Being a Manager with ADHD

Management isn’t easy for anyone. Whoever says it is is a big fat liar. Management is hard because in order to be successful you have to manage both up and down and make just about everyone happy while somehow retaining the rights to your own success so one day you can maybe get further ahead. You have to do all this without seeming like you want to or are trying to get ahead of course, your only goal is the success of your company, and your personal objectives should be set aside for the common good.

Managing with ADHD adds an entirely new layer of oh-shit-this-is-hard-ness. I’ve experienced a lot of managers good and bad in my day, enough that I know what makes a really good manager. I strive to be that good manager and yet the exact requirements I have for quality managers are the same traits I struggle with most. I’m a rather strong individual contributor, but in order to move up in the workforce one must manage. I like to stretch myself and prove that I can do things that don’t come naturally, but managing effectively is a huge challenge for a person like myself.

Recently my boss had a talk with me about how, in so many words, I don’t seem like a team player. I know exactly what he means. I get so bogged down in the details where I become an OCD perfectionist about things that probably don’t matter all that much and lose sight of the big picture, dragging everyone else down with me. So just stop doing that, you say? It isn’t so easy. I know that details matter, and if you just ignore the details sure most of the time things are going to be fine but that one detail you passed over could change the outcome of a project dramatically. With ADHD it is extremely hard to prioritize tasks (likely prefontal cortex abnormalities for the win) and task prioritization is the number one requirement of a great manager. One – prioritize tasks. Two – don’t change direction in the middle of going through these tasks.

The way I work is like I’m creating a piece of art. I like to try something and change it and try something else and change it and shape the project into something that wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be when I started out. This does not work as a manager. Micromanaging also does not work. Everyone wants to feel autonomous and like they have control over their own work. Ultimately hiring the right people is key here because everyone wants to be autonomous but few people are able to do so successfully. If you have a great team that is self-motivated this goes a long way, but still as a manager you have to grasp the bigger picture, set long-term strategic goals and design programs to achieve these goals. Then you have to step back and let the programs take shape, adjusting only after they’ve finalized and you stepped in to measure and determine how to improve the next go round.

Is this the only way to manage? No. But it’s the best way IMO. I want to be that type of manager, at least for now, at least if I’m going to be a manager. I am so damn insecure about everything little decision I want to make (thanks mom and dad for teaching me my ideas and opinions were worthless) and I just shoot myself in the foot every time I open my mouth. I know when I’m saying something that makes me a terrible manager and yet I cannot stop myself. That’s another lovely trait of having ADHD as well, I speak before I think, and then think, and think I shouldn’t have spoke. I forget what I want to say very quickly so if I don’t blurt it out right away it’s gone, poof, just like that, even if it actually was important or a good idea.

There has to be a way to be an effective manager with ADHD and I’m going to figure it out. That’s my mission for this year. I’m not sure I’ll be able to be a manager forever but at least I want to get somewhat good at it. I have some really great employees right now and I have the opportunity to build a world-class team. This is all I wanted, wasn’t it? I wanted to be a leader so now I have to lead. Funny how the people who recommended me for this role, who said I’m so great, all thought I was so great because I’m brilliant as executing their vision or coming up with plans a level down from the larger strategic plan.

In the long run I think I’d be better off as a consultant where I can be paid a higher hourly rate for individual contributions. It’s just a personal goal of mine to spend a few years being a really great manager. I’m finally old enough to have staff that are significantly younger than I am so I don’t feel like I’m managing someone older and more experienced than I am. Granted — great managers are able to manage people older and more experienced than them, but this is something that is even harder and requires a significant amount of management maturity. I’m still learning and hope to get there one day. I really want to do a good job and the last thing I want is to seem like I’m in this for myself. I’m not. I want to be a team player and help my company win. I just hate how I come off all the time, I cannot talk without it sounding wrong somehow. I wish I just had better social skills and less ADHD so I could be a great manager. In the meantime, if I can figure out how to be a good one, I’d be happy.


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  1. I am going through the same struggle..
    Till now I was a highly appreciated individual contributor but my next role is of a lead and I can’t simply make my mind convince to move forward with confidence..

  2. Abigail says:

    Husband says he’d get in trouble as a kid because they’d tell him to clean the kitchen, and he’d be paralyzed. Every single thing seemed like a separate thing, so he couldn’t figure out where to start. So if I want him to do something, I have to make sure he has a plan of attack. And like you he’ll get bogged down in details if he’s not careful.

    I know Thom Hunter writes a series of books about ADD, and some of them are about helping people function in the corporate environments. I also like that he has a different way of looking at ADD. He was tired of doctors telling his son that his brain is wrong. Instead, he looks at it as having different evolutionary advantages. It might not seem like it makes a difference, but it seems like people with ADD spend too much time and energy feeling bad about it. Looking at its advantages in addition to the problems it presents could really help people make it work in day-to-day life.

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