Decision Making and Asperger Syndrome

A few years back someone gave me some “Personal Growth Tapes” that analysed a person’s personality and related traits.

The process takes a person through their life: from the early days of being a young child and the messages received from parents and the environment. In then takes the listener through a series of actions that enables them to identify any issues that are holding them back personally to achieve personal growth via suggested techniques. I found them fascinating.

One of the six tapes was devoted solely to decision-making and I have just re-visited it. Decisions are regarded by the author as critical to self-development, or to use his words: “decisions are the way home”.

I would like to go over the content and relate it to having Asperger syndrome (AS) in relation to my career, both past, present and future. I have found doing this to be extremely useful.

The second part covers the 11 decisions involved in the successful decision-making process. I shall cover this area as a second stage in the newsletter after this one.

The first part, which I shall investigate now, covers the background to decision making and the five principles which the author believes underpin all decision making and decisions in whatever shape or form.

I have often found making decisions difficult because of facets of my condition (AS). One is that I tend to take time to make a decision: I like to consider all angles and the information available to me in relation to it.

I have also found that, at times, I have not acted out my decision until something forced me to do so. Until something becomes important to me, I have tended to put it to one side. One reason for this, I suspect, is that it may involve disruption to my routines.

I have also found it hard to make decisions in general. I think, in part, this is because they represent uncertainty as a result of the – different – outcome, something which may also disrupt the comfort of knowing what something involves which excludes the presence of anxiety.

I can think of numerous instances in my career when I have needed to make a decision, deep down knew I had to do so, but have procrastinated and prevaricated from making it. In a couple of instances, not doing so had serious consequences for me personally and from a career perspective.

The author begins the section by re-iterating the impact and consequences of past patterns. These become set and entrenched, and mean we act consistently in certain ways.

The reason for this is that we acquire messages and learn lessons from a very early age which evolve into established and set ways of doing things. Some are good, some are less helpful and we need to change the latter if we are to personally grow. Decisions are the means by which we can do so.

Consistent, entrenched patterns are, of course synonymous with having Asperger syndrome. We think in a certain, unique and original way. Sometimes this can have highly advantageous benefits from a workplace perspective: different and original insight, loyalty and goodwill towards an organisation among others. The less helpful patterns are the ones that need to be changed.

The tapes state that many people believe that this is not possible or “there is nothing I can do about it”, (I hear this line quite consistently from within the Asperger community). Perhaps, more pertinently, that people do not want to change who or how they are. Like them, I like and am proud of having Asperger, and wouldn’t want to change myself fundamentally in any way.

However, in a work context at least, change is something that I believe is necessary. In addition, I will not – and never will – accept that people with AS cannot change; or at least do so in ways that can enhance their work performance.

The author talks about acknowledging reality by accepting the facts of a situation. If something [personal] is not ideal but present, then that is a fact and is apparent and present whether we like it or not. However, as he goes on to say: “we have all been affected by the past, but we don’t have to be victims of it!”

The tapes identify different, general personality profiles, one of which is “People Pleasers”. These are people who don’t like to upset others, feel uncomfortable if they do and feel that they are – automatically – in some way to blame if they do.

This certainly applies to me – to a degree at least. There have been two workplace examples I can think of where the other party has been the trigger of discord in our relationship, and where I have not asserted myself properly in response. A key reason for this is because I have felt somewhat uncertain or believed I have been a contributory factor when, in fact, this was not the case.

Looking back, I believe it was my AS that made me feel this way: I was different and this was a causal factor in some way. Not automatically true of course, and nor should I have assumed so. But, I didn’t want to feel bad or upset other people so I allowed my feeling or awareness of having AS to develop an inner feeling that “I must be bad” in some way.

The tapes then talk about how, when dealing with dominant people, “people pleasers” sit on their anger as they cannot tolerate feeling guilty or the notion that “I am in some way to blame for everything!” This is highly relevant in my experience of having AS, but potentially very damaging in a work context.

According to the author, decisions revolve around the positions of “in, out and wait” which, in turn, relate to situations, people and relationships. If you are “in” you are happy, committed and contented with a situation. If you are “out” it is the opposite.

If you are in “wait” you have yet to make a decision. Being in “wait” is a legitimate position – providing it is not for ever. You may be unsure of certain information or how a situation is going to pan out, or you may want to contemplate things internally before deciding for example.

The “in, out or wait” scenario invariable involves other people and how they relate to you. Other people may be “out” when you are “in” – when you are happy in a company but they are not with you is one, work based, scenario.

For there to be growth, or for a situation or relationship to be satisfactory or healthy, one of either party cannot be “out”. If this is the case, the party concerned must inform the other. As this is often hard to do however, and involves a lack of – unintended – integrity, most people don’t do so!

Having AS, means that I am a naturally insular person. In organisations, this has previously led me to be on the outside of influential groups or circles and of never being fully “on board”. I have been conscious of this, and it has hindered my ability to perform.

Over time, I have come to appreciate how damaging this can be for a number of reasons: not having the full support of colleagues, feeling an inner sense of uncertainty or not being able to exert the influence that I know, want and am capable of.

Until now I have struggled to find an answer to resolving such issues. This, however, is where the five underlying principles of decision-making come in.

• Who is the other party and where [in, out or wait] are they?

At work this could be the company, your ultimate manager or a work colleague. For a relationship to work, both parties are required to be committed to making it so. Central to this is the presence of necessary “skills”: the ability to make a decision; the fact that one or the other party can’t have everything for example.

Within this arena the author makes what I believe is a crucially important point – especially for someone with Asperger syndrome. A decision about any given situation may not be up to you or even fair.

The biggest – and bitterest – disappointment of my own career was when my boss – the managing director of the company whom I reported to – showed no interest in my department, wouldn’t confirm my position to give me the personal security of tenure I craved for, and which would have enabled me to do my job properly and flourish, and who then subsequently turned on me personally.

It certainly wasn’t fair, (totally the opposite to my AS way of thinking and literal thought – as opposed to emotional – process) it hit me hard personally and set me back significantly professionally for a long time. However, that was the reality – or as the author states at the start of this piece – the facts of the situation!

• Where you are in a relationship is where you choose to be

What this is saying is that you do not have to tolerate a situation that is unacceptable to you. You do have some personal power or agency and do not need to be a “victim”. However, both parties need to make a decision if the situation is to effectively change.

In the above example, I didn’t have to strictly stay in the situation. However, the reality of it was that it was a job I loved and was, therefore, frightened to confront the issue which prevented me from making the required decision. There was the fear that I would be rejected and so lose something that meant so much to me.

However, that was the reality of the situation. As the author points out, it wasn’t fair – but that didn’t matter!

• They [the other person/company] are where they choose to be

This affects your decision. My boss – the managing director – chose not to make a decision about my department as he saw no need to. The company was financially highly successful and – in his eyes – my department wasn’t making a direct or significant contribution to that performance.

However, as the text relating to this point asserts: you need hold people responsible for their decision.

Looking back I should have laid the facts out as I understood them and then, in effect, said: “this is how it is. It’s your choice whether to accept it or not but, if you don’t, I will stand by and assert my view”.

This I feel is hugely important for someone with Asperger. If, as was later to become the case, I was placed in a situation where I couldn’t justify my position, then not being fully or entirely open with the facts or not entirely honest, meant that I didn’t have the inner confidence to stand up and defend my position.

What I did – and what the text says most people do – is not decide or withdraw. I didn’t make the decision to lay the facts/situation out as I saw/understood it; I just let things roll-on and pass by and a negative situation comes to pass.

As the author says, this is indecision and, as a consequence, you never know where you are. This, in the above example, was exactly what happened to me. It was to have terminal consequences for my position and career! Knowing where I am, is something that I believe is essential for me as a person with AS.

• If you are both where you don’t want to be, there has to be growth – change needs to occur

If this is the situation there has to be an action – decision – that brings about desired consequences. Most people feel unable to do this because it feels uncomfortable and may/will affect others. It involves telling others you are unhappy, i.e. the truth or, as is often the case in business, confronting them.

This is the thing that I find hardest and which I feel is most directly related to my Asperger condition. The uncertainty I feel from the conscious thought of feeling different has made me feel uncomfortable about confronting people as my “differentness” can make me feel in some way to blame and not fully able to resolve contentious issues amicably or without residual discord. In addition, change means alteration to my routine or, in this case, the status (i.e. non-confrontational) quo

However, for change to happen and growth to occur, you have to choose and make a decision.

• If nothing changes, nothing changes

Those with AS don’t like change. Many like, and want to be, “who they are” and wouldn’t want to be anything other. This I strongly believe is good – and right. We cannot be something we are not.

However, those with AS will inevitably find themselves in situations that are not ideal, beneficial or acceptable to them personally, especially in the context of work. Work environments always change and the rules and structures of organisations often encourage people to ignore issues. Indeed, as I have found, it is dangerous to do so.

Permanently waiting and not taking responsibility for personal circumstances/development can be very damaging. Third-parties, i.e. your managing superior, need at times, I believe, to be asked to make a decision. You need to force them to make a decision in order to bring about healthy change – “if you don’t, they won’t”.

If circumstances are unacceptable from an AS perspective, the status quo, I believe, cannot be tolerated the status quo as they will only deteriorate detrimentally from a personal perspective. However, as previously mentioned, a corporation chooses where they want to be and this may not be congruent with the former.

This is precisely what has previously happened to me in the career role in which I was most happiest. Looking back, I should have assertively forced the issue; demanded almost that my boss make a decision. As one of my colleagues subsequently said, it probably would not have made much difference ultimately, but, at least, I would have known where I stood. If nothing else, by forcing the issue, I could have brought about an outcome that would have enabled me to develop/move forward

In reality, deep down, sub-consciously I had already made that decision. The culture of the organisation was totally against me and the anti-thesis of my discipline (marketing).

With the benefit of hindsight what I should have done is made the decision to have moved on to have protected and enhanced my personal situation. The corporation chose where they wanted to be which was against my interests.

In my next newsletter, I am going to look at how I could have done this; what the decision-making process actually constitutes.

The Decision-Making Process

The key to bringing about positive change is to make decisions and the tapes then move on to a structured process that enables productive decision-making outcomes to be achieved.

• Nothing is different until you make a decision

As the author correctly states, things occur in life and at work that are simply not fair; but that is the reality of life and any given situation. Decisions need to be made therefore which, sometimes, are tough – “life needs to go on”.

The author states that self-pity is of no benefit. This is an important point in relation to Asperger syndrome. My innate sense of fairness and “right” mean that things have occurred to me at work that were from my viewpoint simply unfair – very unfair. However, on a personal level, I have struggled psychologically to come to terms with, and philosophically, accept such scenarios.

As the text goes on to say: “something is only a problem if you allow it to be so”. If you make a decision about a “problem” to resolve it, it no longer remains so! According to the author, habits create needs. If, as someone with AS, you have a continual need to feel the underdog, or are being treated unfairly, then you will practice out that need and not make the conscious decision to stop doing so.

The need to ponder, reflect and consider an issue carefully before making a decision is something I practice as a person with AS. I come to a decision “in my own time, in my own way”. Of course, that is not always possible in a work context.

The key point here is that, if you do make a decision, things do change.

Decision-making is, however, not entirely straightforward. Certain come into play and exert an influence and so should be taken into consideration.

• When you are ready to make a decision you will make it, but not before

Major decisions are often not rational, but emotional or personally important; they impact significantly on you as a person.

If something is important to me as a person with AS, I need to consider and evaluate considerably before I arrive at my decision. This often takes time, but I eventually get there and – when I do – I find that I am often correct and, generally, comfortable with it.

According to the author, decisions often get made – or don’t get made until – when there is a crisis. Something occurs that forces an issue and demands that a decision is made. The crisis provides the necessary motivation to change and prevent the old patterns from continuing.

From an AS perspective, I can identify with this very strongly. My like – and need – for routine, structure, predictability and certainty mean that, even if I am not entirely happy with the status of a current situation, I will accept it to a degree and not “rock the boat” to avoid upsetting my internal equilbrium.

However, as my career has taught me very strongly, there often comes a time when this is detrimental and highly dangerous from a personal perspective.

• Be willing to ask the hard questions

These are the questions that contain emotion – and also the potential to hurt! However, they are the ones from which the really beneficial lessons can be learnt and personal growth can emanate.

Others may make a decision that impact’s negatively on you. For example, in a business context that your skills or level of experience are inadequate or insufficient – these are sometimes subjective judgements which may turn out to be undeserved.

This, of course, may not be fair. The biggest – and bitterest – disappointment of my career occurred in the role which was my dream job. I was never doing my job the way I was trained to do it, which meant I was never doing my job properly. Nor was I addressing the issues that I knew desperately needed to be addressed for the company’s sake.

My boss simply wasn’t interested. He didn’t believe that there was a problem or that the situation, as it stood, needed to be addressed. Because the role meant so much to me – and contained an extraordinary amount of emotional equity on my part – I felt unable to take the required risk and put my career on the line. The uncertainty I felt as a result of my Asperger compounded this issue.

By not asking the hard questions – and being prepared to face the likely and uncomfortable negative answer which involved rejection on a professional and personal basis – I allowed an unacceptable situation to develop which, ultimately, had terminal consequences for my career.

Having Asperger syndrome can exacerbates this facet as it often means that issues emanating from related ASperger traits become pronounced and problematic. Less enhanced inter-personal skills, which hinder the ability to form effective relationships with influential managers, is one work-based example.

Asking difficult questions is though, I believe, an essential attribute for some with AS to develop at work so as to prevent issues from developing and festering.

• It is possible to accumulate evidence forever

Asperger syndrome: certainty, facts, literal interpretation, a desire for perfectionism and dislike of change. All these factors, for me, compound this issue and mean that decisive decision-making at work becomes less easy.

Accumulating evidence is important for me. It is the data and empirical evidence that accounts for – and justifies – decisions and is the basis upon which dealing with contentious issues should be made.

It is also I feel useful in mitigating a possible downside of the Asperger mind and unique mode of thinking. Though the latter can be the source of real benefit for the individual and offer genuine advantages for organisations, the putting forward of arguments based upon intuition which others cannot naturally or automatically see or appreciate, means that backing arguments with factual data becomes an invaluable tool.

However, one can search too long for data or evidence, perfectionism and/or practice “analysis with paralysis”. I feel that I have been guilty of this at times at work when what was needed was a faster decision.

• It is very possible to make a decision but then not act on it

I can think of numerous times when I have practiced this point. In my “ideal” job I had a protagonist higher up in a senior, influential position who was doing terminal damage to my career because of his personal dislike of me.

I can remember discussing the issue with a colleague and stating that: “I am never going to go any higher in [company X] whilst Manager Y is here. I was right I and had made the decision; but I didn’t act upon it.

As the author goes on to say the problem with not acting out a decision is that it you stay in the same – negative, detrimental – situation: “if nothing changes, nothing changes”. A gap exists between a decision and action which is filled with negatives and confusion. For someone with AS of course, the uncertainty it causes can be profoundly unsettling and emotionally wearing.

This could, of course, be because you are in a wait situation which, as seen, can be totally justifiable. However, one mustn’t stay in wait forever so, if a gap does exist, it needs to be shortened to prevent a person becoming the “victim”.

• Once you have made a decision and decide to act upon it, we often find that it is small – not a big – jump.

I can’t say how many times I felt this outcome. I am sure that it is the same for a lot of other people also. However, having AS and my desire for certainty, routine etc has meant that it is a profound effect for me.

The key point here I have found is that the decisions I have needed to make are not as big or dramatic as I initially perceived them to be. Moreover, once I have made a decision, I am likely to feel comfortable with it. Coming to the decision is harder than actually implementing it!

The reason for this is that “we own the decision”. We have made it for a [important] reason, and so we invariably know it is right and feel comfortable and at ease with it.

• There is no hell in the world like indecision

As the author says, it is not deciding that wears us down, it is the indecision.

I can’t emphasise enough how applicability this is for me as someone with AS. Throughout my career one of the most important requirements I have identified personally is the need to “know where I stand”.

If I am unsure about my position, responsibilities or the view and opinion of those above me, I simply cannot operate effectively or optimally. My book and my website continually advocates clearly ascertaining and communicating to the person above me what my requirements are personally and professionally and what is expected of me.

From the perspective of indecision, the author suggests that we need to also ask: “what are the consequences of not deciding” – what will happen if I do and what will it bring me?

• If indecision is left long enough we lose the ability to choose

For the author this is not only a very significant point, but potentially a very frightening one!

The reason for this is that a point can be passed psychologically and emotively where we are unable to make a [required] decision. When this occurs we become bitter and make a virtue out of the issue.

This, again, relates so closely to the dream job scenario I outlined previously. Because I was never doing my job the way I was trained to do it, the only way I knew how (which meant I wasn’t doing it properly), wasn’t addressing the issues I knew the company needed to address, but wasn’t getting the support from the company I needed to do so, the situation gradually wore me down. I lost the drive and willpower to fight it and stand up and argue for what I believed and what was necessary for me.

The moment when I needed – and was able – to make a decision had passed!

• It is very natural to feel upset and even pain at the point of making a decision

The reason for this is that involves disclosure. It can cause others hurt or induce a negative reaction which means that the “if they get mad, I must be bad” effect comes into play.

This relates to the hard decisions referred to above and which usually involve emotion. However, according to the author, if the decision is based on honesty, then the pain or unpleasantness doesn’t last.

For me this is a highly relevant point in relation to having Asperger syndrome and a hugely important one in a work context. Differences of opinion, disagreement and conflict are inevitable consequences at work. Resolving them amicably is a key requirement for any employee.

From my own experience as a manager, there have been a number of occasions when I didn’t face an issue or confront a person when I very much needed to. Having AS was a key factor in my not doing so because of the sense of uncertainty I have always felt that the differentness inherent in having Asperger syndrome was somehow a causal factor in any discord. I want people to like me and don’t like it, or feel uncomfortable, when they don’t.

As I have got older and increasingly experienced, I have come to appreciate that this is not the case. I may have contributed to antipathy at times – often unintentionally – but have also increasingly acknowledged and taken responsibility for it – and then taken ameliorative action.

However, I have removed the thought that I am automatically somehow to blame if there is discord and assimilated the need to not feel bad or guilty in anyway personally if I have to confront unacceptable behaviour towards me. Doing so helps me to address the issue satisfactorily.

My experience at work has also impressed upon me the absolute need to address such issues no matter how serious the potential consequences are for me. Tolerating unjustified/unacceptable behaviour or oppression only brings further problems going forward. Addressing them more often than not removes them.

• Once you have made a decision never look back

The crucial point here from a personal perspective is to focus on what you have gained, not what you have lost.

I have to confess that, professionally, I have not practiced this. I have allowed resentment to build within over past issues that has allowed the bitterness referred to in point eight to fester. I have also not made the most of a new situation because of regret over the previous one which is really something I can’t justify – or even, at times, understand!

The next point the author makes is, I feel, vitally important. It certainly is applicable – albeit hard – for me in relation to my “dream job” scenario: cut yourself off, and get away from, the environment and people that have caused you the pain. As I have learnt from my own experience, if a feeling of injustice is felt by someone with AS, then “letting go” can be extraordinarily difficult.

The industry I worked in was exciting, eventful and glamorous; I miss it to this day – over ten years later – very greatly. Deep down I want to work within it again.

However, as the author asserts, you need to get on with your life. I know intuitively that this is right. Whether I can practice it in this example, I am still not sure!!!

Finally……

• Make sure you understand that you cannot do it all and alone!

The programme asserts that you need support and/or a support network.

I don’t think that anyone can really do without this in a work context; as someone with Asperger syndrome I personally feel that it is imperative.

Other people provide you with perspective. In addition, you need to stay faithful to any important decisions that you make which can, at times, be very, very hard.

This all applies I believe more to someone with AS. However, in a work context other factors can be added on top also: dealing with conflict, providing direction, assisting with corporate politics, affording necessary feedback… the list goes on.

Looking back over my career, one of the things that has become increasingly apparent to me was my failure to seek and ask for support when it would have been very helpful.

It wasn’t because I was too proud or arrogant to do so. It was more, I suspect, a result of my natural introversion and concern that by doing so, I would be perceived as less able or competent. I also suspect that lesser ability to develop working relationships meant that my support network did not develop as effectively or extensively as it should and could have which could have been the source of support. This was, in part, at least, an inevitable side effect of my AS.

However, I have come to increasingly appreciate that asking for assistance is a strength not a weakness. Most people like to help and enjoy the feeling of contributing and supporting others (providing it is not taken to extremes).

One decision I have made in a work context is to ask for, and actively seek out, expertise that can support and assist me whenever I need it. It has proved hugely beneficial and re-assuring.

It is a decision I have made and, as the author says: “decisions are the way home!”

Managing with Asperger Syndrome