Motivation or Ability?

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 two 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,