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Unlikable people

Posted by Robin Abrahams  January 14, 2009 06:44 AM

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This may be the most interesting letter I have ever received:

I am 53, and was diagnosed with ADHD 10 years ago. I also suffer from chronic depression, and severe anxiety. I am socially inept, prone to interrupting people and talking too much about my ideas. In general, my managers have disliked me, but I have been tolerated because I work very hard and mostly do a good job. I haven't had a raise at work for 7 years, which I attribute to being a challenge to work with, so I don't complain.

Five months ago, I was assigned to a new manager, who really dislikes me. He went around and found 4 other people who agreed with him, then brought me to a meeting with his manager and told him I am aggressive, argumentative and hostile. I was horrified - I never thought I was that bad. I know I get irritable under stress, and I interrupt too much. I try really hard to control both, but don't manage too well. Luckily, his manager disagreed with him, and said to me that it is not my fault if people don't like me, they still have to work with me. Since then, my manager has ignored me, and given me a poor performance review. I have never had a poor performance review before. I know he has not given up on getting rid of me. Even if I could find another job, things may not be any different. They probably wouldn't like me either.

So my question is this. What do people do if they are unlikable, if even 10 years of therapy and medication don't help? Do unlikable people have any right to expect to be allowed to just do their job as well as they can, and keep out of social situations as best they can, and be at least tolerated by their team? And if not, how do they live?

First of all, and this is probably what I'd focus on if I were using this in the column, the situation described above is one that could happen to anyone, unlikable or not. Plenty of people have had a colleague or boss just who has it in for them for reasons irrelevant to job performance. For anyone in that situation, my advice would be to document, document, document; make sure your work is stellar (unless the LW is being modest, "mostly" doing a good job is not enough, especially in this economy); and get supporters on your side without creating a "with us or against us" environment and fomenting civil war. That's the quick & dirty & pragmatic take on it. But what about the philosophical take?

I think what fascinates me about this letter is how I keep flipping back and forth on how I see it. Regardless of the letter writer's (LW in advice-speak) likability, they are a good writer and a clear thinker. It's like a literary equivalent of a vases/faces illusion. Depending on how I look at it, I can either see an afflicted person making a legitimate plea for tolerance and understanding, or I can see someone who claims to have a disease that makes it impossble for them to treat other people with respect. The LW is willing to use the phrasing, "I am unlikable," but not "I treat people badly."

What do you see?

This letter reminded me of a comment that came in when I wrote a post on advice for new professors last August, in which I explained some of my own classroom rules about appropriate classroom demeanor, time management, e-mail and office-hour etiquette, and the like. The commenter wrote:

Basically, as I read each point they all make sense on the surface, and I totally understand them from the professor's point of view. I especially like the idea of realizing that something is affecting your impression of students anyway, so you might as well make it explicit (this pleases my not-very-good-at-reading-people/between-the-lines brain very much).

Yet each one set off alarm bells all over the place about how they would impact a student with learning disabilities and/or mental illness such as depression. While I would hope that every professor would try to be aware of these issues and be willing to cooperate with academic accommodations requested through appropriate official channels, the sad and frustrating truth is that this is not always the case. So I just feel the need to say: please try to remember that sometimes there is more going on than you might realize.

More accommodation is made in the classroom than in the workplace, and if a student did go through the proper channels, I'd be willing to accommodate them. But that wouldn't change my own need for respect, for organization, for efficiency. I'd have curtailed those needs, because I was a teacher and teachers owe more to their students than managers owe to their underlings. Clearly, the LW's current manager doesn't feel as though he should have to curtail his needs in order to manage the LW. Lisa Belkin wrote a thought-provoking article about ADHD in the workplace the New York Times magazine in 2004. She interviewed many people with AD(H)D for her article, and noted:

They arrived late. They fidgeted while we talked. They started to ask questions but forgot where they were headed. They kept saying, ''One more thing,'' until I learned to be blunt to the point of rude in my goodbyes. One woman sent me long, bursting e-mail messages, sometimes several of them a day, one of which literally ended, ''running off to my next projecttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt zoommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!'' One man called me on my cellphone at 8 on a Saturday night because he thought of a question he had to ask. He would not be deterred, even when I told him I couldn't really talk because I was visiting my father in the hospital.

This is objectively rude behavior--that's a point you can't argue. Does it matter that a person with attention deficit disorder can't help it? Neurotypical people can't help wanting to be treated with courtesy, either. Does that matter?

Let's talk.

NOTE: Please be patient with moderation; I'll be unable to get to my computer for a couple of chunks of the day, but I will get your comments up there as soon as I can.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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44 comments so far...
  1. I am the wife of a man with ADHD, the mother-in-law of another, and the mother of two boys with it. Even though they may not automatically get the nuances of social niceties, they have learned how to use them to make their lives--and the lives of neurotypical people--easier. It sounds to me as if LW really would like to be able to "play the monkey games with the other monkeys," as my husband puts it. He can learn to do so; he comes across as quite intelligent. An ADHD coach--not a therapist--would be quite helpful. Coaches can role-play with ADHDers and teach them scripts to use in problematic situations. Coaches can practice the "monkey games" with ADHDers.

    Posted by Katharine January 14, 09 08:52 AM
  1. If professional communication is part of the job description, then, yes: LW's manager has a justifiable expectation of professional communication. If it is not, then LW's manager has a much weaker case. I have worked with horrible communicators who's professionalism and knowledge have made them valuable contributors -- I think this largely depends on the culture of the company and how strongly the concept is meritocracy is embedded. It could be that LW's corporate culture is changing, but I think it's more likely that LW's manager is a weaker / perhaps younger manager.

    That LW's manager "rallied support" before taking LW into the next managerial level strikes me as a COMPLETE bush-league managerial move and as totally unprofessional. LW has an expectation of support from his manager, and LW's manager did not come through. As much as LW's manager doesn't appreciate LW's behavior, LW is completely justified at his manager's lack of support, unprofessional behavior [by recruiting LW's co-workers!?], and LW's manager's unprofessional communication [LW's manager should have been addressed this personally prior to dragging LW to a meeting with a Director or VP].

    Fully understand that LW will have difficulty addressing this with LW's manager (given a self-admitted communication problem), but I'd encourage LW to either address with someone in the HR Dept. who is either trusted or who has a good reputation among co-workers. Barring that, the Dir/VP who stood up for LW (just ask for a 15-20 min meeting to discuss the previous conversation with LW's manager).

    Posted by Rich January 14, 09 09:25 AM
  1. Man, my heart really goes out to LW, and i appreciate his/her writing that letter. What a way to have to see yourself in the world, as "unlikeable". A relative of mine is a terrific, patient, good-hearted person with the social skills of a brick wall from the 1800s. It's frustrating to deal with and leads to embarassing situations, but to me that fact that this person truly means well makes a big difference. But I know this person really well and it's family, not employee/employer.

    If you feel you are really clear that the manager is reviewing you unfairly (take MC's most excellent advice about documenting!), you should be able to take a truly unfair review up directly with HR. But then you have to be scrupulously honest with yourself and the situation. If you are doing something disruptive to the rest of the employees, and there's some creative way to change that, then change it, and don't just go for the "I can't" card. Learning how to manage yourself under stress is just a good life-skill for everyone...whether that means taking meditation classes or learning when to say "I need to be left alone til I am better able to deal with this." Agreed with Katherine that you sound intelligent and very capable of learning, and you've got self-awareness skills...use that to find a creative solution to this.

    To a big extent, one's personality doesn't change, and all of us have traits that are challenging for others to work with. I know there are things about me (willful independence and fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants creativity) that drive employers nuts. And it's not going to change...but I can find ways to make my choices less difficult to deal with for others.

    Posted by verena January 14, 09 09:29 AM
  1. Thanks for the thought provoking column! Just think what a more peaceful world we'd have if everyone exercised the kind of EMPATHY you're exhibiting here. You're not explicitly condoning the outward behavior, but you're doing your best to understand the developmental, social, and neurochemical factors that influence a person's behavior.

    Posted by WaterWings January 14, 09 09:34 AM
  1. I feel bad for LW, but don't understand how he can be so unlikeable, even though he admits to interrupting and talking too much. My husband does that too, and in his office (where he just received a stellar review and is well liked) they deal with it by telling him to shush - and he does.

    It sounds to me like LW's manager is probably in the wrong job and shouldn't be managing people if he can't deal with various personality types, kind of like a left-brain conflicting with a right-brain. Unfortunately, those personality conflicts happen a lot, and it's usually the staff person that suffers. I would advise documenting things also, especially if there's even a hint of harassment involved. Additionally, LW may want to talk to the HR department and see if they have any counseling options that could help LW and the manager get along better.

    Posted by Melanie January 14, 09 09:36 AM
  1. I've found that interrupting is something some folks can tolerate once they understand the compulsion from which ti stems, in this case ADHD, but for others it's a deal-breaker. My husband has ADHD and often interrupts. He has a big circle of friends and most people find him very likable, however, when someone does find him unlikable and I ask why, they list two things "moody, interrupts".
    When I explain that he has ADHD and while he does his best to control most of the symptoms with meds and therapy, it usually has little effect. Interrupting is a pet peeve. if someone has this pet peeve, they will be unable to abide interruption, whatever the cause.

    Posted by Noel January 14, 09 09:55 AM
  1. The question "Does it matter that a person with attention deficient disorder can't help it?" is a no-brainer. Of course it matters. I mean, would you ever say, "Ugh, my coworker in the wheel chair is late to work sometimes because The Ride is unreliable. It's so rude of him!" Or, "My schizophrenic uncle talked to himself during all of Thanksgiving dinner -- I know he's psychotic but there's no excuse!"

    It is never rude to be compassionate. If you know someone with ADHD or some other disorder (known or unknown) that impacts their timeliness or ability to sit still during a conversation, take it as an opportunity to look at what really matters -- their ideas, their work product, their passions in life. Because, ultimately, those are the important things in society.

    Sure, efficiency is nice and all, but an efficient society is empty without the dreamers, the ones who see the big picture, the ones who are not only crazy enough to imagine a better world, but who are also crazy enough to work for it. That is the bright side of ADHD.

    Posted by Turtle82 January 14, 09 10:18 AM
  1. LW may have Asperger's syndrome. (See: "I am socially inept, prone to interrupting people and talking too much about my ideas.") Even if this person doesn't meet as AS diagnosis, I suggest social skills training classes/coaching (or, as Katherine said, ADHD training coach, not therapist)

    Posted by Traveling Psychologist January 14, 09 10:18 AM
  1. I have worked with people with both ADHD and Aspersers Syndrome. I have found direct communication that a "normal" person would find offensive is the best way to deal with them. I do not mean being hostile but actually formally ending conversations with "John, I am finished talking to you now." You then turn you back on them and walk away. Sounds horrible, but it beats exploding at them.

    I also have placed physical lines in my cube (using tape) that they are forbidden to cross unless invited. If I didn’t do this they would walk up behind me and start reading my e-mails aloud. “Personal space” conversations don’t seem to work.

    Posted by MiloT January 14, 09 10:25 AM
  1. My partner was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult (finally!) and readily admits that growing up, she missed most of the experiences that give people the social skills most of us take for granted and that we depend on without even realizing it. Having a front-row seat in her life journey to catch up, as it were, and approach the world differently, I can say that it isn't easy but that it can be done.

    First and foremost, if 10 years of therapy and medication haven't helped, it's time to change therapists and doctors. There are different kinds of ADHD; adults experience it differently than children and women differently than men. The Letter Writer must find a therapist and a doctor with deep experience treating ADHD generally, as well as treating adults like the Letter Writer. Luckily, here in Massachusetts we have an embarassment of riches, from the Halloway Center to Leslie University, to help anyone who has (or thinks they have) ADHD. Your depression is absolutely normal and it, as well as any other physical problems you have, should be treated in addition to your ADHD.

    Second, practice, practice, practice! It's exhausting, but I promise your people skills will improve the more you consciously use them. Don't let your job be your only social group -- get out there and volunteer, which will give you new opportunities to interact with people and help you strengthen your skills.

    Third, get moving! ADHD people are happiest when they have plenty of physical activity. My partner gets cranky and depressed when she has been too busy to get to the gym and an hour on the machines makes her a new person. No matter how tired you are, take a brisk walk every day, get yourself to the gym a few times a week (some are not that expensive and many health insurance plans have subsidies), sign up for yoga or spinning, and you'll find reservoirs of patience and good will at your disposal.

    Fourth, consider yourself a work in progress and a long-term project that needs nurturing, just as important as anything you do at work. You have learned and continue to learn the substantive knowledge and skills necessary to perform your job, you can learn what it is you're doing that most bothers your co-workers and replace that behavior with the well-known tricks of the trade of "making friends and influencing people." It's not rocket science. If your therapist can't help you with this, look for a coach who can teach you small talk and the basic rules of casual interaction. And look for ways to balance out your challenges at work. For example, if you have the hardest time being polite in face-to-face interactions, make sure your email etiquette is outstanding and acknowledges that you might have been brusque in person. If emails are the problem, get into the habit of throwing away your first and second drafts and only sending the third. The strategies we all use to cope are endless, and acknowledging your shortcomings to colleagues ("oh, there I go again, interrupting -- I'm sorry!") can go a long way to improving things at work.

    Finally, congratulations on all the work you have done and your commitment to doing even more. Few people understand what you have experienced in your life, but you are not alone. There are lots and lots of ADHD resources available on the internet, too, as I'm sure you know. If you don't have support elsewhere in your life, perhaps some of the website and blogs can also help. Thank you, Miss Conduct, for publishing your letter. I hope these suggestions help.

    All the best to you in the new year!

    Posted by JP Gal January 14, 09 10:36 AM
  1. There is no such thing as normal.

    Posted by Johnjimba January 14, 09 10:42 AM
  1. Schools change the ADHD student's environment; ie, they move the student closer to the teacher's desk, give rewards, set structure. Unfortunately, employers are not compelled to do this -- to give their employee a treat when he performs well or to move him closer to the boss' desk for proximity control. Change has to occur in the classroom first so students can learn to accomplish in the workplace. We got an IEP (individualized education plan) that used Play Attention as a cognitive/behavioral intervention. We see good things happening and hope it will make a difference long-term.

    Posted by john glennon January 14, 09 10:51 AM
  1. I don't see the reason for the advice to "document, document, document..." unless you know there is grounds for a legal complaint against the company for discrimination on the basis of disability. Is ADHD recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act? HR departments are, in real life, prone to ignore workers complaints, even if they are legitimate. If you have a company with a culture that allows managers and workers to choose co-workers on the basis of fitting in to a social life rather than on the basis of quality of work produced, documenting won't do anything to help you. Sometimes work is a bad extension of high school. This person is really fortunate that upper management supports him.

    I thought MiloT's answer was interesting. Many highly technical and productive people seem to have Aperger's or ADHD. Eliminating them from the work environment is not only uncivilized, it is not useful if you want to get the work done.

    Posted by Ames123 January 14, 09 11:17 AM
  1. I also think Asperger's. Try for information and support.

    Posted by DonnaD January 14, 09 11:29 AM
  1. I found this to be quite thought provoking and I am ambivalent, vacillating between empathy and compassion for the LW, but also recognizing the horrible effects a person like this can have in the workplace. While I certainly encourage compassion for LW, we must also be compassionate towards those LW serves and/or works with. I think many of us would be less compassionate if LW were our insurance agent, broker, assistant, etc.

    I think the first thing LW has to do is to take counsel with himself - he certainly seems to have a good level of self-awareness - and make sure that he is in a line of work appropriate to his skills. While I agree with other posters that they may well be ways to improve his skills, some jobs require a level of people skills he may never have, others do not. Are you in a position that limits the situations in which your disability limits you? Can your job be adjusted to maximize what you do well and limit what is a problem? Can your HR department help? Do you know what coverage you may have under ADA? I don't mean to get legalistic, but I am concerned that if LW loses this job, he will have a hell of a time getting a new one and may need the protection that ADA provides.

    Posted by Nancy G January 14, 09 12:43 PM
  1. Document.

    And keep accurate

    Posted by Former Special Ed Educator January 14, 09 12:48 PM
  1. LW's letter is insightful and heartbreaking. My oldest son and husband both have ADHD and rely heavily on personal charm to smooth over the somewhat annoying and inconvenient personality traits and habits that come with this disorder - I can't imagine how hard it must be to go through life not armed with this charm. The good news is that "charm" can be learned at any age, so I would recommend a good ADHD coach to the LW. My father in law, one of the lovliest people I know, was such a pain to work with that his company sent him to charm school for two weeks (he was highly skilled and worth keeping but no one would work with him because he was abrasive and dismissive) and he benefitted tremendously from it.

    With my son, teaching social skills is literally by practice and reminders - his after school routine has "ask mom how her day is" and "ask mom if she needs help with chores" as daily tasks. Even though I know that he is doing these things because they're on a to-do list, I am nonetheless delighted when we get to talk about our day or he offers to help me with dinner prep, etc. and my goal is to ingrain this into his routine so that some day it will occur to him to do this naturally with other people.

    With my husband, I learned that I have to tell him things like "it's important to me that you say hello when you come home and good-bye when you leave and engage in chit-chat at the dinner table." He doesn't skip these basic courtesies out of rudeness, he's just so distracted with remembering everything he needs to take to work with him or everything he needs to unpack at the end of the day that these basic manners are not on his radar.

    A good ADHD coach would help script basic conversations and teach them to their client and help the client to build those into their day. For example, the LW may benefit from adding courtesy reminders to his calendar (at his 10:15 coffee break time have a reminder to ask if anyone else needs a cup of coffee...on Monday morning choose one person to say "hey how was your weekend?" and say excuse me before asking the admin assistant for help with something...basic phone and e-mail skills...meeting skills, etc.).

    I think that the manager is juvenile and totally in the wrong here. Because I live with this day in and day out I have, perhaps, more empathy than most others but I think that this is an area where managers can and should be trained to have empathy and try to work with an employee who is saddled with a disability or mood disorder. One of my co-workers has ADHD and his personality was more than a little off-putting at first but at the end of the day, the guy is brilliant and works his tail off and is one of the most valuable people on my team, so we overlook the quirks and truly like him as he is.

    Best of luck to the LW - I think an ADHD coach would help you get where you want to be!

    Posted by Jen January 14, 09 01:04 PM
  1. I'll try a realistic, non-therapy, non-scientific approach:

    LW needs to make a conscious effort to slow things down and internalize more. Don't be so quick to jump in with comments, criticisms, etc. Stop interrupting. Purposely slow yourself down. Keep a calm quiet and go about your business whenever possible. Play the corporate game. Sit down with the manager and explain yourself and explain what you will try to do to counteract some of your tendencies. Ask for patience during the process.

    You can say you have ADHD all you want, but in the workplace, if you are seen by others (manager, co-workers, clients, whoever) as "aggressive" and "hostile", then you are a liability. Period. I think your seven years without a raise as proof that this is about more than one manager. Those of you who fault the manager have a point , but in today's corporate culture, you need to get along and get your work done more than you need to babysit and coddle.

    Posted by Strict Parent January 14, 09 01:20 PM
  1. It does sound like something on the autism spectrum. I would also suggest some concerns for suicide risk. I got a sense of frustration, perhaps even desperation and would recomend that suicide risk be assessed.

    Posted by mpl January 14, 09 01:53 PM
  1. This is such an interesting conversation and I especially appreciate the comments by Jen and Nancy G.
    I'd like to throw in the possibility that LW feels persecuted or whatever by this manager because this is the first manager who feels strongly enough to make a case out of his "unlikeability" or however it is actually perceived. I've worked with colleagues who resemble LW and they had manager after manager who never wanted to do anything about it. When a manager finally came along who did, it upset the delicate balance everyone had created and threw everyone into a tailspin. I urge LW to work with HR to figure out what to do next or consider looking for a new job before he gets fired.

    Posted by jenny January 14, 09 01:59 PM
  1. It seems to me as if the writer has written himself off.

    LW, why would you stay somewhere if you haven't received a raise in 7 years? Perhaps it is not the right gig for you. Maybe depression or low self esteem is clouding your judgment. Can you not reasonably expect more from your job and peers than getting by and being tolerated? You will be treated as you see yourself, as you treat yourself. Imagine yourself in a better place, mentally and physically. Take steps to get there.

    Posted by catherine the great January 14, 09 02:17 PM
  1. DeBussy understood that an attempt to create a work of art or a thing of beauty, was always considered by some people to be a personal attack.

    Posted by John Hurt January 14, 09 02:21 PM
  1. As for the interrupting and talking too much, those are things you can work on. If you know you do them, you're already one step ahead. As a child I was a terrible interrupter and didn't even realize I was doing it. As I got older, I started to notice myself doing it, and made a conscious effort to wait until I knew the other person(s) were done talking before I spoke. Sometimes by the time they were done I'd forget what I was going to say (hence why I was interrupting in the first place), but that's better than being rude. I do sometimes jump in too fast, but when I do, I say "Oh sorry! Keep going." or something like that.

    Posted by E January 14, 09 02:23 PM
  1. This manager is playing a game with the review process, making it a tool to fire the LW in the future. Document everything you do. I had a Director like this manager once, and I've files from 2002 onward documenting every step I make and when the work gets done for my job. I email so they have to respond during sticky situations and then I have proof of where they stand in their own words. No lying later on with "I never said that" which is so childish and common.

    One day the Director pulled me into an office and tried to fire me for saying "yes" in a way that was undesirable somehow. I fought back. The Director has since been given a new title (and the job is clearly patchworked together from whatever they could find for this person) and has been moved to another office altogether. Visit HR and tell them what the manager is doing as well. If I didn't fight back by going to HR and discussing confrontations with them I'd still be mistreated daily. Allies within the office that are willing to visit HR when confronted with similiar behavior are also extremely helpful.

    As far as reviews go, if you are given a poor review and disagree, you really should document that with the review and support your statements with the proof you've been accumulating along the way. This shows them they can't just play games and get away with it.

    Posted by TheCure January 14, 09 02:25 PM
  1. I feel for this writer. People have called me a jerk for as long as I can remember. I want to have friends, and I do have some, but it only occurs after people really really get to know me. I never thought it might be ADHD though. I've had a number of employers try to get me to "come out of my shell" or "be a bigger team player" and frankly, I feel often very uncomfortable making the small talk this requires.

    Posted by Lucky Marbles January 14, 09 02:32 PM
  1. my ex-boss has been likewise rude since the get go . . . interruptions, talking over people, ignoring others, that same kind of behavior . . . I tolerated it , I reminded her gently, I tried to rise above it, I tried to accept her behavior but since her behavior did not change I said "screw it" and started tough "like": I now stop her EVERY TIME she interrupts me - I try to do so gently but sometimes I'm more abrupt - and that occurs multiple times every time we meet . . it aint pretty, but I feel better myself doing it than silently accdepting her habitual and unmitigated rudeness . . she's resentful of my reminding her, but the power to change or not is in her hands . . and I must say I feel better knowing that I will be able to complete my sentence or thought, even after interruptions

    BTW, I am certainly ADHD as are both my kids . . . the trick with ADHD is to be self aware enough to cope with your natural behaviors and find workarounds . . like keeping your mouth shut while others' mouths are open :-)

    Posted by kei-o-lei January 14, 09 02:40 PM
  1. I suggest LW contact the Disability Law Center,, to find answers to his questions regarding his legal rights in the workplace. It is not clear to me whether LW's manager is aware of LW's ADHD. Unfortunately, the manager might not be empathetic even if he did understand the challenges LW faces, so it would be wise for LW to understand his legal rights before he confides in his manager.

    I once worked in a cubicle setting with a woman with Tourette's Syndrome. My attitude was "There but for the grace of God go I," but our manager was very impatient with her. I later found out that the our manager suffered from depression herself , and my co-worker's Tourette's was very stressful for her. It would have been so beneficial for both the manager and the employee if HR could have intervened in some positive way.

    Posted by cube dweller January 14, 09 02:48 PM
  1. If it were me, I would talk to my manager and explain to them my situation. If the manager understands where the LW is coming from, they may have more sympathy and they may be able to work out an effective manager-employee relationship. But, the LW has to understand what is and what is not acceptable behavior. On the other hand, I had the ill-fortune to have one of the most unlikeable people on the face of the earth working for me. He was insensitive to anyone and everything except for their own wants and had a greatly exagerated opinion of their own ability. This person once told a fellow employee who was on the phone with her dying mother, "I'm sorry about your mother, but could you keep it down". When I eventually ran the person off, the CEO of the company thanked me. To me, it all depends on what the person wants out of their job and how much coaching they are willing to accept. If the LW isn't willing to accept coaching, then I wouldn;t keep them around. Life is too short to have to deal with a difficult employee on a daily basis.

    If a person has these disabilities and they do not interfere with them doing their job, then the Americans with Disabilities Act may provide them with some protection.

    Posted by Jeff S January 14, 09 02:57 PM
  1. I agree with the posters who have suggested ADHD coaching, getting a second opinion on medication, and also considering the possibility of Asperger Syndrome (and I second the recommendation of AANE as a resource). One other thought comes to mind - does LW's job allow for telecommuting? If so, and if LW is able to get work done from home (not all people with ADHD can), setting up an arrangement to telecommute even a couple of days per week might alleviate some of the tension.

    And to Strict Parent - people with ADHD can make conscious efforts to "slow things down and internalize more" all they want without being able to actually do it. People with ADHD have major problems with impulse control due to the problems in the part of the brain that controls it - basically, the part of the brain that self-censors steps into place after the act has already occurred, meaning that the person realizes they shouldn't do or say something just after they've done it. It's the same situation that someone with slow reaction time for physical movements finds themselves in trying to play tennis or bat a baseball - you know what to do, but you do it too late to have any effect. Medications for ADHD help activate the part of the brain that controls executive function, but they don't work for everyone.

    Posted by MGW January 14, 09 03:07 PM
  1. Strict Parent wrote:

    "Don't be so quick to jump in with comments, criticisms, etc. Stop interrupting."

    Easier said than done for someone with ADHD. Also, why are you so quick to boot-lick the corporate machine? Do you find no room for humanity in it, or in your own life? The LW is not looking for so-called "coddling." With his/her track record at work in spite of difficult circumstances, it sounds like s/he never had "coddling." Maybe some of that "coddling" is in order now.

    Posted by reindeergirl January 14, 09 03:12 PM
  1. Wow.......sounds just like Asperger's syndrome. I think he should pursue some social skills coaching and alternative therapies. The Asperger's Association of New England is a great resource.

    It is fairly well known that an individual can have a dual or multiple diagnosis of ADHD, OCD and Asperger's. Maybe he has something else on the autism spectrum. What a bummer he hasn't gotten a raise for 7 years. It's pretty well known that individuals with Asperger's also don't advocate for themselves. Hopefully he'll change therapists and research Asperger's syndrome.

    Posted by Debra January 14, 09 04:04 PM
  1. Look, this person's situation totally depends on what type of job they have. Direct communication with the outside world is a no-brainer no no; I'd say also group work, because the LW will drive the entire team crazy. The LW should find satisfying work which they accomplish more or less on their own. I say this as a manager who *tries very hard* to manage someone who is both underperforming and has some kind of mental health issues which prohibit her from examining her performance and taking advice. If this LW does a good job and can take guidance from his manager, I suggest s/he ask him what s/he could do to make the situation better.

    Posted by magpie02141 January 14, 09 04:41 PM
  1. LW, do you think there's a coworker who'd be willing to mentor you? Try to find someone who seems successful in areas where you'd like to do better, and who values your own contribution to the team. Ask that person if he or she would be willing to give you feedback, either on a regular basis or just as the the occasion arises, about times when you may have accidentally stepped on someone's toes without realizing it. It might help you learn to moderate or compensate for your behaviors. Likewise, it's good advice to document your work -- but with ADHD, that can be hard to do! A good mentor might be able to help you organize your documentation efforts.

    You might also consider asking for a one-on-one meeting with your boss's boss. Start by expressing your appreciation for the way she or he stood up for you. Then ask if he or she has any other suggestions, or can offer any other kinds of help for you to get along in the workplace. Listen as carefully as you can, and write down any points that you hear and send them back to her/him in an email (again, with your thanks for her/his time.) This person's advice could help you directly, and it could also help you indirectly in many ways, not least by showing that you're conscientious about trying to improve.

    Posted by BTDT January 14, 09 04:51 PM
  1. I think Miss Conduct makes an important point and distinction between "I am unlikeable" as opposed to "I treat people badly." The first sounds like an immutable circumstance, the second is a behavior that can be altered (recognizing how incredibly hard ADHD makes that). I think the manager in question is responding to the fact (and I think LW would concede that it is a fact), that LW treats people badly and that it is causing a serious problem in the workplace. That this is beyond LW's control is worth considering and trying to accommodate, and LW needs to work very hard, hopefully with HR and using the guidelines of ADA, to manage accommodating his disability. Since he has done acceptable work for at least seven years, some consistent attention may be able to improve the situation.

    Posted by relentlessreader January 14, 09 05:06 PM
  1. This reminds me of the controversy last year over sexual harassment at the San Diego Comics Convention. Some people commenting on it and related venuesclaimed that a lot of fans of comics, anime, science fiction, etc. don't have social skills therefore they shouldn't be criticized for groping, hovering over, etc. women trying to work there and everyone should just be more understanding instead of criticizing the harassment.

    There are some related links on the trend here:

    Likewise, MiloT's comment here:

    "...I also have placed physical lines in my cube (using tape) that they are forbidden to cross unless invited. If I didn’t do this they would walk up behind me and start reading my e-mails aloud. 'Personal space' conversations don’t seem to work."

    reminds me of two comments about the situation at Penguicon:

    "...who designed a situation in which women are actually being asked to wear a button that either (a) authorizes or (b) prohibits people from touching their breasts..."

    "...the idea of these buttons came about because this guy and his friends were lamenting that groping a woman's breasts wasn't a trivial. They can't talk to women, which actually is trivial, so they want the entirely of interpersonal interaction that extends beyond conversation collapsed down to the level of a polite greeting. That is insane..."

    MiloT, your tape reminds me of the "no" buttons.

    "Sure, efficiency is nice and all, but an efficient society is empty without the dreamers, the ones who see the big picture, the ones who are not only crazy enough to imagine a better world, but who are also crazy enough to work for it. That is the bright side of ADHD."

    Since when do dreaming and seeing the big picture require treating other people in an aggressive, argumentative, and hostile manner like the letter writer says he or she does? Can't someone be a dreamer with ADHD who sees the big picture *and* a compassionate person who listens to other people? Courtesy and kindness to other people shouldn't be dismissed as merely efficient and empty.

    Posted by Mark January 14, 09 05:29 PM
  1. AS (Autistic Spectrum) dynamics can also include (as mentioned in the comments) lack of advocacy for self as well as the kind of self-criticism that lends itself to others dogpiling, as it sounds like happened in this situation. Oftentimes, AS people in the workplace become targets. They're not prone to small talk (which often occurs as gossip/teaming up against others) and they're also less likely to have to make up social games because they have a very active and rich inner sensory life. One day perhaps we'll see hard physical proof that these "wiring" differences exist and that adept management teams and work groups figure out how to bring out the best in its participants and to harness what people have to offer. The idea that one person in the workgroup needs to be coached is actually kind of funny. Systems thought would recommend that everyone gets some coaching, starting with the manager who seems to be using the letter writer as an excuse. Just the staging of a team dogpiling itself screams volumes about the ineptness of this manager to cultivate and integrate diverse skill sets without getting brutish about it.

    My guess is that the letter writer is 10x more introspective than the manager.
    If a workgroup is going to target such issues as interruptions & "too many ideas" are the bigger problem, we're all in trouble.

    Posted by anon January 14, 09 06:22 PM
  1. There is an excellent ADHD coach who specializes in career and employment issues in the Boston area. She used to be at Brown University, I think, but she now has an independent practice. I can provide a name if MC or LW want to contact me.

    Posted by Linda Cades January 14, 09 06:46 PM
  1. I would like to thank everyone for their thoughtful consideration of my letter. There are many ideas here that I find encouraging. The one that really had me slapping my head ang saying "Duh!" was the advice to change my doctor and therapist. I will do that - it is certainly past time for a second opinion :).
    I will also investigate the cost of hiring an ADHD coach. Thank you all very much.

    Posted by LW January 14, 09 07:23 PM
  1. "AS (Autistic Spectrum) dynamics can also include (as mentioned in the comments) lack of advocacy for self as well as the kind of self-criticism that lends itself to others dogpiling"

    Good point!

    If you hear or see someone treating someone else badly and loudly advocating for himself or herself with stuff like "don't blame me, I have Asperger's/autism/etc., that's what makes me smart and creative, if it wasn't for Asperger's/autism/etc. you social sheep would still be living in caves!!!", then I'd bet that he or she *doesn't* actually have Asperger's or autism. Lately it's become trendy in certain areas of the internet for people to diagnose themselves with those conditions. Those jerks are giving the autistic spectrum, and the people who are actually on it, a bad name.

    "They're not prone to small talk (which often occurs as gossip/teaming up against others)"

    Not so often. For example, "hello" , "how are you?", "goodbye", "have a nice weekend", etc. are very common small talk but they certainly are not gossip or teaming up against others.

    "If a workgroup is going to target such issues as interruptions & 'too many ideas' are the bigger problem, we're all in trouble."

    What about anyone else in the workgroup, whether or not he or she also has Asperger's or autism, who also has dreams and big ideas to contribute but can't get a word in edgewise unless interruption is targeted?

    "I would like to thank everyone for their thoughtful consideration of my letter."

    You're welcome! :)

    "There are many ideas here that I find encouraging. The one that really had me slapping my head ang saying 'Duh!' was the advice to change my doctor and therapist. I will do that - it is certainly past time for a second opinion :).
    "I will also investigate the cost of hiring an ADHD coach. Thank you all very much."

    Best of luck! :)

    Posted by Mark January 14, 09 08:27 PM
  1. Lots of thoughtful comments on this thread. One of the best is the advice to "not write yourself off." I have adult ADHD. Some people don't like me sometime. I don't like me sometimes. But you have to think of it as an ongoing struggle. I don't always succeed in trying to control my behavior (interrupting, loud, etc) so I beat myself up. Convince myself I'm worthless. That's unproductive though, and makes the situation worse. So not only do we have to fight the impulse of ADHD behavior, we have to fight the instinct to punish ourselves..
    I often succeed in short circuiting some potential bad ADHD behavior, as I'm sure the letter writer does.
    When I do, I give myself a secret little pat on the back, and try to remember how I made that situation succeed, so I can repeat the formula if possible. You've got to treat yourself well sometimes. And I also remember I do have friends. Why would they stick around if they didn't like me? Again, I bet the same is true for the lettter writer who feels persecuted by the boss.
    Look, I'm not perfect, neither is the letter writer. But who is? We've all got to work on our shortcomings, whether they're our fault or not. You never know how far you'll get

    Posted by Matt January 14, 09 09:11 PM
  1. I think anon brings up a valid point. The ADHD and AS people I worked with were ridiculed to an unbelievable extent at work. Always behind their back, people loved to hear what “John” had done now. Grown adults would act like giggling 11 year olds.

    There are studies where ADHD children are targeted and attacked by the other children within 3 hours after their first interaction. The study postulates that since there is no outward symptom of disability the group consensus is the person is willfully acting that way and moves to punish him or her.

    Posted by MiloT January 14, 09 10:04 PM
  1. Reading LW's letter was, in some ways, reading about my own life. I was diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago. I can relate to LW's feeling of being "unlikable". After 20, 30, 40 years of having people criticize you for being who you biologically are, can wear you down. Growing up I was always being reprimanded because I wouldn't sit still or I would interrupt people or say inappropriate things.

    Somehow I learned to manage my ADHD without even knowing I had it. Mostly what I did was overcompensate. If asked to wash the dishes, I would was the dishes, mop the floor and clean the refrigerator so as not to get in trouble the next time I didn't clean my room. As a result, I managed to do pretty well. My grades in school were better than average and my work was always well regarded and praised.

    Then one day, I, too, got a new boss (queue ominous music). At first we got along very well. But after dealing with a few personal issues that made my life a lot more stressful, the coping skills I had mastered weren't working very well. The stress and emotional toll made it very difficult for me to focus and I slipped into my bad habits.

    Sure enough, my boss started reprimanding me a lot for being late or not turning in my projects on time, as well as, telling me that people found me "unreliable," "inconsistent," "unprofessional," etc. These words cut right through me. Suddenly I felt like that second grader, again, being told by the teacher to stop talking and to sit up straight.

    My boss scrutinized almost everything I did. If I said I would run the XYZ report by the end of the day, my boss would be in my office at 5:00 asking if I did it. Eventually this really wore on me and I became very depressed. The depression aggravated my ADHD and things continued to spiral out of control. Finally I sought the help of a therapist. Luckily I found a good one that finally figured out what was wrong. This led to my being diagnosed with ADHD.

    I immediately started taking a stimulant to help keep me focused. At first the drugs worked great, but after awhile my body adjusted and they became less effective. When I stopped taking them, things would get worse.

    Although the medication and my more conscious awareness helped me improve, by that point, the damage had been done. I finally had to 'come out' to my boss and colleagues.

    I started with my boss. I kept the focus on the feedback my boss had given me, and tried very hard not to make it personal. I said that I could see why people thought those things and that some were true. Then I explained that I wanted to be a productive member of the team, that I liked my job, and was still very much engaged but that I had ADHD and when combined with the stressors of my personal life, made it more challenging for me to focus. I also explained that I was not using my diagnosis as an excuse but as a piece of information for my manager and colleagues to know and use when working with me. As a result, my manager has become very good a keeping me on track. When I get sidetracked on a new idea and put aside work assigned to me my boss will simply say, "That sound like a very interesting idea. Let's talk about it after you run the ABC report." My boss does not deliver the message in a rude way, nor seems annoyed to have to do it. My production has improved so I think my boss sees it as a worthwhile effort. I also spoke to some of my colleagues about it. I didn't announce it to the world, instead I spoke to a few who I worked with pretty regularly and felt comfortable enough with. What they agreed to do was point out my faux-pas while I am doing them but in a very subtle way. For instance, when I start interrupting people one will say my name in a drawn out way so that it catches my attention but also does not make me think they wish to say something to me. Another will tap their fingers on the table when I start to go off tangent during a meeting. These subtle hints help me refocus.

    Have any of these ideas worked? Well, my boss and I have a better relationship. It isn't great, but better. I've gotten better at noticing the signs telling me to be quiet or stay focused. However, I still have those days where I am like a bull in a china shop.

    What is the morale of my long-winded story? First, as stated above, find resources that can help you better cope with your ADHD. I was referred to a team at MGH that is well known for working with adults with ADHD. After you find a therapist you feel better about, see what other resources he/she can recommend. Finally, don't try and solve this problem on your own.

    Being straightforward with my boss and colleagues was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I finally did it when I realized that I had two choices: 1) do nothing and risk termination; or, 2) come forward with my problem and ask for help, which could also lead to eventual termination but also had a good chance of succeeding. Thankfully I chose option #2.

    Posted by DP January 14, 09 11:03 PM
  1. This is a very interesting and moving thread. As a manager in a science environment for many years, I have seen many employees who have odd behavior of all types. I suspect many of them are ADHD and a variety of other syndromes. I am not an expert but I have found that as a manager I always follow 3 rules: 1) EMPATHY: show a good example and encourage other employees to be as tolerant as possible of people who are different. 2) Focus on how the behavior effects the job and organization.....not how annoying or likable the person is and 3) Provide direct and honest feedback (even if it is difficult or embarrassing) about what the problem behaviour is .......sometimes there is no self awareness and this is appreciated

    Posted by peopleperson January 15, 09 12:48 PM
  1. "There are studies where ADHD children are targeted and attacked by the other children within 3 hours after their first interaction. The study postulates that since there is no outward symptom of disability the group consensus is the person is willfully acting that way and moves to punish him or her."

    If there is no outward symptom of disability then how were the children in the group supposed to figure out whether the person has ADHD and isn't willfully acting that way or doesn't have ADHD and *is* willfully acting that way?

    If there is no outward symptom of disability then how were the children in the group supposed to figure out whether the person has ADHD and isn't willfully acting that way or doesn't have ADHD and *is* willfully acting that way?

    Meanwhile, Lisa Belkin said:

    "One man called me on my cellphone at 8 on a Saturday night because he thought of a question he had to ask. He would not be deterred, even when I told him I couldn't really talk because I was visiting my father in the hospital."

    Then Miss Conduct said:

    "This is objectively rude behavior--that's a point you can't argue. Does it matter that a person with attention deficit disorder can't help it? Neurotypical people can't help wanting to be treated with courtesy, either. Does that matter?"

    Then Turtle82 said:

    "The question 'Does it matter that a person with attention deficient disorder can't help it?' is a no-brainer. Of course it matters. I mean, would you ever say, 'Ugh, my coworker in the wheel chair is late to work sometimes because The Ride is unreliable. It's so rude of him!' Or, 'My schizophrenic uncle talked to himself during all of Thanksgiving dinner -- I know he's psychotic but there's no excuse!'

    "It is never rude to be compassionate..."

    Would you ever approve of saying "It's 8 on a Saturday night and I know the lady who interviewed me for an article is visiting her father in the hospital, but I still want her to answer my question instead of paying attention to her father!"?

    Posted by June September 2, 09 03:08 AM
About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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