Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Excellent Guide for Management - Self and Other

Right after Labor Day, Robert Sutton - Stanford Business School professor and author of The No A**hole Rule (slightly NSFW - guess why?) - is coming out with Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Learn from the Worst (SFW; book itself rated PG). Professor Sutton was kind enough to send me a free advance copy.

Professor Sutton is also the father of an Aspie, and while AS is not the focus of either of his books, he has created something that all Aspies - at least those who hope to get and keep steady jobs, maybe even management jobs - should hearken to. (And there's plenty here for NTs too.)

First off, there's lots of practical, specific advice, from nitty-gritty tips like "Cross your arms when you talk" and "Try a little flash of anger now and then" (complete with a strong warning not to go overboard with these things) to principles protecting your workers from outsiders' troublesome demands (not a redundancy) to how to deliver an effective apology.

That last forms part of one of the most important elements of Sutton's whole work: A good boss must enable - even welcome and encourage - professional challenges from subordinates. We're not talking one-upmanship, but rather making sure that subordinates who are right are willing and able to inform bosses - and colleagues - who may be mistaken.

That means subordinates - and other stakeholders such as stockholders, customers and the general public - need to understand that the boss not only can be wrong (that's obvious enough) but also knows and accepts that s/he can be wrong. And in turn, that while the boss knows s/he can be wrong, s/he does not know just when that will be or how it can be and thus needs appropriate warnings to head off mistakes, if not disaster.

Effective apologies help reinforce that idea. So does following Sutton's advice - for which he elsewhere credits Karl Weick - to fight as though you are right...and listen as though you are wrong.

Also, Sutton shows us not only why we should not shirk the dirty work, including disciplining and firing people when necessary, but also how to do it well, especially with maximum consideration for those who are hurt.

We Aspies know very well that many people, including colleagues and even bosses, can be mistaken and need correcting. We pride ourselves on, among other things, our honesty, creative approaches to problems, love for truth and understanding of the facts without fear or favor. If and when we become bosses - which IMHO can be understood to include parents - we need to walk the walk, and encourage subordinates to correct both us and one another safely.

In turn, Sutton shows us that it's not just a matter of saying "OK, speak your minds!" He reminds us that our subordinates, like everyone else, are creatures of emotion and ego as well as logic and facts. Therefore, he shows us in detail how to both make subordinates comfortable about correcting the boss, and also manage creative conflicts among subordinates.

Among other things, we must never forget that most people have suffered bosses and colleagues who shot the proverbial messenger, so we need to inspire trust and loyalty. For example, we must not be so intent on correcting anyone we think is wrong that we smother those very impulses in people who depend on our approval.

Even for those of us who are not bosses, this is an excellent self-management guide. No one needs to be a boss to be able to apologize, link talk and action, or encourage others to approach us with bad news. To the contrary, these skills will help us become better workers, better (and happier) people...and stronger candidates for promotion.

We pride ourselves on our acid minds and talk, which cuts through surface alloys to reveal the core. Acid is a vital component of many industrial processes. Another vital component of those processes is protective measures like goggles, emergency hoses and showers for washing people who have gotten hit, regular inspection and maintenance of machinery and strict work rules. Without these things we could not safely handle acid, and thus would generally do without it.

In a nutshell, Sutton's work both channels our greatest gifts and challenges us to develop our more dormant competencies, particularly in human relations, without which our gifts will never - and arguably should never - see the light of day.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Drill, Baby, Drill!

On Tuesday, a British Airways flight over the North Sea made an erroneous announcement that the plane may soon crash into the water. The pilots quickly corrected it, but not before passengers panicked.

Am I the only person who thinks we should have disaster drills on plans and perhaps other vehicles like trains and buses, just as schools, dorms and workplaces have fire and other drills? I wonder if, once passengers have prepared themselves for likely announcements of, say, likely imminent crashes, we'll make a habit of knowing what to do (eg, go for the life jacket, put it on and then inflate it, or maybe grab and apply the oxygen mask) and therefore not panic so much and more likely survive.

Also, what if we have reason to believe the end is near, and it would be our last chance to use our cell phones and we probably wouldn't want to take even a full minute or two in a true emergency? (Not to mention once you hit the water or likely even the ground your cell phone may get lost or destroyed.)

Perhaps it would be nice to prepare by typing and saving an appropriate text message, such as "PLANE ABOUT TO CRASH - I LOVE YOU AND WILL WAIT FOR YOU IN HEAVEN" (or maybe "PLANE ABOUT TO CRASH - I LOVE YOU AND DON'T FORGET MY WILL IS IN THE SAFE DEPOSIT BOX" - whatever your beliefs dictate), that you could pull up and then send with a touch of a key or two.

That way you'll save as much time as possible for putting on the life jacket or oxygen mask, and make it as likely as possible you'll stay alive and be able to give good news later - while if worse comes to worst you can die in peace knowing you said your last goodbyes.

Or might such a text message pose serious problems?

What do you think?

PS: More out with the old, in with the new - this is my first blog post using Google Chrome. Given who owns Blogpost, last time I checked, it seems only fitting.

PPS: On this day, 23 years ago, I went away to college for the first time, at American University.

UPDATE: We now have an Android app that - while intended for a somewhat different situation - will do the job for a possible plane crash!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Solving Our Unemployment Problem

The Onion recently put out "Report: Unemployment High Because People Keep Blowing Their Job Interviews." (SFW, unless your boss thinks it's a serious career article for people who want to change jobs. My boss doesn't have that concern...then again, I'm self-employed.)

If the point of the article is that the employers will find employees who impress them, and thus unemployment in general is really not affected by particular individuals fouling up job interviews, I can't dispute that.

On the other hand, if they're trying to argue that behaviors such as sending a handwritten thank-you note, researching the prospective employer and bringing extra copies of one's resume have no substantive value and are just arbitrary disqualifiers, they are mistaken. Employers look for signals of qualities like diligence, dedication and detail orientation, and also for indicators of a good fit. In a setting where every candidate has an incentive to say "Pick me, I'm the best," hiring managers need ways to deduce who will in fact work both hard and smart and hopefully stay a while if hired. Signals like the above provide valuable clues.

Given that we Aspies are disporportionately un- and under-employed, perhaps a better headline for us would be "Aspie Unemployment High Because We Sometimes Blow Job Interviews." If we can learn and then carry out behaviors which we can understandably see as petty or even senseless, but which the people who make the decisions place great stock in, we can turn our situations around.

What do you think?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Eating to Deadline

Last night, I had macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Why? Because that was the expiration date on the box. As I told Emily, I had until midnight (presumably EDT, since I'd also bought it around here) to cook and eat it. Her response: "You're a braver soul than I."

I pointed out that in any case I did have some wiggle room, since the box said to sell it - not necessarily eat it - by August 22.

In any case, I got it all done and eaten before 11pm. Go me!

PS: Just one niggling question - do bacteria have accurate calendars and watches? So far so good, 21 hours later....

Friday, August 20, 2010

Personality Packs a Punch

Adrian Fenty, mayor of Washington, DC, normally would have no problem getting re-elected (or rather winning the Democratic primary, since the Democrats rule DC pretty much completely) this year. According to the Washington City Paper:

A political scientist would label the mayor a shoo-in: The city’s population is growing. People are generally happy with city services. Murders are down. And there’s no imminent cliff the city’s about to drive off.

So what's the problem?

They don’t like him. They really, really don’t like him.

[Emphasis in original.]

"They" are City Council members (whose chair, Vincent Gray, is reputed to have a decent chance of toppling Fenty), political activists, engaged citizens and last but certainly not least his staffers.

They describe him in terms like "arrogant pri[g]," "brat" and "spoiled child". Staffers, in particular, have blood-curdling stories about Fenty's behavior that - if true - describe flat-out abuse.

Fenty's supporters say yes, he can be a bit prickly and standoffish at times. But it's for a good cause - he's staying focused on his work. As for his explosions, that's how he keeps a sometimes fractious city bureaucracy in line.

In other words, they're hoping voters will focus on his technical skills and tangible achievements. Fenty & Company might have to think again:

"Does the guy deserve, based on performance, to win again? Yes, absolutely," says one [Fenty staffer]. (The staffer is leaning toward voting for Gray anyway.)

In other words, even someone who can step back and say that Febty's performance deserves re-election is likely to vote for the other guy.

What better evidence is there that personality prevails over performance?

And this is an office where Fenty can at least appeal to voters who don't know him personally. Most of us live or die on the judgments of those who not only have met us but also regularly interact with us. You can have the best performance numbers in the world, but if many people don't like your personality you're risking a serious fall.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gray Matter and Green Stuff

According to a study of identical and fraternal twins' investment portfolios, about one-third of the variance in people's stock market behavior can be explained by genetics.

Yet another reason to believe that how people view - and respond to - events has a good deal to do with how we're wired. Upbringing, experience and certainly free will all matter - and their influence is refracted through the prism of our brain structures.

Closer to home, our Aspie brains affect how we see and react to the world - perhaps especially when we don't realize it.

H/T: Elmer Rich III, who has managed sales, marketing and investments for close to 35 years, and has earned a Master's degree in Social Psychology from the University of Chicago.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Golden Rule, Revised

Saucy Vixen, a married lawyer, gives us an example of a common rule which we Aspies should adapt to our situation:

Treat others the way you would want to be treated.
I want people to be straight up and honest with me. If I ask, "Do these pants make me look fat?" and they actually do, in fact, make me look fat, I damned well wanna know about it. I want people to treat me respectfully, sure, but I don't want them to pussyfoot around like a bunch of waffling [Milquetoasts]. I'd rather someone be bitchy than be superficially sweet and friendly -- at least those who are bitchy have a little edge, a little depth.

[However, i]f I treated people the way I want to be treated, I would have no friends. I'm more abrasive than most folks; an acquired taste. I understand that, which is why I treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way I might want to be treated if in the same situation.

All emphases in original.

In other words, the Golden Rule sometimes assumes we have much the same desires as others. When on the other hand we want something very different, such as blunt feedback, we need to understand the Golden Rule in terms of its ultimate purpose: act toward others in ways they will appreciate. We need to understand and accept when someone wants, or most people want, what's different from what we would want.

That's particularly difficult for Aspies, because due to our rigidity of thought - and often action - that sometimes doesn't even occur to us. We unfortunately tend to both look at our worldview as the only possible one, and to look at rules as things to follow slavishly to the letter - not the spirit.

What do you think?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010

Honesty is the Best Policy

Yesterday morning, we had some nasty thunderstorms which cut off our power for a few hours. When I got back, I found that though the lights were still on (and the food in our refrigerator and freezer still cold), our Internet access was down.

Figuring that our cable modem only handled Internet connectivity to my desktop, whereas the router handled all our computers including our laptops, I reset the router, to no effect. I called our ISP, whose automated screener asked me "Have you tried resetting your cable modem?"

Well, I reset the router, and that's what counts. The program probably just doesn't know that the machine I'm working with is on a wireless connection and isn't linked to the cable modem. I'll just answer yes, because what they really mean is have I reset the thing that supplies connectivity to my machine.

Then the tech told me that in fact the cable modem brings the Internet into our house (the router then controls all the connections inside). We reset the modem and all is well.

Lesson for the day: In general, answer questions honestly. Quite possibly the other side knows something you don't.

Also on the subject of honesty: Thank you very much, Person Who Cut Wide Slit Into Cookie Package At Giant. I'm sure I reflect the entire shopping community's shared appreciation of your pioneer spirit. Leave it to the rest of us suckers to actually buy something, take it out of the store and then open it. Sheesh.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Aspie-Friendly Video

What if the power dynamics at a strip club were freely and honestly discussed by the participants?

This video is, not surprisingly, NSFW due to the audio dialogue.

On the other hand, the style is especially congenial to Aspies because not only is it explicit and detailed, but also the audio dialogue is all there is - no gestures, no body language, no changing tones of voice or visual offerings to keep track of. Once you get it started, you can even minimize the window or walk away if you want to focus on something else and just listen to the dialogue in the background.

That said, headphones are recommended if others are in the area who might not be interested in listening to this.

H/T: Veteran nightclub bouncer Clint Overland, who in turn got the link from renowned conflict management expert Marc "Animal" MacYoung.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Job You Save May Be Your Own

Marilyn Moats Kennedy has written about office politics for upwards of three decades. As far as I can tell - and I've been reading her work since the mid-1980s - she's one of the first people to openly and directly address office politics.

Of course, by "politics" we don't (necessarily) mean Republican vs. Democrat*. We mean all those informal rules that you'll never find in the personnel manual or official company policy. Some of these rules, such as "Wait a bit after you get hired before you start taking sides on issues and factions," are pretty much universal. Others, like "The Payroll Manager doesn't really run payroll; the Accounting Manager does" apply to specific firms but not others.

The point here is, we all need to learn the rules that aren't spelled out at least as much as we need to learn the ones that are. Especially - but not only - when unemployment is high and managers have to decide not just "Do I have to fire anybody?" but also sometimes "Which people do I need to let go?"

Laying people off isn't just a matter of having to lose such-and-such number of employees; unless an entire location or company is closing down, it's also a question of whether that number will include Jane Doe, John Smith, Harry Jones or someone else. You may be able to survive a layoff - but not by putting your head in the sand.

And so Ms. Kennedy has helpfully written up eight traits of the perpetually employed - including:

7. They are team players.

Favors are exchanged--everyone owes them and they owe everybody else. One HR manager said that bosses making layoff decisions go first for the loners because getting rid of them does no damage to the body politic. The thinking is "If no one knew she was here, no one will notice when she's gone." Team players who are also mentors are even farther down the layoff list.

[*] Or, say, Conservative vs. Labour for our British readers.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Nice Guys Finish Last

Some Aspies like to be first and/or last with things. It's like all-or-nothing; no ambiguity there.

For example (well, until I click "Publish Post" anyway), I'm probably the only creature in the universe who recalls that I was the first person in the dining hall for the Fall 1991 semester.

On the other hand, recently I got the last two boxes of fudge mint cookies at the supermarket. If there weren't literally dozens of other varieties of cookies there in plentiful supply, I would likely have left one behind. But since there were lots of other kinds of cookies there, and I know the supermarket restocks regularly, hey I snagged the last two boxes!

And earlier today, I headed down to Office Depot for two 16-gig flash drives. The flash-drive cabinet (which is locked because we're talking about mobile memory in all senses of the term!) only had one on sale. Hoping against hope, I asked the sales associate if there was one more in stock. There was - exactly one more. (Lexar was holding a sale for some reason; Office Depot stocks other flash drive brands too.)

Yay for speaking up - even if odds are the next nine+ times whatever store I'm in won't have any more in storage. (Stores often - but not always - have every item on the shelves; sometimes they have the manufacturers restock the shelves themselves so the items don't even see storage).

But, nothing to lose by asking, and I really wanted two at the same low price (Emily's and my new laptops need large flash drives to save the backup recovery files, so if either of our laptops goes down for the count we can at least restore it to the way it was when the UPS guy dropped the package on our porch, knocked on our door once and headed back to his truck without knowing for sure if we were even alive*).

And, the sale ends today (well, ended since the store's closed now). I've got both their remaining on-sale 16-gig flash drives. Life is good.

[*] Remember those kids who knocked on people's doors and ran away? Guess what they do for a living now.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

New Tech Wonders

Yesterday, I went to pay my utility bill by phone, figuring I had a day or two to spare anyway since they're normally due on the 6th. Well, guess what - this month for whatever reason, the due date is the 5th. And it was c 7:55pm while the customer service office closes at 8 and presumably they'd need to wait until the next day to run the check anyway. (I use the automated system to pay; I'm not certain if people can access it after hours and didn't feel like taking the chance.)

So, I got my check information ready, called, paid the bill - and got confirmation #7000000. Plus, when I hung up, it was precisely 8:00. We Aspies like that kind of precision. (And I'm one of those Aspies who likes numbers.)

[*] For security reasons, I've somewhat altered the confirmation number here.

PS: This is the fifth communication (and first public communication) from my new laptop - and for that matter from any laptop I've ever owned! I just set it up today - five years to the day after I got my last desktop (the fifth one I've had starting in the fall of 1988). After five years, this one has earned an honorable retirement.

PPS: So far, Windows 7 Home Premium is 3l33t!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Chop Down Your OAQ (Overall Annoyance Quotient)

Penelope Trunk, Aspie career blogger and entrepreneur, has posted five ways she believes Aspies can be less annoying at the office.

Ms. Trunk has recounted her own experiences as an Aspie, in this post and elsewhere, with credibility and panache. She certainly has a strong handle on some of the ways her AS affects her.

She's got it right on the money wrt spending limited amounts of time with people. As I've said, Aspies have a limited amount of social fuel, and then we need to recharge. It's not a matter of all or nothing; many of us can come to an office party for a few minutes, a half hour or an hour. (In fact, many of us can stay longer if we know just how long we're going to be there.)

Ms. Trunk also advises that we not disclose our condition. There certainly is something to be said for that advice; many Aspies have decided to keep their conditions to themselves.

And many others have decided otherwise. Including yours truly. I've found that if you disclose after having been hired, you can get reasonable accommodations - including better understanding for things you do that would otherwise be written off to laziness, bad attitude or even ill intent. No guarantees, but it can happen. The bottom line is: depending on your condition, the odds can be better if you disclose than if you don't disclose. (It's certainly true in my case, which is why I've "come out of the closet" in the first place.)

Ms. Trunk certainly has a point in that when you disclose, the boss needs to know what to do about it. Just saying "I'm an Aspie" won't help much unless you have good reason to believe the other person already knows about the autism spectrum. Even then, it's a good idea to explain how it affects you and what the other person and you can do together to minimize your weaknesses and leverage your strengths. Especially if you want to claim legal protections.

As she points out, you can't expect your boss to read a 400-page book. The best thing to do is list some concise but detailed specific implications of your condition and requested accommodations. Maybe also send him or her some links to - or print out for him or her - a few good articles on AS. (If I may say so myself, Building Common Ground has some good resources along the right-hand column.)

Of course, the above is if you choose to disclose - and like I said, I myself only suggest disclosing after you've been hired. Disclosing while they're still considering you gives them an incentive to reject you, especially because the law would require them to accommodate you if they hire you. In any case, the disclosure decision is purely your own.

Ms. Trunk suggests instead asking questions about what to do in various situations. That can work well if (1) you actually know in a given situation that there could be more there than meets your eye and (2) you don't need to ask so many questions so often that you become...well...annoying.

Keep in mind former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's concept of "unknown unknowns". Asking questions works for "known unknowns" - things that you know you don't know about. Many times we Aspies have problems with things we don't know that we know nothing about.

For one thing, many seemingly objective situations have social implications - eg, if the boss makes a mistake, when should you just let it pass, when should you correct her privately and when should you speak up right away? If an Aspie thinks it's only about replacing the error with fact, one can come to grief quickly and never know quite what happened or why.

(Another way in which people - especially Aspies - can unintentionally offend others is to assume that their experience is everyone's experience, and go on to make flat statements about the world. That often comes across as dictatorial. When you say "All X are Y," well, people who have found some Xs as Zs instead interpret your words as saying they don't count, and they can get cranky.)

So, asking questions can be good for those of us who are basically well-schooled in social matters but need some blanks filled in once in a while. For those of us who may offend and not know it, we need somewhat broader tolerance and help. That's much more likely to come from someone who knows you have a relevant diagnosable disability.

Ms. Trunk also points out that we need to be especially good at what we do. She's got an excellent point there - if we're going to upset people once in a while, however unintentionally, we're going to need to make up for it by being better than average - to say the least - at our jobs. Bosses tend to prefer likable people, and she points out that such people help others become more productive. Not everyone may agree with her that it's fair, let alone as obviously fair as she seems to think, but fair or unfair it is reality.

She also mentions that we have difficulty sussing out the complexities of office politics. The next questions is whether we can opt out of much of the process, and if not whether we can learn to grasp the twists and turns. There's no place at which anyone can opt out of politics entirely; on the other hand some places are much more "political" than others (slightly NSFW) and Aspies should consider avoiding them.

Last but not least, Ms. Trunk is quite right in that sometimes you just have to accept the rules, especially unspoken rules that no one person makes or can unmake. Not everything that happens is going to make sense - sometimes especially to an Aspie.

Btw, these insights can help us socially as well as professionally. Many if not most of us - including yours truly - have fewer friends than we'd very much like. And many of us are lonely for a mate - I was for a very long time, for example. Improving our social skills and devising workarounds will help us get and keep good friends, dates and romantic partners. (And - fairly or otherwise - so will getting and keeping good jobs, which directly affects our social lives too!)

What do you think?

H/T: Malcolm Johnson.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Matthew 5:37 Comes to Mind....

Jackie Gleason gave a (SFW) "60 Minutes" interview summing up his career, just a couple of years before he died.

In this segment (the second of three), Gleason discusses among other things "You're in the Picture" - a TV show he hosted that, well, seemed like a good idea at the time. To everyone except the audience, anyway.

So the following week he got on and apologized to everyone out there in TV land for the awful show.

When the interviewer asked Gleason how the show could have seen the light of day, he replied (c 6:00 in this clip):

Because there are executives who have a great talent, and that talent is to say yes that sounds like no or no that sounds like yes - so they continue in their jobs because they have this great talent.

(As for why The Great One himself had gone along with it, he suggested the possibility of SOWI [Signing Off While Intoxicated].)

H/T: Emily, who loves the Irish stars.