Taking Risks and Decision Making

I read an interesting article recently about taking risks and decision making. It made me think, because both are something which strongly apply to having Asperger syndrome in a workplace context.

Decision making is also an area that I studied closely a few years back via a self assessment programme. I found it very interesting and useful. I thought therefore that I would visit the subject again for my viewpoint this month and share some thoughts.

Because people with AS like routine and find change difficult and – at times, disconcerting – , taking risks can be problematic. Making required decisions is sometimes therefore avoided.

I know that there have been a number of times in my career when I should’ve taken more risks when I did. There was also one time when my career had reached a stage whereby not doing so was to have terminal consequences.

As the article I read rightly states: opportunities often arise but we don’t take them because of the risk of them backfiring. Instead, people remain cautious when, in reality, they do want to progress and appreciate that a degree of risk taking is necessary to do so.

I feel that in some ways this is even more pertinent and applicable when AS is a factor. Related issues such as how colleagues or a manager would react, worrying about the political consequences or the subconscious thought (particularly if the risk is contentious or involves major financial cost) that it could be anxiety provoking, may all negate against taking the risk from a personal perspective.

The article goes on to say the ability and willingness to “take risks is a sign of psychological health as it indicates a person is not afraid of setbacks or failure”.

In my above mentioned situation – where I felt that not making a decision had terminal consequences for my career – uncertainty about my standing within the company and the eyes of senior management was certainly a factor that impeded my confidence to take the required risk.

However, what was also a factor in hindsight was the lower self esteem that I have always somewhat felt as a result of having AS. Combined, this meant that, whilst I knew deep down intuitively that I needed to make the decision – and knew what it involved – I simply could not bring myself to do so.

So why couldn’t I – or feel able to – take the risk even though, in effect, I had made the decision?

According to the author of the article, risk means evaluating the possibility of an undesirable outcome occurring. The more feared it is in your mind, the more probable it is that the result that is feared will actually occur. This was definitely an issue in my case: the possible consequences were extreme and so I “played safe” and adopted as many do an avoidance strategy.

However, because of the training I had received previously from the leading expert in my field, I did know what needed to be done. I also had at my fingertips the supporting information to back my argument up, yet still I did not proceed?

I think that this is where the lower self esteem from having AS came into play or, as again the author asserts: “you can take the risk but choose not to because you believe that you will not be able to cope with the consequences of being rejected or failing”.

Is this a case of rejection or failure?

From my AS perspective there is a real, discernible difference here; certainly in a commercial or business context. All commercial contexts involve risk; indeed if you are to progress a business opportunity you need to take risk – that is what entrepreneurialism is all about. It also involves the risk of failure.

But the difference between business and personal failure is salient. The latter is inevitably associated with the former to a degree but, if it is based on thorough analysis, fact and sound logic and argument, then it lessens the personal, as opposed to managerial, criticism or risk factor.

By accepting that we are an agent of change we can realise genuine personal growth. The risk must be viewed not only as an opportunity but a chance to advance individually via a process of continuous change, adaptation and learning.

Doing so involves learning how to accept and accommodate any personal emotional disturbance by taking it out of the risk taking process by trying to ensure that rejection is an inconvenience and natural consequence of business. From a position of having AS this is, perhaps, what I find most challenging. When issues such as your career and livelihood are at stake, it becomes even harder.

However, what I have found is that by facing the risk I can overcome the fear of rejection and so progress both personally and professionally. (This is also the key message emanating from my review of the book The Wisdom of No Escape to be found under the Publications section of the Asperger Management website).

Doing this necessitates facing ones fears and re-evaluating potential outcomes. What really has helped me do this is by adopting the mindset of: “this is required from a business perspective – which may involve “failure” – but is something I am obliged therefore to undertake as a manager”. This removes, or significantly reduces, the sense of risk to me personally or, in other words I take my Asperger out of the equation!

What this process also delivers is the opportunity to “learn by experience”. As readers of Asperger Management will know, this is what is most appropriate and best for me in terms of my required learning mode.

Experiencing failure involves being able to change irrational beliefs about failure and so the propensity to avoid it. According to the author, it is difficult to work on an aversion unless you experience it. By facing the problem, rather than avoiding it, you can proactively ameliorate the situation either by yourself or with outside support: by admitting there is a problem and asking someone else to resolve it for example. Doing so requires self acceptance and being relaxed about the possibility of making mistakes.

Related to this process is the stress pattern in perfectionism. As is widely agreed, perfectionism is a typical trait for someone with AS in a work setting. If we demand we are perfect, and continually put pressure n ourselves to deliver an “ideal performance” and therefore worry, we may well induce anxiety.

Perfectionism may also mean “giving up”: if we cannot do something perfectly – as opposed to acceptably or sufficiently – then we may not even attempt to try and do something as it means avoiding failure which will protect our self esteem.

I am sure that this is the case with everyone. However, it is likely to be exacerbated for someone with AS if we allow it because of our “perceived” lower levels of self esteem. As the author goes on to say however, this can lead to significant, unfulfilled promise. I feel that this is to a degree what has happened to me.

So, what can be done about it? As the article says we need to feel confident enough to try, and need to attempt to face challenges to our lower self esteem, in order to feel confident and willing to make an attempt.

This certainly resonates with me! If I am on a high, I feel able to take on anything. However, looking at it more closely from an Asperger perspective, it is perhaps when I am “low” that the situation becomes more difficult. When I am in this frame of mind, motivation becomes hard if not, at times, impossible. When a business context dictates I have to do something, it can become a real issue.

So, how can we overcome this? This is where making decisions becomes a factor.

With many issues to consider, as well as other potential distractions such as corporate politics, it is also easy to lose sight of the final objective: to advance an issue or improve your personal situation.

According to the author, before making any decision, other decisions need to be considered first. Is the information relating to the decision accurate and reliable? Is the person advising you capable and qualified? Can you take/accept honest feedback?
We need to also set a reasonable timetable and then assess the likelihood of success.

However, in reality decisions often need to be made on a “moment-by-moment” basis, certainly in a business context, and according to the author, many people are “all or nothing decision makers”. Given the literal interpretation and thought mode of people with AS, this is definitely a pertinent issue.

The answer therefore is to find a balance between making fast, irrational decisions and prevaricating or avoiding making the decision at all.

Indecisiveness, or the inability to make the required decision, may be the result of a number of self-defeating attitudes all of which relate to AS:

i) Being sure of making the right decision which can only be done by evaluating the outcome of any decision required;
ii) Feeling comfortable when one makes decisions;
iii) Believing one must make the right decision to avoid looking foolish and denting self-esteem and;
iv) Feeling you must make to right decision to avoid losing the approval of others.

In the case of: i) I have too often sought certainty and, as the text says, procrastinated and sought guarantees even though they may not exist or cannot be secured. I have come to understand that I cannot afford do this in a business context.

This also applies to feeling comfortable. As seen, prevaricating will exacerbate the situation further and is also likely to increase personal levels of discomfort. Making some kind of decision however, is better than none at all, as it means you at least secure some benefits and advantages. When I find myself in such situations I have learnt to force myself to decide.

Avoiding looking foolish is, of course, something that everyone fears and there is always the possibility that it will happen in a commercial context. As previously mentioned, the damage to self-esteem is, from an AS perspective, perhaps a greater worry. By making decisions based on fact and the supportive input of others however, I have found I can mitigate potential damage by justifying my decision on facts which reduces the personal angle in any decision I make.

Finally: losing approval. According to Ellis, this lies at the heart of indecisiveness, especially when tough decisions need to be taken. Accepting that we do not need to be liked is required here and so adopting what we know to be true: that deep down having Asperger means being a genuine, likeable person, is what has helped me overcome this barrier.

Usefully, the article then looks at over-decisiveness. I say useful because according to the author, being over decisive stems from impulsive decision making, rather than, thinking an issue through quickly without consideration to any potential implications.

I say this is useful because I have been impulsive numerous times throughout my career, something which, at times, has caused real problems. Basically, this relates to my innate desire to be liked and to please, along with my tendency at times to act rapidly to get a task “done”!

In other words, my emotional state at the time, and/or the pressure or anxiety I was under, led to faulty decision-making via an inadequate sense of emotional state and sense of calm which prevented effective appraisal of the situation and the available options.

The author then offers what I think is highly pertinent advice for someone with Asperger syndrome: where possible, postpone any decision if you are emotionally or psychologically off balance.

Instead, wait until the feeling has subsided and you are clam. Then write downs the pros and cons of any given situation and reflect on them visually in order to arrive at a decision in your own time with due consideration.

The final section of the article then talks about creativity and the attendant need for divergent thinking – or thinking that is different from established modes or patterns.

If, according to the author, we try to think “outside the box” or differently and take risks with our thinking in ways that defy existing logic (or in the case of a person with AS, divert from typical cognitive modes of thought) by stepping outside established boundaries and tolerating discomfort or fear, we can really progress.

Not allowing ourselves to worry or worrying less about what others may think is essential to this process, as is thinking well of yourself. These are, perhaps, the two areas that most impact personally on a person with Asperger syndrome and the ones that most of all need to be addressed and overcome.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome