ADD in the Workplace

or ... Geeks, Dweebs and Nerds Grow Up, Too

By Gary E. Dudley, Ph.D.

As a Psychologist, I am often asked to evaluate (and treat) children who are affected by the syndrome of Attention Deficit Disorder. This problem is characterized by an assortment of bothersome behaviors including distractibility, fidgetyness, blurting out answers to questions before they have been completed, difficulty following through on instructions, failing to finish chores, shifting from one uncompleted activity to another, talking excessively, interrupting, not listening, losing things and not being able to play quietly. Does this sound like anyone you know?

All children display these behaviors some of the times - it is the nature of the beast! But, somewhere between 3% and 7% of kids have persistent problems in these areas, that do not seem to be controllable with normal disciplinary approaches. These behaviors understandably cause problems at school in the primary grades, which leads to negative feedback from teachers as well as peers. By the time they reach adolescence, these children are having great difficulty with peer relationships and are frequently labeled as geeks, nerds and dweebs. Life becomes a succession of horrible, terrible, no good, very bad days.

Treatment is fairly simple, and has conservative goals. The goal is to salvage the child's fragile self-esteem, which is being hurt every day by the negative feedback, rejection and labeling which these kids experience. Often stimulant medication (such as Ritalin, Cylert, Adderall, etc.) is used, and counseling interventions are used to help the child establish habits of impulse control, following through on tasks, and personal organization. Interpersonal relationships will also benefit from training these youngsters to notice and respond to interpersonal cues and to interpret others' intentions towards them accurately.

If not treated, however, these children grow up anyway! Look around you - some of these "children" are your coworkers today. You may notice some of the symptoms mentioned above as you work with certain people in your office, factory, or other place of business.

Ever notice the guy who works like the proverbial house afire? He goes from project to project, and leaves pieces of each one in common work areas - on your desk, in the lunchroom, in the copy machine and anywhere that has a flat surface. He's often a big talker, too, full of plans, schemes, and glorious accomplishments. The problem is, though, that many of these "accomplishments" are recollections of projects he may have started, but never finished. He always seems to exaggerate about the things he has undertaken, and seems unaware that everyone knows he is exaggerating. He's the guy who is always reinventing the wheel - protocol and procedures are never quite followed, he's always running into roadblocks and delays, and he spends an inordinate amount of time trying to finish tasks that everyone else seems to be able to do in their sleep.

So, how do you deal with these deficits in a coworker? Well, we tell parents of ADD kids to keep cool and stay focused. You may find yourself humoring or patronizing the ADD adult. Unless you are this employee's supervisor, it is not your place to correct the behaviors, so to a certain extent you must learn to live with them. The over-talking, for example, may have to be tolerated or ignored. Depending on the individual, you may be able to discuss specific events in which he or she did not follow through and request that they do so. But, if you have the unfortunate luck to be assigned to work on a project with such a coworker, you will have to be the one who tracks the overall progress of the project - structure and prioritization are not this person's strong suit, and you will have to bring your "normally developed" planfulness to bear in order to get things finished. You may also need to "assist" this person in periodically gathering all the scattered bits of the project back together.

If you are this person's boss, why even bother with all of this - why not just give him or her the ax? This does happen more often to ADD adults than to others, but you should remember that ADD people are often bright and creative, so in firing this person you may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If you could just harness all of this person's energy and get it all going in a single direction, there is potential for him or her to become one of your best workers.

An assessment by a psychologist who is familiar with adult ADD, and a few structured supervisory counseling sessions, may be well worth your while, especially when you consider the direct and indirect costs involved in hiring and training a new employee. By cultivating better, more efficient organizational behaviors these individuals can boost their productivity significantly while reducing your frustration by an equal measure.