My colleague has AD(H)D – what now?

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I recently got the following request from a close friend: “Do you have any advice for managing employees with ADHD? I’ve just had a chat with staff member who has been really struggling and it turns out that he is ADHD. Any hints?” I realised I had already written quite a few posts on the subject but always from my own perspective. So this was a great opportunity to create a follow up from the other side of the table. Warning: this will be a long read 😉

first and foremost

Acceptance is the number one priority. Both from your side, his/her side and the colleagues around you. Especially up the stack towards management. The fact that I got this question above already meant there is already a form of acceptance from a direct manager.

Acceptance means understanding that AD(H)D is a physical (dis)ability that has no cure (yet). You can safely compare it to someone that has a speech or hearing impairment, or someone in a wheelchair. These people are in no ways less than any other person but although they have glasses or hearing aid devices, they will always have to accept that some things will not be in their nature to reach.

current job description

First things first; once we have all accepted the condition, we have to check how big the gap is between the job description expectancies and the capability to overcome them. Most of the challenges in AD(H)D can be overcome through extreme effort. This person probably already has for decades. The question is how much do you want to impose them on the person. I, for one, have accepted that I should no longer aspire roles that are based on –great eye for detail and planning-. I used to be a project manager and managed public offering files. Want to guess how that went?

So: identify the gap and see if you can close it through guidance or changing small parts of it. If not; find another role or part your ways. The year I got diagnosed I had to accept that I would no longer fit in with the general expectations of the company I was working for and they helped me find a new professional challenge for which I am still grateful.

split tasks and responsibilities

One of the first things I learned coping with my ADHD challenges is splitting up jobs into small tasks. This as 2 major advantages; first of if you manage to do 8 of the 10 subtasks; you’ve accomplished an 80% win versus a 100% loss. Secondly you can divest the other 20% to people who are better suited than you to accomplish a success.

So as a manager or colleague; identify and take away the risks of failure. For me for example I have learned to put the responsibility of safe guarding project follow-up and deadline management to colleagues. “if I haven’t replied to you before Friday morning, please do remind me”.

in person engagement

You know the whole attention span thingy? Yep, it’s real. Everyone has had the experience of being in the car and thinking about something they have to do when they get home, and then forget about it as soon as the front door is closed. People with AD(H)D have this ALL DAY LONG! We have volatile memory; it’s screaming fast but just a blink of an eye can trigger a reset, lozing the entire conversation we just had. Sorry for the geeky intermezzo here 😉

This is also why people with AD(H)D hate phone calls. Once the call is ended, chances are you just both lost 20 minutes of your life with no return on investment. If you have to call an AD(H)D person, keep it short and concise! Say what you have to say, get the answer to the question at hand and get out of there. If it needs follow up, confirm in writing! Anything that is not on paper doesn’t exist. The same actually applies to in person conversation. If the intent of the conversation is to bring a message or get back a decision, keep it at that.

This brings us to another hard topic: MEETINGS. Meeting with an ADHD person is not simple if you don’t see the signs. I’ll drill this one down in bulletpoints:

  • Yes, they will interrupt you. The reason is that what is top of their mind is important enough to share and if not then it’s gone 2 seconds later. What you can do here to help; remember where you were in your story and decide to either elaborate immediately on the interruption or politely park it until your story is finished. Don’t forget to go back to that thought! This method will be very much appreciated!
  • Learn to accept that the interruptions do not have the break other people have where you think “should I say this” before you do. This means they didn’t check authority and there are no safe houses. Learn to appreciate the honesty and transparency. Someday you’ll wish you could be that way. It’s liberating.
  • The attention span; learn the signs! Fitgetting, changing seat positions or just staring either to a wall, outside or through you can be both a sign of extreme focus or lack thereof. Sometimes we need to keep our body busy in order to be able to focus with our ears. Make it a habit of checking on each other whether they are still in the room with you. Ask yourself: do we need to break or even better; is this is still a productive meeting? Most 3hr meetings can be drilled down to 30 minutes.

workplace management

It’s very hard for people without AD(H)D to understand what it feels like. One of the best ways to explain it is having 7 radios in your head on full blast. Sometimes with medication we can turn down the volume on 4 of them but that’s not a solution for everyone. When we get into hyperfocus we can plug a headset in 1 of them but may have missed the news bulletin on the other.

All in all what I want to say; don’t push people with AD(H)D in an open office environment. They will hear every single conversation around them and hardly be able to get the job done. That being said; too clean (example paperless office) can also be a problem. Sometimes we need chaos around us to feel comfortable.

I got your back!

This for you is the most important tip to remember; whatever happens, I’ll always have your back as your direct manager or peer. People with AD(H)D live a life of failure, not kidding. By not finishing any task they have ever started, they live in a constant fear of unaccomplishment. Throughout their life it has even become an unconscious thing. Everytime you call them in for a conversation they’ll think they will get fired for something they don’t even know they screwed up (or maybe they do know). So reassure them from time to time how much you appreciate their successes and give context if you are about to have one of those conversations.

If they screw up; learn from the pattern! Adjust your future scenario’s to avoid it from happening again. This is the ‘closing the gap‘ part I talked about earlier. Try harder’ is never going to be the solution!!!

we got superpowers!

If all of the above sounded quite an effort on your side; it is. I’m sorry for that. BUT, and here comes the good part, you don’t know yet what an opportunity for gain is at your disposal now! If you can figure out what triggers a person with AD(H)D, you have an unbeatable weapon! Remember those 7 radios? We also have 7 engines in our brain running at the same time at double your speed. If you can accept the idea of your brain running on one CPU and theirs on 7 multicore, you can understand the super powers behind this. You just have to control what those CPU’s are working on.

So what does this bring? Out-of-the-box thinking is in their nature (there is no box). Their gut-feeling analysis that looks on the spot actually already includes dozens more variables than your look-at-the-data results will give you in a couple more weeks, giving them a head-start/foresight you will only understand after failing to listen. The absolute best thing you can do is taking their insights and help making it work. Never tell them; that’s a great idea, no go do it. This won’t work without your assistance, resulting in another failure, confirming you that you should not listen.

If you can organise your team around the passions and qualities of every individual, you’ll have more success than organising around shared principles. There’s no such thing as averaging out people.

Please leave your comment if you have AD(H)D or worked with AD(H)D people and have other or more insights and experiences.

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One comment

  1. Their gut-feeling analysis that looks on the spot actually already includes dozens more variables than your look-at-the-data results will give you in a couple more weeks, giving them a head-start/foresight you will only understand after failing to listen.


    I was often confused if people ask me for information on something and assume I didn’t fully think it through for applicability to their use case, complexities and problems involved within a few moments. And much more my confusion is when I rely on info provided by people who aren’t working like this.

    “Can I do X with Z if I try K”
    “Oh yeah”
    “It only works if I don’t do the K”
    “Oh yeah, I never tried that”

    Understanding how to get the best results is quite helpful.
    I also found we can work pretty well as on-the-spot escalation support resource in a team because we can constantly be aware of everything else that has been getting better / worse for the last hour. I've handled excessive stress during large outages better than my colleagues because I was aware of changes + status faster, am used to being not "being master of one thing". I can prioritize for the team and work on issues and stay aware of other issues and what our team / each member is doing.
    Other people who have a more controlled life seem to be wrecked by the sudden number of issues.
    A typical thing you can have is that these – at other times more reliable – team members suddenly get stuck trying to fix "this broken server": A dev box, and ignoring there's 50 prod systems still waiting.

    Personally I like to break down barriers noone else bothers to really put their mind on. This is kind of the task I can be let alone with. It's not like doing something that's really interesting to me, but it feels a little better than filing some administrative paper and helps everyone.
    I think it's a weird edge case – focussing on a stupid single thing is always hard, but if it's already known to be broken, then there's nothing eating up my energy. I can just keep swinging the Bugfixing hammer till it's solved. 🙂
    After it's fixed, don't make me look at it again, it wasn't enjoyable.
    New more exciting things await, and those WILL be enjoyable.

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