My Autism Brain at Work: Thinking About Thinking
This is Part 2 of our ongoing series chronicling my life on the autism spectrum. In this article, I’ll talk about how autism impacts the way I operate as a business coach. (See Part 1 for context.)
Author’s Note: I am not a doctor, an academic researcher, or any kind of medical professional. I’ve conducted zero peer-reviewed research, so the thoughts below are just one human’s fever dreams.
I’ve had many deep, open, and honest conversations with other humans in which I’ve challenged them to understand how they think — how their brains work, process information, and respond to stimulus.
After analyzing all of this data, here’s what I’ve found to be true: Each of us fully believes that the way we think is the natural, default, common sense way to think. The way we perceive information is the only way we know how, and many of us can’t fathom that someone could come to such different conclusions about common things.
This obviously isn’t the case. If it were, we’d all agree completely on everything. There would be no need for political parties because one person would get 100% of the vote. There would be no need for laws because we would all agree not only on how to behave, but what the outcomes should be for misbehavior.
We may understand this on a conceptual level. But why is it so hard to actually comprehend that the way we think is just one of infinite possibilities?
As a business coach, spending so much time thinking about how other people think comes in handy because 90% of success in coaching happens when I can see the house of mirrors — the thought loops in which people get stuck. The thing is, thinking the way we think causes the problems we see. To solve these problems, we need to “think differently.” That’s a nice slogan, but how do we actually force a brain to think differently? Most people have spent so much of their existence in the “it is what it is” place that seeing the world any other way doesn’t come naturally. It can be learned, though, and it’s a tactic called using a “forcing function.”
How the heck do you force a function?
Let’s start with an example. If you always serve turkey at Thanksgiving, have you ever stopped to ask yourself why? Is it because you actually enjoy eating it, or is it just what you do every year? If you jump on a social media trend, is it because you actually think it’s cool, or is it just following the crowd?
One of the biggest reasons people feel stuck in life — whether it’s at home, at work, or both — is because they get stuck at the “just because.” They’re unable to understand that there might be another way to perceive a situation, think about a fact pattern, or manage a problem. Forcing functions makes us manually override our default way of thinking. They force us to think outside of “because that’s what I know.” It’s stepping outside the assumed “right” answer and getting to the actual truth of the matter instead.
When I apply this to business coaching, I’m using forcing functions to puncture balloons of “common sense” or “assumed wisdom.” Things in business are unsaid, accepted, or simply “the way they are” way too often. And people just assume they must continue under those notions without exploring any other options.
These are some of the biggest offenders:
- We must work 100 hours a week. That’s the way it is.
- We can’t make massive profits and be a mission-driven company. That’s the way it is.
- We can’t hire a good person for this position. That’s the way it is.
- I can’t be happy owning this company. That’s the way it is.
When you get into the habit of forcing functions, you aren’t satisfied with any of that. Instead, I use tools that force people to keep asking why and breaking down assumptions. It’s a superpower that gives people the ability to make smarter decisions and do better things.
How I Use Forcing Functions to Make Clients Think
A forcing function forces people to actually think about and defend their choices by engaging in a topic they would otherwise let slip by without consideration.
In the coaching system I use, EOS, we do an exercise called the “accountability chart,” an exercise designed to help a leadership team determine the right structure for an organization. Inevitably, the leadership team starts by simply rebuilding exactly what they already have. That seems counterintuitive to looking at things from a new perspective, but it’s all they’ve ever known. It’s safe. It makes sense.
Most of the time, however, that isn’t the most efficient option. (They wouldn’t be coming to me if it worked well.) Instead, it’s the result of office politics, the desire not to hurt certain people’s feelings, and emotional decision making. When this happens, it’s my job to take on the role of wrecking ball and execute a forcing function move.
There are three forcing functions I use on a regular rotation: a counterfactual forcing function, building fences, and voting.
Counterfactual forcing function
A counterfactual forcing function works by forcing people to defend a choice they’ve made. I might say, “Well, the only obvious answer, the only answer that makes sense is …,” and then I rearrange the pieces. I propose that operations reports to finance, sales and marketing get split up, and HR becomes a leadership team seat. And I make a compelling case for why things ought to be completely different.
I do this not because I expect them to accept it as the final form, but because I force them to actually see what they’ve only been looking at. If they want the organization to be a certain way, they need to fight me for it and think about it and have a reason better than “It’s always been this way and nobody wants to piss off Marge.”
By challenging someone’s belief in a way that requires them to prove it vs. just defending it, I can take their thought process to places it’s never been. By saying, “Prove your idea is better than mine,” people must muster their arguments and not just passively go with the flow.
The second major forcing function I use is one I call “building fences.” I use this frequently when people and teams are stuck in an argument.
This works by taking an amorphous debate (”How should we handle this situation?”) and fencing in specific options to make people choose a side and defend it.
“Okay team, we really have 3 choices here, we can close the branch, move the branch, or change the hours of the branch. We’re going to discuss each option for five minutes, and then decide which camp we’re in.”
The final forcing function I frequently use is simply voting. We might *want* a middle ground option between option A and option B, but if no such option exists, it’s a waste of time to discuss it. Instead, let’s be clear — “We can either fire Diana, reprimand Diana, or leave Diana alone. I want everybody to vote, and then we’ll discuss once we see where people stand.”
Simply by making space for a thought outside the loop, a thought that doesn’t fit the default assumptions, I can force an entire group to look at the whole picture and see the assumptions they’re making.
I Use Forcing Functions on Myself, Too
This isn’t something that can be used only in a business setting. I also use it in my everyday life to make decisions that are grounded in reason.
For example, people tend to leave concert venues in an inefficient manner. I’ve never seen a situation where people used all exits equally. If there are 12 exit doors, I can nearly guarantee you that 80% of the crowd will flock to three or four of the exit pathways.
Most people see where the crowd is going, think “That’s the way,” and get in line with the crowd.
They know the how, where, and when, but they’re missing the most important question of all: Why?
I see where the crowd is going and force myself to consider the optimal exit path. I think, “Why are they all going that way? That’s probably not efficient,” and look around for the other exits. Usually they’re behind me, off to the sides of the stage, up, or through another section that isn’t where my seat is located. Once I find a better option, I make a beeline for it and get out of the venue more quickly and with less people-ing than most people.
I approach laws the same way; take parking tickets, for example. I know millionaires who will leave halfway through a meeting to feed the meter rather than staying connected and present in the meeting. They will happily lose $1,000 in value to avoid the slight risk of an $80 ticket.
They haven’t thought about it. If they forced themselves to think about it, to realize that they’re risking $80 to miss out on $1,000 in value, they would stop themselves.
Here’s how I used forcing functions to approach this issue differently: I sat down and thought about the default setting, (parking tickets are bad; don’t get parking tickets) and started asking why. After analyzing different scenarios, I decided that a parking ticket is simply a potential cost of staying parked at a meter too long. It’s not a criminal offense, so the maximum penalty I’m going to suffer from getting a parking ticket is a fine of around $50-$100. And I can’t get towed for overparking unless I’m blocking a fire hydrant or driveway, so I avoid that.
By approaching the concept from this point of view, I never worry about overparking. I simply evaluate the odds of getting the fine (it’s low — most of the time a meter maid is not waiting to pounce) and then decide if it’s worth the convenience to park longer than the meter allows.
The same applies to all laws. I evaluate the potential consequences and decide, based on the risks and odds, which ones make sense to follow. And let’s be real, no human follows every law.
Rules Are Rules?
Before you start giving me the side-eye, ask yourself this: What’s the difference between a law and a rule? Governments have laws; businesses have rules. When I consider signing a contract with a business, I’m not just evaluating the words in the contract. I’m also considering the possible consequences of violating the contract.
I ask myself questions like: Does this business care enough to sue me if I violate this agreement for $1,200? How much would that cost them? Would it be worth it? If the answer is no, then I don’t really care about what the contract says, because I know they’ll never try to enforce it.
When people use the phrase “It’s just business,” this is how it translates in my head.
A shorter version of this article would go like this:
I like asking why a lot, and I care about the answer. Once I know the why (Why is that the rule? Why is everybody doing that? Why is that impossible?), then I get to decide what I want to do. And I do that thing.