Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Influence

Motivation or Ability?

Dear Joseph,

I have an employee who is not aware of conversation protocols we all take for granted. He talks on and on without noticing the other person wants to leave the conversation. He questions people excessively, demanding exact details and when they don’t provide what he wants, he tells them how disappointed he is. He misses cues—taking things literally that were meant figuratively—and generally just doesn’t seem to “get it.” When I recommend he work on communication skills and supply resources for doing so, he denies he has a communication issue. The issue is affecting the morale of other team members, and people are starting to avoid him. How do we help him see the need for change?

Communication Gaps

Dear Communication Gaps,

You raise a very interesting question—one that has got my “spidey sense” tingling. You’ve laid out a set of clues that I suspect is making many of our readers jump to the same conclusion I am. But before I go there, let me suggest a principle.

When you want to address someone’s behavior, your first task is to diagnose. You must try to determine whether their current behavior represents a motivation problem, an ability problem, or a mix of the two. When your employee talks long past others’ interest, is he doing that because he doesn’t care about others’ needs, or because he simply doesn’t see the cues? When he tells you he has no communication issues, is it because he is knowingly arrogant, or sincerely unaware? Or some of both? How you answer this question can point you in completely different directions for a response.

And that’s where my “spidey sense” comes in. You describe a pattern of behaviors—including missing social cues, obsession with detail, inability to differentiate substantive from irrelevant information, missed conversational subtlety (sarcasm, figurative references)—that sound like classic symptoms of Asperger syndrome or something on the Autism spectrum. Here’s a description you can use to see if other evidences of Asperger’s fit what you’re experiencing.

If you conclude someone has the ability to behave appropriately but chooses not to, you’ve got a motivation problem. You can respond by helping them understand how their behavior affects others. You can impose consequences. You can help them see how it will undermine values they already hold. There’s a lot you can do to influence motivation.

If, on the other hand, the person lacks ability, you can offer training or coaching. But now we must nuance even the diagnosis of ability problems. There is a difference between ignorance and disability. In the first case, your employee has the basic cognitive and motor capacity to behave differently, but has no training in doing so. If this were the situation, your challenge would be to find a way to convince him of his behavioral problem and then engage him in an acceptable process of development.

If, however, he is in the second case, the situation is much more difficult. With Asperger syndrome, and even with other Autism spectrum disorders, development is possible. However, it comes with much more profound practice and feedback than your typical skill building class. If your employee has a challenge of this kind, and has not been diagnosed, you are in a tricky situation for attempting to influence change. You will have a much more difficult time helping him see his own behavioral gaps. And, any intervention you suggest to help him address the gaps would have to measure up to the special hurdles he’ll face in developing greater interpersonal sensitivity.

If this were my dear friend, I would do three things:

  1. Validate whether Asperger’s might be involved by looking more broadly at his behaviors and Asperger syndrome indicators.
  2. Lovingly broach the subject of his behaviors and their coincidence with this condition.
  3. Suggest further diagnosis.

Given that he is an employee, you have extra HR considerations I urge you to review. And within those boundaries, I would find a way to be as helpful to him as I could.

I wish you the best,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

18 thoughts on “Motivation or Ability?”

  1. Dave Birren

    It sounds like this person is a strong Analyzing type who is immersed in data and details and lives in a highly literal, fact-oriented world. He doesn’t understand the “soft” aspects of human beings and acts that way. He’s probably also confused by people with other communication styles.

    Rather than telling him to work on communication skills, it would be far better for the work unit – ideally, the entire organization – to take a workshops in Robert Bolton’s People Styles at Work or something equivalent.

    I worked in a large state agency that did just this, starting in the mid-1980s. At first it was just for management, but when it became clear how much better the various offices across the state functioned, it became mandatory for all employees.

    If there’s a Crucial Conversation to be had in this situation, it’s with management. As with most organizational problems, 80%-90% are caused by the system, and the rest by individuals.

  2. Tammy

    Great feedback. You were wonderfully astute in recommending further diagnosis of Asperger’s.

  3. Marie Stevens

    As I read your article, my first thought was Asperger Syndrome. My daughter was diagnosed with this at age 10. She is now 21 and has struggled in all her personal and working relationships. Professional and “Mom” coaching have helped, but I fear that reading the social cues will always be a struggle. Talking about these issues with her is sensitive. I share many of your articles with both her and her sister. Thanks for giving your readers another perspective concerning co-workers who may seem odd, or do not communicate well. A little tolerance goes a long way.

  4. Kellie Wilson

    Joseph, I was very pleased to see that your answer included exploration into the possibility of an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. When I read through the letter, that was my first thought too. As the mother of a young adult with ASD (Asperger’s Syndrome), I am pleased to see any attempt to raise awareness of the communication difficulties these individuals face. While Asperger’s may not be the issue in this specific case, it is definitely worth considering. Thank you.

  5. Mike

    My 18 year old son has Aspergers. You are spot on with your analysis and advice. Even though he has had over 13 years of therapy he would be quick to tell you he has challenges reading other’s cues. His self awareness of his Aspergers helps tremendously. But there are so many people with Aspergers who have never had any help and are unaware of the condition. Hopefully as we all develop greater awareness, understanding and acceptance, things will improve both for those with Aspergers and their friends and colleagues.

  6. Farrah Edwards

    Dear Joseph,

    I love your Crucial Skills Q&A section as it has given me plenty of insight for different business and personal communication challenges.

    I must ask you though, to review your response to this post in regards to your approach to disability-related communication with this employee.

    Although ASD may be a factor in this employee’s struggle for self-awareness, for the protection of the employee’s integrity and the employer’s legal standing, this situation may need to be addressed in much more detail for some of the reasons listed below:
    – asking an employee if they have a disability may be illegal in many instances, especially if they have not previously disclosed this to HR/management.
    – layman diagnosis of disability may be well meant but can be damaging to the individual being ‘diagnosed’ as well as potentially leading an employer to behave inappropriately towards the employee. Perhaps you could research and suggest a more responsible and appropriate way to approach and handle the possibility of the employee having a disability and the kind of specialized help that may be available to them such as employee assistance programs, state Vocational Rehabilitation offices, their existing mental/behavioral health providers and other natural supports.
    – review the use of language around disability, as describing handling a disability related issue as ‘more difficult’ gives the perception that people who have a disability are more difficult employees to manage than those without a diagnosed disability. This brings to mind a colleague of mine, without a diagnosed disability, who finds it a challenge to be on time to work and who has needed accommodations to create a schedule that will work for her and meet business needs. Her lateness is a complex of behaviors. Compare this to one of my colleagues who uses a wheelchair, is at work everyday, on time and whose only accommodation was the initial workstation and mobility van set-up. I know for a fact the person with a disability is an easier employee to manage in some ways.

    Obviously I work with the disability community (as do we all) and I’m the last person who wants to see political correctness making awkward relationships in the workplace but I have also seen the damage done by well meaning bosses and coworkers who just don’t have the language, skills or experience with disability to help people in the way they mean to (and that’s leaving out the bullies, the threatened/fearful and the wilfully ignorant.) I would love to see you flesh out this matter further as employment for people with disability is an area that our society needs to embrace and improve, for all parties concerned.


    1. Henry Jordan

      Spot on! Amateurs shouldn’t go around trying to diagnose Asperger’s or any other syndrome.

      Confine your discussions to behavior and its impact on the employee and team’s performance.

    2. Cindy Brock

      I 100% agree with you, Farrah. The first thing I thought was potential liability. I write a newsletter about workplace situations, and I would never tell someone to do this. Amateur mental health diagnosis is a dangerous thing – both in and outside the workplace.

      In the workplace, your focus must be to assume it’s a matter of lack of skill. Follow the normal process (e.g., coaching, mentoring, education) and move down that path and see what happens. If that doesn’t work, go up the chain of command (unless you are the top) and contact the appropriate department (such as HR) and find out how to proceed.

      Above everything, no one must discuss this potential cause during face-to-face discussions, via email or other communication means. If they do, this puts the company in position for legal action because of illegal activities by their employees.

      Folks: It is very dangerous to go down this path.

    3. cnpt1995alumini

      Well said!

  7. Jennifer

    This behavior is also typical of those with ADD and ADHD. Being in denial about their behavior is also common, but if you choose to approach the subject, they tend to see it as an attack.

    In my experience, it becomes a fight or flight situation. They’ll either become defensive and argue that they don’t have an issue, or they’ll quit their job or relationship to avoid further discussion.

  8. Chason Hayes

    It is even harder than you think. It will likely take a significant event to drive home the need to change i.e. actually getting fired or a spouse leaving. Then it will take years of psychotherapy and mediation to become aware of his own feelings and only then can he learn to be somewhat empathetic. I would recommend constant feedback by everyone in the group. Ie instead of politely listening and giving non verbal cues, coaching everyone to say “excuse me but you interrupted me” or ” excuse me but I don’t have time to discuss this level of detail” or “excuse me but that was a figure of speech”. You can also supplement with I Feel statements like ” I feel annoyed when you interrupt me”

  9. Myles M

    When I read this, I was thinking – Apergers halfway through the third sentence. I suggest you look to some of the materials available from the folks at: Their CEO, Danny Raede, was diagnosed with Aspergers at age 12 and has built a business carreer based on it. They have many youtube videos available that help explain what it is like to have Aspergers; be in Defense mode all the time; suffer panic attacks; (that’s when you really know its Aspergers), and ‘How do you get someone with Aspergers to do something’. BTW the short answer is you can’t, but you can make it welcoming. That’s the reality these folks bring to the Aspergers discussion.

    You can also sign up for their emails for free and it will give you some further insight into life on the spectrum.

    I am not associated with in any way. But I have a son with Aspergers and it makes our lives….. interesting and challenging and wonderful.

    1. Dave Birren

      I wrote the first comment on this post, the one about communication styles a la Robert Bolton. I was once very much like the person in question. Learning about communication styles was an enormous gift because it enabled me both to see myself more clearly and to understand others’ styles. My communication skills improved rapidly and many of my challenges at work and in my personal life decreased.

      If someone had asked me if I had some kind of disorder I’m not sure what I’d have done. I feel confident that it would not have been pretty.

  10. slccom

    It is not illegal to ask if this person has been diagnosed with Asperger’s or any other disability. An employee with a disability does NOT explicitly have to ask for accommodations to be covered by the ADA any more, and failing to explore the possibility and just firing the employee can create legal problems. A thorough discussion with an employment attorney before making the decision is definitely in order.

    You can also train this person’s coworkers that they need to be explicit.
    “Dave, I have to leave now.” will get across the message that they have to leave.

    Many people on the autism spectrum make excellent employees, if they are given the proper jobs that work to their strengths and minimize the weaknesse.

  11. Taylor

    I am disappointed that there was no discussion of helping the coworkers communicate better with the employee in question. It would be good to ask the employee how he would like to be communicated with in the situations mentioned. It may very well be that he does have difficulty reading normal subtle cues, and that he would prefer more direct communication than his coworkers are accustomed or comfortable with. A cooperative crucial conversation coming from all sides, assuming all parties are capable and educated in holding a crucial conversation, is more likely to reach a satisfactory conclusion than simply addressing it from one side.

  12. Peter Eastman

    I agree with Farrah and mostly disagree with SLCCOM. As a business person, you are not interested in whether they are disabled, but whether they can do the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. This requires an interactive process that starts when the person asks for some change in their work environment. Assuming a disability puts you in the same place as if they did have a disability. Actually asking someone, “Do you have Aspergers?” is a highly risky move; it may not be ‘illegal’, but you may only find that out if the court rules in your favor after he sues you.

    Instead, focus on the specific, observable behaviors you see him do, as mentioned in the initial email, and either suggest replacement behaviors or get him to brainstorm replacement behaviors with you. such as:

    “I have heard you interrupt people when they are still talking. Instead, I want you to…”

    “I overheard Sally tell you three times that she had to leave for another meeting. You have to be more respectful of other people’s time, so I want you to tell me what you strategies you can think of to do that…”

    “I was in the meeting when you asked Bill for details that were far beyond the scope of the meeting. Next time, I want you to review the scope of the meeting beforehand and limit your questions to that scope. ” or “If you have other questions, you can ask Bill if he will have time to discuss them with you later.”

    “I notice that you want to take a deeper dive on data than we usually have time for. What do you think causes that? What do you think you can do to decide how much detail you need to make a good decision, and still stay within our time limits? I would be happy to help you create some guidelines around that.”

    “I notice that sometimes people have used metaphors or similes around you that you seem to miss, which seems to leave you behind in the conversation. What can I do to help you with that?”

  13. cnpt1995alumini

    Coworker-1 to Boss: “Boss, Coworker-2 seems to be not good with communication”

    Boss to Coworker-2 : “John, I suspect that you may have Asperger syndrome or Autism, would you like to go to a doctor?”

  14. DS Jordan

    This is a slippery slope, asking a leader to begin applying behaviors against a diagnosis. I have seen people with best of intentions quickly put themselves and the company at serious risk of litigation.

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