Thriving at Work While Autistic, Introverted, Shy, and Otherwise Different: Part 2

The Relational Spectrum at Work: Teams, Leadership, and Truth-Telling

By Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D., Professor and Director, Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Vanguard University of Southern California.

What do The Ugly Duckling, The Princess on the Pea, and the Little Child from The Emperor’s New Clothes have in common?

Not only are they all characters in Hans Christian Andersen tales, but it’s also been suggested that through his characters, the author projected different facets of his own and others’ autistic experiences. If so, the spectrum of autistic characteristics inspired a wide spectrum of characters and stories. The Ugly Duckling’s trials represent the experience with bullying and gaslighting; the Princess symbolizes sensory sensitivities (with a good dose of inconvenient honesty); and the Little Child can be seen as the ultimate example of radical truth-telling.

Not exactly a dream team for the workplace – or are they?

With all the corporate scandals and cover-ups, we might benefit from a good dose of truth-telling. And if we recall how the Ugly Duckling reacts to discovering he is a beautiful swan – “He felt so very happy, but he wasn’t at all proud, for a good heart never grows proud” – we see humility in his joy. Honesty and humility might be just what the workplace needs, in workers and in leadership, to avoid destructiveness of overconfident incompetence.

Yet despite many desirable characteristics, the unemployment rate of autistic professionals with college degrees is shockingly high at 85%. Some of the explanations I’ve heard from potential employers and even some employment “experts” include the statement that work is all about teams and leadership potential – and “autistic people are bad at teams and can’t be leaders.” There is also the occasional accusation that neurodiverse people are “high maintenance” – think The Princesses on the Pea – even though the princess was simply telling the truth.

Some of that might even sound reasonable – if the assumptions above about teamwork, leadership, and autistic people were indeed true. But are they true?

Myths and misconceptions about teams

The use of the word “player” evokes a range of unintended mental associations (mostly with sports) that are likely to create barriers for workplace access and success of autistic people, even if objectively they are exactly the “team players” organizations need. Unless we are in fact looking for partners in games, perhaps what we mean by “team player” is someone who is reliable, responsible, and committed.

The more precise language  – team worker or team contributor – might be better aligned with the strengths of a person who would pass on the lunchtime chatting in the noisy cafeteria, but will skip lunch and dinner to get the team’s work done (which should never be taken as an invitation for abuse – but I could write a separate article on that).

Worse yet, the use of the term “team player” in job ads is rarely justified by the nature of the job. For some quick research, on July 26, 2020, I searched jobs.com for California ads mentioning the words “team player”; 6273 jobs came up, among which were an adjunct professor, a lunch packer, and a solar installer. While these jobs require sharing responsibility for collective outcomes, “reliable and responsible” might be a more appropriate description. Or perhaps a “team worker”? The same search for California ads but with a “team worker” produced much fewer hits: 1666 vs. 6273.

The “team player” language likely discouraged many of the literal-thinking autistic people from applying, swayed recruiters toward those who reflected their mental image of a “team player personality,” and resulted in lower than deserved performance evaluations. I wonder how many responsible performers lost raises, promotions, or jobs because their personalities or even appearances did not evoke images associated with the word “player?”

Erroneous messages communicated by the word “player” and the related sports team analogy not only influence individual outcomes, but harm the bottom line of organizations by excluding potentially outstanding performers. It is a misconception that work teams are like sports teams. There is usually no group of people playing with a single “ball” at the same time – that would be extremely inefficient in the workplace and a terrible use of time. Most teamwork involves multiple “balls,” with each contributor keeping eyes on their own project or part of the project with the goal of delivering the results efficiently, accurately, and on time.

Who is 92% more productive than other employees?

What group of people often demonstrates an exceptional ability to keep their eyes on their ball and focus on their projects? According to Israel’s military and several top tech companies, many autistic people are outstanding at focusing on their work and delivering results. Being 92% more productive than other employees may or may not fit typical images of “team playing,” but this is a highly valuable asset to a team. In some reports the difference is even greater, but we need to be careful with generalizations, and remember that job matching is the key to exceptional productivity.  And just to make sure nobody is left with the impression that autistic people are all work and no fun – search YouTube for “autistic comedian.”

In addition to often remarkable productivity, the propensity of autistic people to be truth-tellers, divergent thinkers, and devil’s advocates who connect data dots in unique ways is invaluable in ensuring a diversity of perspectives, preventing groupthink and helping organizations make better decisions and increase their much-needed creativity and innovation. We need the Little Child and the truth-telling Princess on the team. Some might be tempted to silence and ignore divergent voices and instill uniformity, but the risk is that the Emperor will keep strutting around naked.

There is hope in changes that are now occurring in the workplace. Remote teams during the pandemic and distributed teams prior stripped some of the surface meanings from the teamwork and laid bare the core focus on delivering results – outputs. With this more performance-oriented vs. personality-oriented approach, autistic employees are quite likely to shine even if their personalities do not fit the traditional mold. Yet, it is unlikely that stereotypes about teamwork and autistic people will go away on their own, without our effort and continuously providing examples of success, in tech and in other types of teams, such as creativity-focused organizations.

Demonstrating that autistic employees can be excellent team members is not enough when another prominent – and harmful – stereotype suggests that “autistic people can’t be leaders.” Usually, discussions on autism and leadership focus on “managing autistic workers.” However, there is a spectrum of abilities in autistic people, and there is a spectrum of different types of leaders the world needs. Some of the colors of these two spectra align perfectly – especially now, in the age of knowledge and creativity economy, as well as social responsibility.

Myths and misconceptions about leadership

Leadership is complex, multifaceted, and context-specific. Command and control methods do not work in knowledge and creative organizations. Yet, we cling to leadership models used for urging the soldiers of ancient Rome into battle and managing every movement of workers shoveling coal during the early Industrial Age. These models fail when applied to research and development units or creative agencies, and they do not work for leading teams that consist of intrinsically driven people. Leadership focused on coordinating a complex picture while allowing knowledgeable and motivated individuals to exercise their talents without management by fear or micromanagement requires a very different skillset. Leaders who are most likely to bring out the best in motivated teams are introverted and humble.

There are many examples of suffering caused by charismatic narcissists and corporate psychopaths, from Enron to WeWork. There are many examples of problems caused by the lack of data use in decision making and data leadership. Is it surprising then that the world is looking for leaders who are authentic, honest, and data-driven in their decision making? As we increasingly value evidence over preference, character over style, and performance over prattle, is it surprising that autistic leaders emerge in all realms, from the global environmental movement to politics to business and bridging job creation with national security? We need leaders who don’t climb up “just because,” in search of personal power, but those who step up when there is a cause. These autistic leaders are doing just that.

We are all very different in specific career interests and abilities, but being on the spectrum does not preclude the development of highly rewarding collegial relationships. Some of my best workplace experiences involved working on teams with competent and kind colleagues. Leading, following, and horizontally collaborating can all be extremely rewarding – but to create such experiences, organizations and individuals must contribute to developing environments that support everyone’s ability to do our best work.

As I was writing this article, I interviewed one of my former supervisors and one of my former direct reports – who are also organizational leadership experts – to get their perspective on working with someone “autistic, introverted, shy and otherwise different.” Dr. Eric Rodriguez, a former direct report, said, in alignment with research findings that introverted leadership works better for self-directed employees, that he appreciated my support of his self-motivation, competence and initiative. Of course, I would never want to constrain his creative productivity.

A former supervisor, Dr. Jeff Hittenberger, said that his understanding of leadership includes helping growth and development of people – neurodivergent or neurotypical – in unique ways aligned with their talents. This in turn enriches organizations through contributions that are only possible if everyone is able to safely express their creative and non-uniform perspectives. And I found his style to be very inclusive indeed, as well as supportive of job crafting.

Organizations are responsible for creating work environments that support inclusion and belonging, but whether neurodivergent or neurotypical, we must take responsibility for doing our part of personal growth and development. Ducklings do not need to remain ducklings and Little Children can grow and learn.

We must take responsibility for doing our part of personal growth and development

I have to admit that I’ve been both the Ugly Duckling and the truth-telling Little Child.

My first inclination is to try to please people, and if that does not work, to run away. I loved my old book of Andersen’s tales. When I was about 10, I loaned it to a “friend.” My mother warned me that the girl was never going to return the book, but I did it anyway. My mother was right, and that book became yet another lesson about being too trusting and people-pleasing. Eventually, after some backstabbing and gaslighting encounters I overcorrected and stopped trusting pretty much anyone. But that is counterproductive because we need healthy trust to collaborate – and to build trust, we need to give people a fair chance.

I have to keep reminding myself not to be the Ugly Duckling with the nice farmer’s family, and not to run away when others just want to play. It takes work. If the proposed “playing” involves noisy large gatherings, it takes some thinking to suggest an alternative –  but all relationship-building takes work and thinking. As long as the willingness to do some work is mutual, it’s fair.

I’ve been not just the Ugly Duckling, but the outspoken Little Child as well. In the fourth grade, I got kicked out of math class. For 2 years. Until the teacher resigned.

Bad me. I told the teacher that if she doesn’t like kids, she should not be a teacher. Then I refused to apologize.

I still think I was right. What kind of teacher calls a 10-year-old ugly?

On the other hand, I was probably wrong in constantly correcting the history teacher (not in my facts; just in how I did it). It’s a wonder I did not get kicked out of that class, too.

My mother kept telling me to think carefully about what to say, and not say everything I think. One of my first bosses said that it’s good to be a smart girl, but it’s bad to be smarter than your boss. Eventually, I learned not to speak up. Perhaps I learned too well. We need to speak up, we just need to pick our battles. If our organizations are embarking on a strategy the data identifies as dangerous, we should speak up – politely. If someone is wrong about the exact date of the Battle of Waterloo, perhaps the internal satisfaction of knowing better is enough. We can’t change the outcome, can we?

As for the Princess and the Pea, I have less experience with being one – not at the age when most girls pretend to be princesses, and not at work. In my interview with Dr. Jeff Hittenberger, I asked if he ever saw me as a “high maintenance” employee.  No. “Off-the-charts-productive and a divergent thinker in the best sense, with unique ideas,” but not the Princess and the Pea.

Not complaining – sometimes, not complaining even when warranted – makes sense in my case. If the Princess’s bed had icicles on the headboard, the ceiling vibrated from drunken brawls, and TVs were yapping in apartments all around, there would be little use in complaining about the pea – or anything, really. But intersectionality is the topic of the next installment, along with dealing with discrimination at work while autistic, introverted, shy, and otherwise different.

1 Comment

  1. I was hired for a part-time role filling in for a full-time role while the worker was on maternity leave. I was so productive I rarely worked a whole 20-hour week and proved to the two people I worked with that there was no need for the full-time position. But then I was out of a job XO sometimes productivity is a curse.

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