Autism friendly management style – servant leadership?
22nd October 2021
Recently I was asked the question: how can we make workplaces more autism friendly, without interfering with the needs of most of the population for relationship building via the emotional reciprocation of social interaction?
It is a good question and one which has never really been successfully answered.
What I can tell you that is key, are good values. Honesty and integrity throughout an organisation are vital when making any organisation more autism or neurodiversity friendly.
Experimenting with new ways of working
At Aspiedent, we have never been keen on the traditional hierarchy model. Due to our disability related inability to micromanage people (Elizabeth and I have enough work trying to manage ourselves), we are thinking about new ways of working.
Elizabeth’s autism severely reduces her ability to deal with people. She is only able to deal with people in a limited capacity. Therefore when ‘managing’ people at work, she kind of adopts servant leadership.
To cope with people and get the best out of them, she almost treats them like MA or PhD students. She is there for them when they need help, but she leaves them to their own devices (to an extent). She expects them to get on with their work in between to the best of their ability and to ask for help when they get stuck. She likes people to take ownership of their work
This approach also allows us to adopt management techniques that work for each individual. The employee that prefers to get on with what they are doing and have regular catch-ups… she’s there for them for regularly scheduled supervision meetings. If an employee needs regular input (for example, daily) she tries to be there for them when they need it until they get to a point when they can be more independent.
It is almost like treating employees like consultancy clients… they approach us when they need input, guide them, and then send them back on their merry way.
At the end of the day, we care about each other, and the people we work with. We try and put the less fortunate and needy in front of ourselves. Being compassionate is important to us.
I believe that if you build an organisation that truly cares about its people, you will create an environment that is all diversity friendly.
Autism friendly working environments?
Often people with autism or neurodiversity are bullied at work. Sometimes this is because they do not understand the social stuff, politics of the organisation, and the significance of emotional reciprocation of social interaction.
One way to discourage bullies from being promoted could be servant leadership.
Colleen Barret who is the president emerita of South West Airlines, a successful airline that practices servant leadership, once said that she spent 85% of her time delivering proactive customer service to her employees!
Her most important priorities were her employees.
She was deputy to South West’s Chairman Herb Kelleher for many years, who is quite a remarkable man. Herb did not see rank and rungs on a ladder, he never embarrassed his team when they did something silly, and he treated the team as complete equals to him (Knowledge Wharton, 2008).
Imagine if, rather than managers being given teams of staff to manage, progression in an organisation meant overseeing a group of staff they are expected to serve (nurture and develop). To provide nurture, and develop people, you need to care about them and be honest with them.
Indeed, many Human Resource professionals and the Chartered Institute for Professional Development (CIPD), the professional body for HR, are incredibly interested in the wellbeing and learning, and development of people.
The person who is ‘nurturing’ the junior staff should have somebody above them who they can seek guidance and assurance and supervision from – essentially who is nurturing them. This could go all the way up until there is a solid, core team at the top supporting each other. At any one time, each employee will only really deal with their core team. However, the one serving that team would also deal with their supervisor (the one serving them).
Of course, it will not be a utopia, and there will still be methods of discipline, dismissal, and people issues. With nurture, comes consequences of actions of one’s actions and boundaries.
If you told a person likely to purposefully make trouble and/or trample on other people to get what they want, that the only thing they get to look forward to upon promotion, is a set of newer or less experienced individuals to nurture (not ‘manage’), it might put them off.
If you told them their job was to serve their employees and not the other way around, it might send them running. Especially if they knew that if they did not perform well at this – of course with help and support from their supervisor, they would not progress.
Honest (and constructive) feedback should also be expected, not just from the nurturer and their team, but from the team back to the nurturer. This would be off-putting to somebody who was not a genuine team player.
If someone is not performing as they should, this is addressed quickly with the whole point of the processing being to find a way to help the person do better.
Freedom of thought and opinion would also be key, but as long as there was no hateful intent behind this. There is a BIG difference between freedom of thought/belief and hate. Unfortunately, today’s world doesn’t seem to understand this.
It may seem very scary to business leaders to adopt some form of servant leadership. But, do you want people who you have to micromanage and who are not able to trust to do their best, and come and ask when they need help?
Understanding all employees
In the last blog post, I tried to emphasise that a person’s neurodiversity profile generally remains constant during all interactions. Please remember neurodiversity profiling is not personality profiling… it’s very different.
If a person has a particularly idiosyncratic way of thinking, then they will generally always think in that way.
Understanding (all) staff and managers' neurodiversity profiles, and having them documented somewhere, could be extremely valuable. (As well as dangerous, so we would have to find a way of protecting this information).
One way that might help autistic people access the workplace, would be to have a protocol that upon employment, every staff member must be profiled.
A profile comes with recommendations for how to get the best out of the person, how they can get the best out of themselves, and helps to clearly and accurately explain their differences to others.
This means that autistic people who might have a very spiky profile are not singled out from other employees. It would also allow an employer to pick up on any neurodiversity within a person, that may affect the workplace straight away.
This would be valuable because straight away, other members of the team would be able to view the person’s profile and know the best way to communicate with them and what things are likely to cause difficulty with a view to either mitigating against them or avoiding them.
One thing that would have to be factored in though is that knowledge is power and although it can help understanding other people to this degree, it can also be used as a weapon. How people think about, perceive, and sense the world can be used against them if such knowledge got into the wrong hands.
But how much easier would it be if we were able to see ‘inside’ somebody’s head before working or interacting with them? This would be possible with our neurodiversity profiling tool.
If handled correctly, many people, who would get dismissed due to misunderstandings, could be retained. Simply by everyone understanding everybody else's different ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving.