Mind of the Manager

What works and what doesn't in the workplace

How to Manage Employees With ADD/ADHD

Managers can help employees with ADD/ADHD perform up to their potential.

If you’re in management and find yourself frustrated by a talented employee who is undermined by seemingly inexplicable but persistent behavioral issues, it’s possible there’s a specific reason for it. He or she may have ADD/ADHD.

This issue was brought to my attention earlier this year when I did an article titled “How To Manage Difficult But Talented Employees.” A number of readers contacted me and noted that the types of management challenges I was describing — by no means uncommon in the business world — sounded as though they could often be related to ADD/ADHD (more on definitions in a moment).

I began to research the topic and was surprised to learn that despite the vast amount written about symptoms and treatment of ADD/ADHD, very little was available addressing the implications for management. I also began to think about employees I’d managed over the years (as well as my own chronic disorganization!). If many employees who have this condition have the potential to be highly productive but can be sabotaged by their own behavioral tendencies, what can management do to help these individuals succeed and become as productive as possible?

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Let’s first consider some definitions and the problem’s scope. ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are terms for a developmental disorder characterized by distractability, impulsivity and hyperactivity. ADHD is currently the clinically preferred name, though ADD is also commonly used. According to the American Deficit Disorder Association, approximately 4 to 6 percent of the population has ADHD, some 8 to 9 million adults. The condition is not confined to the U.S. — it occurs worldwide. “ADHD is more than a disorder of attention,” says Dr. Russell Barkley, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina, “but of the brain’s executive system that grants us our powers of self-regulation, over time, toward goals.” In short, the condition is widespread, has diverse manifestations, and clearly can cause work-related problems. However, with sensitivity to the symptoms and workplace issues that commonly result, there are steps managers can take to mitigate the problems and help employees perform up to their potential.

So how is ADD/ADHD commonly exhibited in a work setting? Since the condition involves a person’s ability to become easily distracted and disorganized, these are qualities that can cause difficulties in a structured, deadline-oriented workplace. (As the very words imply, a disorganized person may readily find challenges in an organization.) Simply put, it’s easy for such employees to go “off track.” There are, however, tangible things managers can do to help such employees stay “on track.” Following are five examples.

Time management. “ADHD is the consummate time management disorder,” notes Barkley. Being easily distracted can naturally interfere with the timely completion of tasks. More frequents check-ins from managers, or computer-based reminders, for example, can help keep projects moving at the desired pace. “They frequently underestimate how long a project will take, or how much time they have until a deadline,” Barkley says. “Time is their enemy, so anything that helps them manage it can be useful.”

Office configurations. Because of the ease of distractability, open office arrangements with few walls or dividers to filter out conversations and other noises may lead to problems. To the extent practical within your own particular business setting, more privacy and quiet can be helpful to keep someone with ADD/ADHD on task.

Reward systems. Since attention can all too easily wander — the essence of the condition — a manager may want to use rewards, either tangible or simply verbal, more frequently than normal. “Scheduling frequent small rewards throughout longer term projects,” says Barkley, “can help them stay motivated.”

Team dynamics. Effective collaboration is always a valued attribute in the business world. “While their liveliness, talkativeness and propensity for socializing can make them fun to be around,” says Barkley, “employees with ADHD can also talk too much, get off task verbally, are less self-aware of their social conduct and sometimes show less regard for the feelings of others.” Implications for management? Though there are of course exceptions, employees with ADD/ADHD tend to be more effective in individual contributor rather than team leader roles. It also makes good sense for a manager to give especially careful thought to a team’s composition, and to be cognizant of the ongoing interactions.

Closer supervision. One of the broader implications for managers is the need for somewhat closer supervision than they might normally provide… to help ensure projects stay on the right course and the needed results are achieved. To the extent possible, managers will also want to be thoughtful about how assignments are made, bearing in mind the particular strengths and weaknesses of the individual.

Finally, it should be noted of course that it may not be immediately apparent whether or not an employee has ADD/ADHD. This may or may not be information an employee chooses to share with a manager. However, this article and suggestions are meant to be food for thought; they may stimulate conversations and ideas for management strategies. You should also be aware that certain medications can be very effective at normalizing ADD/ADHD symptoms, though this is naturally a matter for physicians and their patients. To learn more about ADD/ADHD, you can visit add.org and russellbarkley.org, among many others.

One closing but by no means unimportant thought: Over the years some of my most chronically disorganized employees were also among my most creative and talented.

They were extremely valuable to our organization.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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Victor Lipman recently retired from the corporate world after 25 years with one of America's largest life insurance companies. He writes about management from a psychological perspective.

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