Hannah Schufreider may seem an unlikely person to be teaching you how to manage your career. She is a 12-year-old autistic girl living in Haverhill. Her days are spent being a little bored in school, reading Manga comics, watching Hannah Montana on TV, and going to fencing class on the weekends. Sounds like a typical adolescent’s schedule.
But in one of those odd convergences of circumstances, 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 seem to connect with others at work.
Think this is a bit much to swallow? The link between the two is socials skills. Is there always one person at the office who acts rudely 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. Here’s where Hannah can help. People with autism usually have poor social skills. She has a form of it called Asperger’s syndrome, whose sufferers often have well-above-average intelligence but troubles with social interaction.
On the playground, other moms might see these kids and say something like, ‘Oh, how cute! He’s a little Einstein.’ At school, teachers at school may comment, “He doesn’t listen to anything anyone says. I don’t know how he is doing so well in my class.”
Autistic people behave in ways that are out of sync with other people. “I make terrible jokes because I copy stuff that I see on TV. I think it’s funny but my parents tell me it’s not funny,” says Hannah.
Most people are born with the ability to read nonverbal cues. Hannah cannot, so when people don’t laugh at her jokes, she doesn’t understand it was because they weren’t funny. Someone has to tell her.
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, says Beth Howell, vice president of human resources for EBSCO Publishing, a provider of print and electronic journal subscriptions.
People who miss social cues naturally have no idea they are missing them.
“Often employees don’t agree with the assessment. So the person speaking with them tries to give specific scenarios,” she says.
For example, instead of saying, “I feel you were too aggressive in that meeting,” Howell would say, “In the meeting on Friday when you said ‘X,’ did you notice there was not a lot of conversation after that point? I think you might have been a little too strong.”
Teaching people to read social cues is very, very difficult. So instead of trying to understand how to say things differently in a meeting, it might be more appropriate for these people to limit the time they spend in large meetings. Instead, they should concentrate on having one-on-one conversations or using e-mail.
People who are bad at reading nonverbal cues tend to fare worse when there are more people around, because there usually is that much more nonverbal communication going on.
Back to Hannah. She is most successful socially being in a smaller group of kids 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 make up for lost nuance. To someone who does not have strong social skills, written communication has a flat, straightforward affect, making a grave misunderstanding between the communicants less likely.
Hannah’s connection to the written word is almost life-saving in its intensity. When she has trouble in a given situation, she reads, and when she grows up she wants to be a writer. So take a tip from her — if you are on the receiving end of the ‘you’re-offending-people’ feedback, try communicating via e-mail instead.
A lot of people who have poor social skills say things like, “I don’t do office politics” or “I just want to be left alone.” But it’s very hard to maneuver through the workplace with this attitude.
The point is that people judge your work skills as incompetent if you are not likeable — no matter what your work skills are. It may not be fair, but it’s what people do. 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 do not like being around people, try creating scenarios where you find people more tolerable. For example, Hannah seeks out certain people and groups she knows she’ll be more successful connecting with — such as at fencing class.
For those not succeeding with colleagues at work, the key is to figure out what environment would help them become more successful, as Hannah has. For someone with poor social skills, so much of their ability to function is dependent on the environment — no matter how small or severe the problem.
But perhaps the most important thing we can learn from treating kids with autism is that they are most likely to succeed if we help them use their strengths to work on, or compensate for, their weaknesses. We each have strengths and weaknesses, and we can each use this approach to make the difficult task of self-improvement a more positive experience.