With All Respect

I am returning this month to the column written by Professor Adrian Furnham in The Sunday Times here in the UK as it has – once again – provided an excellent source of opinion/comment for my Viewpoint feature.

The piece is entitled: “With All Respect, Was it Something I Said?

The article is about the disproportionate influence of negative comments over positive ones or, as the article asserts: how “one error, one misjudgement, one infelicitous remark and you can be branded with the mark of Cain!” I know only too well from my own experience as a manager with Asperger Syndrome just how very true – and potentially hazardous – this can be!

The piece begins by saying how people often complain that their successes are never remembered, but their failures are never forgotten. One off-guard aside and the fury of censure can fall on you; someone somewhere takes umbrage.

The point about blunt, less than tactful or subtle comments is one that can very much apply to someone with Asperger syndrome, (AS). In a work context, I believe that it can become even more pronounced and, as I have learnt to my cost, it can be extremely costly personally.

A previous colleague once said to me that “it is not what you say, but how you say it”. The reason why this can be – as has proved for me – so costly in a work environment is because, as Professor Furnham goes on to say: “at work the negative trumps the positive and don’t a lot of people know this and use it to their advantage!”

How true. To use my own experience as an illustration, this has occurred with me when people have taken a dislike to me personally. Looking back I can see more readily why (on a few occasions) this has occurred and how this has resulted in my reaction or words towards them, albeit in most cases where they have acted provocatively initially, being inappropriate. A few – not many – have been as the text says “quick to take offence, to be affronted, to have righteous indignation. They seem easily insulted. Hence the respect agenda”.

Why do I believe that this has occasionally happened to me?

The article asks whether some people are more easily offended than others’ which is, I believe, the case for those with AS? The answer then is “certainly”, but the question is also then asked “why” as per my question above. Is it because, as the piece asserts, because such people: “are they simply more fragile, insecure or nasty?”

In my experience greater propensity to assume offence is due to factors which directly relate to having Asperger syndrome and which more readily come into play in a business/employment context.

The first is the respect issue. I was, in effect, dismissed once simply by refusing to show any respect towards an individual who basically expected people to pander to him whilst he belittled them. As readers of my book managing with Asperger Syndrome will know, this is described in the chapter entitled “If You Meet That Person”.

The conclusion to this chapter basically concludes that there is a certain type of person that someone with AS who, in my opinion, is never going to be able to work with. It’s rare, but such people do exist.

To replicate the reasons why I list in the closing stages of the chapter in question: “Tom’s personality exuded:

• A cold, distant, unfriendly approach to people;
• A management style based wholly on “business results” without any consideration for personal feelings or circumstances;
• A non-collegiate unsupportive, critical style of management;
• A less than honest, manipulative style and manner;
• Hypocrisy: the inability to do himself what he accused others’ of not doing;
• A bullying demeanour;
• Unethical behaviour.

Essentially, the Tom scenario was, as the article says, “like bullying”. However, it is Professor Furnham’s next comments which, for me, are most insightful/beneficial and provide some possible solutions, namely that: “there is evidence that bullies and the bullied share similar characteristics”. These are: lower than average social skills, less assertive, persuasive and charming.

He goes on to say that “maybe those who give and take offence also share the same traits. They are not good at sending or interpreting signals and read too little or too much into a conversation”.

All of these factors have applied to me. I know my social skills have been less developed and I have worked hard to enhance them in a work context. There have also been times when I have been insufficiently assertive – see shortly. This has prevented me from interacting and dealing with people with an aggressive style of management.

The article then asks “what to do if someone takes offence?”

The heightened sense of honesty, integrity and “right and wrong” which is a direct result of my objective, less empathetic Asperger thinking has often led me to take offence to comments and/or react to people at times in an excessive fashion. Learning how to reduce this has been an important objective and of real managerial benefit.

In another negative consequence in my career, I unintentionally offended a person who – at the time I didn’t understand or appreciate – was an important person or highly influential other.

The problem started when he called me shortly after I had joined the company to complain about something and, in doing so, attacked me personally. Basically, it was him letting me know as a new arrival in the company that “he was somebody important and I needed to know about that”.

That is not how I interpreted it of course: my inherent sense of honesty and fairness as dictated by my AS precluded me from inferring that – or accepting – it that way and I took offence! As my review of Business for Aspies this month rightly states: unfair but a fact.

As the start of this article alludes to, my overly aggressive reaction was not forgotten and it had terminal consequences for my career going forward.

So what should be done if offence is taken? Professor Furnham starts by questioning what any remark or comment may – or may not – mean and this, I feel, is especially beneficial from the perspective AS mindset.

An offensive comment may have been meant – or it may not; if the latter then there is no problem.What, then, are the options?

As the piece points out, one school of thought says “never say sorry, never apologise”. From my experience as a manager with Asperger syndrome this is highly important – but only in certain circumstances.

There have been instances in the past where someone has been totally unfair towards me through their actions. The example of the manager letting me know initially upon my joining the company that he was important figure is a case in question.

As a result of the grudge he held, this resulted in him later criticising/attacking me unfairly; in one case very much – and threateningly – so. When I tried to address the issue with him later I started with the words “I am sorry, but person X let me down very badly”, (which my colleague had).

However, as one very effective manager once said to me, “don’t apologise unnecessarily” as doing so indicates weakness or a sense of assuming blame when it is unjustified. Correct: if I have done nothing wrong, I demand of myself that I do not allow my sense of “differentness” as a consequence of having Asperger to imply guilt.

In the example just mentioned, however, this is precisely what I did and I have, in the past, generally demonstrated I feel a propensity to do this. The sense of being somehow lesser personally as a result of having Asperger syndrome, or that my AS personality has possibly contributed to me being contributory to discord has, at times, perhaps, led me to accept blame or responsibility for that discord unjustifiably.

Learning to be assertive and not allowing this to happen is an important lesson I have learned and assimilated this into my managerial behaviour. Or, as the article goes on to say: “if meant [the offence], they [the other person] deserved it and there is nothing to apologise for”.

However, as the article also goes on to say, there is another, new discipline called customer apologetics or “how and when to respond to customer complaints” when an apology or backing down somewhat is needed.

In such scenarios there are a number of options. Firstly, ignore the offence/offensive comment. This is something that I always now do as part of the strategy I have identified and developed when initially faced with criticism. My rock-solid mantra is: “whatever the provocation, do not react”, to maintain calmness, exude gravitas – and contain any Asperger over-reaction. Now, I do not automatically take umbrage: it may be that the other person is simply having a bad day! Unless the criticism is blatantly unjust and obvious, I initially turn the other cheek.

The second option is to “offer a series of increasingly grovelling mea culpa’s or cough up”. There are times, of course, when this required; when one has made an error for example. (If this is not the case however this can be – dangerous! See above for apologising unnecessarily).

The blunt discourse or over-reaction that I have, at times, demonstrated as a result of my Asperger, and which has resulted in me unintentionally causing offence, has meant that an apology is both deserved and necessary.

So, in these circumstances how does one go about it?

As the article outlines, when apologizing for any insult or offence, there are three things that need to be done. First express sincere regret at what you have done. Do it simply and clearly – end.

Secondly, admit that it was a poor example of mature, responsible behaviour. This is something that I have increasingly tried to do to mitigate my Asperger related behaviour which, at times, means I may come across as less mature or unprofessional.

Here accepting responsibility and demonstrating the third point as follows is, I have found also, beneficial: assure people that you have taken the lesson on board and that it will not happen again.

This is important I feel in itself. However, it is also important not to over-emphasise or to acknowledge errors in a way that insinuates any untoward blame or personal shortcoming. Instead, I simply say: “I will do it that way in the future” – or words to that effect – and not overtly apologise.

It is also, I believe, important as Professor Furnham asserts to not offer complex explanations or offer defences such as being tired or personally unaware. The AS tendency to perhaps try and justify oneself or complete “a story” that seeks to provide justification from an AS perspective can, I have found, be highly detrimental as a manager. It can prove too much information which can then be used by the other party in refutation against you. Be succinct, to the point and don’t return.

The article concludes by going back to what I believe is the core of the issue in this area and one which is highly relevant to a manager with Asperger: “do not attack the offended personally under any circumstances” as this will only compound the problem.

The reason I say this is that having Asperger syndrome often means that I have done so in an exaggerated fashion. As Professor Furnham states “we all have codes for insults” and mine have had to incorporate some adjustments. Instead, begin by saying “with all respect”; not that your opponents’ ideas are “not poorly thought out”.

Respect their views first to negate any possible offence so as to ensure that your views are treated with respect and listened to properly also. Central to this is to use moderate discourse; to select words with more care and use them in a conciliatory way.

As the article concludes it’s all about etiquette and euphemism. It is also I believe an art form and huge fun.

The latter I feel is an important insight and has really helped me. Now, if I meet someone in the workplace who I take an immediate dislike to I change my approach and mindset. I try to see them as a challenge and learning opportunity for me to build an effective working relationship with them.

Central to this is giving the person the benefit of the doubt; I try to reach out to them and identity something good in them. Doing so reduces the tension within me about them – and my propensity to take offence. If I can achieve this, I can exude respect and ensure that what I say is appropriate – and does not cause any offence.

According to Professor Furnham this is the middle-class, articulate way of being insulting, demeaning and hypercritical of people without them knowing it. That is the most prized skill of all: never to give offence, but at the same to be pretty frank in one’s opinion – to get it across and remain assertive!

Managing with Asperger Syndrome