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Research - 14.01.2021 - 00:00

Entrepreneurial success despite and because of ADHD

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) frequently find it hard to succeed at school and later also in their professional activities. They are often regarded as difficult and troublesome. Studies indicate, however, that people who are affected by this disorder have a preference for entrepreneurial activities. The primary factors that are important for them to be successful entrepreneurs have now been identified by the HSG’s Swiss Research Institute of Small Business and Entrepreneurship (KMU-HSG) in cooperation with an international research team.

14 January 2021. Martin* is fidgeting on his chair. Outside the window, a dog is romping around on the lawn. In the corridor outside the classroom, other children are already noisily on their way to the break. He just about hears the teacher’s last sentence: “Please hand in the homework we’ve just talked about tomorrow.” Once again, he was unable to concentrate on the teacher’s instructions. He was too strongly distracted by his environment. Owing to ADHD, people like Martin* find it difficult to concentrate on a task for any length of time. They react very impulsively and are always on the move. About 3-5 per cent of children in Switzerland suffer from this disorder.

Strengths and weaknesses of ADHD

Besides school, people’s occupational fit can also be a challenge, depending on the severity of the ADHD symptoms. Various studies indicate that people like Martin* frequently gravitate towards entrepreneurial activities later on. Whether they are successful in this, however, is another question again. “People with ADHD have some personality traits which are conducive to the mastery of typical entrepreneurial challenges. Then again, they also tend towards behaviour patterns which are less suitable,” explains Prof. Dr. Isabella Hatak of the KMU-HSG. As earlier studies have demonstrated, those entrepreneurs are more successful who are able to focus on an often repetitive task for a longer period of time even if they face difficulties and boredom. However, this is precisely what ADHD patients find difficult. On the other hand, entrepreneurs have to confront new situations in an open and positive manner, quickly identify new opportunities and also display a certain willingness to run risks – again, characteristics which people with ADHD are more likely to possess. “All in all, ADHD patients’ characteristics which are conducive and obstructive to entrepreneurial success roughly balance out,” says Hatak. She therefore wanted to cooperate with fellow researchers from the National Chung Hsing University (China), the University of Twente (Netherlands) and Syracuse University (USA) to find out what conditions are relevant or instrumental to ADHD patients’ entrepreneurial success.

Inspiring passions

Besides personality traits, a passion for entrepreneurial activities is also an important success factor for founders. As various studies reveal, positive feelings for certain tasks boost cognitive performance and thus also performance as a whole. Hatak’s team names three central fields of entrepreneurial activities which individual entrepreneurs tackle with varying degrees of enthusiasm: a passion for development is related to growth and the expansion of the company and thus involves intensive positive feelings for an increase in turnover, the employment of new staff or the acquisition of new investors. The passion for starting up a company concerns all the activities in connection with financial, human and social resources for the start-up but also for the maintenance of the company. Finally, people with a passion for invention are highly gratified by the development of innovative ideas and products. If an entrepreneur pursues only one of the three entrepreneurial activities with enthusiasm, there is a danger that the other areas will be neglected. On the other hand, if entrepreneurs indulge in all these passions, they may get bogged down in the various fields of activities.

164 entrepreneurs surveyed

Hatak’s research team surveyed 164 companies from the Netherlands with regard to corporate success, entrepreneurs’ ADHD symptoms and their passions for the three fields of activities mentioned above. 20.7 per cent of the interviewees revealed diagnosable ADHD symptoms, which roughly tallies with earlier surveys, according to which approx. 29 per cent of all entrepreneurs are affected by this psychological disorder.

ADHD alone is not a drawback for entrepreneurs

The result of the study reveals that ADHD alone is not the decisive factor when it comes to entrepreneurial success or failure. Passions also play an important part. Among the entrepreneurs with ADHD, the most successful are thus those who have a great passion for starting up and developing a company but have fewer positive emotions about inventions. “This configuration can eliminate ADHD-related weaknesses, i.e. difficulties with staying on the ball and maintaining focused attention,” says Hatak. Furthermore, a pronounced passion for invention, intensified by the lack of circumspection that is typical of ADHD patients, could increase the risk of neglecting other important entrepreneurial tasks. “This might well result in a situation whereby an ADHD entrepreneur is so passionate about developing products or services that he or she will never be able to market them.”

A passion for development may be obstructive

Among entrepreneurs without ADHD symptoms, however, the above-mentioned passions should ideally be distributed in such a way that the entrepreneurs have a predilection for invention and starting up, but not for development. “Since these entrepreneurs do not only lack ADHD-specific weaknesses, but also have the corresponding strengths such as openness to new things, proactivity and creativity to a lesser degree, they have to nourish their passion for invention. Only in this way will they be able to compensate for their potentially inherent difficulties with the identification of new information patterns and combine them with their existing knowledge in order to develop creative solutions.”

The result according to which the passion for development activities is supposed to be of a low intensity among non-ADHD entrepreneurs runs counter to earlier research work. Prof. Dr. Isabella Hatak assumes that this is due to the context. Corporate development is a great challenge, particularly in the contexts encountered by young entrepreneurs, in which straight-line success is unlikely and where performance targets are constantly being raised to a higher level. This may be exciting for an entrepreneur who is inspired by a passion for development, but the concomitant intensified focus can lead to a hyperfocus among non-ADHD entrepreneurs which uses up substantial cognitive resources and thus limits such entrepreneurs in the field of starting-up and invention activities. “It appears that if a strength is overextended, there is an increasing danger that the opponent’s capacity will be reduced. Thus strengths can turn into weaknesses.”

The study does not admit of a statement about whether Martin* will later tend to have a worse or better hand to play than entrepreneurs without ADHD. “What we can say is that depending on their passions, entrepreneurs with ADHD can be as successful as those without. Our results underscore a strength-based view of psychological disorders. We hope that this is inspiring and motivating for those who are affected by them, for their loved ones and also for decision-makers in education and funding,” says Hatak.

*A fictitious person

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