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  • Lizzie Somerfield

The Importance of Clarity: Why Clearly Defined Roles and Responsibilities are Essential for Neuro-Inclusive Management

Regardless of how your business operates - from ‘agile’ to the traditional hierarchy of a law firm - clearly defined roles and responsibilities are vital, and an essential part of neuro-inclusive management.

When they aren’t clearly defined, everyone struggles. But the challenge this creates for Autistic people is unique.

To take myself as the example, when I don’t know what I'm meant to do, what others are meant to do, and how those two interact, my brain stops functioning.

This is because of something called “bottom up thinking” which seems to be almost universally experienced by Autistic people.  My brain works by building an intricate map of every detail of my world from the bottom up. In an unclear environment, I can't finish the map and get to the bigger picture.

This way of thinking is directly opposed to the non-Autistic 'top down' way of thinking, where people have the ability to conceptualise an idea and then work backwards to flesh out the details.

If I don’t have a clear idea of what I am meant to do, what others are meant to do, and how these relate: I am left attempting to operate from a place of shutdown or meltdown, where I am essentially in a state of distress. This also means I am unable to mask (to act neurotypical).

And I know what you’re thinking: employees are grown ups, they should be able to resolve these things between themselves. Unfortunately that’s not the case for many Autistic people - as we don’t have all of the information that we need in order to have a chance of making that decision - our map isn’t complete.

Forcing us to attempt to have that conversation with our colleagues will often lead to poor results, because when we are in that shutdown/meltdown state and unable to mask, communicating with non-Autistic people in a way that they will not only understand but react positively to feels quite impossible.

This all too often leads the Autistic person to be labelled as 'not a team player’, when in reality, all they needed was clear direction from a manager on who was responsible for what and how it all interacts and they would have been beyond happy - likely sharing any and all information they could find about the other person’s task in order to help them do their best work (which is how Autistic people tend to collaborate!)

For managers that are concerned that they don’t want to ‘micro-manage’ their employees: check your definition of micro-managing. One of your key roles as manager is to allocate work - doing so is not micro-managing, it’s effective, inclusive managing. Once you’ve allocated and explained why you’ve allocated work a certain way, step back and allow it to be done - that’s how you avoid micro-managing.

To sum up: an Autistic person's brain malfunctioning when there are poorly defined roles and responsibilities has nothing to do with being a team player. It isn’t a reason they should be marked down in performance reviews, or given feedback they will never be able to implement but which will cause them to suffer even more anxiety about interacting with their colleagues.

Making structural support in the form of clearly defined roles and responsibilities the norm is a very basic way to get started on your neuro-inclusion journey.

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