Improve Your Workplace Social Skills

Christian’s ADHD got in his way in the workplace—and he lost his job because of it.

“I had a tough time grappling with the sorts of executive functioning that our world operates by, like being able to set up meetings, follow through with things, focus and be detail oriented,” he says. The loss wasn’t a surprise: his boss had been telling him for months that he was underperforming and not completing assigned projects. Losing his job still stung, Christian says.

“There’s a whole element of shame and guilt,” he says. “[Your behaviors] start to close doors of opportunity, and then those doors are shut… When I just forget or stall something until the last minute, I start to go down the spiral. ‘Why couldn’t I do this? Why aren’t I good enough? Why can’t I do what this person could do?’”

ADHD, the workplace, and what is expected

Adult ADHD often carries with it challenges in social situations, including one’s workplace, along with executive function deficits in areas of scheduling, time management, and working memory. Often someone with ADHD is trying to follow or keep up with others’ social cues, looking for the right time to add their thoughts to the conversation. They may have difficulty picking up on what a colleague considers to be their personal space, and knowing how and when to appropriately show their emotions or to moderate impulsivity.

“In some ways, the average work environment can provide structure to neurodivergent individuals,” writes Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPCC.“While people with ADHD may rebel against routine, sometimes having a consistent schedule can help them stay on top of daily tasks. On the other hand, that same structure can be a nightmare for ADHD minds. People with ADHD tend to crave novelty, and doing the same thing each day makes it much harder to stay engaged in their work.”

Young adults with ADHD often miss out on learning social skills that are needed in the workplace. Talking too much, having trouble following along when someone else is talking, being unable to remember the details from what was just said, can make someone appear to be bad at conversation or that they are disinterested in what other people have to say. Impulsivity and demonstrative emotional overwhelm—whether it’s excitement, anger, or disappointment—can give the impression that they tend to “fly off the handle” rather than being able to think through a situation for a good solution.

“While none of these things are done intentionally, they give the appearance of a bad conversation partner, or partner in general, which doesn’t often appeal to someone who doesn’t understand ADHD’s nuances,” Boring-Bray writes.

For Christian, struggling with the behaviors related to his symptoms lead to his dismissal because he wasn’t seen as contributing to his workplace.

“Ultimately, we live in a world where we’re judged by the things that most neurotypical people have an easy time doing, but neurodivergent [people] have a much more challenging time doing,” he says. “And that’s going to be the case whether I’m in manufacturing, or coding or selling. It doesn’t matter.”

Social skill deficits and a lack of workplace accommodations

“There are several reasons why ADHD can impact social skills,” explains Kimberly Hurley, MOT, OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist from Scotch Plains, New Jersey.

Children who have ADHD tend to lack awareness about how well they practice social skills among their peer groups, and many children and teens with ADHD also have a significant difficulty in recognizing and processing another’s facial and vocal cues.

As they grow into young adulthood, and later as adults, these social skill deficits can remain or interfere in some way when they practice needed workplace social skills.

“This can lead to misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and difficulties in responding appropriately in social situations,” Hurley says.

“I was crying every single day,” says Kim. “I was actually very good at the work, and I liked the work. It was because I was constantly trying to conform.”

Recognizing her limits, Kim asked for accommodations in her workplace, including accommodations that would have had minimal cost and impact on the office. Her boss, not aware of her ADHD, did not assist her, and when Kim attempted to create and manage her own accommodations her colleagues were resistant and said she was “making excuses.”

“People think accommodations need to cost a lot of money,” Kim says. “A lot don’t cost anything at all. You’re not giving someone an unfair advantage. You’re just giving people choices. And giving people choices means better outcomes.”

Improving social skills for the workplace

It is possible to improve your social skills for the workplace. The first step, as always, is to make sure you have an ADHD treatment plan that is working for you. By improving the management of your ADHD symptoms you are better capable of adopting and practicing new social skills.

The career website Glassdoor counsels employees and job-seekers to improve their social skills by asking for feedback from a trusted colleague or friend. Be aware that sometimes what we hear about ourselves can hurt, but accepting constructive criticism can form a base for a plan of action.

While we often want to change everything, all at once, it is more productive to pick one social skill that is important to either you or the workplace you are in. Focus on that one skill first. Practice that one skill for a few weeks, or a couple of months if necessary, before adding a second new skill. Talking with that friend or colleague and asking for feedback can help you refine your new social skill or let you know when you are ready to add a second or third skill to practice.

When you select and define your skills to improve, set realistic goals. Creating SMART goals for yourself—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound—can help identify the social skills needed and you can learn as you begin. Having a SMART goal also removes some of the pressure to “do everything now” by having you create your plan and determine how long you plan to take to master the new skill.

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Join the discussion: How have you improved your social skills?