A reader writes:
I have a coworker issue that isn’t really dire, just annoying. My coworker and I started the same job on the same day, about five months ago. She is very thorough and competent once she gets something, but the trouble is that she seems to be afraid to do anything unless she has checked with me (or someone else) 2-3 times on any given issue. I have spent almost half an hour in the past trying to convince her that we didn’t have to attend a cancelled meeting. We regularly dial in to teleconferences, and I am just now to the point where I don’t have to tell her how to dial in if there are not explicit instructions on the email invitation. Once or twice, she has asked me “What does that say?” in regards to an email we’ve both been CC’ed on. Last week, she was getting ready to work from home for the first time and she asked me if she needed to bring her laptop power cable!
It does not seem like a severe enough problem to go to my boss, and I know that with any new job comes a lot of questions — I certainly have had my fair share! However, it has gotten to the point where I dread seeing her IM’s pop up on my screen several times a day. Is there anything I can do to help her solve small problems on her own? I realize that some of it could be communication issues — English is not her first language, and she seems to be trying very hard to make sure she understands something before she proceeds, which I appreciate. But it’s driving me nuts! Do I just need to suck it up in order to be a good coworker?
Not necessarily. You presumably have your own work that you need to focus on, and it’s in her best interests to learn how to stand on her own … but if her instinct is to ask for help rather than trying to figure things out on her own (which is what is sounds like, based on your examples), then being always available to help will probably keep her semi-dependent on you.
The easiest option is to stop making yourself so available to help her. When she IM’s you questions, you don’t need to answer them immediately. You can minimize the IM window and continue doing what you’re doing. Or you can respond back, “Sorry, right in the middle of something.” The same thing goes for questions in person — there’s no reason you can’t simply explain that you’re busy and can’t stop what you’re doing.
Alternately, you can address it big-picture rather than case-by-case. Say something to her like, “I tend to get really focused at work and having too many questions pulls me out of what I’m focusing on. I can answer the occasional question when it’s urgent, but could you direct most of your questions to ___ (fill in your manager’s name here)?”
Furthermore, you’ve got to pull back your own investment in these conversations. Why did you spend that half hour trying to convince her not to attend a canceled meeting? That’s not your responsibility. Tell her once, and then she can do what she wants with that information — it’s not your job to convince her of anything. Similarly, you didn’t need to spend months telling her how to dial in to conference calls. After the third or so request for help, why not just say, “It seems like you’re having trouble remembering this. Will you write this down so that you know in the future?”
In other words, while her behavior is absolutely too dependent on you, you’re contributing to the situation too. Be more conscious of your own contributions to it, set appropriate boundaries, and tell her directly when she should handle something on her own.