I Seem to Upset People

My Viewpoint this month revolves around another article from in The Sunday Times here in the UK relating to Asperger syndrome specifically and “upsetting people”.

The person who wrote in asking for advice had identified a pattern in their behaviour and personality that caused them to upset people (unintentionally). The starting point of this – for them – was that “they don’t see things clearly, take offence too easily and am told that they react aggressively in social situations and get overly worked up”.

I was immediately interested in the article, not just because it was about Asperger syndrome, but because throughout my career I have, unintentionally, upset certain people. Whilst these have been very in occurrence, the consequences have tended to be highly detrimental as it has involved important people within the organisation.
The person in the article then goes on to write about some of the symptoms: “I am especially sensitive, can’t handle anyone arguing with me, get really angry and shout, but don’t realise I am doing it”. The person also talks to their friends to try to figure out what’s going on but they, in turn, apparently get annoyed and claim the person is talking about other people behind their backs. They state that they definitely have a problem reading other people’s intentions.

The commentator starts her reply with the words: “this must be incredibly difficult for you and I really do sympathise”, but then states that “it is possible that you have Asperger syndrome”.

However, as the commentator then goes on to say, it is not about anger. It is simply a response to the difficulties the person has in reading other people’s intentions. If you upset people unintentionally, and they react badly, it may be that you start shouting to make yourself understood. In other words: its intense frustration, not anger.

It’s the Asperger, of course, that according to the commentator makes it extremely difficult to interpret other people’s intentions or read the infinitely subtle cues, double meanings and social signals that make up communication. These mixed messages cause great frustration for all involved: communication is not just about words, but also about body language and complex codes of meaning.

So, for someone with Asperger syndrome, social situations can be a minefield. For this, cue the world of business also which certainly contains complex codes: corporate politics, managerial hierarchies, personal egos and fights for [finite] resources.

The commentator’s first observation is that a person with Asperger syndrome needs a calm environment to function optimally: “too many people, too much noise and too many messages flashing up at once can be overwhelming”. If this scenario does occur the individual gets aggressive and overly worked-up.

The central point to all of this is that if the person with Asperger syndrome is unaware of their condition, then they cannot understand what is happening and won’t realise why they are shouting when people argue with them and so raise their voices. In addition, stress, like noise, will make the person highly sensitive. The brain short-circuits as it gets worked-up and becomes over-loaded.

The commentator likens having Asperger to being in a foreign land and trying to work out the local language and customs. For me, you can substitute the words “business or work environment”.

It is for this reason the person writing in talks about asking her friends to try and “figure things out”. However, as the commentator correctly in my opinion asserts, this is not the accepted way of going about things. It is this that leads to anger as they feel they are being spoken about behind their backs. The person’s intentions are viewed as malicious whereas, in reality, they are good. They are trying to understand where they have gone wrong so they can avoid doing it again.

The piece usefully concludes by saying that it is important that the person doesn’t believe that they are doing anything “wrong” or there is some sort of stigma involved. Instead, it is simply because the person is different.
Being different doesn’t make us [people with Asperger]wrong, but it does mean that we may have to change the way we manage our lives and our relationships. Identifying the problem takes away a lot of the fear, confusion and distress and gives us something tangible to work with. Knowledge really is power.

Indeed, it is!

Discovering that I have Asperger, what it means and what I need to do about it, has meant that I have acquired the understanding that has then enabled me to make beneficial adjustments in the workplace. It is this which has enabled me to work more effectively as a manager.

Specifically, what can I relate to from the above text and what have I been able to do as a result which has enabled me to develop and grow as a manager?

Well, the obvious first is to not get overly worked up! In my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome I make the point that, when personally confronted or attacked, it is essential to “count to ten” and not react. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how important this is. Doing so achieves virtually next to nothing. Reacting however, can be the cause or numerous difficulties: discord with colleagues, (unintentionally upsetting people), establishment of permanently damaged relationships and disruption to personal efficiency and internal calm.

Central to avoiding this scenario is recognising the symptoms that can trigger difficulty: not reacting aggressively, taking offence too easily or getting overly worked up.

Among work based issues that have caused me to behave in this way are:

1. Confrontation and Aggression

There have been times when I have been approached or spoken to aggressively by people. Among the reasons for this are when the person is under pressure themselves and have let off steam towards me; a senior manager or “important other” emphasising their authority and; where it has simply been a character trait of the person in question.
The important thing I have found is control any potential reaction by putting the [isolated] incident in perspective. A person once told me to simply “care less”. What he meant by this was that, unless the attack was personal or doing me some sort of important damage, the best result reaction is one of indifference.

From the perspective of having Asperger syndrome, I have found this incredibly useful. My profound sense of honesty and “right and wrong” have often led me to react emotionally or self-righteously. Whilst the person’s actions may well be wrong, in a corporate/work context, it is often the way and one which is unchangeable. A person with power for example, is often unlikely to accept criticism objectively if it is emotionally biased or questions their integrity.

2. Not Automatically Assuming or Accepting Blame

This, I have found, is a very important message for a manager with Asperger syndrome. Looking back on my career, I can identify a number of cases where I have accepted blame or criticism where I shouldn’t have.
Among the reasons for this is a feeling that, because of my sense of being different as a result of my condition, I have felt obliged and incapable of asserting myself and so refuse to tolerate unjustified criticism.
It’s not always straightforward of course. On one occasion the root cause of the discord was inter-personal conflict. However, in the specific case in question, I had done nothing wrong and should not have allowed the other person’s dislike of me to prevent me from refusing to accept his unjustified attack on me.

3. Retaining Counsel

Also important! I have learnt that there are very few people at work whom you can – or should – trust or confide in.

Bitter experience has taught me that, in a work or business environment, there are very few people who display the same level of honesty and integrity that my Asperger personality has afforded me. Asking people why someone is doing something, or why something is happening the way it is, is not normally a constructive technique for resolving queries.

I try to identify someone I can trust and talk to that person and that person only. It should be a person who is in a position to exercise appropriate judgement and who also has the necessary experience or expertise to be able to do so.

In the corporate world where personal agendas, power bases and battles for influence and resource abound, talking about people behind their backs really does have the propensity to ignite extreme difficulties and problems.

4. Corporate Politics

Subtle cues/social signals – aren’t these just the cause of so much contention for any manager, let alone one with Asperger syndrome!

This area above all is where – as the commentator says – “knowledge is power”. I have made learning about and understanding corporate politics one of my key personal development objectives.

Among the difficulties that I have encountered in this area are: not sufficiently identifying and respecting authority. This is not just real authority i.e. managerial hierarchies, but actual (unwritten) ones.
The latter includes dealing with “Important Others”. These are people who, I have found, exert influence way above their status as a consequence of their position, longevity of service, accepted influence. I have found that you cross these people at your peril!

By understanding corporate politics and political hierarchies, and not reacting inappropriately to issues associated with them, I have been able to prevent a number of detrimental issues reoccurring.

5. Communication

The same issues largely apply to communication. Because a person with Asperger syndrome communicates differently to neuro-typical people, I have found that I have had to make adjustments to my mode of communication to prevent misunderstandings occurring.

Central to this is active listening – not only really listening to what a person has to say, but also the emotion behind it. Appreciating where the other person is coming from by empathising is important.
Asking for clarification if I am uncertain as to what someone is saying or wants is also important. In the past I have at times, acknowledged that I have understood something when I have not fully done so due to fear of upsetting them or coming across as “different”.

Stating what I want or require from others explicitly can assist in this area. My AS has meant that I have a tendency to assume that people understand what I require when, in fact, I have been insufficiently clear about my own needs. This, in turn, has led to misunderstanding and, at times, conflict.

6. Anxiety

When I become anxious I more readily “don’t see things clearly, take offence, react aggressively or get overly worked up”. The impression that this affords is highly detrimental and the higher one goes up the managerial ladder the more pertinent this becomes.

As a manager with Asperger syndrome, and one with aspirations of going even higher, I know I need to control these facets closely.

Ensuring that I secure a quiet, calm working environment personally can mitigate and prevent many of these difficulties. Ensuring that I work within an appropriate, i.e. non-aggressive, collegiate corporate culture, one that reflects as far as possible my values, initially is also beneficial.

There are a number of articles under the Viewpoint section of Aspergermanagement.com that can offer useful insight into various issues that impact in this area: http://www.aspergermanagement.com/viewpoint
In conclusion the commentator’s view that we – people with Asperger syndrome – are different is, perhaps, the most valuable insight of all.

Being different doesn’t mean a person with Asperger syndrome will automatically upset people. It does necessitate though that some of the above mentioned adjustments should be made. If a person can, they can manage very effectively – and assume positions of real responsibility and status.

Central to this when discord occurs is seeking reconciliation not victory!

Managing with Asperger Syndrome