Fibber Faker Fraud

It’s back to the column in The Sunday Times written by Professor Adrian Furnham from University College, London again this month. It really is an extraordinarily good source of material for my Viewpoint piece.

The title of the article this time is: “you are a Fibber, a Faker and a Fraud: you’re Hired!”

It’s about interviewing and how some organisations/HR professionals believe that an interviewee cannot fake the situation and that faking will be automatically spotted.

As I have just finished my latest Transitions Programme at Oxford University, this immediately caught my eye as in the last session we talk about interviewing. At the end, I urged students with Asperger syndrome (AS) to seek specialist advice and guidance on the interview process and associated techniques.

The reason for this is that I believe that interviewing is not only a false process (or as Richard Bolles in his famous book on career searching What Colour is Your Parachute asserts: “the whole [interview] process is just dumb, but you are going to have to go through it!”), but also an incredibly challenging one for someone with AS due to the artificiality of the situation and the need to connect and communicate with a total stranger or unknown individual. That is leaving aside of course, even more specific challenges such as the need to make eye contact with the interviewer.

Professor Furnham asks the questions: “what is faking? Why do we fake? In fact, don’t people fake all the time?” More pertinently: “isn’t faking a crucial business skill? He then asks: “is it possible to be yourself and not be a faker in business life if you want to be successful?” As a manager with AS, and as one is finds it very hard to be anything other than myself, let alone lie, these are, I believe, questions well worth exploring and answering.

As the article goes on to say faking means to pretend, feign or dissimulate. It is a deliberate act of deception. It next asks……. “Isn’t impression management a useful social skill? All service jobs (and all others to a degree I believe) involve social skills and emotional labour. The ways an employee speaks, dresses, smiles and so on have to be learnt and some people are better at it than others”.

Fair to say I think that people with Asperger are not naturally disposed to practising these facets. What I do – passionately – believe however, is that people with AS do need to learn these things – and CAN also do so if they have to. Uncomfortable though it may seem for someone with AS, if you want to work in management or a more responsible position in business, then you are, I believe, going to have to adopt a stance that is not entirely you. You are also going to have to practice techniques which – to a degree at least – are contrary to the natural way of behaving for someone with Asperger: being less than totally honest is the prime example that springs to mind!

The reason I believe this is, as Professor Furnham states, is that those who are good at impression management are what psychologists call high self-monitors. They are concerned with self presentation and tend to monitor themselves and their behaviour to ensure that they provide an appropriate or desired public appearance.

There are obvious areas where a manager with AS can make subtle changes to address these factors: ensuring that dress code is appropriate and in line with the corporate/organisational requirements and; managing Asperger related behaviours such as echolalia and fidgeting.

High self-monitors also watch others for signs of what to do. This I have found is incredibly useful. Watching an ex-boss deal with contentious issues by retaining self-composure at all times, demonstrating empathy by acknowledging the other person’s position and always ensuring that there is some praise for them finally so as to emphasise that it is a business, not personal, issue for example.

The article the addresses interviews specifically in relation to faking. There are three types of faking at interview. The first is telling, deliberate, conscious and serious lies, such as claiming to have degrees and qualifications that one doesn’t have or telling fibs about a previous job and the salary you received. This is not I believe an issue for a manager with AS. Lying, I believe, is never beneficial: period. It is also, I believe, basically impossible for someone with AS, so my advice would always be: don’t even try or go there!

However, the issue is what is serious or not which brings the issue of “white lies” into the equation, such as not telling the truth about someone to spare their feelings or not divulging true opinion if it is detrimental to ones’ own position. As Professor Furnham goes on to say most people would know what a lie is in a business context; it is quite different from mastering presentation skills. Again, I think that this is sound advice.

The second form of faking is more serious. It is in essence being deluded. Here people have beliefs about their abilities, motivation or looks that seem patently untrue to everybody who knows them: people are faking but not consciously.

I found this an interesting area – and possibly the hardest question to answer. One of the key lessons that I have learnt as a manager with Asperger syndrome is to not try to be something I am not or take on responsibility before I am ready and able to cope with it. At the same time I passionately believe that my AS does not preclude me from working in more senior and challenging roles or that I should “undersell” myself professionally.

If I am to be brutally honest however, I have also at times, perhaps, viewed myself as being able to work in roles when my skill-set/capabilities preclude me from doing so, or, when it is not in my interest. The prime example that comes to mind, and which I outline in my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome, is being a No.2 and not the ultimate leader. Doing so means that avoid issues such as Corporate Politics or managing contentious relationships whilst playing to my strengths such as supporting the person above which my innate desire to assist people provides a natural source of motivation to do.

The third form of faking is, apparently, the sort we have been doing since childhood. We mind our Ps and Qs; we don’t say things that hurt or insult people; we dress for the occasion. This is called obeying social etiquette and there is an etiquette for interviews: you dress up; you put your best foot forward; talk about your strengths and advertise your wares.

Of course, a person with Asperger Syndrome hasn’t been doing this since childhood and this is the area where, I feel, a manager or professional can really enhance their performance both corporately and at interview stage. The next commentary in the article provides some useful and beneficial insight. Professor Furnham asks: is this faking? What about the people who don’t do impression-management-type-fakery at interview? Are they scrupulously honest, low self-monitors praised for presenting themselves as they really are? Or are they naïve, socially unskilled people unlikely to succeed at any service job? The answer to both of these questions in relation to AS is I believe – both!!

As a person with AS I don’t believe that I would ever be able to engage in highly effective impression style management fakery; nor would I want to do so. I am what I am and don’t believe that it is the right strategy for me to try and do so. This is the point that Ashley Stanford makes in her book Business for Aspies which I reviewed in my last newsletter, a review of which can be found on People with AS have to accept what they are and play to their strengths.

According to the article, the aim of the interview process from the hiring organisation’s perspective is to see if people can fake things there like they would have to whilst actually in a role. Among the things that they would actually have to do at work include: displaying and regulating their emotions so that they are consistent with “display rules” at work even if they are opposite to their exact feelings. As the article says, what this really means/involves is: fake happy, being helpful and look interested even when/if you are not!

All of this I have learned from my own personal experience is both required – and essential. I know that I have to self-manage aspects of my Asperger personality in the workplace if I am to survive and succeed. The most pertinent examples are hiding personal feelings relating to ethicacy and the [non-work] behaviour or others; proactively reaching out and being approachable to others and socialising wherever possible and; dressing appropriately.

The question is then posed by the author: “is it going too far to suggest that no successful person can be himself at work. Could you not really let it all hang out and say and show what you really feel? I know what the answer to that is as outlined from my previous comments above relating to my own experience and Professor Furnham concurs: “of course not”. As he goes on to say we have to be diplomatic, tactful and subtle!

This then beggars the next question: are tact, diplomacy and charm just forms of faking? Well, as Professor Furnham says that depends on your definition, but it certainly is a skill and, therefore, in my opinion well worth taking the time to develop; indeed based on my own experience I think that it is essential. As the article goes on to say: “some people reserve their real feelings for when they are at home or with workmates in the canteen”. That is why assessment centres work better for interviews. It is difficult to fake for long periods of time in different tasks – hence my belief that it is essential for someone with AS to receive support and instruction and for interviews.

The article concludes with what I think is quite a worrying statement – or at least for someone with Asperger syndrome, namely that: rather than dislike, dismiss or demean the faker at work, we should reward and select them. They know how to behave.

The reason I say this is because this is entirely contrary to so many aspects of my Asperger personality. Being less than honest, acting unethically or not considering others are something that I find very difficult, if not impossible to do.

However, I have learned from bitter experience that this is what one needs to do if one is to survive and thrive in formalised working environments. In managing with Asperger syndrome, I talk about a difficult relationship with a co-worker. He was though a brilliant office politician and he exploited this to very good effect. He remained employed for years in the same organisation and even overcame a major personal setback to become a Director.

Hard as it is to admit it – because in my view he acted not just unfairly but unethically towards me personally – I learnt an awful lot looking back from him. I have to say even that when issues such as corporate politics, “playing the game” or hiding personal feelings impact upon me I think of and implement many of the techniques he utilised.

So, going back to the start, how does someone with Asperger syndrome reconcile the conflict between being ones’ self and demonstrating necessary behaviours such as “faking it” it at interviews? Well, I still believe one has to be oneself as it is impossible to be anything other. If at interview you are asked if the job is right for you and it clearly isn’t, say so; ending up in a role that is inappropriate or unsuitable only does more damage in the longer run.

However, I have learned to “fake it” when necessary by remaining true to myself. If I feel strongly about someone personally or believe they are acting unethically or unfairly in some way, then I keep my counsel. If they are being unfair personally towards me then I breach the subject objectively focusing on facts whilst keeping personal feelings out of it.

That is faking it from an Asperger perspective, but it is not being dishonest but simply acting in a way that is in my interests.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome