Saturday, March 5, 2011
More on Collegial Connections
More from the draft of A Spectrum of Relationships.
Some of us want our colleagues to become our friends, while some people are more comfortable keeping work relationships distinctly professional. Whether you want to create a social network or a professional network of colleagues, you do have to master cooperating with colleagues. Building a network can be a challenge for autistic individuals, but technology is making this a bit easier.
My suggestion for autistic employees — and all employees — is to be available when colleagues have questions. The more willing you are to share information, the more likely coworkers will help you when you have a question or need assistance. An autistic person doesn’t need to be the most socially skilled employee to build a good network of colleagues. What matters in business, especially technical fields, is how well you share knowledge.
When I share information, I always try to pass along where the answer could be found. If I locate a technical answer online, I include a link to the website in my e-mail response to coworkers. You never want to come across as a “know-it-all” (or worse) in the workplace or classroom. Simply answer the question directly and invite any further questions colleagues might have. I end most answers via e-mail with the phrase, “Feel free to contact me if you need more information.”
If you are assigned to work with a team of coworkers, it might bring back bad memories of group projects from school. Admittedly, teams can be as complex as classroom groups. However, the workplace is different. For one thing, you tend to work independently on a single part of a work project. Someone else, such as a project manager, coordinates the schedule and tasks.
In the workplace, teams tend to defer to managers. When you have a concern, you communicate it to the manager, not other colleagues. I happen to prefer this model to the school approach of “self-organized” groups. Managing projects really is a special skill. Having project managers helps reduce the social tensions many of us experienced as students. I advise autistic individuals to communicate with their managers and supervisors regularly, especially when asked for information on projects.
Building a professional network helps your career and can lead to eventual friendships. For autistic individuals, technology has made networking easier. There might still be challenges, but I can attest various technologies have made reaching out to colleagues less intimidating. Some suggestions I have to build a professional network:
• Maintain a public profile on LinkedIn.com and similar business-only Web sites
• Alert your coworkers, especially supervisors, when you add or improve job skills
• Participate in professional online forums dedicated to your field
• Join professional organizations within your field and special interest areas
• Attend meetings or conferences in your profession when you are able
Quiet Self Promotion
People with autism sometimes need to be reminded of the value of business connections and self-promotion. One of the best ways to build a professional network is to quietly and accurately promote your skills to coworkers and colleagues at other employers. Doing this online is a good way to promote your skills without seeming pushy or conceited.
I advise the autistic adults I meet to add a regular calendar event reminding them to update their résumés and online profiles. Having to-do items and regular events on my computer calendar is a great way to ensure I maintain business contacts. Also, my wife reminds me every month or so to check my online business profiles and to update my résumé. She updates her business documents every few months, too.
The website LinkedIn.com is the most popular professional networking site. It is not a social networking site, like Facebook or MySpace. Instead, LinkedIn is designed for business professionals interested in connecting with colleagues online to share ideas. Also, the online profile you create is really an online résumé. When you make a change to your profile on LinkedIn, a notice can be shared with any “connections” you have. This is a nice, quiet way to share new skills, certifications, or educational achievements.
Using a Web-based business networking site is not enough. Autistic individuals sometimes forget that while completing a training program or learning a new skill was interesting, they also need to let an employer know about this. A supervisor should always be told when you complete training or gain skills that might help at work. I advise sending a short e-mail to the appropriate person. This also demonstrates how seriously you take your profession.
Sharing Knowledge, Building Relationships
While sharing knowledge at work helps build collegial relationships, it also helps to think beyond your current workplace. Admittedly, it can be difficult to explain why we want to be collegial not only within our company or organization but with other professionals. I tell students and adults with ASDs that employees come and go, even if we would prefer to work at one place for years. Knowing others in our profession makes changes easier to accept.
Again, technology can help individual with autism engage in professional networking with people we might consider acquaintances or even strangers within our fields. I’d rather learn from and share with my colleagues without the challenge of interpreting facial expressions, gestures, and vocal tones. Creating collegial relationships through professional communities online is a good start to networking.
LinkedIn, for example, has forums dedicated to particular professions and special interests. Participate in professional online forums dedicated to your field. The forums on LinkedIn tend to be serious, with fewer postings than a social network. The serious nature of these communities appeals to some autistic individuals because there are fewer personality conflicts.
Less formal special interest forums can be found on Google Groups and Yahoo Groups. These services have largely replaced the old “Usenet” newsgroups that once dominated the Internet. I warn autistic individuals that Google and Yahoo forums are informal and prone to “cliquish” behaviors. Technical groups tend to be sarcastic, for example. Sarcasm and ironic humor can be confusing for some individuals with ASDs. Online forums are complex communities, so the more formal the better for many of us with autism.
Many professional organizations have websites, which have replaced frequent face-to-face meetings. When these sites have forums or e-mail lists, those are ideal places to participate and share knowledge. I recommend participating online whenever possible. If you can attend meetings or conferences in your profession, it is beneficial.