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What Corporate Leaders Could Learn From a Child With Autism
I wear several hats professionally, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Four days a week, I work closely with companies to recruit, 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 qualified take their professional game to the next level. So what do I do with that remaining day of the week? Every Wednesday I work at the Riley Behavioral and Educational Center, a private clinic and school for children with autism. It may seem like the corporate world has little in common with the autism world, but I think the C-suite has a lot to learn from people on the autism spectrum. For example:
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 like us, meaning that the corporate ranks are often filled with a cadre of “yes (wo)men” chosen specifically because they “get it” (read, we think from just like us). This dearth of divergent thinking, combined with the all-too-human tendency to acquiesce, leads organizations to make decisions with the full buy-in of everyone around the table without any real research or analysis of a decision. When companies 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 handler and autism advocate Dr. Temple Grandin compared her thought process to Google Images. When asked to imagine a church steeple, most neurotypical individuals imagine some kind 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 on the autism spectrum herself, describes her thought process as qualitatively different. Instead of imagining a generalized steeple, she “thinks in pictures.” That is, his mind generates a very specific group of real church steeples that he found, but does not combine them into a single, more generalizable steeple. Their thought process is no better or worse than that of their neurotypical peers, it’s just different. And as we see, different is something that all organizations need around the boardroom table.
Being different in itself is not a virtue when discussing what makes high-functioning teams work. Research and development labs, brainstorming sessions, and team meetings are full of key 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 lot about outspokenness from our friends on the autism spectrum. Imagine a team that has successfully circumvented the intellectual and cultural homogeneity discussed above. Its ultimate success lies not only in its ability to assemble a diverse team of thought leaders, but also in ensuring that these varied perspectives are exposed, debated and examined. Prominent business consultant Patrick Lencioni describes this process as that of “unfiltered dialogue” and lists it as one of the five skills needed to have a high-performing team.
In general, individuals on the autism spectrum who are able to communicate verbally have little problem with unfiltered dialogue. An autistic client of mine recently (and correctly) noted that she was overweight by mentioning, “Your belly is getting bigger, Dr. Crosby.” This type of comment is unlikely to appear in “typical” conversation and is considered socially inappropriate. However, when we interact with people unskilled in the art of subterfuge, politics, and falsehood, we often learn truths about ourselves that can lead to positive action (I’m on a diet, mind you). I am not promoting a lack of civility, rudeness or bluntness that is hurtful. What I advocate is a more direct and honest dialogue between professionals around ideas. Again, business owners of all types can learn a lesson from my clients. While I wasn’t satisfied with coming to a deeper understanding of how out of shape I was, I certainly wasn’t upset with my client for bringing this to my attention. He shared this comment with sincerity and seriousness, expressed, I believe, in compassion for me. Likewise, we must be able to dispute and debate the concepts put forth by our peers, not to hurt or defame, but to ensure that the best decision wins the day. When these difficult conversations are underpinned by a sense of mutual respect and care, even seemingly harsh comments lack the sting they might otherwise carry.
My learning from having an unusual career was this; there are leaders all around us. In recent years, the titans have shown that the industry is corrupt, tasteless and unimaginative. Perhaps all this is a wake-up call for us; a reminder that exemplary behavior is just as likely to come from a classroom as from the halls of power.
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