Impaired Sense of the Self

My personal viewpoint this month was triggered by an article that I read on about some research entitled: Impaired Sense of the Self carried out at the Baylor College of Medicine in the US.

Using MRI brain scanning technology, the research is investigating the signals that the brain sends when two participants – one neuro-typical and one with Asperger syndrome – are presented with a scenario that involves a social exchange. The research is trying to understand the relevant neural (i.e. cognitive) underpinnings – or in simple terms, how the mind is thinking.

Participants play an interactive [social] game and the responses switching between both participants are then recorded. Or, according to the programme Director we: “probe social exchange, social interaction, reciprocity and the sensing and responding to social signals”.

The piece got me thinking about these issues in relation to the workplace. In particular, the key finding or central premise of the research, that adolescent boys with high functioning autism have ability, and can understand and play the [social] game successfully in relation to control groups (i.e. other or neuro-typical people) of a similar age and levels of IQ.

Obviously, this by extension, triggered the question in my mind as to whether people with AS can understand the politics and play the corporate game in the commercial world.

Though I wouldn’t say that I have perfected the art, I have always believed that I have the potential to do so, something which the research seems to be confirming.

However, according to the researchers, though people with AS can successfully play the [social] game – and have the skills to do so – the required activity driving the subsequent responses needed in their brain is not always present or activated! The part of the brain – the cingulate cortex which mediates social cognition – remains quiet!

The researcher’s term this effect “self response” or – as I understand it – a response which is based only on the perception and needs of the person with AS. It occurs when the latter makes a decision on their own based on their own perspective and not when presented with the decision or perspective of another which may need to be accommodated. In other words, the egocentric viewpoint or independent thought process overrides the existent capacity to “play the social game” – or – what in business, is the political process. The other person’s positions, views or feelings are not considered or sufficiently taken into account.

The reason for this is the way that a person with AS processes a social interaction or, according to the authors of the research: “it’s although they can mimic what occurs in a social interaction, but the deeper attribution of that interaction to themselves is absent”. I took this to mean that though people can act out a response in a world (corporate) context, they do not fully appreciate the need as to why.

An example which sprang to mind was how management hierarchies needed to be respected. A senior manager may insist on a course of action. A person with AS however, may refuse to accept that outcome and contentiously or in appropriately challenge it as they believe that an alternative solution would provide the answer. In other words, there is a protocol that has to be respected or process that one has to go through but isn’t. The net outcome or effect is negative and, therefore, damaging; it antagonises the senior manager who may implement disciplinary action.

What the research is saying is that people with AS will find it hard to make accurate guesses about another person’s intentions during an interaction because of a decreased ability to draw on awareness – and the consequences of – one’s own self intentions. Although the adolescent participants involved did not play the game differently per se to [neuro-typical] partners, – indeed they understood the game cognitively satisfactorily – the way they did was compromised insofar as their action reflected their requirement only. In other words it is a egocentric and, therefore, limited.

The research advocates or suggests that the solution is having a good/confident self concept – or the belief that the other sides’ view and requirements can – and need to be – understood and incorporated.

Achieving this involves deciding if any shared outcome is the responsibility of another person also or solely down to you. I took this to mean that: is any decision or action what you only believe in (and so would advocate) or are you willing to consider incorporating of following someone else’s line also?

The research argues that if people with Asperger can’t see themselves as distinct entities at a deeper level by being able to interact with others, then there is a “disconnect”. According to the head of the research programme the problem occurs at a subconscious level; something is telling us deep down that we are not truly ourselves in a social context and, therefore, not of the right mindset, i.e. that we can interact effectively with others.

What this is saying to me, from a business perspective, is that we cannot really be ourselves due to insufficient understanding or willingness to play the political game in a way which truly reflects ourselves and with which, therefore, we are comfortable. In other words, it is our perception of the business/social world which enforces the belief that we cannot interrelate satisfactorily.

Looking back on my experience, I believe that I do understand the “corporate game” to a reasonably high level, but that I have not been sufficiently prepared to compromise my own approach or beliefs to accommodate or operate effectively within it.

I have understood that politics inevitably exists, and what the issues involved are, but because of my logical mode of thinking, honesty and pronounced sense of right, much of it is unnecessary or unacceptable from my perspective.

To provide another example: the difficulties that I experienced with one manager in an organisation came down to my unwillingness to stand back and accept his “demand” to be reverential or even subservient in personal terms to his position – both actual and egotistical – when in my eyes I had done nothing wrong, and he had no right to demand, that I act in that way towards him.

Whilst technically speaking I was correct, in practical terms, not doing so meant that I indirectly and unintentionally inflicted irreparable damage to my career by affronting someone. Of course, putting someone down for personal reasons is to my mind unfair, and because of my innate sense of fairness as a result of the literal thinking inherent in my AS, is something I personally would never do so. But that, of course, is not the way that some other (neuro-typical) people operate!

Personal “confrontations” are inevitable in any organisation. I have learnt of the need to accommodate these by “playing the game” or, at least, accepting what the potential consequences are of not doing so. As the research asserts, I do understand what the political (social) game is; the problem has been a willingness to accept what I have to do – or compromise to a degree my mindset – to operate effectively within it.

Central to this is identifying and adopting a different mind set, one that I feel comfortable with: accepting that, in a commercial context, I cannot expect my preferred way of operating or required outcomes to automatically prevail. It means actively seeking out the views of others, accepting and accommodating them via compromise and proactively looking to work together by tempering my beliefs. It means understanding and accepting political parameters.

The statement: “it’s although they can mimic what occurs in a social interaction, but the deeper attribution of that interaction to themselves is absent” also got me thinking.

I have tended in the past, to refer to statements made by superiors or other colleagues that I respect when others have asked certain questions of me or when dialogue about a subject in which I am involved is taking place. The reason for this, I suspect, is that I have limited scripts and struggle to locate original discourse. I also cannot easily under pressure locate the required words to address an issue or question, particularly when I am asked directly!

An ex-boss once said that to me that he thought I was mentally lazy! What he meant by this. was not that I was lazy in the wider sense of the word, but that I didn’t interrogate data or situations are much as I should and that I sometimes deferred to other opinion instead of my own. One downside to this was that the unique insight that I can often generate into business issues as a result of my Asperger was not fully exploited. My discourse was simply reflecting more what others thought rather than my own!

What the research project is about, i.e. understanding what other people are thinking – or what their motives are – is, of course, a result of restricted emotional intelligence or the ability to effectively empathise. However, again, I have found that I can exercise these disciplines. If I condition my mind to want to understand and accommodate others, their viewpoints and positions, I can do so – if I change my perception.

These points reflect the key outcome of the research: becoming aware of your (my) own mindset or self intentions. I have always been largely aware of the corporate game, but wasn’t playing it to a sufficient degree or, more pertinently, sufficiently aware or receptive to, the potential downsides.

What I think this means in reality, is that people with AS are able to be emotionally intelligent, they are able to operate in corporate and political structures and they can be an effective manager if they are really determined to be so and adopt the right mindset.

The key requirement is to adopt a good self concept as the research suggests, or more pertinently, operate in the way that is required in a commercial or organisational setting. It involves acting as a distinct entity as suggested within different, required parameters. But how does one go about this?

The key for me is being what you are – by having the right self concept. When I speak to most people with Asperger they always seem to say that, despite appreciating that their personality involves having characteristics that can be a hindrance at times, they would never want to change or be anything other than what they are!

This extends into business. If we try to act in a way that is not what we are, and so leads to “disconnect”, then we are going to struggle and, ultimately, not succeed. Only by being ourselves can we connect with others and operate effectively. This is really also the only way that our unique skills and insights can emerge.

Obviously, feeling able to do this means achieving certain related objectives: finding the right corporate culture, an immediate superior with whom one can connect, respect and work with and, identifying a role that is technically within ones’ capabilities.

Of course, it is not always straightforward or necessarily easy; in fact, at times in business it can present a person with extraordinarily difficult circumstances as I have personally found.

However, it can be done and, even if you don’t get it right first time, it can be part of a process that ultimately, leads to success. If it comes right in the end it can be hugely rewarding.

For further details of the study go to:…

Managing with Asperger Syndrome