging people – in the correct way.

The most effective way of confronting the above-mentioned bête noire in one position would have been to challenge him factually. The knowledge that I accrued from my MBA could have been an invaluable tool in this area and one where, when applied factually and appropriately, would have acted as a powerful weapon in negating his personal criticism.

Regretably, I did not utilise this advantage and, instead, allowed my personal sense of being partially to blame for the inter-personal conflict that took place between us to prevent me from being assertive when I very much needed to be. Instead, I tried, erroneously, to be too agreeable with the person concerned, instead of assertively confronting him in the correct manner. That is experience though and experience that has proved invaluable going forward.

All of the articles suggested methods can provide invaluable ammunition in the corporate jungle and defence mechanisms against Machiavellian tactics. The key, I have found as a manager with Asperger syndrome, is to play the game by ones’ own rules – the only ones that are feasible and available.

This for me involves being an agreeable – but firm – boss and individual.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome