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

By Ludmila N. Praslova, 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 who announced that the Emperor has no clothes have in common?

Not only they are all characters in Hans Christian Andersen tales - it’s been suggested that through his characters the author projected different facets of his own and others’ autistic experience. If so, the spectrum of autistic characteristics required 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 reacted 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 issues associated with 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.” With an occasional accusation of being “high maintenance”/”Princesses of the Pea” thrown in, even though the Princess was simply telling the truth.

Some of that might even sound reasonable - if indeed autistic people are not “team players,” and organizations these days need “team players.”

But is it true?

Myths and misconceptions about teams.

The use of the word “player” evokes a range of mental associations, mostly with sports, that are probably unintended, yet are likely to create barriers for workplace access and success of autistic people, even if in fact they are exactly the “team players” organizations want. 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. Team worker or team contributor. This more precise language might be better aligned with the strengths of a person who might pass on the lunchtime chatting in the noisy cafeteria, but will skip lunch and dinner to get the teams’ work done (which should never be taken as an invitation for abuse – but I could write a separate article on that).

To make things worse, the use of the term “team player” in job ads is rarely justified by the actual nature of the job. For some quick research, on July 26, 2020, I searched 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?”

Problems with 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. The sports analogy communicates the wrong message about the nature of teams in the workplace. 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 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. And what group of people often demonstrates an exceptional ability to keep their eyes on their ball/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 the results. Being 92% more productive than other employees may or may not fit typical images of “team playing,” but this is a highly valuable team working. And just to make sure nobody is left with an impression that autistic people are all work and no fun - search the YouTube for "autistic comedian."

In addition to often remarkable productivity, the “bothersome” to some 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 the much needed creativity and innovation. We need the Little Child and the truth-telling Princess on the team. There might be a temptation 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 even before that 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 in "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 spectrums 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 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 R & D 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?

We are all very different, but being on the spectrum does not preclude the development of highly rewarding workplace relationships. Some of my best workplace experiences involved working on teams with amazing 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 - on their perspective on working with someone "autistic, introverted, shy and otherwise different." Dr. Eric Rodriguez, a former direct report, said that he appreciated my support of his self-motivation, competence and initiative – and I appreciated 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 that are aligned with our talents, which 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 just and inclusive work environments, but whether neurodivergent of 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 always 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. Well, my mother was right, and that book became yet another lesson about being too trusting and too people-pleasing. It took a long time until eventually I overcorrected and stopped trusting pretty much anyone. But that is counterproductive because we need healthy trust to collaborate, and I have to keep reminding myself not to be the Ugly Duckling with the nice farmer's family, and not run away when others want to play well. It takes work. And if the proposed "playing" involves noisy large gatherings, it takes some thinking to propose an alternative - but all relationship-building takes work and thinking. As long as the willingness to do some work is mutual (vs. one-sided), it's fair.

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

Bad me. I told the teacher that if she does not 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 that should think carefully 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 Waterloo battle…perhaps the internal satisfaction of knowing better is enough.

As for the Princess on 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 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 on the Pea.

Not complaining – sometimes, not complaining when warranted - makes sense in my case. If your headboard has icicles on it and you can hear maddening TVs and drunken brawls from a dozen of apartments, it does little good to complain about the pea – or anything, really. But intersectionality is a big topic, and I will tackle that in the next installment, along with dealing with discrimination at work while autistic, introverted, shy and otherwise different.


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