Strategies for coping at work when your manager has ADHD

“When your supervisor has ADHD and you don’t, it’s likely that her communication style sometimes interrupts your work.”
“When your supervisor has ADHD and you don’t, it’s likely that her communication style sometimes interrupts your work.”
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Maybe you missed that project deadline because your boss never told you she’d set one. Or maybe she interrupted you with so many Slacks and emails that you couldn’t finish your work. But when your supervisor has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and you don’t, it’s likely her communication style sometimes interrupts your work.

Stereotyped as a condition that makes kids hyper, Attention Deficit is actually a lifelong neurological disability. In the non-ADHD brain, dopamine and norepinephrine screen out unneeded stimuli—the coworker who types too loudly, people chatting by the coffee maker, a bird singing outside. But the ADHD brain under-produces these neurotransmitters, and therefore is unable to block out those little things. That can make it harder for people with ADHD to do their own jobs—let alone micromanage someone else’s job.

Elaine Taylor-Klaus, a cofounder of coaching company Impact ADHD who also has Attention Deficit, says that while people with ADHD are “creative and idea focused,” they also tend to “resist structure or rely heavily on others creating structure.” That means your boss is unlikely to provide precise project guidelines. For employees who need more direction, this can be frustrating, but asking for what you need can still go a long way.

Start by determining whether your supervisor’s poor communication comes from her personality or her ADHD. It’s one thing if your boss isn’t helpful, another if she’s overloaded and doing the best she can. Outside of not conveying when she needed that project done, is your manager a good leader? How well does she execute her own work? People with Attention Deficit are far from lazy, explains Taylor-Klaus, “rather, they are incredibly hard workers and, if anything, have a greater tendency to become workaholics—either because they love what they do, ideally, or because they don’t manage time very well.”

Your boss may seem disorganized or miss deadlines of her own, but the cause is neurological. Time management and prioritization are challenges. The last thing she wants is to determine priorities and micromanage projects for you. In fact, her need for you make those decisions independently is likely why she hired you. Taylor-Klaus says, “The first strategy I teach adults diagnosed with ADHD is to play to your strengths and outsource your challenges,” explaining that supervisors with Attention Deficit often hire bookkeepers, schedulers, and similar roles first.

Unfortunately, these jobs are often filled by people who require detailed information to work, creating conflict. “Blaming doesn’t help anyone,” Taylor-Klaus says, “but clear communication does. If something doesn’t work, then debrief it. Ask what did work, what didn’t, and then talk about how to handle it differently in the future.” This communication should go both ways: Your boss needs to be upfront about her own limitations and ask for what she needs as well.

If your boss has ADHD and hasn’t told you, there’s likely good reason: Not everyone wants to discuss personal health at work, concerned about workplace boundaries or stigma. In school, your boss likely received 20,000 more negative messages by age 12 than her non-ADHD classmates. “Chances are your boss knows that she can create a little chaos around her,” Taylor-Klaus says. “She’ll be open to working with you if you stay away from either blaming or defending and just stay clear, open, and matter-of-fact.”