All of us want to get better. We want to become better workers, spouses, parents, golf players, MMA fighters, dancers, organists, shark wrestlers – whatever we do, all of us want to do it a little bit better all the time. The most important way that we improve at things is to practice them. But almost as important is the feedback we receive from our friends, mentors, coaches, trainers, colleagues, and everyone else who has seen us in action and can offer an outside perspective on how we’re doing and how we might be able to do it a little more effectively.
The only problem is, almost none of us ever receives honest feedback. I speak for a living, and because my job is performed in front of an audience I have thousands of opportunities for people to say how well or poorly they think I did and how I might do a better job next time. Sometimes I even pass out surveys to solicit their opinions. But I rarely get anything that I would call legitimately constructive. The people who like me check the smiley-face box on the survey card (it’s not really a smiley-face box, but now I’m thinking it should be), or they come up afterwards and say things like “Good job!” or “That was great!,” which is admittedly nice to hear but which doesn’t really delve into the specifics of what they thought I was doing well. And the ones who don’t like me – and I’m sure they’re out there, sad and fun-hating as they must be – they check the other boxes or leave when I’m done without saying anything.
Honestly, in 8 years of being a professional corporate speaker, I can remember exactly one instance of someone specifically telling me they didn’t like what I had done and why. It could be that in 8 years I’ve only ever really displeased one person, or it could be that I’ve managed to forget everyone else who said something to me. But the far more likely explanation is that people simply don’t want to go to the trouble of offering constructive criticism when they don’t absolutely have to.
The truth is, getting honest feedback from people is unbelievably difficult. We don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings, we don’t know how the person we’re talking to is going to take whatever we’re about to say, and so we usually stick to polite superficialities or keep our angry mouths shut. There are undeniable benefits to behaving like this, but the real casualty of our collective reluctance to say exactly what we’re thinking is that we almost never have a true understanding of how we’re being perceived by others.
Which is where people with Asperger’s or autism come in. I realize that it’s very difficult to discuss these conditions in general terms, since the spectrum of what it means to have Asperger’s or autism varies wildly. However, one of the few unifying qualities of people with either Asperger’s or autism is a disinterest in (or an outright lack of understanding of) the social cues by which everyone else operates. Most of the time, people with Asperger’s and autism simply aren’t interested in worrying about how you’ll feel about whatever they say or do, and this is a quality that tends to get them into trouble.
But imagine a workplace where you knew that one or more of your employees was completely uninterested in engaging in office politics. Imagine asking for someone’s opinion and knowing that they would tell you exactly what they thought without embellishment and without worrying about hurting your feelings. Imagine someone willing to stand up in a board meeting to say, “I think this is a terrible idea, and here’s why” without worrying about repercussions.
Naturally, this kind of blunt honesty would be difficult to swallow at first, especially considering the lengths to which most of us are willing to go to avoid saying exactly what we think. But having someone in your organization that you can always count on to give you their unvarnished opinion would be enormously valuable. (It’s basically the whole rationale behind the consulting industry, by the way.) It might take a while, but as soon as you learned to hear their criticisms for the truly honest opinions they really are, you’d almost certainly find yourself getting better faster than you would otherwise.