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Making Collaboration Work With ADHD

Expert advice for making group work easier when you or someone else has ADHD.

Key points

  • ADHD affects communication, planning, and persistence.
  • Open communication about how you and others work best facilitates successful group work.
  • Specific adjustments to how projects are managed related to individual strengths and specific ADHD symptoms also make collaboration easier.

ADHD isn’t primarily a disorder of attention; difficulties with attention are part of a much larger skill set called "executive function," which also includes our ability to manage time, emotion, and more. ADHD is a disorder of organization, planning, and persistence. Symptoms of ADHD include forgetfulness, procrastination, and challenges with time management. Someone can be motivated and brilliant but still struggle to manage a project across time, for example.

I was asked recently what to do when collaborating with someone else who seems to have ADHD. Their ADHD symptoms may be causing you stress. Collaboration is emphasized highly in our schools nowadays, for one. But the question asked of me had to do with work so I reached out to collaborate with several highly respected experts who work with adult ADHD. Dr. Roberto Olivardia is a psychologist at Harvard. Dr. Stephanie Sarkis is a psychotherapist in private practice. Dr. Ari Tuckman is a psychologist and sex therapist in private practice.

Miguel Á. Padriñán/Pexels
Source: Miguel Á. Padriñán/Pexels

Dr. Roberto Olivardia: From the start, consider discussing how both parties work best. If the ways you each work seem incompatible, discuss how you might resolve or negotiate that. It is often a good lead to ask what they believe is going on. Even if it turns out you disagree, understanding how helps.

If a boss has ADHD and an employee does not, an employee can frame it as “What works best for me optimally is….” Something like, “I am better able to manage projects when I get more advance notice than I've been getting, and I only want what's best for the company and to make us look good.”

Mark: It’s always helpful to find a point of agreement up front: “We both want to be successful here.” Instead of saying anything that feels like finger-pointing, like, “What you’re doing makes things difficult for me,” state in a positive way, from your perspective, what works best for you: “This is what I’ve noticed, so how can we come up with a plan together.?

Dr. Stephanie Sarkis: For someone with ADHD, there may be a history of having this kind of discussion and some sensitivity around it, so it can be helpful to recognize that and not take it personally.

Dr. Ari Tuckman: If you’re collaborating with someone, you can also try to reassign tasks based on each of your abilities. For example, someone who is better at tracking project details or someone better at communicating the big-picture vision to the customer.

Stephanie: Then set up more frequent check-ins to ensure you're both on the same page as your project progresses. This can be helpful for anyone, but shorter deadlines are easier to motivate for, especially for people with ADHD.

Also, set up weekly meetings to review projects and deadlines. Ask for verbal instructions and due dates in writing and repeat back what you’ve been told so you can get clarification if needed.

Mark: As we all talk about, breaking up larger projects into smaller deadlines helps with time-management challenges. It lets you get on top of difficulties quicker, too, if a deadline is missed.

Plus, the pressure of a deadline sometimes helps with focus. So, maybe, pick one task and only discuss that one item for now. “Can you get me that graphic back by tomorrow so I can finish the flier?” is more specific than, “Your job is to get all the images together for this project.”

Ari: Be clear about expectations and what to do if they're missed. Like, if a deadline gets missed, what should happen?

For example, if someone with ADHD knows they sometimes struggle with keeping track of multiple projects, they may want to give coworkers permission to check in rather than feeling self-conscious about it. Suggest that check-in as a plan, even if you’re not the one who has ADHD.

This would be even more true when it’s the boss since employees may not feel like they can speak up. So, give other people permission to ask for what they need—it isn’t their job to manage your deadlines, but it is their job to manage their workflow.

Stephanie: You probably can't mention ADHD itself but think about accommodating ADHD in ways that can help you both. Accommodations improve efficacy and communication for everyone on the team, not just someone with ADHD. “Informal” accommodations include things like having weekly scheduled check-ins to update on process and clarify instructions, working on a project in a separate and quiet location, and having all instructions given in written format.

Ari: I sometimes tell people to talk symptoms, not diagnoses, especially at work. As in, rather than asking someone if they have ADHD, focus on the observable behavior—for example, note (nicely) that they tend to lose track of details. If so, what might you each do to handle that better?

Roberto: When it’s your boss and not a peer you’re collaborating with, they might see it as “I need this, and I need that.” What you’re saying might seem overly demanding. Really the sales pitch is, this is for your benefit, not mine.

So that it lands differently, you can frame it as, “I want this change because I'm so invested in my work and what we need to do together.” Although one thing to consider is, if your boss or work partner won't budge, it often indicates a lack of flexibility that has nothing to do with ADHD and might not be a great match for you.

Mark: So it seems like, overall, you’re saying what people might try then is

  • Start with aiming to communicate clearly about your experience.
  • Assign tasks from the beginning that play to each of your strengths when possible.
  • Set up projects in ADHD-friendly ways, like breaking tasks into smaller, more manageable parts, while explicitly writing them down and monitoring them along the way.

Anything any of you would like to add in conclusion?

Ari: Everyone performs better when they know what works best for themselves and for their collaborators. This might be even more important when someone has more specific kinds of struggles. This makes honest and friendly communication all the more important.​​​​​

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