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Autism and Workplace Teams

As is often the case, I write a blog on a topic I'm not currently exploring in my research… only to discover that I'm about to delve into the depths of that exact topic for an academic article or presentation.

Only a few weeks ago, I confessed that I had not maintained an active awareness of research on cognitive empathy and business communications. Much business scholarship on empathy studies "normal" (statistically representative and generalizable) groups. Seldom do I stumble upon detailed discussion of autistic traits in the workplace and the challenges those present. Those discussions more frequently appear in psychology journals or publications with a narrow focus on autism.

Having acknowledged my lack of awareness, being steeped in the rhetoric of economics for a potential book project, today I stumbled right back into autism while preparing for an academic presentation. 

My Carnegie Mellon University colleague Anita Woolley, along withThomas W. Malone (MIT) and Christopher Chabris (Union College), has been studying cognitive empathy and ToM, publishing excellent scholarship that directly addresses how autistic traits negatively affect collaborative teams. 

Recently, Woolley and her collaborators published a paper revealing that successful online teams reflect the same high levels of cognitive empathy and ToM awareness that face-to-face teams demonstrate. For an autistic worker, this could explain workplace experiences and identifies a challenge we must address, somehow. 
Why Some Teams are Smarter than Others
http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/opinion/sunday/why-some-teams-are-smarter-than-others.html
In a new study that we published with David Engel and Lisa X. Jing of M.I.T. last month in PLoS One, we replicated these earlier findings, but with a twist. We randomly assigned each of 68 teams to complete our collective intelligence test in one of two conditions. Half of the teams worked face to face, like the teams in our earlier studies. The other half worked online, with no ability to see any of their teammates. Online collaboration is on the rise, with tools like Skype, Google Drive and old-fashioned email enabling groups that never meet to execute complex projects. We wanted to see whether groups that worked online would still demonstrate collective intelligence, and whether social ability would matter as much when people communicated purely by typing messages into a browser.
And they did. Online and off, some teams consistently worked smarter than others. More surprisingly, the most important ingredients for a smart team remained constant regardless of its mode of interaction: members who communicated a lot, participated equally and possessed good emotion-reading skills.
*** This last finding was another surprise. Emotion-reading mattered just as much for the online teams whose members could not see one another as for the teams that worked face to face. What makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions, but a more general ability, known as "Theory of Mind," to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe. *** 
A new science of effective teamwork is vital not only because teams do so many important things in society, but also because so many teams operate over long
periods of time, confronting an ever-widening array of tasks and problems that may be much different from the ones they were initially convened to solve. General intelligence, whether in individuals or teams, is especially crucial for explaining who will do best in novel situations or ones that require learning and adaptation to changing circumstances. We hope that understanding what makes groups smart will help organizations and leaders in all fields create and manage teams more effectively. 
Findings that explain why autistics struggle in collaborative environments help us defend the need for research on ways to address these challenges. Until we prove there is a problem, we cannot research how to address that problem. That's the nature of academic research. Now, thanks to Woolley and her collaborators, we can bridge the Theory of Mind research among autism scholars with the research of business communication scholars. If organizational behavior research indicates success at work correlates to ToM and cognitive empathy, I see openings for research proposals that seek ways to mitigate the effects of autistic impairments in the workplace. 

Autism is defined by social impairments. Assuming we accept the APA DSM5 criteria and the standard assessment instruments, the same traits that reduce team effectiveness define the autistic experience. 

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Forgive the non-APA citations:

Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face
David Engel, Anita Williams Woolley, Lisa X. Jing, Christopher F. Chabris, and Thomas W. Malone
Published: December 16, 2014. [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0115212]

Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. [http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6004/686.full]
Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone.
Science 29 October 2010: 330 (6004), 686-688. 
Published: 30 September 2010 [DOI:10.1126/science.1193147] 

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