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This Is How People With ADHD Can Rise To The Top At Work

This Is How People With ADHD Can Rise To The Top At Work

November 02, 2018

By Denise Brodey

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Countless small acts of bias happen to people with ADHD all day long at work. If you let it get to you, it can feel like death by a thousand papercuts. I often say that it's not ADHD that's my biggest problem, it's that people don't understand ADHD. If you have ADHD, you're probably a sensitive person. Pick your battles.

Here’s an example: two women, in a parking lot, are chatting as they walk into work. One colleague offhandedly remarks: Ugh, I’m having such an ADHD day. And the other one replies, Oh, honey, it’s barely 9 o’clock how could you be a hot mess already? You’ll be fine.

As a person with ADHD, I have a choice: Do I get really pissed off that someone just used my diagnosis as an adjective to describe being a hot mess? I don't speak for everyone with ADHD, that would be impossible, but my personal opinion is, let it go. Playing the language police at work takes a lot of headspace. I choose to spend that energy being more productive. I have to believe that most people are not trying to be rude. They just haven't been educated about ADHD in the workplace. Only 10% of organizations factor neurodiversity into their human resources policies. In other words, there are people in human resources, hiring managers, chief diversity officers and other middle managers who have no understanding of what it is like work with, support, advise or promote people with ADHD. In my opinion,  your #1 job is not to educate the masses about ADHD. (More on how you can help people understand your diagnosis, but later). Instead, focus on being the rockstar that they hired. Ideally, you can explain to your colleagues that you tend to do things a little differently and offer small examples of how you work best.  At worst, ignore them if they can’t understand it and say things like, "that's not how we do things around here." Control-alt-delete it from your brain.


Ruminating on everything colleagues say behind your back—or in front of you—will cause a mental health nightmare. How do I know? It is estimated that those with ADHD receive 20,000 more negative messages by age 12 than those without the condition. Now imagine how they feel when they are working age? View yourself as different but not flawed. It’s one secret to rising to the top at work.

When you succeed, people will start thinking of you differently, in a good way. Go ahead and do what you need to in order to be a top performer. Wear your noise-canceling headset to stay focused. Bring your computer to meetings instead of handwriting notes like other people do. Build a small arsenal of colored folders, tabs, Sharpies in the bottom drawer of your desk to keep you organized. (When the office manager asks who’s been raiding the supply closet and costing them a bundle, own up to it with pride.)  Offer to give some of your stashes back. Be a master of the workaround. Put sticky notes on the cabinets and tape your work to the wall if your office manager says there’s no budget for another bulletin board. Don't let small things be roadblocks to big successes. 

I've learned some of the most important lessons in my career from ADHD mavericks. Here are just a few:

Don't Get Side-tracked. Stay the course, even when management doesn’t understand. At one job, I sat through a meeting where the agenda included a discussion of why I had so many colorful sticky notes on my cabinets. According to a supervisor, the staff had noticed them and were complaining (I don’t exactly know why, since they were in my office). I was speechless—which, if you know me, is a rare occasion. Looking back, the discussion seems ridiculous. But there it was, bias hiding in plain sight. Plenty of people on staff had kids old and young who had been diagnosed with a learning disability or ADHD, so this wasn’t unfamiliar territory to them. Their ability to compartmentalize what they experienced at work and at home was astounding. I am confident that that type of rigid thinking will begin to change. As for you? Don’t go changing. Get your work done. Focus on success. Rise to the top.

Take it from a generation that did not want to talk about mental health or learning disabilities in the workplace. Whether you disclose your ADHD or not, you can and should demand more empathy and accommodations—not because you are asking for a handout or to be treated specially—but because you’re human.

Think About The Bottom Line

Productivity suffers when people in the organization do. Poor mental health, stress, depression, and anxiety are costing companies thousands if not millions of dollars. Anxiety and depression are creating an increase in sick days and poor morale. It’s sucking the creativity out of some of the most creative people on your staff. Most of us have experienced managers who are either undereducated about ADHD, too overtaxed with other work to really listen, or just outright uncomfortable with letting you bend the rules, even if it helps you work at your best. Reject the status quo. It may be a bumpy ride, but it will boost your team’s productivity in the end.


Find The Funny

I think having ADHD can be equal parts funny and frustrating. For example, this summer in the grocery store a woman was helping to bag my groceries. I told her—hold on, I forgot one thing. I knew it was in a display rack right behind me. I grabbed it and put it on the conveyer belt in time to hear her say, Why are people so ADHD these days?  I could have been frustrated but instead, I turned to humor. Wow! Thank you for noticing!, I said. I am actually ADHD! It was slightly painful but completely empowering and we all ended up laughing.

Find Power In Your Ability To Handle The Unexpected

Mental agility, as in always having to prepare for a mistake or change in plan, is one of the most useful features of having ADHD. I'll give you an example: Once I ran a race with a friend and her husband. Probably due to ADHD, I have very little sense of direction. At some point, I lost my friend and her husband and was running alone. When to my surprise, I crossed the finish line first, the volunteer at the rope said kindly, Did you know you are the winner? That was physically impossible, I thought. I run a 10-minute mile. My friend's husband runs like a human gazelle. A minute later I saw the volunteer go back to his coworkers and heard him say quietly, What just happened here? Is there a different category that this woman might be in? I started laughing. No, I told him. I have no sense of direction. I didn't win. I just got lost. I'll go back and run the extra mile. I had a great race. On the Monday after the event, I realized I should embrace my affinity for uncertainty more often in the office. At the time, I had been feeling beaten down and bullied. Why retreat when you can pivot like a pro? A leader can’t be a success if they think they always know what’s coming next. Use your mental flexibility to your advantage and, I'll say it again, you will rise to the top...

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