Team building: the working Aspie’s nightmare!

If there’s one certainty about working in an organisation with a reasonable budget, it’s that at some point, inevitably, someone will decide we’re just not working together effectively as a team. Maybe we don’t talk to each other enough, so information isn’t getting to people who need it. Maybe we’re not helping one another cover deadlines, so things are being missed. Maybe the attitude in the office is toxic and back-biting, with liberal helpings of aggression and defensive behaviour heaped out in steaming spades on innocent bystanders. It doesn’t matter what the cause. The solution is the always same. Clearly, we need to do team building!

Perceptible shudder.

So let’s talk about team building.

The traditional selling points of team building seem to be built around the following:

  • People are inhibited in the workplace! They need a different environment to show their true selves and learn to shine.
  • Destructive team and workplace habits are ingrained and reinforced by the working environment. The team needs to be shaken up to break those habits.
  • People need to get to know each other on a personal level to develop the trust they need to work together.
  • If people do something non work related together, it will show up their hidden strengths, which will build and improve the way they work together as a team.
  • Everybody here loves each other really; we just need to be somewhere other than work to show it. (OK, this one I may be paraphrasing slightly. But the essentials are valid!)

I won’t comment (at this point) on the validity of those particular assumptions and views. But what tends to result is something like this:

  • A team outing to an exciting new location
  • Doing a community service type activity together
  • Learning a new, non work related activity together
  • A consultant is brought in to do “psychological” team building exercises
  • Some element of “trust” in colleagues is at some point required

Which is all well and good from an able-bodied neurotypical perspective*. But let’s take a look at this from an autistic angle.

First, the exciting new location: how do I get there? Will I be able to drive? Can I get a lift – but then what if I have to leave early? I’ll be disoriented, I probably won’t be able to find my way around. Can I get a map or layout in advance? Where are the toilets? And the schedule will be different – can I get a copy of that? Will I know what to expect? When will I be able to find food? Will there be a quiet space? No? Whimpers quietly.

On community service: this is guaranteed to bring out the worst of all the above, and more. Simple activity? Think again. We need instructions – explicit instructions – and there’s 100% certainty here that we’re going to have to beg. No one can quite believe that a person would need guidance on how to do a litter pick – but believe me, if we’re asking, we do. And then there’s the endless hours of unstructured socialising in a work based hierarchy. It’s hard enough to develop our original “rules” on the differences between work and social interactions. Trying to apply “work social” rules out of context can be close to impossible.

How about learning or trying a new activity together – surely that’s OK? We’re breaking down the hierarchical structure, based around experience or expertise, to something where – in theory – we’re all starting from the same fresh slate.

Except that we’re not. Everyone “learns” at different rates. But I need quiet, isolation and the safety of a familiar environment in order to learn. I need to be prepared, to know basically what to expect. I can’t ask the right questions the first time around. Of course, giving me this information in advance wouldn’t be “fair” on everyone else. So this will be a day of quiet desperation, attempts to hide behind the rest of the team as I struggle to make sense of the simplest new concepts in an alien environment. Incredulous stares, pity and condescension as my “stupidity” is exposed. A day of being labelled and judged for things I can work around quite effectively whilst doing my job, yet stand out like blood blisters in isolation. That gutwrenching moment when I realise nothing will be the same after today. How will this impact my professional repuation? When will I be able to look my team in the eye again?

And the “trust-building exercises”, oh my! There are parts of me that I’ve learned to keep hidden. Things that make “normal” people uncomfortable; things that I’m rightly afraid of being judged for. Such exercises – based around the naive yet pervasive illusion that everyone shares the same basic comfortable “normality”, a common ground – are designed to draw these things out. Fear of humiliation and exposure are uppermost in my mind.

Lovers of team building, if you are working with anxious, autistic or otherwise “different” people, please consider the following:

  • Team building is the ultimate in terror for a productive (or quietly struggling) Aspie.
  • Unfamiliar places, new activities and disruption to routines are extremely difficult for us. We need to know things in advance that other people might not need, in order to cope.
  • There is a massive risk of meltdown or shutdown in traditional team building environments.
  • We don’t want our colleagues to see this! We’ve spent a lifetime building a professional demeanour, learning to deal with the unexpected as our job requires. We don’t want to damage that reputation.
  • You don’t want our colleagues to see this – especially yourself. Trust me. It’s ugly.

Team building lovers, I beg of you, show some sensitivity. Don’t make us do this. Allow us to retain our dignity and professionalism. Find some other way of building team trust and cohesion. But not like this. Please, not like this.

*Actually, I have it on reliable authority that “normal” people also hate team building. As well as suggestions on actually useful alternatives. But that’s another story 🙂

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Pacing

On Friday I shut down at work. When my boss saw me, he asked how bad it was, and if I needed to go home. I did need to go home. So – somehow! – I said yes.

It was a very strange moment. I’ve spent the past year or two trying to set up safety mechanisms to cater for happenings just like this. Talking about accommodations. Making creative use of flexitime. Skirting around the issue of “bad days”, delicately, never quite committing myself to describing what it looks like when I am incapable, completely, of existing in company. They’ve seen the irritability, the frustration when I can’t find words, but they’ve never seen the end point. How I can stare at a plate of food and not make the connection to actually eat. When I just switch off and fade out, staring into space. How my system shuts off everything, refusing to process what I see or hear without conscious effort. How everything is an instinctive response. Decision-making is impossible. Something I can no longer force.

Until recently, I would have said no. I would have felt guilty, berated myself for what I am and the decisions that led to this point. I would have sat at my desk all afternoon, struggling through the simplest of tasks. That was the instinct: to hide. A deeply held belief that my identity is shameful, that I do not deserve supports, even those I invested and risked so much to build. But this time, I said yes.

I’ve changed.

Coming out of those places, of shutdowns and meltdowns and overloads, I can’t help but overthink. It’s what drives me to write. Although I am rarely asked, I want to find the words, to paint a picture for people who don’t share these experiences. I want them to know what it’s like for me, why I disappear from the world. I wanted to explore, for myself, why I no longer felt guilty for the sorts of mistakes that led to this shutdown.

The thing is, this week was challenging. A lot of non-routine things were going to happen. The plan was complex in places; the schedule was busy. No red flags jumped out at me, but several – if I had been looking – were distinctly orange. And I was tired going in. Perhaps I should have seen it.

Let’s take a look at those flags. A long evening straight from work: 2 events in a row, buffered by dinner in an unfamiliar pub. Cycling out in unexpected, driving rain. A 9 o’clock meeting the next day. Two. Doable, I thought. Then a nagging headache all morning, artificial meeting room lights too bright to countenance; the sweet, soft relief of Anadin at lunch time, and the feel of my body relaxing, losing tension in quantities I hadn’t recognised I’d carried. Every warning light suddenly flashing. Looking at my schedule for the next morning. Another 9am. And a 10, and an 11. And somewhere to be at 12. Maybe I should reschedule the 10 o’clock. But I had the evening free. I’d be OK.

And that’s where I failed. Because after several weeks of things going right, I’d forgotten my limits. I’d forgotten how too many things, even simple things, can make me fall over so completely. I’d forgotten that one evening to myself, given where I was, wouldn’t be enough to set me up for the next day.

Those orange flags weren’t red. For most people, they probably wouldn’t even be orange. Three meetings in a morning probably wouldn’t even raise a flag in most people’s eyes. But for me, that’s a challenge. And in combination with too many other challenges, that’s a red flag. The guilt isn’t that I fell down. The guilt is that I didn’t act to avert things when I had the chance. The guilt is that I got over-confident. It was going to be OK. I’d been doing fine. But I’m still autistic.

For most people, there is slack in the schedule. A bad day is recoverable. But for me, a week at work can be like running a race.

Picture a distance: the furthest you can run. (Or walk. Or, if you can’t walk, I expect you won’t need this analogy to understand.) Picture yourself at the start of the distance, taking a breath. You’re prepared. You know your pace. You know what you can take. You’ll stride out long, slow, easy. If there’s a hill, you’ll slow down. But you’ll keep going.

It takes some mental effort, pacing that race. You want to finish in a good time. But at the same time, you know exactly how hard you can push. You know if you go too hard, you’ll run out too early. You’ve done it in training, when you were still exploring your limits. You’ve felt that burning in your legs, the weakness, the whole-body exhaustion, wanting nothing more than to drop and curl up on the pavement. You’ve walked home in your running kit, shivering as the sweat cools off your back. Avoiding eye contact with anyone you pass. Wondering what they’re thinking of you. But today is the day you’ve been waiting for. And you’re going to get it right.

Imagine each week starting like that race. You know you can do the distance. You feel confident: in control. But you have to be prepared. You have to carb-load. You have to get enough sleep the night before. And if the route changes at the last minute – a diversion, a longer or steeper road – there’s always the risk that you’ll flake out before the end.

Anyone can screw up a race. You feel bad. It’s one stand-out event, you’ve prepared forever, and you let yourself down. It’s your own fault.

But there’s no need for guilt. Because you pushed yourself. You tried. You misjudged. There was shame; but there was also understanding. It taught you something. You’ll try again next time.

Every time I fall, I feel guilt. But every time I fail, I remind myself that everybody fails. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ll try again next week. And I’ll make it right.