Roles and Leadership in the Workplace

One of the ways our society, and specifically our workplaces, have evolved that causes me, as an autistic person, to struggle is the breakdown of the concept of defined roles and responsibilities. It is not that I have “old fashioned” views, like traditional gender roles, far from it. But I do prioritize knowing who is responsible for what and who has the information I need when I have questions. I also greatly prefer to have a clear understanding of what is expected of me. When roles are ill-defined, misunderstandings abound and it is impossible to apply my skills to what my manager thinks is the appropriate end. When it is unclear who is a source of clear information or who is allowed to make decisions, creating “truth” within a specific bound, I begin to feel unmoored and that is an unsustainable situation. I believe it is highly likely that the influence of the tech sector’s model of “moving fast and breaking things” has, in and of itself, become one cause of more people being labeled autistic/disabled and being pushed out of the workforce. Instability is a situation autistic people generally struggle with.

Many people are willing to speak as an authority on a subject, even if they know little to nothing about it. I’m not sure when or why it became so difficult to say, “I don’t know the answer,” but the whole “fake it ’til you make it” advice has worked wonders to confuse the situation. Now I have a lot of opinions and theories about things, but I will openly explain that “this is just my opinion,” or “I’m actually making shit up.” When many people will behave as if they are authorities on a subject by faking an answer to a question and presenting it as truth, rather than their opinion, how does one build any trusting relationships in the workplace or in life? The truth is, if you don’t back up what you’re saying with evidence or data, everything is filtered through your personal lens and is inherently not objective.

I believe that everyone in a workplace would benefit from having some sort of roles and responsibilities chart where you could look up who knew more about a topic than you. Then if you needed to work on a project using some skill you weren’t as comfortable with, you would know where to get some guidance. I’ve tried to pitch this idea in my office several times but it has gone nowhere, which is frustrating. Even within my team, which is dispersed across three locations around the world, I don’t think management has ever done any kind of skills assessment for the staff, much less documented it for use across the department. Skills/knowledge are folklore.

I also believe that not knowing what kind of “skill bank” you have in your staff is a convenient way to avoid accountability in assigning work and evaluating staff. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses in the workplace and in order to set people up for success, it would be good to have everyone able to work on what they are good at, passionate about, etc, when possible, of course. Without guidance in this regard, I have spent over a year, busting my butt on a project that was of great value to the company, that used my skills and that I was certain would lead to a promotion (as it was on par with what I saw everyone else in the department get promoted for). Sadly, at the end, I was not rewarded for my hard work, but was instead spoken to about all the different ways/times I had said something wrong or made someone uncomfortable. For the next 5 years, I tried to avoid all situations in which I MIGHT have disturbed someone, but that was still the feedback I received. Never did my supervisor intervene on my behalf to try to resolve these one-sided conflicts. It was devastating for me, personally. I was essentially doing the work, but being held back from a promotion because people who wouldn’t speak to me directly were overhearing and misunderstanding me, not trying to resolve the situation, but reporting me to management instead.

I have skills. I have mad skills. I am VERY good at my job. There are particular things I’m not good at and, unlike some people, I am aware of my weaknesses and generally seek assistance. I will have emails previewed by a coworker for tone before I send. I review everything myself, at least 3 times, to TRY to find a way someone could misinterpret my message. I spend a ton of time and energy trying to mask my shortcomings and I still have them reported back to me on reviews and evaluations.

At some point, others might have to recognize that they don’t seem to be trying nearly as hard to overcome their shortcomings as I am mine. Management should define roles, evaluate skills and help direct people to focus on what their good at, not continuously point out flaws and failures and look for reasons NOT to give someone a promotion. Help people succeed. Don’t make them feel like their success is an impossibility. That’s what leadership is really about.

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