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The Autism Spectrum According to Autistic People

Autism neurodiversity

Thriving at Work While Autistic, Introverted, Shy, and Otherwise Different: Part 4

Thriving at Work While Autistic, Introverted, Shy, and Otherwise Different Part 4

Inclusive and Infinite Thriving: Elevating Individuals, Elevating Organizations.

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

I remember the time when diversity was fun.

Before hitting the walls of systemic biases that exclude neurominorities, before blatant gender discrimination and xenophobic hate, there was a time when diversity was a source of joy.

I know that people can thrive in diverse workplaces. I’ve seen it. I’ve built it before – a culture-add environment of productivity and joy.

But it’s hard to focus on fun or remember joy and success when you are treated like nothing. When going through adversity, the one thing we often search for is meaning.

Whom am I meant to help? What can I do?

I might have an affinity for those who are autistic, introverted, and shy, but everyone who is otherwise different deserves consideration – and nobody deserves discrimination. Nobody should be locked out of maximizing their potential at work by barriers irrelevant to their ability to perform. Nobody should be told they can’t go to their father’s funeral because of their nationality.

Possible intersectionalities in humanity are infinite, and all should have an opportunity to find a job match, as discussed in Part 1 and Part 2. Systems in which we function – organizations and larger societies – need to be built to elevate different types of people. But as illustrated in Part 3, existing systems elevate some while pushing the others – often, those who try to climb out of disadvantage – down.

Systems do what they are designed to do.  Current systems often perpetuate discrimination. I want to build systems for inclusive, infinite thriving.

Who do you think you are? 

The internalized prejudice immediately objects – who do you think you are? What do you have to offer? Solving the issues of systemic discrimination? You are nothing.  

I started working in global diversity as a college student. I wrote a dissertation on the interplay of national and organizational cultures, studied and lived the layers of diversity from international to local to neurodiversity.

I discovered the barriers to the success of autistic professionals by hitting them. I focused on intersectionality because of hitting many barriers multiple times – because of gender, cultural, and socioeconomic background.

I have a degree in hard knocks. And in Industrial-Organizational Psychology.

Prejudice does not care. You could write five dissertations, and you will never be far removed from peasants and mechanics. Who do you think you are? You are a nobody.

Broken Systems

Many brilliant people, well-meaning organizations, and entire nations have been trying to move the equality needle. With some success. And a whole lot of mess.

We set goals, trained employees, and replaced leadership. We created new laws and hiring programs. And too often, trying to help some people seems to come at the expense of others. In the name of supporting families, organizations burn out single women. In the name of supporting young people, they exclude older people. Diversity appears to be a finite, zero-sum game. Challenges come immediately – if you help some, why not others? Anger. Resentment. Counteraction.

Sometimes, diversity and inclusion efforts look as if we are trying to lift some people out of the deep hole of disadvantage using an old, rickety, screechy elevator that barely moves. Yet others are trying to squeeze in beyond the weight limit or even hang on the outside – and all get stuck mid-shaft in the dark.

Who do you think you are? What do you think you know? 

Organizations are like Elevators… 

Funny how that works. I happened to know a few things about fixing elevators.

My father was a mechanic. Not the “regular” kind of mechanic; he specialized in repair of elevators in deep mines. He would fly out to various mining regions after local mechanics tried everything they knew and elevators still did not work right. When elevators in mines do not work right, people die.

Since typical solutions were already attempted and “usual suspect” parts were replaced, he had to look for tricky problems, hidden problems, systemic problems. And even working on simple home repairs, he would check the full system – electrical, mechanical, structural.

Some of the rules I picked up from observing were “double-check everything,” “find where the problem starts,” “everything is connected,” and “always check the gears.” Oh, and unless you want to get electrocuted – always measure the current. And keep measuring.

There is also more than one way to fix something – sometimes, you need an emergency fix. That’s fine – as long as you don’t stop there, but come back and fix the system properly.

Sounds pretty much like change management in organizations. You must measure the current of morale and engagement in different parts of the system – and keep measuring. Sometimes you need to tighten something (curb bullying and backstabbing in one unit) or loosen something (open avenues for employee recognition), and all you need is a wrench of policy change or management training.

Sometimes you need to rebuild the entire system and replace the engine, using a full box of tools. Sometimes you run into an asbestos wall of poisonous attitudes – racism, ableism, ageism – and need to mitigate.

The Gears of Discrimination 

Systemic discrimination is a mechanism designed to elevate some and to keep others down, in a continuous cycle.

For example, when the perspectives of women or neurominorities are not represented in organizational leadership, it is likely that jobs will be designed in ways that will prevent some women or neurominorities from applying.

Hiring processes will eliminate most of those who apply from consideration. Those who make it through hiring barriers will face inflexible work organization. Those who find ways to get flexibility or even accommodations might be resented or bullied by coworkers.

Those who still don’t quit and even attempt to grow within an organization will face multiple rounds of discriminatory promotion mechanisms, from the broken rung to the glass ceiling and glass cliff.

The few who manage to make it to the top might want to advocate for those still on the bottom or those prevented from the entry. But they will likely have to choose between advocating and getting along with their new peers. Hence, the issues with job descriptions or bullying do not get fixed.

No wonder there has been so little systemic change. No wonder those who succeed against the gears meant to keep them down have the scars to show for it.

Where does the Exclusion Start?

The exclusion – in particular, disability, neurodiversity, and sometimes gender exclusion – does not start with the usual suspect of hiring and selection, a typical starting point of diversity interventions. While overall an organizational cycle is continuous, the first barrier to organizational entry is job design. Neurominorities and those with many different disabilities may not even participate in the selection, as discrimination has already occurred.

For example, I’ve seen an ad for a job very similar to something I’ve done for many years – research management. The position required some supervising of other researchers – all with advanced degrees – but mostly, research, planning, and report writing. All the things I can easily do, and a superb fit for a segment of autistic people in general. However, there was one line that would stop most autistic people from applying: “job environment – in the office with frequent interruptions.”

There is no reason this job, properly designed, would involve frequent interruptions. Moreover, because most of the tasks – about 70-75 % of the job – require focused concentration, not only people who are autistic would suffer from interruptions – the performance will suffer regardless of who would be in that role.

Poor job design not only discriminates against the very people who are likely to be excellent in the role – it also hurts organizations. It limits both the pool of talent, and the success of those hired.

Canary in the Mine

Autistic people might be hitting most of the barriers to inclusion in organizations, resulting in the shocking unemployment rates, but various combinations of barriers impact others as well. In the analogy of autistic people as canaries in the mine, if the environment is toxic to autistic people because authenticity is not welcomed, hard work is rewarded only by more work, honesty is punishable and bullying is the norm, the workplace is toxic to most. Others just take longer to succumb. The organization’s long-term survival is threatened. And if canaries – or autistic people – can thrive in the workplace environment, it is likely that others and the organization can thrive.

Systems Limiting who can Thrive within them Limit their own Thriving

We can advocate for adding neurodiversity to existing diversity programs in organizations. But the elevator is broken, the air is toxic, and the system largely failed women and ethnic minorities.

Rather than trying to squeeze more people onto the broken elevator of compliance, we may want to change the limiting views on inclusion. More broadly, we need a new paradigm of the relationship between organizations and individuals.

What if we focused on thriving, rather than compliance or competition?

1) Inclusion is not a handout or a charity in which individuals benefit and organizations participate only out of compliance – and lose.

2) Inclusion is not a business transaction driven purely by the return on investment (ROI) on diversity – in which people are an afterthought at best.

3) Inclusion is not a finite game with winners and losers, and the corresponding competition and zero-sum attitudes.

4) The relationship between organizations and individual employees is not a zero-sum game of “thriving employees vs. thriving organizations.”

5) “Employee thriving” is not a zero-sum game. Giving something to one group of employees at the expense of others does not increase the collective thriving.

If inclusion has to be taken from the older to give to the younger, from men to give to women, from people with visible disabilities to those with invisible disabilities, then inclusion is finite, thriving is finite.

But thriving is not a thing. It is learning, productivity, growth, and well-being. Thriving expands when people support each other and organizations maintain a safe and supportive climate.  A climate of infinite, non-zero-sum inclusion.

Inclusive Thriving: Infinite, Mutual, Intersectional.

The false dichotomy between the interests of individuals, communities, and organizations was discarded as flawed even before COVID exposed just how interdependent we are. Organizations that treat employees well are more productive.  When employees are diverse – and thrive – organizations and economies thrive.

Inclusion is the only way to maximize thriving for individuals, organizations, and societies. While the crisis may tempt us to be selfish, we can’t afford to succumb to the finite mentality. The Center for American Progress stated that the “economy will do better when all Americans are able to participate in it at the top of their talents.” Inclusion is not a zero-sum fight for a limited number of jobs. It is an instrument of job and prosperity creation.

But, inclusion is much more than that. We need to go beyond seeing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging as an individual benefit, or an issue of compliance, or a matter of ROI.

The outcome we want, the ultimate WHY of inclusion is thriving – for people and organizations. Thriving is both well-being and productivity – embedded in a relational system that generates and expands it.  

Thriving is mutual, non-competitive, non-zero-sum, and infinitely, intersectionally inclusive.

My colleagues Dr. Eric Rodriguez, Dr. Jeff Hittenberger, and I have been using the term “Infinite Thriving” to refer to the mindset of maximizing both individual and systemic outcomes.

In the mindset of infinite thriving, companies do not think of diversity as meeting compliance requirements. Inclusion is more than adding neurominority hyperfocus, class migrant resilience, or perspectives unique to age or ethnic background to the “human balance sheet.” It is more than multiplying these talents for exponential productivity growth. In thriving, joy, well-being, and caring grow, along with learning and productivity.

The Philosophy of Infinite Thriving

As explained by Jeff Hittenberger, “the philosophy of collective thriving through the vital connection between individuals echoes concepts that are deeply embedded in many cultures around the world.” “Shalom” in Hebrew history and culture, “Hózhó” in Navajo heritage, “Aloha” in Hawaiian culture, Zulu “sawubona,” Nguni Bantu “ubuntu,” and Russian “mir” all point to the connection between individuals and their communities that enables our very existence and supports mutual thriving.

There is a deep longing across humanity for wholeness and thriving, at the individual, social, and universal level, and this longing is expressed across cultures and across time. In the time of crisis, we are especially compelled to search for deep, holistic sources of personal and cultural wellness, for thriving born of connectedness.

When decision-making is embedded in an understanding of interconnectedness, it is guided by empathy and a long-term, infinite, non-zero-sum perspective. When organizational culture is built around mutual support, equitable input, and culture-add, diversity is not legalistic compliance – it’s thriving, and it’s fun. 

Culture-add Approach to Diversity Works

I know that humans are capable of collective thriving that respects differences in perspectives. Culture-add works.

I started working in Intercultural Relations/Global diversity as a college student. Nobody told me that diversity is supposed to be hard. So, I thought it was fun. There was learning, and problem-solving, and a lot of complexity, and it was a blast.

At 25, I was the Head of International Relations for a large, complex Russian-US partnership. Operations and collaborative projects spanned the entire Former Soviet Union – which was going through the aftermath of its messy “divorce” – and there were other partnering organizations across Europe, Asia, Africa, South and North America. Some of the partners had a history of strained relationships. Participating nations had a history of devastating wars. There was a tremendous disparity in economic power, there were differences in the views on the roles of men and women, younger and older people.

But there was also a choice to work together – and to create a “third culture” through the ultimate “culture add.” Instead of assimilation, each group retained uniqueness and voice. Meeting protocols and meal menus were adapted with each particular mix of participants. Finns greeted Brazilians with “bom dia” and Brazilians responded with “miten menee?” Ukrainian teens collaborated with Norwegians in their 70s. Kimchi was served alongside mashed potatoes.

Culture-add resulted in continuous mutual learning, occasional bloopers, and the level of enjoyment, productivity and innovation impossible in monocultural environments or in environments of clear subordination of some cultures and perspectives to the one dominant way. The only rules were fairness and respect for everyone’s dignity, and the acute awareness of the need for equity.

It is possible to build a third culture in new partnerships. It is possible to create more inclusion, thriving, and joy in existing organizations.

The Toolbox for Inclusive Thriving: Inclusive Organizational Design 

While we need sense-making and coherent philosophy, organizations are hard-pressed to deliver results, to make progress in supporting the thriving of diverse talent – fast. That is why Eric Rodriguez and I developed a toolbox for Inclusive Thriving. If Infinite Thriving is the WHY, the Inclusive Organizational Design (IOD) is the HOW.

Our approach of inclusive organizational design addresses every gear in organizational systems – job design, hiring, onboarding, talent management, organizational culture development, leadership, decision-making – for both the “immediate fix” and the “long-term fix.” It outlines interventions that address barriers for each group, on each stage of the employment cycle.

For example, accommodations to allow a person with a disability to do a job fixes the immediate problem. Long-term, inclusive job design addresses needed skills and productivity as well as gender, age, ability, neurodiversity, and other relevant characteristics, to create jobs that are maximally accessible by design, rather than by additional accommodations. Curb cuts, not added ramps, with additional flexibility available if needed.

As another example, inclusive decision-making is supported by tools for considering the potential effects of options on individuals from specific groups and intersectionalities. While the long-term solution is a broad perspective-representation of diverse backgrounds among decision-makers, perspective-consideration is a helpful emergency fix.   

The Emergency Fix Example

One of the problems in organizations is the inequitable treatment of different categories of employees, with some consistently asked to contribute and sacrifice more. Without representation, these inequities are likely to be invisible to decision-makers. The perspective-consideration tool simplifies checking for the effects of proposed decisions or existing practices on various groups. If proposed decisions or current practices are win-lose, there is a list of win-win alternatives.

For example, in some organizations, weekend work, undesirable shifts, and covering for various leaves are systematically assigned to single women. In some cases, a segment of autistic people and other neurominorities who are unlikely to protest the extra load can be impacted, possibly creating yet another intersectional double-whammy. There is no compensation – just the belief that  “you can get more work out of them”– therefore, you should. Over time, this leads to significant inequities, burnout, health consequences, and turnover.

Win-win alternatives include asking employees for input on their needs as well as proposed solutions, allowing volunteers to take on extra projects – with compensation, voluntary task-trading, and creating part-time, flexible positions to handle the extra work as needed. Sufficient hiring is less costly than health and turnover expenses related to burnout  – and organizational thriving is maximized when supporting some does not come at the expense of burning out others.

The Long-term Fix

The longstanding injustice, hopelessly outdated structures, and widespread biases require much deeper work of systemic organizational change and rebuilding consistent with the inclusive organizational design. After the “emergency fix,” organizational systems will need to be rebuilt for the “long-term fix,” until the old system that keeps marginalized people away from the air and sunlight and stuck in broken elevators is no more. Instead of the dark narrow shaft there is a wide and well-lit opening, with multiple elevators, staircases, and climbing ropes for those more adventurous.

And hot air balloons. Bright, cheerful hot air balloons to lift people toward thriving.

Infinite Thriving  – While Different

My experiences with discrimination, over time, made me doubt my achievements, eroded my sense of self. But thriving is not selfish, and we can rebuild our joy and productivity by doing something to help others.

Inclusive Organizational Design came first. But the “how” was missing the “why,” until the Infinite Thriving was born. Combined, the WHY of the Infinite Thriving and the HOW of IOD provide both the mindset and the toolbox for creating systems of Inclusive Thriving to benefit both individuals and organizations.

Some autistic people think by writing – I do. This series ended up being one full installment longer than planned – and I cut out major portions on bullying, workplace zero-sum games, and mindset training. The focus has grown from helping the inclusion of neurominorites in the workplace to thriving for all. My colleagues and I plan to distribute the additional IOD tools and Infinite Thriving materials through the Inclusive Thriving Newsletter.

Autistic people are likely to hit most of the barriers to inclusion in today’s organizations, on multiple stages of employment. In toxic workplaces their struggles, as struggles of canaries in mines, point toward hidden problems. But various combinations of barriers impact others as well, and creating organizations in which canaries thrive – with the help of inclusive organizational design – will help all thrive. 

Diversity is a source of joy and productivity in systems designed for fairness and inclusive, infinite thriving. Building such systems across industries and societies will help people who are autistic, introverted, shy, or otherwise different thrive at work – and in life.

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