How Would You Solve This Problem?

I’ve been wondering tonight what would be a good coping strategy for a small business owner with autism in his dealings with employees?

I was listening to him earlier.  He said, “I have discovered that a lot of the poor I hire are useless.  It costs me minimum wage plus overhead to employ them.  But many of them are incapable of doing anything worth that much money.”

I used to employ people, so I know that some employees don’t give back good value for what you pay them.  I might even grant to the guy that the poor are often unskilled or low skilled workers.  Some not only lack skills but have bad work habits, such as showing up late, wasting time, and so forth.  And maybe it’s even true that — as a group — the poor have worse work habits than typically more skilled workers.  But even if I grant him all that, I don’t think it’s the whole picture.

Some years ago, I was employed by a company to provide consulting services mainly to call centers. This was before all the call centers got shipped offshore to India and the Philippines.  I hear in those countries, call centers often employ skilled college graduates and pay well by local standards.  Whether that’s true or not, most of the call centers I consulted for in America employed the working poor and sometimes paid no more than minimum wages.

I can only speak from my own experience (as did the small business owner himself ) but it was my impression that most problems the call centers got themselves into — including such “employee problems” as low productivity — were in one way or another caused by poor management or poor supervision, and could only be solved if the managers wanted to solve them.

In the time I held that job, which was only a few years, I ran across one — and only one — call center where the bulk of the problems could be fairly assigned to the employees.  One of the employees had managed to set herself up as a ring leader for the other employees, and she was extraordinarily hostile to any authority but her own.  She was also so clever about concealing her activities that the supervisors didn’t know what was going on.  But she had even gotten her group to limit themselves to a quota for daily sales which she had set far beneath the group’s potential.  After the call center let her go, sales more than doubled.

That was the one case I came across where the fault for poor productivity lay squarely with an employee and those who followed her.  I don’t doubt there are many such cases, but I doubt they are more numerous than the cases of poor supervision or management.

Indeed, most of the problems I encountered could be attributed to poor supervision or management.  I recall that “hidden and competing objectives” were a frequent problem.  Perhaps,  you had a supervisor who was a control freak and tried to micromanaged every minute of the operation.  In which case, the real objective of the call center was to indulge someone’s ego.

Sometimes the problem was poor training — of the supervisors and managers.  Many managers didn’t know the importance of buying the best available lists of who to call.   Or they didn’t know how to structure a script for their callers, nor what words to pack it with, nor how to test its effectiveness.  Or they didn’t know how to solve common employee problems.

I once knew some of the figures by which I had increased productivity in the calling operations I consulted with.  I used to be so proud of those numbers that I had a half dozen of them memorized for years.  But today they escape me.  Nevertheless, I recall they were nothing to be embarrassed by.  Yet, every increase in productivity I got — save one — involved in some way or another first improving the performance of the supervisors or managers.

Now, my experience is admittedly limited, but it suggests to me, if to no one else, that how you supervise people and manage their work plays a decisive role in how productive they become.  If someone thinks his workers are useless, then all I can say is that, in my experience, useless workers can often be turned around by improving the skills of their supervisors and managers.

Which brings me home to the small business owner.  He has told me that he is severely autistic.  From what little I know about autism, I think that might present a problem with supervising people.  If so, I wonder what he can do about it?

Is there a good coping strategy for him?  A way he can manage his autism to deal more effectively with his employees?  I would kind of like to suggest something to him — both for his sake and the sake of the people he employs.

12 thoughts on “How Would You Solve This Problem?

  1. “Severely” autistic? He would have to be quite a high-functioning person with autism to be able to do things like manage a call center (even if he doesn’t happen to be talented at it) and be capable of articulating his understanding of what is going on there. Perhaps he feels that he is severely impacted by his relatively mild autism because being mildly autistic tends to leave a person having to manage with few or no supports in the larger, non-autistic world. His autism could impact his ability to manage people, indeed to work with them in general. His use of language might be more literal than theirs. His ability to perceive how others experience situation and process information, what some experts would call his “theory of mind” could also be affected by autism. High-functioning individuals with autism often struggle to express themselves in ways that others understand. The awful hitch is that the autistic individual often does not realize that he is being misunderstood. He may also be misunderstanding what others tell him– because he may not be attuned to non-verbal communication like body language and facial expression, or he may not pick up on sarcastic or humorous tones of voice. I have seen individuals with autism struggle to establish viable communication with a single boss. How incredibly difficult it must be for this man to do the same with a varied group of individuals. Could this be leading him to generalize about the poor people he employs? Perhaps,

    This man might find it useful to engage the services of a social skills coach or job coach who can observe him in the workplace and offer very concrete feedback about what he doing right/wrong. Such a person could also teach him how to question situations and monitor his own reactions and behavior to decrease miscommunications. If it is not possible for this man to obtain this sort of professional help, then he might wish to turn to his manager for guidance. Perhaps management can arrange for him to collaborate with the manager of another call center so that the two can compare and contrast successes and failures. If he has siblings, they might be able to provide wonderful insights, because they spent many years experiencing the differences between their brother and their typically developing peers. They also tend to be pretty blunt about pointing out problems! I find that bluntness– or at least being very specific and concrete– seems to help my high-functioning autistic friends and relatives best. I am very specific with my daughter about what was wrong (or at least, less than optimal) about her choice of words or tone of voice. I make sure to explain the “why” behind the way people without autism behave to help her understand why someone might think she is being demanding when she is making a reasonable request. I do the same when explaining why a request is not reasonable.

    When my daughter was about six, I asked her one day if she “would like to help me load the shopping bags into the car.” Her response was, “Oh, no thank you, Mommy.” I told her that when people without autism ask “Would you like to help me?” they really mean “I want you to help me?” I explained that people without autism do not always use the words that really say what they mean. She proceeded to help me put the bags into the car and we headed home. On the way, I happened to glance into my rear-view mirror. My daughter was sitting in the back seat shaking her head and looking flat-out astonished. When I asked her what she was thinking about, she responded, “Well, Mommy, I am thinking that people who have no autism do things in ways that are harder than necessary.” She had a point. People with autism are socially straightforward, sometimes too much so. People without autism can take downright circuitous routes in their social skills and ability to communicate. Just as this man’s employees may need to be educated about how to work for someone with autism, he needs to be educated in how to work with people without autism.

    • Excellent comment, S.W.! That’s some good advice.

      To be sure, I seem to have left you confused about his occupation. So far as I know, he’s never seen the inside of call center in his life. That used to be my line of work, not his. He’s a small business owner in the housing business.

    • I’m thinking the man described in the post possibly has Asberger’s Syndrome, which could explain why he is very high-functioning but seems to miss social cues.

      • It does sound like Asperger’s, Ahab. Asperger’s is considered a high-functioning form of autism, however, there is a wide variance in the functioning of people within Asperger’s itself. I have known people with AS who were never able to learn to drive; others have great driving records. Some people with AS have an amazing ability to find their way around geographically; others take months to learn their way around a single building. Some people with AS have distinctly “Aspergic” speaking styles, while others speak in a very ordinary manner. Some are excellent academically; others struggle in school. Some are so mildly impacted in a social sense that others perceive them as nothing more than emotionally insensitive, while other people with AS are so socially out-of-step that they cannot make friends or pass job interviews. As AS becomes better known and understood, people with the syndrome are more likely to receive a diagnosis and find information about why life is difficult for them. They may be able to determine that their ability to concentrate or avoid emotional meltdowns is affected by fluorescent lighting, crowded rooms, noisy environments, unexpected changes in routine, etc. I do not think there is as much information about the aspects of AS behavior and functioning that confuse and upset neurologically typical people. That’s a real problem. As I explained to my daughter with AS, “You have the right to help and accommodations so that you can function in spite of having Asperger’s. You do not, however, have the right to drive the rest of us flat-out nuts. If you are not prepared to listen when non-autistic people tell you that they cannot handle your behavior, then those people will just find ways to avoid accommodating you until you crash and burn and get out of their environments.”

  2. Your friend might be unable to pick up the subtle clues of problem employees. His best bet might be to hire someone he trusts implicitly to “read” possible hires for him.

    • I was going to suggest this, but then wondered about the selection process. How, if one is socially inept, does one find someone who isn’t, and yet can be trusted to make things work in one’s organization?

      • I would think they could use the empirical data of a person’s history, does the person who would intervene tell the truth, has it been observed that that person has been successful in reading people?

      • I was wondering if he had a friend he could trust to recommend a supervisor to him. Someone he could hire to take care of his employees so that he himself didn’t need to deal so much with them.

      • I think having a hiring manager (or, since it’s a small business, someone contracted to come in to look over possible hires) is a good idea. That will help with matching the employee to the business and its owner. However, the owner may need ongoing help from a consultant who can come in regularly to observe the workplace and help the employees and the owner work through miscommunications and frustrations. One way to make this “safe” for all involved would be for such a contractor to use a mediation format. She could hear out the owner separately from the employees, then hear out the employees separately from the owner. To be effective, this format requires that the “mediator” keep whatever she is told separately to herself until the person sharing his views gives her permission to reveal it. The incentive to give this permission is that the mediator cannot guide the parties to a resolution without it. A good mediator will find ways to paraphrase language that gets in the way of negotiations without diminishing its core meaning. For example, the employee might say, “Owner wants us to put in overtime without any notice. He’s so out of it that he doesn’t even think that some of us have families and other jobs to get to. He’s the most self=centered SOB of a boss you could imagine!” The mediator might respond to the employee by eliciting information about what sort of overtime scheduling could be workable. She might then present the situation to the owner this way: “Your employees tell me they’re not in a good position to work overtime without prior notice. If you show your sensitivity to your employees by scheduling overtime in advance, it could pay off in better productivity during overtime shifts. I think you and I should look at how you might be able to do this.” At that point, the mediator will have concrete information from both parties to use in resolving the issue.

        Now, I realize that we are not talking about union negotiations here. Unless there’s something Paul hasn’t told us, this isn’t a union shop and the owner has the right to make the rules and to dismiss employees who cannot or will not live by them. On the other hand, it’s not beneficial to the owner to dismiss unsatisfactory employees only to replace them with other unsatisfactory employees. The consultant would still be a consultant hired by the owner. Her mediator role is just that, a role to help the owner run his business better. The owner would still have the right to dismiss an employee with whom he could not reach a compromise that was good for the business and the consultant could advise him on this decision.

  3. With regards to your question, I think it’s a mixture of both management skill and the individual traits of the workers. A lazy, inept worker will be a lazy, inept worker no matter how well-managed they are. With more skilled workers, their performance depends a lot on the office culture and the willingness of management to structure their work. If managers refuse to uphold rules, treat employees fairly, and address problems, the office culture will soon turn toxic.

    • Those are great points, Ahab. I think it is also important to recognize that most means of increasing productivity cannot be implemented without the support of supervisors and managers. Also, in telemarketing at least, the top dozen or so ways of increasing productivity are almost entirely things managers need to do “behind the scenes”. That is, the employees are not even responsible for implementing them. For instance: proper list management can bring up to a 1600 percent increase in production. But few telemarketers are ever given responsibility for their calling lists.

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