Dealing with social awkwardness at work: Insights from the autism community

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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.

35 replies
  1. mcewen
    mcewen says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve learned more from the social skills classes that my autistic boys attend that I have by my own on the planet for more than 40 years.

  2. stever
    stever says:

    excellent writing on an excellent topic that everyone can take something from.

    It’s always tough confronting people at meetings to ‘defend’ someone, especially when the person on the offense is ‘cocky’ or overly-outspoken. it’s an excellent challenge to people in leadership roles to discuss times like this with members of their team.. much like a teacher would with a group of obnoxious 9 year olds :)

    * * * * *

    Steve,Great point. This is not just a social skills issue. This is a team building issue, it’s a diversity issue, it is an issue about humanity. Managers need to help people to process what’s going on in terms of the larger group dynamic. Theoretically, the direct reports are doign the work, and the manager is looking at the big picture. And when it comes to social skills problems, a team effort can be the difference between helping someone succeed or letting them fail.

    Mangement how-tos, like the Harveard Business Review — recommend firing someone who has no social skills, no matter how good they are at doing their job. I wish this weren’t the case. I wish the world were a more accommodating place.

    Steve’s comment shows this possibility.


  3. Gordon
    Gordon says:

    Great article Penelope, I have a nephew Stuart who is aged 9, he is dealing with Asperger's syndrome,so I can understand fully what you are talking about..and congrats on the Yahoooooooooo..well done lass


  4. Galba Bright
    Galba Bright says:

    I enjoyed your article immensely. I think the insight about leveraging one’s strengths.

    My one quibble is that I don’t see Harvard Business Review as being one of the “management how tos” that advocate the primacy of technical skills over social skills.

    HBR published Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking “What Makes A Leader?” that propelled people into an understanding of Emotional Intelligence. Many people now understand that EQ is a more reliable indicator of career success than the preence of technical skills.

  5. aSa (DJ FunkyGrrL)
    aSa (DJ FunkyGrrL) says:

    From what I noticed, “office politics” tend to mainly comprise of lower level employees trying to kiss up to their supervisors or bosses.

    I think Autistic Children/Adults have alot to share in their experinces with society.

    * * * * * *

    Hey, Asa.

    I have found that the toughest game of office politics is at the top of an organization, where everyone is great at it. In order to get to the top of a big company, you need to know how to understand what people want, even if they don’t say it, and how to give it to them the right way, even if they ask for it to be delivered the wrong way. Office politics when it’s played best is incredibly fine-tuned empathy and compassion for even the people who annoy you.

    Maybe the reason it looks like the people at the bottom are the only one’s doing it is because they are the ones doing it in a clumsy, in-your-face way: Practice, practice, practice.


  6. Joe
    Joe says:

    I enjoyed the article but I have to disagree with the statement: ‘The point is that people judge your work skills as incompetent if you are not likeable – no matter what your work skills are.’

    I think this varies a lot depending on the environment. I work in an engineering organization where (at least at the low/mid levels) having the right answer is paramount to anything else. There are quite a few people who can be very difficult to deal with. They go unchecked because they are among the best in the company at what they do. Their ability is never questioned and they are consistently called into projects that demand quality. The bottom line seems to be: A lot is tolerated if you can produce the goods. I find this consistent in a lot of companies with engineers.

    * * * * * * *
    Joe, current management research shows that companys suffer  more than they benefit from keeping around a genius who is difficult to deal with. Bob Sutton, professor at Stanford, has a bunch of this research in his new book The No Asshole Rule. The people who always have the right answer always think they are the exception. But they are not. In order to maintain a highly productive workplace, everyone needs to be nice to eachother, not just the dumb people.


  7. annalaura brown
    annalaura brown says:

    Good Post, I agree that children on the autism spectrum need to be taught to ephasize their strengths and to compensate for their weaknesses. My parents did a great job with this with me and I think that is one of the reasons I am doing so well as an adult today.

  8. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    – €˜The point is that people judge your work skills as incompetent if you are not likeable – no matter what your work skills are.'

    Tell you what. When the company is losing a million dollars for every hour the corporate network is down, I’ll just let the much more likeable, but totally clueless and incompetent co worker fix it himself.

    We’ll see how much of the company is left when he gets it done.

    Thanks for making it acceptable for management to discriminate against us Aspies, for as long as the companies manage to survive the rule of the likeable but incompetent.

  9. jay
    jay says:

    Hey, while you’re on the subject, does anyone have any good books about how to “be social” for people who are wicked aspergers?

    I’m less interested in reading articles and pointing out how they’re so-totally-completely about me!!! and more interested in finding a resource to identify and suppress the aspects of my personality that people find unsavory at will. Example by example. Mind you, I like me, but in a lot of situations I have no idea what I’m doing since nothing comes naturally. I don’t know when to say hi, when to say bye, when I should talk about so and so holiday everyone cares about that’s coming up. Asking people about their vacations. And it goes on. It occurs to me that I don’t say “I hope you feel better” to someone because I know my opinion or hopes have no tangible effect on reality, and if someone said that to me I’d basically just filter it out as being irrelevant like some kind of crazy robot, but to a normal person I bet they think my silence is actually me wishing them the plague? And so forth.

    RE: Francesca, I have had that point brought up to me when I made my discovery. That I’m just making an excuse up to be a jerk.

    The hilarious thing about having aspergers is, people who don’t have it assume that you inform them because you want empathy, which in their mind you do not deserve since it’s not like you’ve got a truckload of it — when in fact you just want to explain to them your astounding discovery.

    That probably doesn’t make sense to you, because you’re not from outer space. But it makes sense to someone, I assure you.

    • sasha
      sasha says:

      ok… i don’t know if i have aspergers, but after half a career of working in an enginerring profession (I am a 40 year woman) I’ve landed in a company where my lack of social “finesse” or cue- reading landed me in trouble the first week of my working there. Its almost as if I’ve discovered that not everybody is like me. Something is off – but I know not what. I am perfectly capable of emotions and empathy (especially animals and sometimes can feel bad for things like TV networks that are trying hard to be successful etc.,). I dont have issues with physical touch or hugs…however I do not keep in touch with people, including my own family. I find that while i do talk to them, I enjoy immensely and feel happy after. but it never motivates me to call them… feels like i need a lot of energy to call… wish i knew what was wrong…I am very earnest and all this politics at work has me very surprised…like i was living under a rock all this while

  10. Christopher
    Christopher says:

    This thread is very old but it fits my problem perfectly. I have been out in the “real world” and have had jobs that involve social skills, and those that do not. The jobs I’ve been able to get have all been poor quality jobs that people just hire you to fill up space. I’m in college now, and I don’t know how I’ll be able to get past an interview with my poor social abilities. I can handle one person at a time, but not when I first meet them. More than one and I go completely quiet because it just seems like too much is going on or something. The solution you offer is to just put yourself in situations that allow you to minimize the people in the room. What am I supposed to do? Tell my boss “only one person allowed in my office at a time?” I think they may escort me out of the building. My GPA is 3.95 and I’m at the end of my sophomore year, but it will not matter since the world revolves around communication. I don’t know the point of my comment, perhaps someone has some advice or something. I just came across this thread by searching through careers for the anti-social. They all pay shit wages btw.

    • Dan
      Dan says:

      You want to sell your skills, not your personality. I’d recommend looking into Temple Grandin’s books.

  11. Axman Odum
    Axman Odum says:

    How would I know for sure if I had Asperger’s Syndrome? I mean, I seem to have all the symptoms , but I sense maybe I don’t have the full blown disease. All my life I’ve had to tread water at work and outperform to secure my job. I felt I can never relate to anyone and that I don’t have any social “filters” . I always rationalize it by telling myself people can’t handle the truth. Is there a definitive diagnosis and treatment?

  12. vax
    vax says:

    very oooooold thread, but….

    I grew up surrounded by semi-aspie physicists and engineers, and I know most of them want to just be left alone to do work, not to waste time with office politics… that said, some of them figured out that they had to engage in politics to fund their experiments… and some approached it very well…

    a HUGE amount of office politics has to do with keeping insecure people from feeling insecure, and techies roll their eyes at the ability of salespeople to calm down worried people with a certain tone of voice and a few buzzwords, but that’s often the difference between keeping the client and losing the business….

    BUT this leads to an all-too-common problem, where salespeople promise clients things that sound rational but are not possible, say client has budget issues but wants a 4 wheel drive car, salesperson proposes a 3 wheel drive car, signs contract and delivers it to engineers who try not to laugh…. the aspie engineers are prohibited from meeting clients for business-school reasons, and then, things like this happen inevitably…. but of course, you can ALWAYS blame the engineers….

    • Dan
      Dan says:

      I’ve never quite understood why some engineers aren’t allowed in front of the clients. Yes, we are a different breed, but whats wrong with that? People come in different flavors. Would you trust a surgeon who had the personality of a salesman? Would you hire a trial lawyer who wasn’t articulate?

  13. Dan
    Dan says:

    I’m on the spectrum and work in IT. From what I’ve seen, social skills aren’t that big of a deal if you are in a purely technical position. You do have to be nice and professional. If you can combine soft skills and hard skills, you are more valuable. Thing is, most of the engineering / IT types aren’t “people people” and honestly don’t want to engage with other people all day.

  14. Phyllis
    Phyllis says:

    Thanks for writing about this. I just went and took that emotional IQ test you link to in this blog and I don’t think I’ve ever done so badly on a test before in my life! (I did better on ALGEBRA tests, and I SUCK at Algebra!)

    I’ve always had a lot of trouble dealing with people (despite generally liking them and occasionally taking leadership roles) and just figured it meant I had a lot of social anxiety/depression issues. Now I’m at the point in my life when its all starting to affect my career.

    At least now I have some clue of what’s wrong. Maybe I can learn how to fix some of these issues.

  15. Shane
    Shane says:

    I have the same problem with hannah. except, I am still in denial. but after reading this, I finally realized that I have this asperger’s syndrome going on. and I love writing, by the way. which really explains a lot. thanks.

  16. getting your ex wife back
    getting your ex wife back says:

    Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research on this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such wonderful information being shared freely out there.

  17. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    This is an old post but always relevant.
    I read everything I can get my hands on but find nothing on how to respond in situation by situation experiences to help me learn what to do. I’m so clueless with office politics and social skills and exhausted trying to learn them. I’m 57-yrs old and have just lost my 27th job mainly because I just don’t ever seem to figure it out. I even had a co-worker repeatedly refer to me as ignorant. My supervisor laughed right along with it. I’m so frustrated, sad, lonely, exhausted and unemployed again. I found what I thought would be help from a group specializing in asperger’s social skills but sadly learned I couldn’t afford the financial price. Life is starting to feel pretty useless right now.

  18. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    By the way…I need to throw in three failed marriages, raised two children through all this, and the constant childhood memory of hearing my mother telling me that I just wasn’t as smart as (her)other five children. Also from the age of 3-yrs old to 12-yrs old I suffered enuresis and was whipped each morning by my father as ‘it’s for my own good’. Life sucks.

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