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Setting Expectations as a Leader (With ADHD)

Key take-aways

  • As a leader you need to set and manage expectations with your team.
  • These expectations should include what they should expect from you. Don’t be afraid to include behavioral patterns tied to ADHD.
    • I have a lot of ideas ….
    • My anxiety builds up quickly when…
    • I have a hard time identifying the clear action items when…
    • I don’t like feeling like I don’t understand what is happening or where things are at…
  • The expectations should include what you expect from them. Be clear about which pieces are most important to you and about the role you’ll play as their [leader].
  • Don’t be afraid to reset expectations if things change.
  • Reference the expectations you have set as often as possible to make difficult conversations and decisions easier.

Transitioning from being an individual contributor (IC) to a leader of others is hard. You need to re-establish your concept of you you measure your success. You need to develop new interpersonal dynamics with your direct reports — especially if you have already been working with them. You need to prioritize a different set of responsibilities more focused on communication and less on doing.

The only (work) transition that is on the same level is becoming a leader of other leaders, and we’ll talk about that some other time.

There are many articles about people management, leadership, and everything that goes with it. There is not a lot of information about how that’s different for people who think differently.

One of the most critical things to operating in a leadership role is setting expectations for what you expect from your team and what they expect from you.

ADHD comes with a tendency towards impulsivity. Not knowing what’s going on or not understanding what decisions are being made can instantly spiral you into a state of hypervigilance and sensitivity that feels like micromanagement to your team.

Start by letting them know what your expectations are for them. What is important to you and why is it important? What tends to happen if those expectations aren’t met?

I have some fundamental things that I communicate regardless of the role/function/organization I’m in. I’m not saying these should be the expectations you set, but I think they help provide some context for the breadth of what you need to cover.

What I’m looking for

  • I’m here to help, and I’d rather help before something becomes a problem than be surprised with a blazing fire. Don’t ever feel like you’re bothering me. We can save time and stress by talking through the little things as soon as you notice them. 
  • Think through the expectations you set and the narrative you provide before communicating them publicly (to the broader team or clients) — lean on me for a gut check when you aren’t sure. I’ll have your back but we need to stay aligned on what that means.
    • Don’t tell everyone this is going to be an easy project that requires little external help if you haven’t actually nailed down all of the unknowns. 
    • Don’t announce that a specific feature will be included if you haven’t actually nailed down the requirements and effort required to ship it. 
    • Don’t tell me that you’re going to have something done this week if you have 5 other more important things to get done first. 
    • Do tell me that something is tracking behind schedule or if we’ve run into something that is more complex than expected. 
    • Do tell me if someone suggested something that won’t likely fit within the scope/timeline. 
    • Do tell me if you’re overwhelmed and can’t actually set expectations until you’ve had a bit more time to think something through. 
  • I’m not rigid on the process, but I ask you to understand why the processes are there and fulfill their functions effectively. You don’t need to submit your updates on the same day at the same time and in the same format. You do need to effectively communicate how your work is progressing and flag any potential risks you’re anticipating or actively dealing with. 
  • We need to prioritize our team/clients as humans over the work we’re doing, but we also need people to be accountable for delivering great work. This means that we need to understand when people are dealing with real life and need to adjust their work schedules, deadlines, etc. We also need to be aware of when people are abusing that freedom and have direct discussions about whether or not they can deliver to the expectations of their role. That might mean a more formally adjusted schedule, a role change, or identifying the need to find a better fit. It’s can be a hard balance to find sometimes, but it’s incredibly important for team morale and the quality of work. 

To know about me

  • I ask a lot of questions because I get excited about what we’re doing, not because I think you’re missing something or doing something wrong. 
  • I have a lot of ideas that I will share with you based on your interests, your projects, your team, or the problems you’re dealing with. You should know that there’s a big difference between an idea and a directive. I generally don’t give directives but if you’re unsure, ask for clarification. 
  • I do have anxiety and it tends to build most when there’s a problem that isn’t being addressed. I want to give you the space to learn how to identify and solve problems on your own. This means that by the time I bring something up, it will already have been on my radar. If I have to bring it up multiple times, that means that I do not see it being addressed. At that point, I’ll take it upon myself to qualify the seriousness of the problem and work with the team to solve it. This isn’t something I want to do but I’m not the kind of leader that is going to let the team fail and say “I told you so.”
  • I suggest solutions or direction with the context I have, and I expect you to consider my input and decide on the best course of action based on what you know — which should be more than me 🙂 
  • I do not like surprises, and I really don’t like fire drills. If you can keep me in the loop and make it easy to find the important information, I can stay out of your way and support you simultaneously. 

Again, these are meant to provide structure and a reference point for setting your own expectations with your team. Don’t be afraid to bring attention to your “oddities”. Your team will appreciate the deeper level of self-awareness and better understand why you’re setting specific expectations for them.

It’s important to note that expectation setting is not something you do once.  

It should be something you do continuously.

I have conversations with my team regularly to ensure that we’re still aligned on key expectations, that they understand the rationale behind specific processes and decisions, and to help them understand my perspective on their work and the work we’re doing as a team.

I also let them know if anything has changed on my end. If I’ve realized that I need to be more or less hands-off to provide them with the space/support they need to grow, I tell them. If I realize that I was wrong about something and need to adjust the expectations I have for them, I tell them.

If you can get comfortable having these conversations early, it makes having difficult ones a lot easier. It will also remove some of the uncertainty around whether or not there’s a problem to solve or if a person is meeting those expectations.

The best leaders I’ve worked with always ask “Do you think that person understood what we were asking them to do and/or the expectations of it?”

It’s our job to make sure the answer is always, “Yes.”

I’ll probably write more things and you might just want to read those too.

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