(By Michael Schrage)
“What happens as medicines and therapies for autistics improve? If drugs and/or medical intervention effectively treat the awkwardness and dysfunction associated with autism, might they also undermine the cognitive skills and abilities that originally got those autistics hired by SAP and other IT firms? Would autistics feel compelled to cling to their disabilities for fear of losing their jobs? Would organizations be reluctant to encourage these employees to seek treatment because that hurt their performance and productivity? Ironically, a cure for autism likely obliterates the disorder’s competitive advantage in the global marketplace.“
Talk about turning a bug into a feature. SAP, the German software giant, announced that it hopes to hire hundreds of autistics as talented programmers and product testers. The firm told the BBC that by 2020 perhaps 1% of its global workforce of 65,000 would be people with autism. Though a medically recognized DSM-5 disorder, many diagnosed autistics apparently bring special cognitive flair to digital details and computational concentration.
“We share a common belief that innovation comes from the edges,” said Luisa Delgado, an SAP HR director, who noted the company valued the ability of many autistic people to “think differently and spark innovation.” SAP’s Bangalore office saw its productivity increase after deploying autistic hires. The company is working closely with a Danish not-for-profit specializing in IT job placements for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
Special talents with serious personality disorders aren’t rare. While not autistic, the late Steve Jobs was described by many who knew and worked with him as classically in the grip of obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). In Joshua Kendall’s book, America’s Obsessives, the DSM defines the condition as “a preoccupation with orderliness …and mental and interpersonal control” and lists eight symptoms, at least four of which are necessary to reach a diagnosis. These include perfectionism; preoccupation with details, rules, orders, lists, organizations or schedules; excess devotion to work; inflexibility about matters of morality, ethics or values; reluctance to delegate tasks unless others submit to exactly his way of doing things; and rigidity and stubbornness.
Does this describe any of your better colleagues, clients and/or employees?
The thrust of Kendall’s thesis — which also profiles such innovative obsessives as cosmetics’ Estee Lauder, ketchup’s Henry Heinz and aviation’s Charles Lindbergh — is that such disorders are frequently inherent for relentless overachievers.
But the undeniable success of individuals and entrepreneurs with disabilities and personality disorders raises disturbing questions. Helping determine their professional development and best interests becomes a welter of conflicting interests.
What happens as medicines and therapies for autistics improve? If drugs and/or medical intervention effectively treat the awkwardness and dysfunction associated with autism, might they also undermine the cognitive skills and abilities that originally got those autistics hired by SAP and other IT firms? Would autistics feel compelled to cling to their disabilities for fear of losing their jobs? Would organizations be reluctant to encourage these employees to seek treatment because that hurt their performance and productivity? Ironically, a cure for autism likely obliterates the disorder’s competitive advantage in the global marketplace.
Similarly, if Atari’s Nolan Bushnell had recognized the young Steve Jobs’ OCPD and insisted his highly talented technician get the counseling and pharmaceuticals he needed to be a healthier person, would there have even been an Apple Computer, let alone an iPhone and iPad? Well-intentioned top management interventions — sincere efforts to help produce an better balanced employee — might have snuffed out the entrepreneurial essence that made Jobs one of the world’s greatest innovators. The unavoidable ethical — and practical — business dilemma is whether it makes sense to “improve'” employees whose effectiveness may be contingent upon their disabilities, dysfunctions and pathologies. What does “professional development” mean if it runs the real risk of making a colleague or employee less valuable to the enterprise?
If high-performers get measurable workplace results because — not in spite — of their disorders, the kinds of “professional development” investments that make sense and add value seem ethically and pragmatically unclear. There is a real risk that the cure could be worse than the disease.
I see no happy resolution to these conflicts. For truly talented high performers, achieving “balance” may prove a self-destructive myth. They need their dysfunctions and disabilities to succeed. But is it honorable, ethical and even legal to hire people knowing that making them better as a person may make them less valuable as an employee? I don’t know. It will be fascinating to see how SAP’s talented recruits are promoted inside their organization and out.
(Source: Harvard Business Review)
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