You’re the executive director of a mid-sized marketing firm, and, a few days ago, you handed out an assignment with complete instructions to your three newest employees, Jason, Isabella, and Devon. Within a few days, you expect that your new team will each turn in their portions of the project, and you’ll have everything ready for that big meeting with a prospective buyer on Friday.
You realize the project may be time-consuming, but it’s pretty straightforward, and you’re sure your employees will ask for help or clarification if they need it–right?
By Thursday morning, Isabella and Devon have their portion of the project on your desk, but you haven’t gotten so much as an email from Jason asking for clarification or an extension–and he still hasn’t checked in.
You stop by Jason’s desk to figure out what’s going on, and you see that he’s working on a data entry project, but the file you gave him for your project is sitting in his inbox, untouched, buried beneath three days of unopened mail!
Annoyed, you call out his name and demand to know why he’s not working on the project you assigned, and he’s so hyper-focused on his task that he startles when he hears your voice, looking up wide-eyed and slightly slack-jawed as he struggles to remove his noise-canceling headphones fast enough to hear you and process your questions, body language, and tone.
Jason: “Wait, what?”
You: “I need this in 5 hours. Have you not even started on it yet?!”
Jason (turning white as a sheet): “5 hours? I thought you needed it for next Friday?”
You (thinking this has to be some sort of excuse): “If you were confused about the date, why didn’t you ask?”
Jason (stammering): “I’m really sorry. I really thought it was next Friday. I didn’t think there was anything to ask.”
You (reading his literal words as sarcasm): “Just get it done. Stay late if you have to, but get it done.”
Jason (stammering still): “Mr. Marsh needed extra help in his department, so I said I’d do this data entry work. How should I explain–?”
You (really angry now): “I don’t know why Mr. Marsh’s work is more important than your own department, but I’ll tell him to find someone else. Stop what you’re doing, and get on this now!”
Jason (defeated): “Will do.”
How Did This Frustrating Misunderstanding Happen?
In this fictitious scenario, with you starring as the executive director, you believed the instructions you gave to your new employees were clear and easy to follow, and you assumed if anyone had questions or concerns, they would bring them to you.
Since Isabella and Devon had no difficulty understanding what was expected of them, it only stands to reason that Jason is clearly a weak link in the new-hire chain because he’s not only lazy, he’s also rude and insubordinate.
But, wait. Is he?
If you as the boss and your new employees, Isabella and Devon, are neurotypical, they may have picked up on subtle, nuanced, non-verbal communication that your neurodivergent employee, Jason, did not.
The two who turned in their assignments on time may also have been able to tell from your tone of voice, body language, and some context clues in their environment (such as past emails about the new prospective client or talk around the water cooler) that this project was a priority that Jason’s neurodivergent brain was unable to pick up on.
And, as far as the charge of laziness goes, Jason volunteered to pick up work for another department, which is the exact opposite of someone who just wants to coast along in his professional life. Maybe as his superior, you expect he would come to you first to see if you needed anything done, but as a neurodivergent person, Jason’s understanding of and ideas around social hierarchy may be vastly different from yours and his neurotypical colleagues.
But, wait. What about the date? Surely, that was just carelessness, right?
About that. It turns out that when you said Friday, you didn’t actually give a date, you just said Friday, and when you talked to Jason privately during a one-on-one unrelated meeting a few days prior to handing out that important assignment, you did mention a big prospective client you were planning to meet with the following Friday–so that’s how the dates got mixed up in his mind. (Since Isabella and Devon were never privy to that particular conversation, there was never any reason for them to question the date.)
A series of unfortunate events, yes, but these kinds of things happen all the time. They may seem like excuses, especially if you’re already frazzled and not accustomed to working with neurodivergent people whose brains work differently, but it really is a genuine misunderstanding that can be prevented.
Prevent This Type of Miscommunication With Regular Follow-Ups
Regularly following up with your employees doesn’t mean “hand-holding” for specific people or giving anyone preferential treatment. What it does mean, however, is offering accessibility all around by providing clear, concise instructions sent out in multiple formats across the board for every employee, so nobody gets lost, and everybody stays on the same page.
Here’s how to do this:
Assign a task.
Get your employees together and assign the task verbally. If the task requires more than three steps, automatically print out instructions to go with the task assignment.
Email the instructions for said task.
Follow up with an email to the team recapping the assignment and what’s expected of each person in the group.
Check for understanding.
At the end of your email, put in a call to action that asks each team member to write out what they understand about the assignment and what’s expected of them. That way, if everyone says, “You need XYZ by ABC”, and you get one employee who says, “You need ABC by XYZ”, you’ve found your disconnect before any work begins, and you can address it right away.
Ask if anyone has questions or needs help–and mean it.
Providing a culture of safety and accessibility in the workforce has never been more important than it is today, and one meaningful and no-cost way employers can provide it is by accepting questions and the need for clarification.
It may seem like the simplest thing–like something that shouldn’t even have to be mentioned, but in my past experience working in the office, one of my biggest barriers to accessibility was not having my genuine questions answered.
I would ask for help or clarification, and instead of getting the answers I needed to do my best work, my employer would believe I was questioning their authority or competence–and I would be privately vilified for it, eventually losing the job or being forced to quit due to poor treatment.
As I’ve said before in my articles, neurodivergent people, especially autistic people, ask questions to get answers, period. There’s no hidden agenda, just an earnest attempt to understand and deliver the results expected of us.
Avoid making assumptions.
If you haven’t heard from your employee about something you expected them to do, avoid assuming they’re dragging their feet on purpose or they’re just being lazy. Instead, get curious, follow up, and give them the benefit of the doubt.
An Ounce of Prevention
If, at first glance, you think that making these changes is too much work on the front end, think back to a time when a misunderstanding led to a week’s worth of fixing preventable mistakes. Does it still seem like too much work? Nope. Probably not.
One of the best “side effects” of providing accessibility for your neurodivergent employees is that what you do to improve our ability to bring our best work to the table also makes it easier for all of your employees to bring their best work and, as a result, elevates your company to the top of its game!