Autistic and many other neurodivergent workers often find workplace politics one of the most stressful aspects of employment. For individuals whose brains are wired to focus on work, do it in the most efficient and transparent way, and communicate directly, indirectness, the expectation of “mind-reading” and the lengthy workarounds required in some organizations to receive basic resources for doing one’s job are major hindrance. Highly political work environments contribute to bullying of autistic people, autistic burnout, job loss, and consequently, overall high levels of unemployment. However, while autistic people might be impacted by politics to an extreme extent, the stress of highly political environments is felt by all – employees, in general, see it as a top source of workplace stress which significantly contributes to burnout and results in turnover intentions.
Yet, few organizations address the adverse effects of politics. In this article, I will discuss the nature and organizational effects of politics, the impact on autistic employees, approaches that autistic and neurodivergent employees could use to ameliorate the negative effects on their worklife, and the steps that can help responsible organizations and managers create the most productive and transparent work environments.
Politics: What does the research say?
Some authors make a distinction between positive and negative politics. In this view, political skills are neutral and can be used in honest and pro-social ways, not just in dirty, selfish, and dishonest ways. Positive politics may include building networks that support productivity and achieving organizational goals. Negative politics involve favoritism impacting pay and promotion, backstabbing, gaslighting, envy-driven bullying, and pushing out of high performers.
However, even much of the “positive politics” falls into a gray area. For example, a manager using politics to obtain resources necessary for their department to be productive may seem like a hero – within that department. However, when this “success” comes at the expense of other departments not having the needed resources, organizational productivity overall could suffer – and creating environments where units and employees must fight for resources to do their jobs is a self-defeating organizational practice.
Extensive research indicates that employee morale suffers when employees perceive that organizational politics are pervasive and allow the most self-serving organizational members to influence organizational decision-making and individual outcomes. Distress, anxiety, burnout, loss of organizational commitment, turnover, and disengagement are among the typical and widespread effects of highly political environments. A metanalytic study documented a significant negative relationship between perceived politics and job satisfaction, task performance, and helpful organizational citizenship behaviors toward individuals and organizations. Politics also have a strong positive relationship with strain – a precursor of stress – and turnover intentions. In the currently popular terminology, organizational politics are likely to strongly contribute to both resignations, or quitting and the “quiet quitting – the withdrawal of organizational citizenship behaviors.
In addition to quitting and quiet quitting, politics of self-interest, gut-feelings, and favoritism can contribute to a downward organizational spiral by impacting the quality of management. Political decision-making is likely to clog organizational talent pipelines with mediocre performers, aggressive, incompetent, and overconfident individuals, and prevent the advancement of the most talented employees.
Autistic employees and organizational politics.
Many autistic people express frustration with being unable to move up – despite excellent performance – without having to engage in what feels like taxing and inauthentic impression management. Others might be bullied and driven out because coworkers perceive their high performance as a threat. Political environments can also be a direct cause of job loss for autistic people, contributing to high levels of unemployment.
Workplace politics also likely contribute to autistic burnout. Autistic burnout is caused by the demands of working and living exceeding the available resources and support. Highly political organizational environments create an extremely high demand because they require extensive masking – acting in ways that are unnatural and inauthentic at best, and manipulative and ethically unacceptable at worst. They also drain individuals by causing them to constantly be on guard. The same environments limit the available support resources because obtaining even the basic productivity resources requires politics and because such environments reduce coworker helpfulness and increase internal competition.
The medical model of disability would suggest that autistic employees either 1) lack the ability to engage in organizational politics (e.g., the contested “theory or mind” perspective) and thus can only work in “special” environments; or 2) lack the skills for organizational politics, in which case the solution might be teaching them such skills.
Medical-model solutions for the negative effects of highly political work environments on autistic employees have significant limitations.
- “Special” work environments often fail autistic people, and the “theory of mind” perspective is problematic.
- While some autistic people may lack an understanding of organizational politics, others understand the “game” quite well.
- Because autistic people tend to be more ethically scrupulous than allistic people, manipulating others and gaming the system is not ethically acceptable, even if they know how it can be done. Ethical considerations would limit the effectiveness of political skills development. If political skill is defined as pro-socially applied emotional intelligence, it is likely to be helpful, especially is less toxic environments. However, survival (or continued employment) in more toxic environments often requires behaviors that would be ethically unacceptable and morally injurious.
- Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with the typical autistic desire to do work with justice and transparency. Just and transparent environments benefit all.
Developing emotional intelligence skills can be beneficial in many different environments, including healthy and transparent work environments. Making an effort to understand colleagues of other neurotypes can be helpful to both autistic and allistic individuals. Allistic people do not read autistic people well, so kindness and patience are necessary for a positive relationship. It is also crucial to understand our own values, vulnerabilities, triggers, and ways to self-regulate.
Those of us who have trouble responding to political communications “in real time” may prepare neutral scripts that communicate listening, but not committing to other’s political agendas – “that must be hard on you,” “I am so focused on X, I can’t even process Y or Z.“ Selectively applying bite-size advice for positive politics and working with allies can help autistic and all neurodivergent individuals at work and in other contexts – it can even help advance inclusion in our organizations. However, some environments are truly toxic, and the ultimate responsibility to ensure healthy workplaces lies with organizations.
From the perspective of the social model of disability, highly political environments disadvantage autistic employees and, in fact, people from other traditionally underrepresented groups. The true solution, then, is creating organizational systems characterized by justice and transparency – not changing individuals.
Justice in the workplace means ensuring the fairness of outcomes and procedures, as well as interpersonal treatment, dignity, and providing sufficient information to employees.
Just procedures for organizational decision-making:
- Are applied consistently across people and time
- Are free from bias
- Ensure that accurate information is collected and used in making decisions
- Have systemic mechanisms to check the accuracy and correct inaccurate decisions
- Conform to prevailing standards of ethics or morality
- Ensure that the views of various groups affected by the decision have been taken into account.
Transparency supports the development of trust, psychological safety, and organizational performance. It is essential for those autistic people who are excluded by having to decode hidden messages and “read minds.” It also supports inclusion and productivity of all.
Developing just and transparent systems starts with developing written and accessible procedures. However, systems only work when managers enforce expectations. Even occasional “exceptions for special friends” are enough to undermine the perception of honesty and the trust in leadership. Managers must systematically discourage backdoor dealings and ensure that ego-driven behavior is not rewarded.
The inclusion perspective.
Highly political, ego-driven work environments do not just exclude autistic people. They disadvantage people from non-dominant cultural backgrounds who lack the hereditary political capital and must invest much more effort into navigating political systems and biases. They disadvantage women and class migrants – professionals from working-class backgrounds. And even when women and BIPOC individuals demonstrate political skills and engage in political behaviors, these behaviors do not fit with the “tight-rope” expectations and backfire. Political behaviors seen as positive in members of traditionally dominant groups are seen as negative in others (“politics is a white man’s game” effect). Hence, even “training” people from disadvantaged groups in political skills is unlikely to create a fair playing field in the fundamentally rigged game. Ultimately, organizations failing to address the negative impacts of workplace politics and create transparent work environments are failing the work of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. Without transparent organizational systems and decision-making, many traditionally disadvantaged groups will remain disadvantaged. The straightforward autistic approach to doing work might work better for all.