It is an interesting observation in the world of ADHD. ADHDers, who are often changing jobs, task, and projects, seem to thrive on experiencing something new. YET, when someone at work implements a new policy or direction the same person who gets an adrenaline rush from changing, is suddenly furious and comes across as resistant. There are emotional outburst and words of discontentment. The new direction is called “stupid”, “dumb” and the person with ADHD touts that no one knows what they are doing in leadership.

The consequences can range from being perceived as a “non-team-player”, poor performance reviews or even termination. The one with ADHD, if they don’t understand who they are, might have a tendency to quit which often evolves into being looked at on a resume as a “job hopper,” which can also hinder a person’s career growth.

Why is this? What is it about change that frustrates the ADHD mind? How can someone who seems to thrive on change be so resistant at the same time?


My clients tend to be professionals who are energetic and successful individuals. They are incredibly smart with creative minds.  However, despite their success these people’s journey did not look to be so promising early in their lives.

Consider the traditional classroom 20 to 30 years ago. There was very little, if any discussion or awareness of ADHD. Children were expected to sit like statues for 8 hours a day staying focused, quiet and taking an arm load of books home at night.

Once home children were expected to sit for yet several more hours of study and focus completing homework of which was to be turned in the next morning. If the work were not completed to the satisfaction of the teacher consequences would be imposed (not much has changed about this even today).

Imagine the creative young man with ADHD whose mind was spinning 90 mph: a spec of dust falling could capture his attention. Throw in the distractions of cars or children playing outside the window. Perhaps he was in the back of the classroom seeing every student’s movement. He couldn’t hear a word of the teacher for all the activities distracting his active brain. A dropped piece of paper, a bug crawling on the floor or even his mind drifting off thinking about where he would ride his bike at the end of the school day is consuming his mind uncontrollably like someone switching channels on the television. He tries to focus; he tries to listen, but without realizing it he is off in some distant land of thoughts, and dreams. He knows he needs to pay attention, but his brain won’t let him.

 Then it happens. The teacher is frustrated with seeing him fidgeting and squirming. She notices him looking out the window or giggling about another kid who dropped a pencil. She decides to call him out and just as she planned, he can’t answer the question. He turns red as the class focus now has him and his shortcomings center stage for their entertainment.

While the teacher smirks inside, she takes the opportunity to chastise him in front of the class as the students begin to laugh. They call him stupid and dumb. The teacher adds to her intended humiliation by saying, “If you would apply yourself you might be somebody one day” and sends him out in the hall for the remainder of class.  As he stands in the hall he can still hear the giggles and words of the students.

He sits in the hall as teachers and students walk by shaking their heads at the troublemaker. He dreads the end of class because he knows the students will walk by in a pass and review, one at a time, as they depart making comments. And then the teacher will call him in to lecture on a familiar topic of how he should be focused, care about his future and apply himself.

Imagine living this kind of humiliation for 12 years! First through Twelfth grade people laughing, poking fun, being punished and receiving words that teardown ones self-esteem. Think about a young child who inside wants to do what is right, who wants to achieve greatness, but can’t control his or her brain. No matter what they do they can’t stay focused and are forgetful.

Over time the words they heard from teachers, parents and peers, they now say to themselves. They accept that what everyone said is true. He will be a failure, he must not care about where life will take him and should just hope for status quo.

 It takes a toll on a child and is carried over into his or her adult life without choice. It is now in the DNA of his or her beliefs about themselves.


This young man is no longer a child but now a grown man. He has learned to overcome his swirling thoughts and use it to his favor. He is energetic and passionate about what he does leveraging the ability to multitask and be creative. But there is a problem. Those twelve years of words still linger in his mind.

He has long since left the accusations of being dumb and not wanting to be anything in life, but that doesn’t keep it from haunting him. The fear of hearing those words again still seem to be just around the corner. If someone is not pleased with his work or if a deadline is missed the laughter will be heard again; the teacher will ridicule. He does everything he can to stay ahead of the curve. He studies consuming himself in his work so there is not a stone unturned, wanting to know every minute detail of his job so no one will ever call him out in embarrassment again.


 Then it happens AGAIN. One day at the office leadership decides it is time to go a new direction. They change policies, processes and leaders. The job he knows inside and out is now going to different. The unknown that he feared has popped out like a ghost in a horror movie. The evil teacher and the demons of laughter echo in his mind.

The fear of being seen as dumb, as not caring and not going to ‘amount to anything’ has come back. Even though it has been 30 years, he has the same gut wrenching feeling inside. In his mind he is sitting in that little school desk, even smells come back; the pencil shavings from the sharpener, the cafeteria lunch and the aroma of children at play transports him back in time.

In his mind everyone is turned around looking and laughing. Instead of the teacher it is now the boss; he is just waiting on the punishment for having a mind that runs 24/7 without him having a choice.  This time instead of being sent to the hall to humiliate him into obedience, the consequence is losing his job. He hears the laughter coming from the cubicles and offices; voices snickering saying he is a failure is heard in his mind. All of his successes are no longer important as the world has fallen apart.


This change is fleshed out in various ways in people. For some it leads to depression sending them spiraling downward into a reclusive state to where they don’t want to be around anyone; they want to hide to avoid the perceived humiliation that is ahead.

For others the response is anger. Their blood pressure immediately goes out of the roof; they clinch their fist and make growling sounds as the brain tosses all of the emotions and anticipation of life falling apart around in their head. They feel out of control; the worst thing that can happen to a person who has learned to control what others once said they could not.


Why is change so hard for those who struggle with ADHD? While there are medical reasons, from a coaching perspective one of the most common I have seen is much like the scenario above.

Professionals have adapted to how their mind operates. They have overcome and left the criticisms of being a failure behind. It has been a long, hard and often lonely road. To start over and learn something new is overwhelming and emotional. It’s not that they are bucking the system, being belligerent, or are not “team players.” They switch into self-protection mode; the walls that come up are not resistance to change, but instead emotional defenses being thrown up. They are protecting themselves from years of fear that the past would come back and the predictions of their teachers of being a failure coming true. They don’t want to hear the laughter of the children calling them dumb again. Anxiety sets in; they are paralyzed not knowing what to do or which way to turn.


If you are the one struggling with ADHD encountering change:

  • Plan for Change
    • You can plan for the unplanned by tricking your mind into accepting that things “may” change by simply telling yourself that unknown changes are ahead.
    • Planning and preparing is the ADHD mind’s best friend; leveraging this concept helps you to accept changes when they occur. Your mind says, “I knew that policies and processes might be changing so I am ready for this.”
  • Breathe
    • When unexpected change occurs I recommend to take the S-T-O-P approach
  • Stop. Don’t respond or speak. Anything you say at this point will probably be regretted and only fuel your frustration. Step away from the situation.
  • Think. Ask yourself, “What is upsetting me about this change?” List these out on paper.
  • Observe. Look at the situation from a high-level view; from other people’s perspectives. Trying taking the emotion out of the equation. Compare this view with your list of what is making you upset then evaluate the situation with the facts. Ask yourself, “Is this worth being upset over?” and “Is there merit to these changes?”
  • Proceed. It is now time to proceed forward. Whether you concluded the change is good or needs more discussion, now you have calmed down, your response won’t be emotional, but instead well thought out. It will help you communicate better keeping your temperament under control and helping accept change more openly.

If you are implementing change in the presence of someone with ADHD:

  • Whether you are a leader, spouse or parent of someone with ADHD, his or her success is as much in your hands as it is theirs.
  • Approach Slowly
    • Let the person know ahead of time that some changes are on the horizon. This allows their brain begin to prepare and accept (plan) for change.
  • Be Clear
    • Take time to explain the changes and benefits. This helps with taking confusion and unknowns out of the equation that frustrate the ADHD brain.
  • Reinforce
    • Let the ADHD person know that everyone is going to be experiencing the learning curve. Everyone will be learning and experiencing the new direction together.
    • Acknowledge his or her success and value to the team as well as your confidence in them remaining the high performer they are. Encourage them with your confidence and express the need for them to help others on the team to get through the changes coming.


People resist change mostly because of the fear of the unknown; this is multiplied for the ADHD person. With teamwork and understanding ADHD, change can be a refreshing time for everyone involved.

How do you approach change as a leader? As a person with ADHD?


Robert Simmons is the President and owner of Leading Life, Coaching and Leadership Services. Leading Life provides personal/group coaching, consulting as well as leadership workshops that engage employees to take action both in the workplace and in their personal lives.

To find out more contact Robert at


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