The Difference Between Task-Related and Social Mistakes

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, June, 2016

Meghan was annoyed at what she considered to be an unfair written warning from her supervisor. Eight months earlier she had been given two weeks to correct disruptive workplace behavior, or lose her job. She annoyed her co-workers by repeatedly asking their advice about her personal problems. The co-workers explained that they did not want to be interrupted from their work. However, Meghan continued to share personal stories.

After receiving the two week notice to improve, Meghan became a coaching client. She disclosed her Asperger’s Syndrome to her supervisor, and explained that she was receiving help to change her behavior. After six weeks, Meghan’s supervisor was so pleased with her progress that Meghan was no longer in danger of losing her job.

However, a few months later, Meghan started interrupting co-workers again. At first, colleagues offered advice or told Meghan they were too busy to talk. After the fourth episode, they complained and the supervisor gave Meghan a written warning.

Meghan knew that she should not be interrupting, but had let her guard down. “I don’t see why people are upset when it only happens every two or three weeks,” Meghan said. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

“Everyone goofs up once in a while,” I agreed, “but you are repeating the same mistake again and again. Plus, there are certain expectations about how employees should behave. Interrupting your co-workers to discuss your personal problems is not okay at work.”

Meghan confused occasional task-related errors (such as making a typo) with unacceptable social behavior. She didn’t realize that actions which caused others to feel uncomfortable, or that decreased their productivity, had to be corrected immediately and permanently. Otherwise the consequence could be lack of advancement or job loss.

Difficulty recognizing the difference between task-related and social mistakes was also causing problems for Ryan. After only 3 weeks on the job, he was alienating co-workers by questioning assignments, and declaring that certain processes didn’t “make sense.”

“My supervisor said that my work is excellent,” Ryan said, “but then he says that I need to be a better team player. Why do I need to change?”

“Your supervisor expects you to ask questions if you do not understand a task,” I replied. “But questioning the task itself, or saying that procedures don’t make sense, implies that others are not performing their jobs well. One characteristic of a good team player is to accept direction. There might be very good reasons why tasks are performed a certain way. If you continue questioning tasks and procedures, people will be frustrated and not want to work with you.”

It is certainly possible to lose a job for making too many task-related errors. However, many of my clients are not aware that mistakes related to interpersonal communication can have the same result. This is why it is important to take any feedback about undesirable behavior seriously. It is possible to mend relationships and change the way that you are perceived. But the change must be consistent.

An excellent resource for learning to improve communication skills is the book, Social Thinking at Work, Why Should I Care? by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pam Crooke.

Copyright 2016, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching