ADHD at Work: How to Create Sustainable Policies, Procedures, and Practices

During a wonderful (and humorous) conversation with my co-founder about what it’s like to be in business together given we have different neurotypes, we stumbled upon a great example of how work can really break down when we make assumptions and expectations about the most “logical” way to do things.

I am neurodivergent. She is neurotypical. We work well together because we both bring unique skills and strengths to the table. I admire her organizational skills. I adore her focus, drive, optimism, and motivation. She is a self-starter and a wonderful CEO. She is kind, understanding, compassionate, willing to listen and has the courage to be vulnerable and face the difficult or uncomfortable conversations that we sometimes need to have.

I am creative, have a keen understanding of people and relationships, and am able to tie together vast amounts of seemingly unrelated information into a coherent whole. I can spot patterns and see where we need to go next. I take the details and make an incredible picture. I can envision where we are going and need to be. She can get us there. Without either of us, the plane we are building wouldn’t have gotten off the ground. We need each other. Without her, my ideas would sit on a napkin somewhere at the bottom of my purse. She brings them to life.

But this doesn’t mean things have always gone smoothly or effortlessly. In fact, if it weren’t for both our willingness to be vulnerable and face things head-on, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a rosy story. Yes, there have been tears and tension. Research actually shows that when neurotypical people communicate with other neurotypical people, there is good comprehension and cohesion. The same for neurodivergent people communicating with other neurodivergent people. But when you put NT and ND folks together, it becomes a game of telephone.

This is not to suggest we segregate NT and ND people at work! Quite the opposite; by co-creating with NT and ND folk, the gaps in policy, procedure, and practices get highlighted because each group is able to see things from a slightly different angle.

For us, the key has been not that we had some challenging conversations, but that they were resolved. And from them, we have grown and learned and developed ideas we would have missed. We know that our co-creation trumps any particular skill set.

While our neurotypes mean that we may not think, process, work, or communicate in ways the other person easily understands initially, at no point has that implied that one of us is “an issue” to be fixed. Too often neurodivergent people are assumed to be more challenging to have as employees as if something is inherently wrong with them. They need “too much” support, or they are misunderstood. It’s a damaging and wholly inaccurate view of a good 20% of our population (yes, 20% of folks are neurodivergent and that number is climbing).

Let’s take the very humbling example of my “filing system”. To be clear, there is very little “system” and very little “filing”. Jenn is an Olympic level file organizer. I yearn for her filing skills. If she posted videos of her filing methods on IG I would watch with rapture. I ache to file like her. I actually love organization. It’s really really useful and calming for my brain. But my brain has too many ideas and no time to file them before another competing idea or demand overpowers them.

I call myself a survival file-ist. I jot the idea down as a reminder so I can revise it later. If a napkin is closest, that’s where it goes. If it’s a text message that’s open, that’s where it goes. I have full essays and ready-made businesses in the notes app of my phone (if anyone needs a great business idea, let me know. I am swimming in them). It’s not that I don’t like, or “suck” at filing. It’s that there are more steps involved for me than for her. That’s how my ADHD brain operates.

Our google drive is a theme park of files and documents. Her files are the carefully laid out box office and gift shop. You know where things are, and you know how to get them. My files are the fun house. You literally never know what you’re gonna get, or from where. Honestly, part of my neurodivergent burnout comes from having to re-write things so many times because I labelled the folder something that isn’t logical to her (or she labelled something illogical to me!) and it’s gone to Davy Jones’ locker forever. While this re-writing makes me really well-versed in my subject matter (repetition is the key to learning, after all), it’s not a sustainable or confidence-building practice for either of us.

Now before you panic and think “oh noooo my admin assistant just told me they were recently diagnosed with ADHD”, remember that when we know what our strengths and struggles are, we can work with them often developing incredible systems that would make any organizational-nerd (like me) proud. Trust me, just as you don’t want a therapist who has never had a bad day, and you don’t want an employee who has never had to figure something out before. Many neurodivergent folk recognize every single step of a particular procedure or protocol, which means they can also recognize the roadblocks that others may miss. This means they can address hurdles and eliminate hassle before it arises! That is a skill you want to keep around.

The message here is when we focus on the communication and co-creation of policies, practices, and procedures (instead of one neurotype creating a system exclusively based on their logic and preferences) we don’t inadvertently end up shaming or blaming any one person (or neurotype). It’s not about the person or their capacities, it’s about knowing how to create stronger foundations so that each employee can show up at their best. It’s about starting from a strengths-based perspective whereby we recognize what structures need to be built in place so that each person’s strengths don’t get overshadowed by expectations, assumptions, or “logic” that isn’t shared across the company or team.

My partner and I now know we need to create a better google drive system. One where the labels make logical sense to both of us, and one where it is accessible so I have a “parking lot” where ideas can go in one container that won’t get lost. And we can work together to file and prioritize those ideas. It’s a small thing that might take a day of our time. But it will save countless hours (and reduce conflict or even resentment) in the long run.

Part 2: Don’t change the person, change the system: How branding myself as a “survival file-est” actually gave us a huge aha! moment. Read here.