Coaching the Brilliantly Odd
“Progress comes from the unreasonable man”
George Bernard Shaw (1903)
Differences, neuroscience and neurodiversity
There is much written about different kinds of people in the workplace. Coaches routinely use psychometric instruments such as personality assessments, 360 appraisals and Emotional Intelligence measures to assess these differences. This information is used in a number of ways – to raise coachee self- awareness, to identify development areas to address in coaching and perhaps to inform the coaching process itself.
As the business need for top performance becomes ever more important, coaches have responded by seeking new, well-researched ways to understand how different people experience their working lives and “what makes them tick”. Evidenced by the clear appetite for books such as “Coaching with the Brain in Mind” by Daniel Rock and Linda Page (2009), “The Chimp Paradox” by Dr Steve Peters (2012) and “Neuropsychology for Coaches” by Paul and Virginia Brown, one area of research clearly stands out – neuroscience. Coaches are interested in how the structure and functioning of the brain, easily the most complex organ in the body, impacts on behaviours. There is much still to be learned about the brain – it doesn’t give up its secrets easily.
We know that all people are not the same and we know brains are not all the same. Research shows they not all structured in the same way and they do not all work in the same way. To put it simply, they are wired differently. This is the science of neurodiversity.
This paper explains what neurodiversity is and the different ways it influences observable behaviours. It then goes onto describe how neurodiversity applies in the workplace and in coaching. But why should coaches be interested in this? What’s in it for their coachees and the organisations they work for?
Here’s why: The business case
New ideas, innovation, technology, science and engineering have never been more important in the national and global economies. In the 21st century, skills in these areas are not only essential where they are core to what a business does e.g. pharmaceuticals or IT; they are increasingly central to the way organisations in all sectors make money, save money and deliver to their customers. As such they have a direct and unequivocal impact on the bottom line.
The people who have these skills and come up with these crucial ideas do so because of the way they think. Often colloquially referred to as geeks, supergeeks or High IQ/Low EQ, they often experience the world and their working lives differently to others. While these differences bring unequivocal strengths to the organisations and businesses they work for, they also bring challenges. For example, people who excel at working with systems, machines, numbers and computers vary greatly in how well they do in working with other people or understanding the commercial perspective.
How do businesses and organisations get the best performance from these highly technical and less social minds? How do you get them to collaborate with each other? How can they be encouraged to communicate better with non-technical customers? How can they work more effectively in a team or with the marketing or finance department? How can increasing expectations for collaboration and team working be met? How do you access the really great ideas when understanding and communication are difficult?
What are the possibilities for a business that can do this better than a competitor? And what are the potential costs of a competitor who has better ways of getting to the ideas that make or save millions?
This is familiar territory for many businesses, organisations, coaches and consultants. Neurodiversity offers new ways of understanding how these highly technical minds operate, how they experience their working lives and how they learn. It also offers ways of working with that coaches can use to differentiate their provision.
Neurodiversity is an area of neuroscience that focuses on how brains vary in development, structure and function. Familiar brain differences include left or right-handedness, clumsiness, IQ and giftedness for art, maths or music. Less familiar to those without personal or professional experience are differences such as learning disabilities, ADHD, Tourette’s, dyslexia and autism.
The area that offers tantalizing possibilities in offering ways to understand and get the best from “high IQ/low EQ” is that of high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). People with AS, at the highest functioning end of the autistic spectrum have fluent language and average to highly superior intelligence. A “bottleneck” in social understanding relative to overall intelligence is the core characteristic of AS.
Around 1-2% of the general population is estimated to have AS. Around 80% are male and many are not formally diagnosed. Research shows there are many more people – 40% of men and 20% of women – with qualitatively similar characteristics. These percentages are higher for people working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) occupations which are renowned for being male dominated (Baron-Cohen et al, 2001). Most in this larger group do not meet criteria for a formal diagnosis but for many, the challenges they experience at work are what an AS cognitive profile would predict.
People with AS or features of it in the workplace are gifted thinkers who thrive on solving complex problems but can find interacting with others mysterious and challenging. Unequivocal strengths include: focus to detail; exceptional concentration; a clear preference for rationality and extraordinary capacity for difficult technical challenges. These are strengths businesses of today cannot do without.
Sticking points include: lack of commercial awareness; social awkwardness; rigid thinking; excessive perfectionism; resistance to change; disinterest in authority, arrogance, higher likelihood of stress and pedantic use of language. These can impact on performance and working relationships to the extent that businesses see people as too high maintenance to retain.
How these strengths and challenges present in the workplace varies widely according to personal style, self-awareness, learned behaviours, culture and environment. It is important to guard against stereotyping and oversimplified categorisation.
It is noteworthy that AS is fast losing its stigma. It is often reported that in Silicon Valley, a diagnosis of Asperger’s is almost a badge of honour, even a job qualification (Times Magazine, March 2013). Several famous figures often thought of being “up there” on the spectrum include world transforming identities such as Bill Gates, Steve Zuckerberg, Albert Einstein, Mozart and Isaac Newton.
Much has been learned about how to support people with a formal diagnosis of AS. These include ways of working directly with the individual concerned using techniques that are modified or specifically developed. It also involves “enlightening” the environment around the individual. This means increasing awareness of how that individual experiences the world and helping others make sense of behaviours so they can respond to them appropriately. There is increasing evidence that these interventions improve outcomes and performance. They can be modified and applied in the workplace. This can be a prestigious and differentiated offering rather than one that is remedial or stigmatising.
Differentiating coaching with neurodiversity in mind
Neurodiversity can be useful when:
1. A coachee has a clear pattern of strengths and challenges as outlined above; they are lifelong and not fully explained by culture or environment. This pattern may be self-identified or observed by others. Personality assessments and 360 appraisals have not been designed with neurodiversity in mind but information from them may prove useful.
2. A coachee from a highly technical background is required to deal with increased social demands or complexities e.g. team working, collaboration, leading others or relating to customers.
3. There is a “he’s got a brain the size of a planet but…” feeling on the part of the coach or the organisation. The individual may be highly valued but experienced as “different”.
4. When provision of development or coaching hasn’t been effective or is taking longer and it’s puzzling why not. Alternatively, gains made have not sustained or generalised.
5. An unusual presentation of stress and resilience. For example, a coachee may work long hours and appear to be “stress resistant” or experience stress in response to what others would see as relatively reasonable demands.
6. There are extremes of emotional expression – either minimal responses or “explosions” with not much in between.
7. There are performance management issues in terms of organisation, meeting deadlines and managing communication that have not been responsive to intervention.
Differentiating the contract and objectives:
Often the onus is on the individual coachee to fit in – to become more socially competent or become more emotionally intelligent. When working with a coachee who has facets of AS, capacity to do all the work to fit in may be limited and bridges need to be built from both sides rather than just one. Consider the following:
How can the coach facilitate and support bridge building from both ends?
Who is the coaching for and why?
Who else needs to be involved – is expecting the coachee to be the only one to change setting him/her up for failure? Does the coaching intervention need to extend to others?
How will maintenance and generalisation of learning be managed after the coaching has ended?
What do those working with the coachee need to know to get the best out of them?
How can the coachee communicate their unequivocal strengths? What is needed for them to achieve this?
Five ways to differentiate the coaching relationship
- Assume nothing; explain everything. The person centred assumption that coachee’s know their own answers does not apply with people who have more facets of AS.
- Be aware that the coaching relationship itself may be a source of stress and confusion; as such rapport may take longer to establish.
- Once trust is established, use the relationship in real time to give feedback and learning opportunities on social interaction and reciprocity.
- Pay attention to language and communication. Avoid dropping hints and watch use of metaphor and irony. Check more frequently for understanding and do not to allow a lack of it to get in the way of progress. Over time, your coachee may have mastered the art of pretending to understand. Generate a common language, and use coachee’s word choices.
- Pay attention to the physical environment, particularly light and noise.
Ways to differentiate coaching: techniques
Coachees with AS or facets of it are highly systemised thinkers. Coaching helps provide a system in managing the social and emotional demands of the workplace.
- 1. How has your coachee coped in a world he/she doesn’t easily fit into? What has been the system? What has worked and what is needed now?
2. As a coach, focusing on strengths and solutions comes fairly naturally. Not so for a coachee who thrives on solving problems. Make the coaching at least look like it’s problem focused.>
3. Open questions may be too vague. Use more closed questions and keep away from questions about hypothetical scenarios.
4. Be directive rather than facilitative – social development is a “hidden curriculum” and your coachee will not reach answers by a coach asking questions. Be prepared to ditch the person centred approach.
5. Use concrete rather than abstract language or metaphor.
6. When challenging thinking use highly structured evidence-based techniques. There is good evidence for the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural strategies for people with AS. Use worksheets and written materials.
And in conclusion
We know that qualitative features of Asperger’s are widely seen in organisations although not always recognised and understood. Stigma is evaporating with more people than ever identifying themselves as “on the spectrum” whether they have a diagnosis or not. Evidence based practice in schools and higher education has proved highly effective. As we are at a point in time where the business needs of the highly technical are unequivocal, the arrival of neurodiversity in coaching is inevitable.
If you would like to find out more, look out for further blogs, articles and events at www.top-stream.co.uk. Top Stream has been collaborating with Nicholson McBride, Business Psychologists on commercially focused research in this area. Our initial findings will be published soon.
If you are curious about where you are on the spectrum, try the Autism Quotient (AQ) at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aqtest.html.
Note this questionnaire is not diagnostic, nor is it for commercial use.
Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J. and Clubley, E. (2001) The Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians.