ADHD and Social Challenges at Work
By Michele Novotni, PhD
THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF ADHD CAN TAKE A TOLL, not only
in personal life, but also in the workplace. Especially in this time of
job loss and uncertainty, it would benefit everyone to be mindful of the
social challenges ADHD can sometimes present in the workplace.
Many times a job is spared or someone is promoted not just because of
their workplace performance, but rather because of their ability to form
and maintain social relationships in the workplace. Fortunately, there
are strategies, structures, and supports to help mitigate many social
errors and missteps. It is also equally important to lead with your
Lead with your strengths
Everyone has strengths. Sometimes with ADHD there is so much
emphasis on what is not working well that strengths are overlooked or
placed on the backburner. What strengths do you bring to social
relationships? What relationship skills have people acknowledged either
in or out of workplace in the past? Are there ways to use those
strengths more in the workplace? While it is important to manage your
challenges, it is also important to exploit and build on your
Each day intentionally set out to build or improve a relationship
at work though an area of your strength. If you are kind, find a
situation to demonstrate your kindness. If you are funny, brighten
someone’s day. Look for an opportunity to shine each day.
The workplace IS a social environment.
Play the game
How many times have we heard the following remarks:
“I’m not going to play the game.” “I’m
just going to do my job and that should be enough.” “My work
should stand on its own.”
Unfortunately, the workplace IS a social environment. Unfortunately,
the “game” IS going on. And unfortunately you ARE
“playing.” You just might be playing poorly or passively,
but you are in the game. It can be compared to investing money. You
might decide to not invest your money right now. You have it under your
mattress. You are however still investing your money. You are choosing
to invest it at zero percent interest under your mattress. Or, if you
take your hands off a wheel and choose not to steer a moving boat, you
are still responsible for the direction of the boat. If you are not
actively paying attention to relationships in the workplace, you are
less likely to be doing well—especially with ADHD onboard.
Relationships generally require work for individuals with ADHD to manage
well. Challenges with fluctuating attention span, impulsivity, and (at
times) hyperactivity generally need to be actively managed. It is
understandable that adding these social skills to job performance skills
feels like an additional burden. However, if workplace relationships are
not managed well, your job performance may not matter as much as you
You are playing the “game.”
ADHD Social Challenges in the Workplace
• Not recognizing importance of relationships at
• Impulsive emails or texts
• Talking too much
• Not talking enough
• Oversharing on social media
• Holding others hostage with lateness
• Missing subtle cues—subtext
• Interrupting people while working
• Interrupting in conversation
Pause before posting
Impulsivity can create enormous challenges in the workplace.
Thanks to technology, there are now methods of passing on information in
seconds. This is not necessarily good for those with ADHD who are
working hard to navigate social relationships. If you are upset, it is
never a good idea to instantly send an email expressing your
Take the time to create an email but do not include the intended
recipient’s name in the email. Write your email and place it in
your draft file. Wait at least a few hours, and better yet a day, and
look over the email again. This way, in the event you inadvertently hit
send, the email will not go out since there is no address included. Many
an email has gone out unfiltered and fractured relationships.
When writing an email or a text, assume that it will or at least could
be re-sent. It is all too easy to forward an email. In the workplace,
this is very common. If you always write them with that in mind, it may
help you avoid a few landmines.
Facebook is not confidential. Although Facebook is a form of social
media, it is not just social and isolated from work and work
relationships. Facebook is also viewed or could be viewed by people from
your workplace, too. You don’t need a permanent record of a
fleeting thought or a private look at your social life. That goes for
Only post things on Facebook that you wouldn’t be embarrassed
to have your boss or your employees see. Use face-to-face or phone
conversations for private or personal matters.
If you have ADHD, you might want to share a thought as soon as
it comes to you. In your enthusiasm, you could miss the social cues that
let you know that sharing that information now might not be a good idea.
Interrupting people at work is often viewed as an annoyance. People
generally try to avoid annoying people and you don’t want that to
happen to you.
If you see someone and want to share information or if you want to
go to their office, try to stop and ask yourself, “Is this a good
time?” Just like you have systems like checking for your keys and
wallet, get in the habit of checking to see if the person is working or
socializing before interrupting them. Sometimes an interruption is
necessary, most of the time it is not.
Interrupting others in a conversation is a common ADHD trait.
Interrupting is also on the list of social skill errors. While you might
interrupt because you are afraid you will forget what you want to say,
or because you get caught up in the excitement of the moment, people
often feel that you are rude when you interrupt. They might feel like
you don’t value what they are saying.
Have a notebook handy to jot down things you want to say if you are
on a conference call or in a meeting where it wouldn’t look
If you must interrupt, let the person know that you don’t want to
permanently interrupt, but could they please help you remember to ask
them about whatever it is you want to say. This way you are interrupting
a little, but also still honoring the person who is speaking.
Running late is common for individuals with ADHD. Time
management is also a relationship management issue. Running late is a
quick way to frustrate and alienate relationships. It can even cost you
your job. One of my clients was fired for lateness even though he was an
outstanding employee. It was demoralizing to the team to have him arrive
whenever he pleased.
When you are late at the workplace, others often take it personally. In
addition to thinking that you don’t take your job seriously, to
them it could also means you don’t value their time. Whatever you
wanted to do was more important to you than what they wanted to do. You
are holding them hostage waiting for you. It may also leave others
picking up the slack. None of these are endearing qualities for building
Redefine your concept of “on time.” For most, if you
have a nine o’clock meeting you would aim to be at the meeting at
nine o’clock. Change your target to at least ten minutes ahead.
Plan to be at the nine o’clock meeting at eight-fifty. Bring
something to do, or better yet, plan to connect with people and build
relationships in the few minutes before the meeting.
If the meeting involves travel, add additional time to you arrival.
Allowing an extra thirty minutes can save you in the event of a traffic
Talking too much or too little
Regulating speech can often feel like a full-time job for
individuals with ADHD. Some have been accused of talking too much, while
others for not jumping in enough.
Try this if you talk too much:
It’s difficult to build and maintain relationships if you use
monologues rather than dialogues. Use a vibrating setting on your cell
phone or watch to cue you every few minutes to remind you to stop
Consider asking someone you trust to prompt you with a glance, pen tap
or even a foot stomp if you are headed over the line.
Try this if you don’t talk enough:
You may want to preplan a few interesting comments to insert in
advance. Current events or interesting experiences add to building
When in doubt about what to say, asking a question about the other
person will usually save the day. Most folks enjoy talking about
Subtext and picking up social cues
It would be great if people always said exactly what they
meant. It is difficult enough for individuals with ADHD to hear all that
is said. In the workplace, more often in than non-work environments,
people often drop subtle hints and clues. Office speak is often dialed
back due to others’ navigating relationships—playing the
Individuals with ADHD need to develop ways to not only hear what is
said, but to also pay attention to the subtle clues that would let them
know if what was said is actually what is meant.
Try checking your understanding of a meeting or conversation with
someone who seems to navigate relationships well. Run your understanding
by them to see if that is also their understanding.
Watch part of a television show that is prerecorded without sound. By
only looking at the faces and body language, see what you can pick up.
Replay that section and check your accuracy. Replay a few times if
needed to see what you might have missed.
Who is on your team?
You may want to work with an ADHD coach or psychologist to
improve your ability to navigate relationships. This would be especially
important if you have already been alerted that there are concerns about
your performance and need to make changes as quickly as possible. There
are also a few books available as well as teleseminars on the topic to
It’s worth it
Good relationships in the workplace can translate into more
money for you and your employer—and more job security. It’s
probably worth the extra time and energy to learn to play the game well.
You might even find a few friends along the way.
FOR MORE INFO
Check out the Job Accommodation Network for more tips on
workplace accommodations: http://askjan.org/media/adhd.html.
Michele Novotni, PhD, is the author of What Does Everybody Else
Know That I Don’t? (Specialty Press, 1999). A past president
of the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, she is a psychologist and
ADHD coach in Wayne, Pennsylvania.
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of
Attention magazine. Copyright © 2011 by Children and Adults
with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). All rights