Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all be a bit more like Bruce Lee?
It’s a question I’ve been considering a lot, after listening to a Ted Talk about how Bruce Lee the warrior, the actor, the icon and father were all the same man. The speaker believed that self-actualisation – the realisation of your potential and fulfilling it – came through bringing your true authentic self to all situations. Lee lived a short life but an impactful one through authenticity.
Imagine a world of work, where we could bring our authentic selves to the office, in an environment which helps realise our potential in an inclusive way.
Since being diagnosed with Aspergers three years ago and having studied extensively how the recruitment processes excludes neurodiverse candidates, I’ve realised most employers may not be ready for me to bring my authentic self to work. However, that seems to be beginning to change, and my experiences with my current employer give me hope. Refreshingly, a growing number of employers are beginning to engage with neurodiversity and understand that being more inclusive isn’t just a compassionate choice, it’s the most profitable one in the long run!
My story of Aspergers and employment started after I graduated from Bath University last year with first class honours in International Management with Spanish. Whilst everyone I knew at University seemed to end up in consultancy, I did things a little differently. I joined a fast-growing ice cream start up called Oppo – a healthy ice cream which has the taste of Häagen Dazs minus any guilt from its consumption. There’s only 16 of us in the business but we’re international and can be found in most UK food retailers. Although I’ve been at Oppo for 10 months now in the newly formed Data Analyst role – I feels it’s taken at least 6 months before Oppo saw the best of me.
Despite having a great degree and having worked and studied abroad for a year, I was not and could never have been prepared for the transition from education to employment. The path to securing a role and passing probation haven’t been straightforward, and the challenges I expected to face in getting a job and thriving in one, were different from the ones I actually encountered. Having got to this point it’s a privilege to share my story particularly, with the knowledge that an autism diagnosis often silences individuals. I hope that by reading this, and walking a few imaginary steps in my shoes you’ll see neurodiversity is real, it is not something to fear and it is easy to engage with.
One of the first things I learnt when searching for a job was that my transition to employment would be littered with unique obstacles for my brain. Be that group interviews with complications of understanding social dynamics and dealing with information overload or sifting through job descriptions telling you everything other than the core skills and experience needed to do the job; or psychometric tests which felt like the game Twenty Questions on steroids. Companies it seemed, don’t make things simple. Even asking me what reasonable adjustments I might need seemed non-sensical – how might I know what adjustments will help in the recruitment process if you haven’t told me how I will be assessed!
Thankfully, I was able to get around some of these challenges through using a very good recruitment company, who got me face to face with Oppo. By getting face time, I could actually show them how I had the traits for the role: an attention to detail, enthusiasm about learning new skills and caring about what the company did, how it operated and what in my view it could do better. I’ve never actually told anyone this, but once I got the call from the recruiter saying Oppo wanted me I cried – it was the realisation that I was now part of just 16% of autistic adults in full time employment. This emotion came from the belief that the hardest part of the journey was done – nothing would be harder than getting through the recruitment process.
The irony was I felt the journey was over before it began. I paid so much attention to how I would get a job, that I had never considered what I would have to do to succeed in one, or to how this would be different from university.
The university work environment suited my Aspergers brain – the pressure for immediate results with my assignments was low, but the accuracy required to complete them was far higher. It was a low-pressure, high accuracy environment. This environment allowed for me to give more than what the 70% rule advises – it allowed for perfectionist traits to fester. Employment was the opposite of this:
- multiple plates spinning,
- frequent interruptions in workflow,
- and hour by hour changes to priorities.
This high-pressure lower accuracy environment was not what University prepared me for. The challenge in learning to work with data early on in my role was less technical and more mental. Meeting deadlines was a frequent challenge as I got trapped in a perfectionist loop of data analysis – an irrational fear that the data might be wrong would lead to another check, followed by more delay. I was a data analyst that feared data.
The feeling of overload was also a result of the change in the way things are communicated in university to work. Imagine you’re a university student in a lecture, receiving information about an upcoming assignment. What might you be told? Evaluation criteria, deadlines, reference points and authors for research, and the difference between a top-grade response and okay response. Now picture this – you arrive at work on Monday morning – you’ve got an email in your inbox saying URGENT, outlining there’s an issue and you need to fix it today. There are so many implicit questions and conversations expected to be initiated by you, to create the same clarity and structure as you would receive with a university assignment. This behaviour is pivotal to success in your working career – communicating to create structure – yet it is not explicitly coached in any careers event or work environment, in the same way we’d be coached how to interview well.
The reason why this doesn’t derail a neurotypical graduates’ route through to passing probation is that many people don’t require the full picture of a task in order to complete it. The full picture of any task is:
- Why am I doing this,
- What needs doing,
- How am I doing this and
- When do I need to do it by?
From speaking with my friends about their experiences of employment, they typically need 70% of the what, 0% of the why, 50% of the how and 70% of the when. I need 100% of each of these to fully visualise, plan and execute on the task. Although the original explanation of this task might take longer for me, having the full picture means I can execute it more efficiently – it’s not just muscle memory kicking in – though as studies suggest that with repetitive tasks Aspergers mindsets tend to thrive better than neurotypicals. Furthermore, because I know the full purpose and process behind the task, I can become specialised in the process sufficiently enough to optimise and innovate making my execution of this task better each time!
I am growing in confidence and beginning to appreciate that it isn’t unreasonable for me to ask for this level of communication when taking on new tasks.
Execution through better communication though is only part of the puzzle. The other is environment: how do I execute tasks when what’s going on around me is often out of my control? I never had to consider this at university – there was always a spare room to dive into to create my little bubble of focus. However, at Oppo for the first few months, my bubble of focus felt violated every minute of the day. An email notification here, a tap on the shoulder there, the sound of a glass dropping after a team meeting. It does not sound a lot for most, but for someone with Aspergers, these disruptions, no matter how slight, can be enough to derail your work plans for the day. It was only when my line manager saw me flinch and shudder when a colleague was wrapping up sample boxes with tape and asked why, that I realised that I needed to manage my workspace and develop coping mechanisms to take back control. With small changes to this space, I realised I could cut my anxiety and get back to my bubble of focus quicker once it had been broken.
It sounds silly to say that something as small as moving desks, turning off wifi for an hour or buying noise cancelling headphones, made me a more effective and healthier data analyst. But it did – my health improved and for the first time in months I achieved what I set out to at the beginning of the day.
Arguably though, the single biggest contributor to my success at Oppo was the power of the Post-It Note! At Oppo we use a goal setting software called Asana. It helps many manage multiple priorities, but for me in the first few months it just felt like a soupy mess – an endless list of tasks that would never be completed which encouraged me to stay late to tick off another task. It was only after talking about how I could protect myself and my workspace from disruptions with my line manager, that I realised the key to recalibrating my work patterns and avoiding sensory overload meant achieving just one small task. Often this task was written down on a Post-It Note next to my keyboard – it was a gentle nudge to encourage me to get back into the zone. Nowadays, my desk is littered with Post-It Notes – each one with tasks scribbled on. Whilst it may sound like chaos to some, I know this pile of Post-It Notes serves as a reminder of what I’ve achieved that day and what I can be proud of.
I am happier and less anxious at work because I’ve been coached how to communicate better by my line manager. But the effect of this is not insular – I believe there’s a communication multiplier effect you get when good communication is coached with atypicals. Through creating an environment, where questioning is encouraged of the why, the what, the how and the when of each task you empower me to communicate. It’s not simply a matter of improving my workflow – you have provided me the platform with which to question how we as a company act.
Why is our pricing X when the data suggests Y? Are we overstocked on product A when our monthly weekly sales for this product are B?
These questions can invite conflict and challenges – they might rub people up the wrong way. But the bluntness is aimed at solving an issue regardless of the feelings or people attached to it. Through learning how to communicate, my previous anxiety around managing expectations or questioning why I did things went away. Where once was indecision, there is self-certainty. With self-certainty and a knowledge that the data tells me this, I can question why we are doing things as a company and how we can do them better.
There are a couple of final thoughts I wanted to leave you with from my story. One, the roots of me succeeding at Oppo does not lie in anything radical or ground-breaking – I overcommunicate in my role and ask others to do the same, I manage my environment to be more productive, and I question why we do things at the company. It was OK for me to feel anxious about doing all of these things in my first role, even if I had been “normal”. Start-ups are generally fast moving and unforgiving but I’ve been lucky enough to be in one that breaks the mould, which gave me the coaching and patience necessary to succeed.
Finally, from the experiences of my line manager, there’s been a net gain from having someone with autism at Oppo. Managing me has changed the way he works – he’s more detail-oriented from having seen how I work, he overcommunicates with other team members he manages, and he has a better overview of the team because I overcommunicate about how my work affects them. These are behavioural changes which cost nothing but mean everything. If a start-up with limited resources can make such a difference for one life imagine the social impact in larger organisations and the lives that could be improved for the better.