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Tag: management

The managers guide to understanding ADHD

(and why it’s often misunderstood for CIS women in particular)

Let’s talk about ADHD

We’ve all seen characters with ADHD on TV and in books etc, try and think of a few examples and I bet they all fit in one stereotypical box; “the naughty young white boy acting out in class”. But not only is this stereotype wrong, it’s actually really harmful!

Calvin and Hobbs
Calvin and Hobbs (Calvin is a ‘typical’ boy with ADHD

Historically ADHD was seen as only (or as least predominantly) affecting boys (often white boys, but that’s a whole other subject I’m not qualified to talk about), but evidence shows that many girls do have ADHD, however it is often the inattentive presentation of ADHD which tends to be under-recognised or under-diagnosed, because it doesn’t fit the stereotypical (hyperactive) trope and kids with it aren’t causing problems in the classroom etc; instead they’re just being labelled as ‘day dreamers’ and are left to slowly fall behind or put under pressure to sort themselves out with no support.

Ironically, whilst the Hyperactive/impulsive symptoms are more well-known, due to being more visible, they are in-fact less common than inattentive ones, both for women and adults in general. These symptoms often become more “internal” when they persist; as adults learn to manage their hyperactivity; which historically led medical practitioners to believe that ADHD symptoms decreased after childhood, which is now known to be incorrect. Currently 2.8% of adults in the UK have ADHD, but many are undiagnosed and the number of adult diagnosis’s is increasing every year; it is believed that as many as 1 in 20 adults in the UK are likely to have ADHD.   

So, what is ADHD?

ADHD as a developmental disorder that affects the brain’s executive functions. Executive functions are the cognitive processes that organises thoughts and activities, prioritises tasks, manages time efficiently, and makes decisions. They’re basically the little office manager that lives in our heads.

Research suggests that many people with ADHD tend to be perfectionists who fear getting things wrong; they struggle to cope with failure or letting others down. Most people with ADHD are seen to be extremely empathetic to others’ emotions and suffer from Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (an extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by a sense of falling short—failing to meet their own high standards or others’ expectations; being rejected or criticized by important people in their life.)

Many people with ADHD struggle with procrastination issues; at one time this was seen as people with ADHD being ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’ however, research has shown that due to issues with executive functioning, people with ADHD struggle with ‘knowing where to begin’. When the size or scale of the work needed to complete things is ‘too big’, or ‘there is too much to do’ they are unable to start for fear they won’t be able to finish and will only fail or disappoint. 

This often leads to people with ADHD leaving everything to the end when a deadline looms or the amount of work becomes overwhelming, and the work cannot be delayed any longer. From the outside it can be viewing as everything being ‘rushed’ at the end rather than logically planned and spaced out to give enough time. 

However, this ‘scramble’ to complete work before a deadline, will produce a larger dopamine release as the brain views it as a bigger win vs. a scheduled timely plan, which will produce less dopamine, and therefor offer less ‘reward’. Studies suggest that ADHD brains have lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine (a chemical released by nerve cells into the brain that allows us to regulate emotional responses and take action to achieve specific rewards. It’s responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward.)

Due to this inability to regulate dopamine properly, ADHD brains are constantly seeking more; leaving people with ADHD with the constant desire to move from task to task, focusing on ‘the most interesting’ or ‘most urgent’ work which will offer the greatest feeling of reward; and struggling to start or complete ‘boring’ or ‘mundane’ tasks that aren’t interesting and don’t offer the ‘dopamine hit’. 

Many people with ADHD also have Sensory Processing Disorder, which means they could be ‘over-stimulated’ by sounds, sights or smells, with unexpected noises or changes in light levels etc. causing sensory overload and breaking their concentration or making it harder to focus.

How to best support employees with ADHD

Because ADHD is so misunderstood, many employers worry about disclosing their ADHD status; and many employers struggle to understand how to best support their staff. Studies suggest that adults with ADHD are change jobs frequently and are more likely to be fired, to miss work, and to have troubled relationships with co-workers; but employees with ADHD can thrive in the right environments and with the right support. There are many useful places out there offering advice on how to best tailor workplace environments so as to take the best advantage of people with ADHD’s strong points (such as their creativity or people skills), whilst also minimising any negative impacts of their ADHD; and I’ve captured many of the commonly agreed useful strategies below.

But as an employee or manager, there here are a couple of important things to note:

  • Many people (between 25-50%) with ADHD also suffer from sleep issues; and many ADHD medications can make these issues worse.
  • While ADHD medication can be beneficial in helping combat the symptoms of ADHD, medical titration can be a long process which can cause some symptoms to get worse before they get better and have many side effects.

The Scottish ADHD coalition wrote this guide for employers which offers helpful advice and guidance.

Some helpful strategies people with ADHD use: 

  • Having clear priorities, reviewed daily; with no more that 5 items on to complete at any one time. 
  • Making colour-coded lists and notes, to make it easy to find information easily. 
  • Breaking tasks down into smaller chunks that can be tackled independently rather than all at once. ADHD brains tend to work best in 15 minute intervals; many people with ADHD find setting a timer for 10 to 15 minutes to focus on one task; then when the timer chimes, deciding if they have the energy to continue on that task or, if completed, start a new timer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. If they still feel motivated, resetting the timer and continue working in short intervals for as long as they can.
  • Avoiding multi-tasking. This is more likely to lead to distraction; only work on one thing at any time (working in 15 min chunks where possible). 
  • Setting time-limits for decision making. 
  • Setting a ‘WIP limit’ to avoid over-committing to work, For each new commitment made, giving up an old one.
  • Associating ‘rewards’ with mundane task completion, “if I complete X then I can spend 5 minutes doing Y before I move onto Z”
  • Clustering similar tasks together under the same time umbrella, i.e. Answering emails and returning phone calls once in the morning and once in the afternoon, instead of throughout the day, to avoid getting side tracked from priority work; 
  • Replaying instructions, repeating back verbal instructions, or confirming in writing to ensure they have been understood correctly. 
  • Setting electronic alarms and reminders, to remind them to move onto the next task or meeting. 
  • Setting aside time each day to deal with ‘additional thoughts and ideas that have popped up’ to avoid getting side tracked when completing tasks. 
  • Using noise-cancelling headphones or listening to music when focusing on a task. Research shows that music structure helps the ADHD brain stay on a linear path and address timing deficits.
  • Overestimating how long it will take to complete something, adding at least 10 minutes to how long it will take to finish a task.
  • Building in a 5 minute break between tasks to allow the brain time to reset before focusing on the next thing. 
  • Using a “body double.” Many people with ADHD find when tackling mundane or boring tasks, sitting with someone else who is quietly doing another ‘mundane’ task creates a productive atmosphere.

So, to sum up; Not all folks with ADHD are hyperactive boys. If you have a member of staff who has (or you suspect has) ADHD; great! Research shows employees with ADHD can be more curious, creative, imaginative, innovative, and inventive. They tend to be out-of-the-box thinkers, with an approach that can be highly prized in the workplace.

Any potential weaknesses can be overcome with just a little bit of effort and some open, honest conversations; talk to them, focus on their strengths (there are lots of them) and what they do well; and put some plans in place to help them succeed and you’ll all be happy!

5 positive traits of ADHD.

Looking for the positives

We’re all skilled in many different ways; when it comes to our careers; why do we apologies for our weaknesses, rather than celebrate our strengths?

Another slightly introspective blog from me today, but one I think worth writing, as I know I’m not the only one guilty of this.

As we move through our careers, there are always opportunities to grow and learn new skills and take on new challenges; sometimes those opportunities can open us up to new strengths we never knew we had; sometimes those opportunities can help us realise something is definitely not for us. Both of those are valid outcomes, but we often fail to acknowledge that it’s as important to recognise what skills you don’t have, and what doesn’t spark joy for you; as much as it it’s important to recognise what skills you do have.

As managers and leaders we should be encouraging our staff and teams to be transparent about both. By helping our staff recognise their own strengths, and their weaknesses, we can then help them to have fluffing careers that focus on those strengths, rather than constantly highlight the things they’re not as strong on.

None of us like being ‘bad’ at things; and there’s nothing more demoralising that slogging away at a role and always feeling like you’re the weakest link; so why do so many of us stick at jobs or roles where we’re doing just that? Sometimes all it takes is one meeting to make you recognise what your skills are and where you can add real value; and as organisations we should be making space for people to pursue those skills, or we risk losing them, and the value they can add to our business.

Orange coloured rocket rising on the top between the hot air balloons.
Everyone deserves to soar high.

I’ve been lucky throughout my career to have had some great line managers who have supported me in having those conversations and enabling me to focus on my skills and choosing roles where I can utilise my strengths best; and I similarly now try to be that person for those I manage.

One of the things I always advise my mentee’s and staff to do, is spend some time thinking about what their skills are, what are their strengths, what do they bring to the party (as it were) that others might not? I then try to work with them to think about how their skills and strengths can benefit their role; the organisation and how they could build a career based on those skills. Sometimes this just means a small change to their role, sometimes it means supporting them in moving to a new role where they can better utilise their skills, and sometimes it means a change in their career path.

Wooden singpost with "help, support, advice, guidance" arrows against blue sky.
Signposting

When I have had this conversations with staff or mentee’s in the past, one fear many voice is the fear that they will come across as ‘ungrateful’, or ‘self-important’ and like they think ‘they’re better than they are’ or that by acknowledging the areas that are not their strengths they would be jeopardise their career. Obviously, I can’t speak for every organisation, or every manager; as a senior leader I have always believed we get the best out of people when we support them to be their best. We can only do that by recognising not everyone is the same, nor do they have the same skills or strengths. Jobs descriptions are a generic label that covers what we expect the person doing that role to be doing; but three people doing the same job will all have slightly different strengths and skills, and as long as we do so in a fair and transparent way, recognising peoples strengths and how those can impact how they do their role, means they’re more likely to add real value to the team.

One thing I’ve really appreciated since joining Kainos is that we differentiate between individuals goals, and role responsibilities/targets. Staff are given opportunities to set individial goals that they feel best match their skills and strengths, as well as having targets for their roles. We have people managers who we work with to understand how we can be supported to meet our personal goals as well as project/line managers with whom we work to meet our role targets etc. People managers and line managers work together when staff members feel their roles/skills/strengths don’t quite align to identify to understand how we can support them either into new roles or to suggest wider opportunities they could get involved in (or lead) where those skills could be best utilised. The benefit of this can be seen when looking at Kainos’ staff retention, and the number of staff who joined the company as a graduate developer (as an example) and are still here over 10 years later having moved into Product or Business Growth as they have developed their skills and identified areas their personal strengths align too where they can add more value.

I think as we come round to End of Year Appraisal time again, it’s important for all us to reflect on what our own skills are, what are strengths are, and are we getting the opportunity to add real value to our organisations using those skills; or is there something else we could be doing that would better utilise those skills and add more value? And as managers we need to be enabling that self reflection and supporting those conversations to happen.

A hand holding a growing seedling
The best things grow when we nurture them.