Throughout my career there have been times when I needed to move on – either in terms of the managerial level I have been working at or to a different organisation itself. In two instances, I have – with hindsight – very much needed to have moved on before I did and should have done so, but didn’t.
In one scenario, it was where the role that I was undertaking and my position were untenable in the long run; in the second – whilst at the BBC – it was where the viability of the division I worked in was untenable. With the latter, I should – and probably could – have developed my career by moving into an area which was stable and sustainable going forward and where I could have developed my career personally.
In both cases my failure to do so was a direct consequence of having Asperger syndrome (AS): I was happy in both positions, with the company, my work colleagues and the technical role and the duties I was performing and undertaking. Moving on would have meant change, disruption to my [established] routines and having to learn new skills, get on top of a new role and tasks, adapting to a different organisation or division and building relationships with new colleagues. My AS pulled me away from facing these requirements!
However, there is another scenario which presents the same challenges and asks the same questions as the circumstances listed above: seeking and/or deciding whether or not to accept a promotion! There are clearly circumstances when this can be highly beneficial. It usually means more pay, a chance to assume more responsibility and develop and grow personally. As readers of my book Managing with Asperger syndrome will know, I passionately believe that people with AS can operate at high management levels.
However, I also believe that when considering whether to assume higher levels of responsibility, careful evaluation needs to be made in relation to a number of issues. The nature of Asperger syndrome means that, if a role is assumed for which one is not ready or adequately prepared, then real difficulties can be encountered and personal setbacks can be significant and potentially very damaging.
I was interested therefore to read an article in The Sunday Times newspaper here in the UK by Professor Adrian Furnham of University College London entitled “when promotion can be a step in the wrong direction”. I have used a previous article by Professor Furnham in my news letter before about having Asperger syndrome and “agreeableness” – see http://www.aspergermanagement.com/Asperger-and-agreeableness.
In his latest article Professor Furnham looks at promotion based on different aspects: firstly, technical capability and then supervision. According to the author there are three types of job: technical, supervisory and strategic. Most people are selected on the basis of their technical knowledge and skills which can be mastered in either weeks or years. These skills are also acquired via appropriate learning, training or experience.
However, as the author goes on to say, no matter how technically competent an individual, if they are not motivated to work, they can be difficult, demanding and expensive. The first two facets apply very much of course to an employee with Asperger syndrome, not for negative reasons or because the individual wants to come across or be perceived in that way, but because of the challenges and difficulties that they face in a work context. As the piece also states, it is for these reasons that recruitment selection procedures in general are about a candidate’s attitude as well as what he/she can do. A manager with Asperger syndrome, therefore, very much needs, I believe, to address these issues, issues which very much extend to the question of promotion.
Typically, over time, if an employee performs well in their role, the opportunity of promotion will appear and be offered. According to the author there are two types of promotion. The first involves doing the same job at a higher level. This invariably means more money and more difficult tasks. Technical people are recognised for their expertise and experience and so are asked to do more complex and demanding tasks in the same area. Promotion is the reward for doing this more challenging work.
Given time, and the acquisition of relevant skills and experience, this can be a positive and highly beneficial type of promotion for a manager with AS. Though it may take slightly longer to acquire technical skills and fit into an organisation, once these have been acquired the [AS] individual is likely to feel very confident, assured and capable. Indeed, they are likely to blossom and excel even more as their inner self-belief gives them the confidence to “push the boat” out. The unique capabilities, i.e. original mode of thinking and ability to accrue sometimes unique insight, can really make one stand out; or, as the author identifies, they are “the right peg in the right hole!” and are able to make the most of their talents and so become highly efficient and productive. It is this scenario that I strive to achieve.
However, there is a second type of promotion according to Professor Furnham and which, I believe for a person with AS, poses much greater questions and challenges: one that involves supervision. Here, it means doing less of the task oneself and monitoring and controlling others. Here, others (staff) report to you and, as their superior manager, you are required to provide them with help, guidance, assistance and instruction.
I don’t need to elucidate in any great detail to people reading this article, and who therefore understand what Asperger syndrome is and what it constitutes, why this is likely to be problematic. As the article goes on to say, it is the job of supervisors to get the best out of the people in their charge. However, as building relationships, establishing rapport, demonstrating and practicing empathy and meeting the emotional needs of others are precisely the areas a manager with AS is likely to find most challenging, then fulfilling this requirement is likely to be difficult.
However, it is not, I believe, impossible and should not automatically preclude a manager with AS from seeking promotion in these circumstances. As Professor Furnham points out, a manager can move higher up the managerial echelons whilst doing the same job, but the key is “letting go” and avoid the temptation to continue to do the job largely themselves. Often the job is one that the manager loves and is extremely good at, hence their promotion. To this for a manager with AS, I would add wanting – understandably – to continue to do the same tasks given that they are familiar and known which reduces anxiety and maintains routines. However, as Professor Furnham states, supervisory jobs are less “hands on” and more “hearts on”; they are about supporting others to do the job. They are about achieving goals through others – hence the importance of people skills.
So, what can a manager with AS do in such situations? Well, firstly, I think there is the need to constantly bear in mind what the employee is thinking; to “put oneself in their shoes” – or in other words: empathise. It has never failed to surprise me how effective I can be as manager if I practice this simple requirement. Be seen to be “on their side”: sympathise with them, find out and help them to develop and achieve their goals is a vitally important characteristic to exercise.
I have developed and adopted a very clear approach in this area; one which I have found works well for me as a manager with Asperger syndrome. First, I utilise my key skill of effectively analysing a market and/or situation by utilising my main strength which emanates directly from the unique skill which I believe my Asperger syndrome has afforded me: my analytical ability which enables me to derive unique and incisive insight, (this also applies hugely to the third type of job that Professor Furnham believes exists: strategic – see below) and which makes such an area ideal for a person with AS to operate within.
Secondly, I communicate that insight and vision to employees and inform what their role is in achieving it. Doing this enables them to feel part of the team, what I am trying to achieve as a manager and what the organisation/department needs to fulfil. If I can realise this, I have found it to be hugely motivating for staff; it can also generate tremendous levels of loyalty towards me as a manager.
Finally, I try to support them as much as possible to achieve their objectives. Central to this is listening, acknowledgement and encouragement.
The first requirement is far from straightforward. It involves not only listening to what is actually being said, but the emotional factors behind the message. This is where putting myself in the shoes of the employee and thinking what they are thinking is so necessary – and beneficial. I then acknowledge and encourage. A failure on my part previously as a manager has been to outwardly acknowledge sufficiently my approval and support for what an employee has done or achieved; I have automatically “assumed” that this is the case. Invariably, I have learnt, it is not! State explicitly that you are happy and why – and go on supporting and encouraging people going forward.
Looking finally at the strategic type of job is, I believe, important for a manager with AS, as this is the type of role where often one can excel – and manage people effectively. It is the type of circumstance where promotion I believe should definitely be sought to enhance and protect one’s career and development. However, as Professor Furnham rightly points out this is often a Board Level, i.e. very senior type of role, and so careful consideration needs to be given to accepting promotion in relation to the Asperger character profile in particular, ensuring one is ready for such an advancement and responsibilities.
With a strategic promotion, the individual relinquishes to a large extent the job of supervising others and moves onto the task of giving direction. It also, as the article states, involves consideration about the future: “what is coming down the line and what are the opportunities and threats that will become apparent? Doing this requires looking more outward than inward. Changes in competition, regulation, technology and customer expectations can mean that a successful organisation can potentially “go under very quickly”. So, can an individual and their reputation.
However, though it is undoubtedly about analysis and planning, strategic promotion is also according to the author, about selling the plan, the vision and the mission.
This is again where I believe real challenges are presented to a manager with Asperger syndrome. In the biggest disappointment – failure in fact –of my career to date, the insight I could generate as a consequence of my original mode of thinking, meant that I was able to see what was happening to the organisation. However, my failure to build effective relationships with senior, i.e. Directors, management and so exert the required influence, meant that I was unable to develop and exercise the necessary gravitas personally to exploit the advantages that such capability afforded me. As the article correctly states, “a brilliant strategy that nobody understands or believes in is a failed strategy”. Strategists, therefore, need to motivate their staff through charismatic actions/speeches and clear documentation. They need to win the confidence of their staff; most of all, they need to be inspirational and influential.
The article concludes with the statement that temperaments, values and preferences are very different in each of the three (technical, supervisory and strategic) different types of job and it is unlikely that one person can be successful in all of them: “often techies make terrible and unhappy managers. Sometimes those with real strategic skills do not have their talents recognised”.
So, where does all this leave the manager with Asperger syndrome?
Well, firstly it re-emphasises for me the importance of finding the right organisation and, more pertinently, type of role that suits the temperament, mind/skill set and preferences of someone with AS. However, once in any role the issue of promotion and whether or not to seek and, if offered, becomes of critical importance also. This unquestionably involves gauging a situation accurately and effectively in order to achieve the right balance between advancing when one needs to and declining until one is ready and fully prepared.
Achieving this balance is far from easy and there are often times when one may be forced to take a decision, i.e. advance when the circumstances are not ideal. Ultimately, only the individual themselves can make the decision though it is undoubtedly beneficial and wise to seek counsel from trusted and experienced sources.
So, what are the factors I consider and evaluate in relation to accepting promotion or not?
1. Corporate: Organisation and Position
The current and future direction and position are integral to my position. If the company I work within is in good shape and in a growing market, then I am more likely to find myself in a beneficial/advantageous position if I accept a promotion. The culture I will still be working within is likely to be positive, constructive and supportive.
Other factors may also be apparent. Is the new area or department I will be working in a growth and developing one; one that will assume increasing importance to the firm going forward? If so, this may also make accepting promotion more attractive. Being promoted within such a context is likely to make the new demands and responsibilities more readily manageable.
2. Who I will be Reporting To?
This, for me, remains a central issue. I have commented on countless occasions the importance for a person with Asperger syndrome of having a relationship with their superior manager which is supportive, constructive and instructional. I have also commented likewise of the potential dangers of the opposite!
Promotion may mean working still with a current manager with whom one has a good, working relationship. If so, all well and good! If promotion means working for a new superior, then this should be evaluated very carefully. The usual factors should apply: what is his/her personality like: are they constructive in outlook, non-aggressive in nature, predisposed to being supportive etc?
3. What is my current, personal standing?
A wide and hugely important area. Firstly, I ask myself: am I in a position where I am added-value and of importance to the organisation or am I readily expendable? Experience has taught me that this is a critical issue. The greater the importance/value I add to the organisation the less expendable I am and, equally pertinently, the more the issues relating to having Asperger syndrome – lesser developed inter-personal relationships, greater introversion etc – are reduced and mitigated.
Secondly, where am I now in relation to my own requirements and personal development? I consider whether I am comfortable in my position and able to move on and accept additional responsibility and, also, whether I need to move on personally.
The latter may occur for two reasons: i) because I need to develop and advance from a managerial perspective and; b) perhaps, ore pertinently, because my current position has become less attractive and , possibly, untenable. The latter occurred during my time at the BBC and led to me having to leave the organisation.
4. Am I Ready/Can I Handle the New Position.
If I can then the question is a no-brainer. Invariably it involves more responsibility, benefits (financial/personal) and individual advancement. Where these factors occur I go for it and do not allow AS related factors such as fear of change to hold me back. The key issue is when there is the potential of being over-promoted. Here there are I believe not only real dangers for all managers, but exceptional ones for those with Asperger syndrome. Being promoted into a position without the required skills and before one is fully ready and prepared is likely to enhance Asperger-related facets like anxiety, excessive cognitive demands and building required inter-personal relationships. Unless I am presented with a Hobson-choice i.e. advance of face the prospect of employment termination, then I avoid advancement – play safe rather than be sorry. Being exposed to excessive demands can, I have found, have hugely detrimental consequences going forward for me as a manager with AS.
Consequently, I evaluate very carefully and ask myself: can I handle the new position and attendant responsibilities? I am I ready and prepared? Do I feel comfortable within myself? What are the consequences? The most difficult circumstances are where one really has no choice: move into a position prematurely or face loss of employment for example. However, I passionately believe that career advancement should be sought and promotion accepted wherever possible.
As importantly, is avoiding the dangers of allowing ones’ AS to not accept promotion when it is necessary to do so!