Tap the Brilliance of your ADHD Team Member
Leaders want and need optimal functioning from their teams. They get that by providing leadership, setting clear expectations, putting the right people in the right roles and providing resources and support when things break down. But what if a key member of your team is struggling with ADHD?
Leaders who want to support and get the most out of their ADHD employees can really benefit from knowing a little about the ADHD experience in the workplace. The dynamic and intense work environment the 21st century workforce now faces can present opportunity and challenges for the ADHD worker. A dynamic environment with a balance of positive support and flexibility can help foster amazingly creative and innovative results from an ADHD employee. On the flipside, all workers are asked to do more - manage and track more with less resources and time. Managing and tracking projects, conversations and time can be extremely challenging for those with ADHD. But with thoughtful planning, implementation and support from perceptive leaders, one can also make high impact gains. Two factors in particular can wreak havoc on an ADHD creative professional’s best laid intentions: transitions and overwhelm.
On the Outside: Transitions
Think about the number of demands, actions, and requests a creative professional cycles thru each day. Moving from one task to another an individual must pivot and change direction and their mode of work. Shifting from strategic planning to rapid action completions, to deep dives into complex projects requires flexibility, dexterity and a keen sense of timing. These pivot points are temporal (time), organizational and spatial in nature.
Transitions are particularly challenging when one has an executive function system that shifts attention too quickly or locks on to a task for too long (hyper-focus). Individuals with ADHD can expend huge sums of energy to activate for a task and then move on to a new task. In addition, a transition is a process and for many people with ADHD processes can have chameleon-like properties, very difficult to discern from the general background.
On the Inside: Overwhelm
Where transitions fall into the category of a ‘necessary move’, overwhelm is a state of dire consequences. Overwhelm is a phenomenon you don’t hear a lot about in general ADHD literature. Yet overwhelm is a very real and challenging condition that will hobble the best laid plans. It is unique for every individual but typically it occurs when one has too much on their plate and they are not adequately addressing basic ADHD management practices. With too many inputs to field, overworked ADHD team members can reach a tipping point sending the pre-frontal cortex into shut down mode. The pre-frontal cortex houses the essential executive functions for managing and regulating time, task, effort and emotion (among other things). The victim then must resort to ‘latest and loudest’ tactics and be vulnerable to their 'cave man' brain (everyone has one). No learning. No insights. Just basic emotional responses to the important inputs that make up a workday. Pressure and stress are huge players in contributing to overwhelm too.
So how does the conscientious leader support their ADHD employee here?
Support is a delicate balance of accountability and flexibility. ADHD individuals have varying needs. Generally they bristle at over-management but feel adrift when management is absent.
First of all, tuning into transitions and noticing overwhelm can be a good start for the leader. Dialoguing with the employee to see if these two areas are challenges for them is a good idea. Enact Covey’s Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.
Secondly, asking them, “What does support look like?”, shows that you are here to support and not meddle. They have ideas. They just struggle with implementation. You asking them, more than anything, sends a message that you are not a threat.
An alert leader can also support their ADHD employee by helping them limit the number of transitions in their workday. Encourage them to tackle the high value work early while they are fresh. Providing admin support for the urgent but unimportant work (Covey Quad III) like emails and correspondence can limit distraction. Micro-managing is an absolute recipe for disaster.
A brief huddle to agree on the top three priority completions for the day and week can help an ADHD employee manage overwhelm. Following up with a quick mutually agreed upon accountability session can help book-end the day.
Creating positive context for the work, the bigger picture stuff, connects the employee to their super rapid System 1 processor in their brain and the ability to intuitively predict future outcomes (vision). When ADHD people understand the context or bigger meaning of the task it creates more attention density and more meaning (and more personal investment).
Consider making this employee a ‘secret weapon’ for highly unique situations. The very qualities that an ADHD worker uses to gain advantage in negotiation and perform flawlessly in times of crisis are the same qualities that often derail efforts in planning and organization. ADHD professionals are great responders (defensive specialists) and have an astounding ability to hold the big picture (vision) making connections across seemingly unrelated ‘silos’ of work.
Encourage your employee to develop their inner entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have great ideas but they also focus on getting the idea to market. Developing a short list of activation questions can go a long way here. “What’s most important?”… “What’s a quick completion?”… “What are my resources?”.
Agree to foster a positive f0rm of accountability. ADHD workers are wired for external inputs. They will respond to positive structures and expectations and wilt under consequence-laden demands.
Lastly, encourage them to go home and recharge. Reestablishing self-care practices such as exercise, sleep and eating well will help manage the stress which in turn helps to manage the ADHD symptoms.
A brilliant football coach recognizes and taps the unique talents in his players. A smart leader will look past the immediate challenges of his ADHD employee and tap the strengths that may not be so obvious at first glance. Given positive support, your ADHD employee can flourish in your organization.