Thursday, September 30, 2010

Autism Speaks (to Corporate Leaders)

I wear multiple hats professionally, and would not have it any other way. Four days a week, I work closely with businesses to hire, develop, and motivate their talent. I love the organizational consulting and leadership development work I do and nothing fascinates me more than helping the already skilled take their professional game to the next level. So what do I do with that remaining one day of the week? Each Wednesday, I work at the Riley Behavioral and Educational Center, a clinic and private school for children on the autism spectrum. The corporate world may seem have to little in common with the world of autism, but it is my belief that the C-suite has much to learn from individuals on the autism spectrum. For instance:

Creative Thinking:
One of the biggest problems facing corporate teams today is homogeneity of thought. A voluminous body of research shows that we tend to hire people who think the same way we do, meaning that the corporate ranks often fill up with a cadre of “yes (wo)men” chosen specifically because they “get it” (read, think the same way we do). This paucity of divergent thought, paired with the all-too-human tendency to acquiesce, leads organizations to make decisions with the full buy-in of everyone around the table with no real vetting or analysis of a decision. When businesses are uniform in thought and action, innovation stagnates, threats are ignored, and a team makes decisions with no greater depth than any individual member.

Compare the corporate norm of homogeneity with the mind of an individual on the autism spectrum. Animal behaviorist and autism advocate Dr. Temple Grandin has compared her thought process to Google Images. When asked to envision a church steeple, most neurotypical individuals imagine some sort of generic steeple that is an amalgamation of all the steeples we have encountered historically. Dr. Grandin, who did not speak until age 4 and is herself on the autism spectrum, describes her thought process as qualitatively different. Rather than envisioning a generalized steeple, she “thinks in pictures.” That is, her mind generates a very specific group of actual church steeples she has encountered, but does not combine them into a more generalizable single steeple. Her thought process is neither better nor worse than the process undertaken by her neurotypical peers, it is simply different. And as we see, different is something that all organizations need around the boardroom table.

Unfiltered Dialogue:
Being different in and of itself is no virtue when discussing what makes high functioning teams tick. Research and development labs, brainstorming sessions, and team meetings are filled with seminal ideas that die on the vine. So, why are we content to let our most original ideas wither without seeing the light of day? Because “typical” people are creatures of conformity and could learn a great deal about forthrightness from our friends on the autism spectrum. Imagine a team that has successfully managed to skirt the intellectual and cultural homogeneity discussed above. Their ultimate success lies not in their ability to assemble a diverse team of thought leaders, but also to ensure that these varied perspectives are laid bare, debated, and examined. Noted business consultant Patrick Lencioni describes this process as that of “unfiltered dialogue” and lists it as one of the five skills necessary to have a high performing team.

By and large, individuals on the autism spectrum who are capable of verbal communication have little trouble with unfiltered dialogue. An autistic client of mine recently (and correctly) observed that I was overweight by mentioning, “Your tummy is getting bigger Dr. Crosby.” This sort of comment is unlikely to emerge in “typical” conversation and is viewed as socially inappropriate. However, when we interact with people unskilled in the art of subterfuge, politicking, and disingenuousness, we often learn truths about ourselves that can prompt positive action (it should be noted that I’m currently on a diet). I’m not promoting a lack of civility, rudeness, or forthrightness that is hurtful. What I am advocating is a more direct, more honest dialogue among professionals around ideas. Again, businesspeople of all stripes can learn a lesson from my clients. While I was not pleased to come to a deeper understanding of how out of shape I was, I was certainly not upset with my client for having brought this to my attention. He shared this feedback with sincerity and earnestness, couched, I think, in compassion for me. Similarly, we should be able to dispute and debate the concepts put forth by our colleagues, not to hurt or defame, but to ensure that the best decision wins the day. When these difficult conversations are undergird by a sense of mutual respect and caring, even seemingly harsh comments lack the sting they might otherwise carry.

My learning from having an unusual career path has been this; there are leaders all around us. In the last few years, the titans have industry have largely shown themselves to be corrupt, vapid, and unimaginative. Maybe all of this is a wake-up call to us; a reminder that exemplary behavior is just as likely to come from a classroom as from the halls of power.

Daniel Crosby, Ph.D.


Anonymous said...

Well put...I am sharing this via facebook. Wish you could come up for my Asperger's symposium in Nov. I think I'll share this post at the symposium....

Dr. Crosby said...

Dear Anonymous,

Who says I can't come to your AS symposium? If you're interested, contact me at danielcrosby at gmail dot com.