Working My Way Up

My Viewpoint piece this month is about a subject that I have become increasingly aware of the need to write about: Working my Way.

The main reason for this is that I have been talking to my boss about a fellow worker; one who, in many ways, is the most important employee in the organisation. He developed the concept and vision about the software upon which the company is based and it is upon this that the future of the organisation depends. The latter’s success depends on his ability to deliver.

From a personal perspective he has much to gain by making it happen and bringing the project to fruition. He has a large slice of the equity in the business. This means that, if the company is publicly floated, he stands to make quite a bit of money; indeed, if the money that the underwriting bank thinks the company is potentially worth is realised, he may even not, in effect, have to work meaningfully again.

There is also the “window of opportunity”. This is his “big idea” and these do not come along every day. Indeed, it is likely that this is his one chance to really strike it big and make a name for himself: I would have thought that he would be burning the midnight oil to realise his dream. Yet he isn’t! In fact, he seems almost indifferent to it all. Though he has spurts when he seems highly motivated and productive, for most of the time he appears to working at his own pace and entirely within himself without any real sense of urgency.

It frustrates my boss – who is highly intelligent and supportive – hugely. First-and-foremost I think, because he has been unable to find a way to change things and motivate him. He has tried investigating, cajoling and applying pressure, but nothing seems to have the desire defect. It has led my boss to conclude that he is “autistic”.

I have observed this employee’s behaviour and can see traits of Asperger syndrome within him. The more I have done so, and the more I listen to my boss’s complaints, the more I recognise facets of my own behaviour. It has also helped me appreciate why others could find it frustrating also and why it has caused difficulties for me in a work context previously.

As mentioned above, the employee works at “his” pace and in his way. Nothing changes this. He also works to his agenda. For example, even though deadlines are approaching, he will still leave the office at 5.00pm which is the normal finishing time and not put in any extra effort if that is what he wants – or at least be seen to be doing so.

The latter has caused not inconsiderable comment apparently among fellow workers. There is a perception – aired only informally on the grapevine of course – that he is not, as the man with the “big idea” leading the organisation or, more damagingly, pulling his weight. The perception is, is that when the chips are down, he won’t buckle down and get on with it: he loses managerial credibility and respect by not doing so. Added to this is the perception that he simply “talks a good talk”. Though most people seem to agree that he has vision and can “see the big picture”, the general, prevailing view is that he talks more than delivers.

The other thing I have noticed is that he works in spurts and productively only when there is a degree of urgency from his perspective. Usually this is for short bursts only and when he feels motivated. In other words, he often loses interest quickly and drifts on to something else. It’s like his concentration span is limited! His dress code is slightly unkempt as well and my boss believes that he is immature for his age and demonstrates egocentricity. This is why, despite obviously having talent from a skills perspective, he is not accruing the respect from his peers he perhaps ought to and which has led to relationship issues in both his professional and private life.

From my perspective I can empathise very easily with what my boss thinks. What has become increasingly apparent over time – and slightly more unsettling for me personally if truth be told – is that I can see why it concerns, irritates and agitates my boss who is, as mentioned, a highly intelligent, tolerant and supportive individual – just the sort of manager that I believe a person with AS should seek to identify and work for. Consequently, I can also see why, looking back in hindsight, I have experienced difficulties with – not many – but a few managers in my time also.

I too, naturally, work in “my own way”. I like my solitude etc and, providing my superior manager’s way of managing suits my needs I can work well if I am afforded licence and allowed to get on with things. The problems come when I don’t see things from their perspective. Like the employee referred to above, I realise that I work at my pace “in my own way”. I can’t really do things any differently of course, but I won’t change if people try to influence my way significantly either.The real problems arise when I have to work for a manager who is not willing to compromise or try to understand or, perhaps more pertinently, won’t understand things from the perspective of my working requirements!

In my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome (http://www.aspergermanagement.com/managing-asperger-syndrome) there is one chapter entitled: “If You Meet That Person”. What it is about is encountering a manager who a person with Asperger syndrome is simply unable to work for. Basically – as was the case with the person in question – a bully, someone who will not/cannot understand, won’t try to empathise and demonstrates less than [perceived] honest behaviour.

Before this individual joined the organisation I was being viewed as “delivering”. I was getting things done and driving things forward. I was working productively, without experiencing any stress and getting along with my colleagues.

All this changed when “Tom” arrived. To be fair the organisation (unbeknown to its employees) was in serious financial trouble and he injected a much needed degree of urgency into the situation and also addressed the finances. However, that wasn’t my fault and, if he wanted things done, “all” he had to do was be straight and tell me why so that I understood and then leave me alone to get on with it. So why didn’t he?

Tom didn’t see it that way of course: if I wouldn’t accept his way of working, or pander to him personally and his ego, then he would start to bully. The end result was that I wouldn’t change either – and this had terminal consequences on my employment. In his eyes, I was being inflexible and insubordinate.

I am sure that in retrospect I came across as indifferent and oppositional. The company was in dire straits financially, but I wasn’t displaying any urgency and, by extension, concern. As an employee I surely had a responsibility to deliver and help the company recover as well? In my eyes I certainly did, (and WAS delivering) but my outward behaviour didn’t project that or satisfy his egotistical demands.

More damagingly, my demeanour challenged his authority. There were, as subsequent events were to prove, good reason for that: the bullying, belittling people, getting them to do unpalatable tasks which were his responsibility. However, exuding indifference and outward opposition were not going to change Tom’s approach.

A key lesson I have learnt is that I cannot automatically work “my way” in a work setting and needs to make internal adjustments as a result of this. It may be the best for me, but I have got to adjust – or perhaps more importantly – be seen to adjust to differing circumstances. Where the latter are extreme, I would extricate myself from the situation and go elsewhere which is what the chapter “If You Meet that Person” suggests.

I have also come to appreciate that I cannot “up my game” and work overly productively only as and when it suits me and when my mindset and physiology allows. This is a difficult task. There are times when I just cannot raise the energy or motivation to allow this.

What can assist in changing these circumstances? Well, understanding things from a wider perspective, or more so from that of others, I have found to be enormously beneficial. If I understand why something needs to be done, i.e. get additional revenue in to mitigate the financial crisis, then that provides the internal spur that can spark motivation. I also carefully consider the effect that my working style has on the person managing me if I am not amenable to them or am being seen to work in a way that they find satisfactory. This relates to the frustration that my current boss feels with the employee cited at the start of this article.

The answer in these instances is, of course: not good. To overcome this, I have found that there is the need to listen, really listen; not just to what they say, but for the emotion behind the message and what is driving it and the associated motives and objectives. Its about trying to empathise of course. It is also vital – and beneficial – to be flexible cognitively. Why not try to work in a different way, disrupt my routines or, perhaps most important of all from the perspective of having AS, question whether I have the right to work in my way when it may not be in the best interests of the company? The latter is paying my wages so, if I don’t agree with what is being asked, why do have the option of questioning it?

I also wonder whether the internal world that is part of my having Asperger has contributed excessively in detrimentally driving my output or productivity. Because I work at my pace, and at a level (sometimes higher, sometimes lower) that suits me, I suspect that – looking back – my productivity at times has been lower than it could and should have been. My inner world means that I am good at proselytising and generating ideas; what I have perhaps not been so good at is making them happen and, like the employee above, delivering; or, at least, as quickly or as sufficiently as I might.

My lower concentration levels have meant that I have possibly switched between tasks too readily which has hindered my productivity. The lack of drive I have demonstrated unless I have personally appreciated the required urgency has also impacted negatively. The latter is known as Urgency Addition something that I explored in another recent article on AspergerManagement – Urgency Addiction: Getting Things Done: http://www.aspergermanagement.com/urgency-addiction-getting-things-done

There are other things that can really help. Forming a weekly work plan and then working methodically through it by not letting myself get distracted is beneficial; considering the needs of others and the input that I require from them to fulfil my objectives is another.

However, what is most beneficial of all – and as I have increasingly come to understand and appreciate – is changing my way of working; to not automatically assume and demand that I work “in my way” without consideration of the prevailing work context or other factors.

Looking at things from the perspective of the organisation, my manager and job specification/requirements can greatly reduce the negative connotations and perceptions that can emanate amongst third-parties.

I can change – so why not?

Managing with Asperger Syndrome