How to improve work performance of a staff member with ADHD.
August 5, 2007 2:36 PM   Subscribe

How do I improve work performance of a staff member with ADHD? He needs a lot of coaching and support, which does help him get the basics done. But he doesn't seem to be improving. Can anyone suggest resources to help me help him strengthen his skills and the quality of his work?

A member of my staff (for about one year) was very up front about the fact that he has ADHD... after I hired him; Yes, it's diagnosed and he does take medication. I've done some research on ADHD in the workplace and have found lists of challenges/difficulties that are common. He is like a checklist of those issues-- Can't finish projects, lacks attention to detail, no sense of time, easily distracted.

He's a really sweet guy, who is clearly frustrated with his own performance. He's a little on the young side (25) and has a lot to learn. He doesn't use his ADHD as an excuse, but from my perspective, it is very challenging to manage him because of his very inconsistent performance. Basically, he is just squeaking by and meeting the bare minimum requirements of the job, but it is only with a lot of direct support and coaching. And I still can't seem to take him beyond that minimum.

So far the only thing that seems to help is if I sit down with him one or more times per day and spell everything out for him, step by step, that he needs to be doing that day. He cannot long-range plan unless I walk him through step-by-step. Even then, only about two-thirds of what we discuss (and write down) seems to show up in his performance.

Frankly, this type of hands-on supervision is very time consuming for me. I've got a lot of my own responsibilities and yet I and other team members find ourselves spending time picking up his slack, editing his work, correcting his errors. The rest of my staff is getting noticeably frustrated. As am I, obviously... that's why I'm here!

In the end, the two most important skills for this job are organization and attention to detail... real killers for someone with ADHD. I would love to think he can improve his performance, but am worried I cannot expect someone with ADHD to have/aquire these skills.

I have found bunches of materials online that are designed to give HIM ideas how to stay focused and do good work. But I haven't been able to find any resources to help ME manage his performance and help him reach his best potential. Everything I've found revolves around legal/discrimination issues, not so much about managing a staff member who has this disorder.

Any help would be great!
posted by Sabine3283 to Work & Money (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Do you use Outlook? (Or similar)

Work with him to schedule everything in his calendar in X-minute chunks. From 9:30 to 10:00, you need to be doing X.

Or, and I hate to say this, it may come to you simply not being able to retain him. Don't fall afoul of discrimination laws, of course, but if his performance is consistently that sub-par--even with you making reasonable accommodations for his condition--you may need to let him go.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:56 PM on August 5, 2007

it sounds like you have problems w/both boss and subordinate

adhd people ARE capable of doing whatever they set their minds too - adhd isn't and shouldn't be a crutch for poor performance, heck, there are lots of people who behave like this at work that do not have ADHD - i have it and work in a field that is very very dependent on time management, organization and attention to detail - writing for a financial publication - and i manage just fine...but I had a pops who rode me pretty hard from about age 12 till i moved to college to teach me how to do these things...if he can't keep it together, ax him
posted by Salvatorparadise at 3:00 PM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ah, yes, Salvatorparadise... you've read my other post. Let's suffice it to say my efforts to get advice from my boss on this particular issue weren't really productive. (Something along the lines of "...every single member of this staff requires a lot of supervision. Now you know what my life is like." Tone of voice reads, "please don't bother me with your petty issues.")

I agree that ADHD shouldn't be a crutch for poor performance. Like I said, he doesn't use that as an excuse; but I can see it is connected to his performance.

You were lucky to have a dad that didn't let you make excuses. I think that may be the opposite of his upbringing. This is why I wonder if he CAN learn/change or if it's all pretty much set in stone at this point.
posted by Sabine3283 at 3:18 PM on August 5, 2007

Do you have an Employee Assistance program at work? They might be able to offer him some counseling/training on how to manage his attention problems better, but more importantly, they may have some resources for you as a manager to help you navigate the situation. I don't think all EAPs have specific resources for managers, but some of them do, and it sounds like it might be useful for you.
posted by Stacey at 3:52 PM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have ADHD (well, at least I have enough of the symptoms to have had a doc give me drugs), and I've managed to be fairly successful despite it.

I suggest looking at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work, I find when I am in a flow state I am probably several times more productive than anyone around. However, getting into that state is difficult, and getting out of it is very, very easy.

A quiet work environment is optimal - meaning an office with a door. Other peoples conversations around me are a big productivity killer, as I have a hard time tuning them out.

Also, if the work is not interesting, or there is very little feedback on progress/accomplishment, then it is next to impossible not to get distracted. I need to see progress being made, and I need to either think very deeply about what I am doing, or not at all.

I can do rote repetitive work very easily - I once spent a 10 hour day sanding paint off a bike, continuously, without boredom or breaks. I can also do very engaging work like programming pretty easily. But work which requires just enough concentration that I can't daydream but not enough to engage my problem-solving mind is near impossible. Things like filling out forms, or answering phones, and the like.

Try to give you employee work that he can concretely finish in a fairly short amount of time, say a couple of hours, then gradually build that time up. One of the reasons I switched from architecture to programming is the fact that the timescales for seeing results in architecture are so long that I couldn't put up with the menial tasks that made up a large part of my apprenticeship.

Lastly, be honest about the nature of the work, and try to dig deep into their motivation. If it's not a good fit, it's not going to work in the long run, period. If they are keeping the job just because they need the money, or the benefits, or they dislike change, they will never be the employee that you want.
posted by bashos_frog at 4:04 PM on August 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

I have one guy in my office who is ADHD. He has a very difficult time with long term projects. He's dyslexic too. When I became his supervisor, I just broke his projects down into smaller elements and called it Project Mapping. So now we have a giant white board with all of our projects listed with time lines, goals etc. It really works for him and he's become a top performer.

It's kinda tacky, but it works and gives us some transparency as a unit. The Boss LOVES that he can just glance at the board and instantly know what's going on.

On preview, what bashos_frog says is right on!
posted by snsranch at 5:03 PM on August 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

This will sound off-topic, but check out Her site has a ton of info about setting up routines and habits to keep your house clean - but her approach has been a lifesaver for a lot of people with ADD/ADHD. Her approach is deceptively simple - use a timer, write down your routines, develop habits one baby-step at a time. It just WORKS.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:15 PM on August 5, 2007

Push him towards GTD. GTDinbox, for starters. GTD is an excellent framework for keeping individuals on task and congisent of when something has been satisfactorily accomplished.
posted by TomMelee at 8:41 PM on August 5, 2007

one possibility: use one of the issue trackers intended for software development (like trac or mantis) and put all his assignments in the issue tracker. Whenever something is deficient, stick the issues that make it deficient in the issue tracker.

Make sure the issue titles show at a glance the core of the issue.

Use priority levels -- DONT make everything urgent/important. Three priority levels is enough, and try to keep the issue ratio at something like 1-1-3

Try to make the size of the issue be about an hour of work. No more than an eightth of the issues should be 2-3 hours in size, and anything bigger than 2-3 hours should be broken down. If you don't know what the breakdown is because figuring out how a task should be broken down is part of the task, then guess at it. Correcting your inaccurate breakdown will provide intrinsic motivation for him.

Put EVERYTHING in the issue tracker. It will save you time, and it will eliminate the chance that he forgets something or you tell him something while he's "blinking"

Issue tracker style management works well for ADHD people (I've been diagnosed with extreme ADHD) because it allows them to feel a sense of freedom -- at any one time they can pick & choose what to work on -- while providing enough structure. It eliminates the chance of forgetting or missing due to "blinks" what they are responsible for, provides a built in set of immediate external gratifications for getting small tasks done, and ensures that you always know where they are at and what they've done or not done, without having to ask them.
posted by lastobelus at 12:51 AM on August 6, 2007

one other thing: be sensitive to the overload point in terms of how many issues are extant (you'll notice this because all of a sudden his productivity will go down) and don't add more issues if you are near or over that number.
posted by lastobelus at 12:54 AM on August 6, 2007

Your employee sounds a lot like me at one point in my life. The following is based on what I think would have helped me. I have never been diagnosed with ADHD and so it is possible that I am not reading the situation right, but you'll know if these suggestions sound right to you.

In my case, I think "inability to concentrate" would be better characterized as "inability to go through the motions". In other words, someone like me needs to understand why they are doing what they are doing in a way that can be traced back to genuine real world requirements without any bullshit-seeming rationalizations along the way.

Of course everybody performs better when they believe in what they are doing, but I think the shape of the curve is different for people like me and your employee. Many people can keep going through being motivated by intrinsic pride in doing what they're tasked with doing even when they have next to no clue what real world value they are producing, but someone like me can only scrape along under these circumstances. On the other hand, when I can see that the work I'm doing might be the difference between making or not making the sale, I'm hugely productive and love my work.

Things that might be a problem:

1) Your employee lacks some technical/practical knowledge that is required in order for him to really understand what he's doing. If this is what's going on, the situation might really be improved with just an hour or two of explanation. Obviously you'll have thought of this but it's possible that he either doesn't understand as much as you think he does, or that you've only told him enough to understand what to do and not why it's important.

2) Your employee basically understands his own job but has no idea how the project he's working on adds value to the company. If this is true, then it's quite possible that many of his colleagues don't really know either. It might be time to get everyone together and give a presentation about how everything fits together and what the goals of the company/department/project are. As I've suggested above, your one problem employee might be a kind of canary indicating a more general cultural problem.

I have to say that in my own case the best solution would have been to simply leave the company - which I did eventually but after struggling for several months too long. While my immediate manager was great, the upper management was barely competent and lacking a meaningful vision for the company; there was only so much he could do to mitigate the effects of this on the culture in development. He left not long after I did.

Hopefully in your case it's more of a communication thing and doesn't indicate any more serious problems further up.
posted by teleskiving at 2:37 AM on August 6, 2007 [3 favorites]

Sabine3283, as someone who lives with ADHD, let me start by saying Thank You for taking the time to acknowledge your subordinate's disorder as the reason for his performance, rather than just attacking the performance itself. I wasn't diagnosed with ADHD myself until I was almost 30, and wish I'd had someone like you who was willing to work with me. :)

A couple of recommendations that have been invaluable to me:

1. Get your employee some kind of PDA to help him manage his time better. Having my Treo at my current job has made my life so much easier. I can set tasks and reminders for myself whenever/whereever I am. There's nothing better than being able to allocate my time to do something when I'm sitting in the meeting discussing when it needs to be done.

2. As someone else mentioned, Getting To Done is a perfect system for someone with ADHD. Simply forcing myself to keep my inbox at less than 20 e-mails makes my day a whole lot easier. All of the little tasks that I used to find distracting are now done when they come in rather than getting lost because they sat for too long.

3. Beyond GTD, there are numerous books on the topic of ADHD in the workplace. Check out Amazon. For general ADHD info, I highly recommend "You mean I'm not lazy, crazy or stupid?" by Kate Kelley is my all-time favorite recommendation. The initial chapters which describes the life of someone with ADHD I typically describe as "reading a journal I'd forgotten I'd written".

4. As someone else also mentioned, a quiet workplace is a must. Cube walls do not provide enough buffer from the constant distractions that come from coworkers. An office with a door would be ideal.

5. A good mix of projects. You'll have to work with him to determine what works best, but for me having 1-2 major projects as well as 4-6 minor ones works best for me. I have enough variety that my whacky brain can decide what to work on at any given time, but not so much of a load that I get burned out trying to make all of my schedules.

ADHD in the workplace is not an insurmountable issue. Like any other disorder or handicap, it can be worked with. You and your employee are already off to a good start simply because you understand he has special needs that need accomodating. Kudos again to you!

teleskiving, no you aren't reading the situation right. This person has ADHD, which is different from basic inability to do their job. This is an actual medical condition that makes it almost impossible for people to focus their concentration on one task.

Salvatorparadise, "adhd people ARE capable of doing whatever they set their minds too"

No, that's not neccessarily true. You are fortunate in that you have a mild form of ADHD, if you do, but some people's can be a lot worse. Also, it's not uncommon for people with even extreme ADHD to become OCD in an effort to compensate. Usually, this is in reaction to parents who ride their children hard (as you've mentioned yours did), and leads to its own set of problems. Please do not just assume that your experiences will be exactly the same as everyone else's. There's already enough resistence to ADHD from the general community. The whole point of ADHD is that you CANNOT necessarily "put your mind" to things.
posted by Spoonman at 7:08 AM on August 6, 2007 [3 favorites]

little behind the ball here but as someone also with ADD in a challenging work does sound like this staff member (the one with ADHD) isn't taking a heck of a lot of responsibility for his own success. It's really great you're willing to go through all this with him, but if he's not succeeding with all of the effort you're willing to put in, I think perhaps he's not as interested in success as you may hope. He has to be willing to "work it" and perhaps seek some outside counseling on organization/efficiency/productivity.
posted by Soulbee at 9:01 AM on August 7, 2007

The best way to get my ADHD partner to do something is to make sure that he has both the opportunity and the means *when I ask him.* For example, if I ask him on his way home to take out the garbage when he gets here, it's a guarantee that it won't happen, because by the time he has the opportunity, he'll forget. If, however, I ask him while he's standing next to the garbage can and he's not currently doing anything else, there's a 99.9% chance he'll get it done right away.

My other technique is to create a sense of urgency. If I need him to fill out an insurance form, I give him the means (clear off the table, get him a pen) and then create the opportunity by saying "We have to get this done tonight." However, creating urgency about too many things at once produces overload and he's likely to stop doing anything at all.

In a romantic relationship this can be maddening; hopefully it works slightly better in the workplace.
posted by desjardins at 11:49 AM on August 7, 2007

Response by poster: I want to thank everyone for the feedback you've given, as it has given me great perspective. I am committed to putting communication and planning systems in place to help him succeed, and have seen some success just in the past few days. Our current plan is to organize all his responsibilities, projects and tasks into a whole-year calendar, with checklists, deadlines, regular meetings-- whatever he needs to be clear on expectations.

Once we do this, I can meet regularly with him to give feedback and direction, but I cannot be expected to walk him through step-by-step like this all year long. I cannot continue to give him this level of support in the long-term. My fear is that he just doesn't have the capacity to do this work at the level I need unless I am in there carrying part of the load.

I am thrilled if people keep responding with suggestions, etc. I am checking daily, and will do so at least for the next few weeks. So please do add.

My question at this point is, am I reasonable in expecting that guidance and support can lead him to a point where he can do his job with less direct supervision? Or am I creating a situation where he's dependent on me to focus him in on what he needs to be doing? How do I avoid creating dependency and move him towards independence?

Many of you who've responded have had great success in work, even with ADHD. So I know it's possible. If I work with him and still don't see him moving towards independence... do I just throw in the towel and say he just isn't a good fit for this particular job?
posted by Sabine3283 at 6:56 PM on August 7, 2007

Well, one thing to keep in mind is that there are various levels of ADHD. Some people have more moments of "lucidity" than others. :) Just because some folks can get by in the workplace with it, doesn't mean others can. From the sounds of it, he's one of the more extreme cases. I, personally, thrive in an environment where I'm not micro-managed (which is why my current job is perfect for me, my closest boss is 20 miles away and I talk to her rarely more than once a week). Give me a set of tasks, and I'll have 'em done before you tell me they're due. Ask me everyday what my statues are, and I just can't get anything done. As I mentioned, though, I require a large variety of tasks so I can pick and choose what I'm "interested" in doing at any given moment.

It sounds like you're putting in a great amount of effort to accomodate his needs. While ADHD isn't listed as a "disability" yet, there are those of us working to ensure that it is someday. Employers need to understand, as you do, that everyone's different and some have a harder time than others in the workplace. Until now, all of the attempts to accomodate these hardships have resolved around physical handicaps. My experience is that mental handicaps can be just as hindering, if not more so because they're not as obvious, as physical handicaps. You can put in a ramp to accomodate someone in a takes a paradigm shift (I hate it, too, but this is actually a valid use of the term) to accomodate someone with something like ADHD.

That being said, you can't expect a parapalegic to work a construction site no matter how much accomodation you want to put in for them. Eventually, your employee may just have to be let go if he's not the right fit for the job. You've put in a good faith effort to accomodate him, and have done a lot more than most employers would and I applaud you for it!
posted by Spoonman at 8:37 AM on August 10, 2007

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