How to Know What a Boss Expects

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, December, 2015

Understanding an employer’s expectations is fundamental to successful employment. However, these expectations are often communicated in vague terms, such as “showing initiative,” or “being a team player.”

Alex’s supervisor had asked him to “take ownership” of the company’s quarterly employee newsletter. For the previous three issues, Alex was assigned specific tasks, such as creating a production schedule, soliciting contributions from employees, formatting copy and proof-reading. Then Anne, his supervisor, said, “Now that you know the production process, I want you to take ownership of the newsletters, beginning with the winter edition.” Alex said yes to the request, even though he was confused about what he should do.

A week later, Alex was surprised when Anne asked about his progress on the winter issue production schedule.

“I didn’t know that you wanted me to work on it,” he said.

“Alex, I told you to take ownership of that issue,” Anne replied. “The production schedule is always set 8 weeks prior to publication.”

Alex did not realize that taking ownership meant working independently to produce the newsletter. “Why didn’t she say so?” he asked (a common refrain by my clients!).

Sara was bewildered by the more basic expectations of the workplace. Her NLD made it difficult to learn new, multi-step processes. “My co-workers say that I ask too many obvious questions,” she said,”such as how to create project files.”

In this case, it was expected that Sara’s past experience in a similar job would enable her to organize her work at the new company. However, she struggled to make these types of “big picture” connections. To her, nearly everything about the new job was novel, including the creation of basic files.

If you are literal-minded, like so many of my clients with Asperger’s Syndrome and NLD, it is important to clarify expectations. Neurotypicals use imprecise language and are largely unaware that some people have trouble grasping the nuances, metaphors and hints. I suggest to my clients that they assume responsibility for clarifying assignments and expectations. There are several ways to do this:

Ask for help. In many cases, you will be more efficient and productive if you ask a question rather than attempt to find the answer yourself. This is particularly true when you are clarifying instructions. You might say: “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘take ownership;’ ” … “Would you be more specific about how I should handle this project?” … “Where is the best place to start?”

Summarize your understanding of an assignment. Summarizing means to recap, in your own words, what someone else has said. The other person can then confirm or correct your understanding. Melissa summarized an assignment like this, “You want me to update the ledger first, and then start processing the checks.” Do not repeat someone’s words verbatim, as this can be misunderstood to be sarcasm or not paying attention.

Ask your supervisor his or her preference for how often you should provide updates, how you should handle questions, or what decisions you can make independently. This is considered to be basic communication between an employee and his or her manager.

Observe your peers to discover unspoken expectations. Notice how other employees in your department handle job tasks and how they interact. Michael noticed that his co-workers did not say hello to everyone who passed by their cubicles during the work day.

Ask to see a sample if you are unsure of what a finished product should look like. Alternately, you can submit an outline for feedback before you put too much time into a project.

Know the purpose of what you are doing. If you do not understand why you are performing a certain task, it is difficult to know what information is important and to identify priorities. Who will utilize what you produce? For what purpose? If you cannot answer these questions, you need to discover the big picture. Try a general inquiry to a colleague or your supervisor: “I want to be sure that I understand how everything fits together. Can you walk me through how the analyses will be used?”

© 2015, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching.