THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Workplace wisdom: Autism research offers advice
Hannah Schufreider may seem an unlikely person to offer career advice. She's a 12-year-old autistic girl who spends her days being bored in school.
Hannah's successful strategies for dealing with her disability could be adapted by adults having trouble in their professional lives– particularly those who can't connect with others at work.
The link between the two is socials skills. Is there always one person at the office who's rude during meetings? Do you shy away from interacting with colleagues because you're not good at office politics?
Maybe that colleague, or you, have trouble reading social cues. People with autism usually have poor social skills.
Autistic people behave in ways that are out of sync with other people. "I make terrible jokes because I copy stuff I see on TV. I think it's funny, but my parents tell me it's not," says Hannah. Most people are born with the ability to read nonverbal cues, but Hannah cannot.
A workplace corollary is when a colleague who makes a coworker the butt of a joke is clueless that the coworker has a fragile personality. Another example: you've worked months on a big project, and after talking about it for an hour, a colleague says, "Forget it, that will never work."
In these situations, a manager should take that person aside and explain what was inappropriate.
People who miss social cues naturally have no idea they're missing them. "Often employees don't agree with the assessment. So the person speaking tries to give specific scenarios," says HR pro Beth Howell.
For example, instead of saying, "I feel you were too aggressive in that meeting," Howell would say, "In the meeting when you said 'X,' did you notice no one said anything? You might have been a little too strong."
Teaching people to read social cues is difficult. So instead of trying to understand how to say things differently, these people should avoid large meetings and concentrate on one-on-one conversations or e-mail.
People who are bad at reading nonverbal cues fare worse when there are more people around.
Back to Hannah. She's more successful in a smaller group than in her regular, larger classroom. It's easier for her to connect with one person and block out everyone else.
Writing is another good solution because the nonverbal affect isn't present. For most people, this makes communication more difficult, and we add emoticons to compensate for lost nuance. To someone without strong social skills, written communication has a flat, straightforward affect, making misunderstanding less likely.
Hannah's connection to the written word is almost life-saving. When she has trouble in a given situation, she reads. So here's a tip– if you're on the receiving end of the "You're-offending-people" feedback, try communicating via e-mail.
A lot of people with poor social skills say things like, "I just want to be left alone." But it's very hard to maneuver through the workplace with this attitude.
People judge your work skills as incompetent if you're not likable– no matter what your work skills are. It may not be fair, but people do it. So if you want to keep your job, you need to do enough politicking at work to make people like you. Instead of saying you don't like being around people, try creating scenarios where you find people more tolerable.
For those not succeeding with colleagues at work, the key is to figure out what environment would help them become successful. For someone with poor social skills, much of the ability to function is dependent on the environment.
But perhaps the most important thing we can learn from kids with autism is that they're most likely to succeed if we help them compensate for their weaknesses. We each have strengths, and we can each use this approach to make the difficult task of self-improvement more positive.