my colleague won’t stop trash-talking herself

A reader writes:

I’m working a large project with Hank, another manager who is my peer. We have divided our workload, and the way it works out is that I am primarily supervising three of our staff, while Hank is supervising the remaining two.

I have a bit of a friendlier relationship with Samantha, one of the staff members who Hank supervises, since not long ago she and I were at the same peer level.

Samantha regularly complains that she is not well-trained, has no idea what she is doing, is frustrated at work, etc. Our job is highly specialized and technical, and because of its nature, it’s hard to do any formal training other than on-the-job training. Samantha doesn’t think she is good at her job, but for her level, she’s actually doing quite well. She has worked with several managers and we have all given her the same feedback in various ways. I don’t really know what else we can do to encourage her. It is true that learning this job can be challenging because it is so hard to train for all the various issues that can arise once and never reappear for many years, but she does well.

So… We all work in one large room. Very often, while Hank is giving Samantha verbal instructions, she emails me and texts me while he is talking to her saying things like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about”… or “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing”… or “He might as well do this himself because I have no idea what he wants.” Let me be clear that when this is happening, Hank is speaking in a normal and reasonable tone… and I’m not sure why if she is so confused, she doesn’t ask him for clarification. For the record, I don’t think Hank is being particularly cryptic or is a bad communicator or anything like that.

What it comes down to is that Samantha suffers from imposter syndrome. Several people have tried to talk to her and encourage her. But it’s at a point where she needs to… I don’t know… just accept that this is a job that has a huge learning curve, and decide if she is up to it or not. Complaining to everyone all the time is not going to help. Besides I think it’s very rude and unprofessional to be emailing and texting someone else while your manager is speaking to you.

What should I do in this situation?

You should talk to Samantha directly and tell her that. As in: “Samantha, you’ve made it really clear that you don’t feel like you know what you’re doing. But I and other managers have told you repeatedly that you’re doing quite well. Your constant denigrating of yourself and your skills makes me really uncomfortable and, frankly, I worry that it’s impacting the way you see yourself and how others see you. You are doing a good job, but your lack of confidence has the potential to really get in its way. I don’t mean that you should avoid speaking up when you feel like you need specific help, and you should of course talk to Hank if you have real concerns about your ability to do your job, but beyond that, I’d really like you to stop disparaging yourself. You don’t deserve it and it’s difficult to hear.”

You might also say: “You know, the people in charge of assessing your performance think you’re doing well. But if you really think you’re not, it might be time to figure out if this is work you want to continue to do. It does have a big learning curve, and maybe that isn’t something you’re comfortable with. If not, I think you’re better off figuring that out than staying in a situation that seems to be making you unhappy.”

And you should also tell her to cut it out the next time she starts emailing or texting you while Hank is talking to her. That’s absolutely rude, and you shouldn’t be complicit in it. The next time that happens, don’t engage. Instead, talk with her immediately afterwards and say, “Hey, I’m really uncomfortable with you sending me those sorts of messages while Hank is talking with you. It’s disrespectful to him, and if you’re really not understanding what he’s saying, it’s all the more reason to be fully engaged in the conversation with him, not sending messages to me. If you don’t understand what he’s asking you to do, you should ask him to clarify. I’m not comfortable having you tell me when you need to be telling him.”

Beyond that, you might also clue Hank into what’s going on, if he doesn’t already know. As her manager, this is really something he should be working on with her.

By the way, for whatever it’s worth, this doesn’t sound like impostor syndrome to me as much as it just sounds like really low self-confidence, or a need to feel inept and have others sympathize with her or come to her rescue. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter what the cause is — there’s only so much building-up of a colleague that it’s reasonable to do, and after that, you should just be clear with the person that they need to decide if it’s work they can do reasonably happily or not.

{ 194 comments… read them below }

  1. YandO

    All I want to know is what industry this is and how to get a job there. Learning a difficult skill on the job would be absolutely perfect for me. I would love an opportunity to do something that unique and challenging.

    1. dabbler

      I actually have a job like this (mechanical designer in the aerospace industry).
      I came in as an intern with no background in this industry, so my experience isn’t exactly typical, but everything I’ve learned has been OTJ training. It was completely overwhelming at first, and now 5-ish years in, I feel like I’m finally starting to gain real traction. What turned things around for me was having a really great mentor. He pushed me to do things for myself, but was always available if/when I got stuck, and was (and is still) there for me to talk things out/bounce ideas off of. And now he even calls me to bounce ideas off of me!

      For practical advice, she needs to cut out the negative talk. She’s harming not only her reputation, but she’s poisoning herself. She needs to stop focusing on horrible she thinks she is, and starts looking at it like “This is big and scary, but I am capable of figuring it out, and there are people to help me if I stumble.”
      I don’t know how much of this translates from my industry to yours, but she should break it into smaller, more manageable pieces. Rough in what she knows, and go back and refine the details. Put in placeholders. “I know i need some note saying X, but I’m unsure of the wording/spec.”
      She NEEDS to ask questions. Not only to clarify, but also to just build her knowledge. Ask why we did this X way instead of Y, so that the next time something similar comes up, she can make more educated decisions.
      Take notes. Write things down, even/especially if she doesn’t understand them, to refer to or look up later. Google is her friend. If applicable, keep a running spreadsheet for reference information. I have one that I keep all of my standard notes, specs, vendor information, software-specific instructions for things that we don’t use often but come up repeatedly. She needs to not be afraid to be wrong. I’ve embarrassed myself PLENTY, and I haven’t died yet. We all make mistakes, and even those senior people aren’t infallible.

      For your part, OP, if there’s no formal mentorship available, make sure she knows she can come to you or Hank with questions, but only after she’s tried to figure it out for herself (especially if it’s something she’s asked multiple times). When she comes to you with questions, don’t give her the answer. Ask her what she’s done to try to figure it out for herself, or have her walk through her thought process. One of the most valuable things I’ve been told is that you’re not going to pick everything up immediately. When my mentor would introduce a new concept, he would tell me, “you’re not going to figure this out right now. We’re going to just go over it, and the more you see it, the more you’ll understand it.” Until one day it just clicks, and that thing that seemed to be written in Chinese is now clear as day in hindsight.

      It’s also helped me to realize that I don’t need to know everything. We each have our own job functions. There were many times, especially in the beginning, that I felt like the dumbest person in the room. Half of the meeting would go straight over my head. Like, I would understand all the words someone just said individually, but have no clue what they were talking about. But afterward, I’d ask a more senior person, and they wouldn’t know either! As a designer though, I don’t need to know all the specifics of the analyst’s job, or the optical guy. We all have our specialties for a reason.

      It’s a hard road, but she can get through this and come out better on the other side, but only if she cuts out the negativity.

      Good luck!

    2. Andrew M. Farrell

      Software engineering is very much like this in that you are frequently working with new tools or new codebases that you have to quickly make yourself familiar with.

    3. I'm a Little Teapot

      Ehhh…doing a job where you have to learn a lot on the job without much training is actually frustrating, scary, and likely to end in failure. Also, the sort of place that expects you to teach yourself something difficult on the job probably has other problems, like managers who expect you to intuit what they want. I’ll pass.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Wait, that’s not fair or particularly kind to the OP. There are plenty of jobs where on-the-job training is the most effective option, and it doesn’t say anything bad about the managers there. (Also, on-the-job training doesn’t mean “teach it to yourself with no assistance from anyone else.” It means you learn on the job, usually with guidance.)

        1. I'm a Little Teapot

          Sorry – I didn’t mean to imply that the OP wasn’t training Samantha or was expecting her to be a mind-reader! I parsed “learn on the job” as the sort of place that doesn’t train you and expects you to learn by trial and error and know everything your predecessor knew even if you’ve never met her – I’ve had too many bad experiences like that, and was a bit worried about YandO….

      2. IndianSummer

        Agreed, I’m a Little Teapot.

        I made a change in career two years ago. I had to learn on the job as people don’t really go to school for this field. I had a great supervisor who acted as a mentor. One year in, my manager was reorganized into a different position. That is when my downfall began. I am very much suffering from imposter syndrome as well as boredom. I have no mentor. There is no formal training. I’m just treading water while actively seeking new employment. In fact, I had an interview recently for a related position at a different organization. I was very upfront about my skillset. If I make it to round 2, I want to be assured that there will be a mentor/training if I am offered the position.

      3. LBK

        There is a huge difference between learning on the job and teaching yourself. I’m now in my third position in a row that’s pretty much all on the job training and I haven’t been expected to teach myself in any of them – but I am expected to retain information when it’s given to me and be able to synthesize solutions to similar problems. In that sense you “teach yourself” by resolving issues you may not have specifically run into before via a bank of gained knowledge, but that should always be with the support of your peers and/or management.

      4. AnotherAlison

        I think this is the direction things are going. Flipped learning models are almost surprisingly more successful, compared to traditional classrooms, in technical college majors. While it’s not exactly teaching yourself, it’s a more cooperative learning model.

        In a previous position, I trained someone who expected to have a written procedure for every process of her job (step 1, open Excel-level of detail), walk through training with her, and “practice” for two weeks before she ran any real reports. For me, that was weird. Every other position I’ve interacted with in my career has been OTJ-trained. Someone points you to some examples of how “X” was done before, you work on figuring it out, and you can ask your peers or managers questions along the way.

      5. jag

        “Ehhh…doing a job where you have to learn a lot on the job without much training is actually frustrating, scary, and likely to end in failure.”

        I learn a lot of stuff on the job and they are not likely to end in failure. Many people do in many industries. The key thing is the employer has to allow for it, allowing time and resources to learn.

        The world is changing too fast and is too complex to have training be the only way to be prepared. Heck, the fundamentals of much of what we do are new all the time.

        1. Artemesia

          My father was trained as a mining engineer; he spent most of his career as a rocket scientist — designing aircraft and missiles including the minuteman and some of the Atlas package for the moon shot. I have seen his college projects which involved rock crushing machines and such — he learned that rocket science and aeronautical science on the job as the profession was born and grew.

          Things change fast — most of what any of us needs to know in 10 years we will need to learn in the next 10 years.

        2. I'm a Little Teapot

          The problem I’ve run into is employers that don’t provide you with resources to learn – or provide you with resources that are outdated, wrong, or too abstract for a newcomer to learn her job from without guidance.

      6. Sketchee

        It is scary and frustrating. I don’t know about likely to end in failure. That only depends on how we define failure. The OP is clear that this person is clearly succeeding and the OP is attempting to taking reasonable steps to communicate that expectations are fully being met to her coworker. AAM’s suggestion of talking to her boss about Samantha’s expectations was a good one.

        I’m not aware of many jobs where teaching yourself something difficult isn’t a component, certainly in the tech and graphic design sectors that is the norm. In that case, it is my job to clearly say when I need to be able to learn. It is also my job to know never to intuit what a manager wants and to ask for clear and direct answers. Also to be clear to give my professional opinion if I don’t feel those answers are doable. If being told she is clearly a success isn’t translating to believing it’s a success on the part of the coworker, it is certainly a challenge and you’re right it may just not be a fit.

    4. Cat

      I work in the energy industry, and the OP’s description describes a lot of jobs in it to a T.

    5. AnotherAlison

      Just chiming in with the other engineers. Power plant engineering is very OTJ-training oriented. You learn the fundamentals in school, but the real learning is by doing. We have technical training modules and in-house courses, but you don’t really know it until you dig into a real life project.

      1. AcademiaNut

        I think a lot of technical jobs fall under that category. My field has a lot of one-of-a-kind instruments that are specially built for a particular purpose – literally, there will be one setup like it in the world. So learning on the job is pretty much required. A lot of the tasks really have no off the job training, either.

        The learn on the job model of university teaching, on the other hand, is pretty broken. A tenure-track professor new on the job will be assigned classes, given a stack of admin requirements and possibly given a recommended textbook, and that’s basically it for teacher training.

    6. éscargot agile

      I’m in software engineering and this post almost took the words out of my mouth. I have a coworker similar to Samantha.
      I agree with all of Allison’s advice except for suggesting Samantha to find a different job. This part actually sounds a little mean, as if the OP was reassuring her that she’s in fact not good enough.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        To be clear, it’s not “you should find a new job.” It’s “I think you’re doing well at this work, but you sound unhappy. I’m encouraging you to be honest with yourself about whether you can be happy here because it doesn’t make sense to stay if you’re not, despite the fact that we’re happy with your work.”

  2. Partly Cloudy

    In this case, is “imposter syndrome” code for “fishing for compliments”?

    1. YandO

      the truth is people will see you the way you see yourself
      if you keep telling them that you are confused, lost, and in over your head, they *will* see you that way and you *will* cause harm to your reputation/career/future.

    2. Laurel Gray

      I’ve worked with this type and I would need way more context to know if this was at play here although I doubt it. I find that people who fish for compliments/praise in the workplace tend to have a bunch of other annoying things going on that contribute to them being a piece of work.

    3. Snarkus Aurelius

      Pretty much. The problem is that people like this have a bottomless need for praise.

      I could never work with someone like this.

      1. Headachey

        Rather, a bottomless well of insecurity and need for reassurance. No less frustrating, for the insecure party and those around her.

        1. Windchime

          Exactly. It’s super frustrating. We had someone like this on our team, which is a very supportive and open team where nobody is ridiculed or chastized for mistakes, so her constant cringing and self-denigration was not only frustrating but super irritating as well.

    4. Book Person

      This was my thought as well. It’s harder to do as a manager, but with peers or acquaintances who repeatedly harp on one perceived flaw in defiance to reality and reassurances, I just change the subject as though the self-denigration hadn’t happened. (With close friends, I’ve recently adopted the Captain Awkward script, “Please don’t talk about my friend that way,” which is lovely and a good reminder that someone is loved without buying into the cycle of reassurance).

      1. Chinook

        ” (With close friends, I’ve recently adopted the Captain Awkward script, “Please don’t talk about my friend that way,” which is lovely and a good reminder that someone is loved without buying into the cycle of reassurance).”

        A supervisor could do something similar: “Please don’t talk about my employees that way. I only hire/employ/work with those who are capable of doing the job.”

        1. Connie-Lynne

          This is what I did with an employee who had a tendency to down-talk herself. I would call it out (privately, of course) and say “S, you need to stop engaging in so much negative self-talk. Yes, you are more junior than some of the other folks here, but you bring [value] to the table. Most importantly, I worry that you believe these awful things about yourself — I wouldn’t let anyone say such stuff about one of my team members, and I want you to stop saying it about yourself.”

          The actual conversations were longer and more varied than that, but that was the gist.

          I’m not her manager any more, but she now catches _me_ in negative self-talk sometimes and tells me to cut it out.

      2. afiendishthingy

        I love that!! My best friend suffers from chronic anxiety and depression (as do I, although she’s more prone to the depression symptoms than I am) and we get stuck in that cycle. Definitely stealing this!

    5. A Bug!

      I get the feeling that it’s not quite fishing for compliments, but it is a close relative. It seems to me that she’s trying to keep people’s expectations low.

      She hears people telling her that she’s doing fine, she’s competent, she’s doing better than expected, etc etc. Instead of letting that bolster her confidence, she’s seeing a looming pile of unearned hype that she can’t live up to.

      1. Hotstreak

        And in her mind, if she WAS successful, she would have too much to lose. Big confidence/self worth issue that’s not caused by the specific work environment, it’s inherent in her life.

    6. Artemesia

      Exactly. Many people who lack self awareness fish constantly for reassurance and compliments like this and seem unaware of how they tear down their own reputation. I had a strong streak of this early in my career and sort of cringe looking back at this transparently immature behavior.

      The OP would do this woman a great favor by letting her know how inappropriate and unnecessary this behavior is and absolutely stomping on the texting while she is being managed by the other manager. I am surprised the OP didn’t stop this cold the first time it happened. Maybe with a text that said ‘you need to be paying attention to Hank not texting me.’

  3. Snarkus Aurelius

    Samantha obviously does know what she’s doing because, as you said, others think she’s doing well.  She’s being dishonest about what she’s doing when she says/texts you these things.

    She’s trying to cover her butt in case something goes wrong.  If she screws something up, she can say, “I told you I didn’t know what I was doing” or “I told the OP that I didn’t know what he was talking about.”  Expressing these thoughts may also be a weird way of self-motivation.  She’s trying to prove to herself that she’s wrong.

    My sense is also that she’s clearly been though something at a former workplace.  I don’t know exactly what, but I’m guessing she got blamed for something really big.

    I knew of a woman who could never get her work done during the day.  So she’d leave stuff until the last minute and/or create emergencies.  Both of these would necessitate her staying late to make the deadline under pressure, which looked really good to the bosses but made her coworkers want to tear their hair out.  

    1. JB (not in Houston)

      Not necessarily. You might be right, but I’ve worked with someone who had serious low self-confidence. She thought that we were biased because we liked her as a person, so we couldn’t see how incompetent she really was. And that lack of confidence caused her anxiety that really did make it hard for her to understand what was being explained to her when it was something she’d decided she wasn’t smart enough to understand–sort of like how some people, when they get really angry and frustrated about something, immediately shoot down any suggestions as unworkable.

      She did eventually build more confidence, and that side of her mostly faded to the point where it rarely shows up. I’m not saying that’s what’s going on with Samantha, just that it’s a possibility that she’s not fishing for compliments or doing CYA. That said, there’s really nothing more the OP can do if Samantha is like this; she won’t believe any compliments or reassurances she gets.

      1. BenAdminGeek

        Agree- I had an employee like this. If she felt “stupider” than the person training her, she would always tell me she learned nothing and the person hated her. Then perform the task flawlessly. As a manager it was easier to deal with- we had some direct conversations about the matter and she started to turn it around. I don’t know how you solve this with a peer.

    2. OP

      I do think the “CYA” thing is at least part of it. Not the most significant part, but yes, part of it. We are a government agency that regulates a large industry, so if we “miss something” it would be a big deal. However, it is Hank’s job (and my job) to ensure that we have our bases covered, not Samantha’s. I’ve tried to reassure her in this aspect as well.

      1. fposte

        That’s a good point. It reminds me of the very common prefacing behavior people, especially young women, exhibit in class: “I don’t know, this might be a stupid idea, but …” It might not be a conscious CYA, but it could definitely be a defensive maneuver. (Doesn’t change the fact that it needs to stop.)

        1. Emily

          That’s exactly what I thought. Even in my 30s, there are certain situations where I still find myself veering into a kind of “managing expectations” mode, where I’ll be just self-deprecating enough to prepare others for my possible failure! For me, those situations are usually where some time of recreational physical activity is involved, not at work, but I can also see how it could happen, especially to my younger self, if a peer was promoted above me. Maybe Samantha is sort of “playing the role” of the “helpless dope who didn’t get promoted” because that’s less embarrassing than being the “hard worker who did her best and still didn’t get promoted.” (It doesn’t sound like Samantha was really in a position to get the promotion that you got, but you did say “not that long ago,” and it doesn’t really matter, anyway; logical or not, she could be feeling a little embarrassed that she’s now subordinate to someone she got to know as a peer.)

          Maybe Samantha actually needs less reassurance! She’s basically making blanket disclaimers about her performance and potential, and when you tell her she’s got nothing to worry about, she interprets that as your tacit permission to just keep doing what’s she’s doing.

    3. Stranger than fiction

      You may be onto something. Like she had a former boss that yelled at her if she asked any questions and was the intimidating type. Otherwise I do not understand why she wouldn’t ask for clarification when he’s speaking to her. That’s the part I’m struggling with. Ha, maybe she’s missing part of the instructions because she’s so busy messaging Op while he’s talking (which is beyond rude and I also don’t und why he’s not saying something about that)

  4. nona

    By the way, for whatever it’s worth, this doesn’t sound like impostor syndrome to me as much as it just sounds like really low self-confidence, or a need to feel inept and have others sympathize with her or come to her rescue. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter what the cause is — there’s only so much building-up of a colleague that it’s reasonable to do, and after that, you should just be clear with the person that they need to decide if it’s work they can do reasonably happily or not.

    This is what it sounds like to me… Or a “this work is so hard!” version of the “I’m so busy!” show.

  5. Brett

    Since Hank and the OP are splitting the workload on the 5 people they supervise, could it help to try swapping employees on the project so that the OP is now supervising Samantha? Or is it better to keep Samantha under Hank, since the OP and Samantha were previously peers?

    I just want to add that Samantha is possibly displaying some symptoms of depression as well. Through various mechanisms, depression can make it very difficult to perceive yourself as competent at difficult tasks even when you are doing very well at them. A voluntary EAP referral might be in order to address the possibility that this is brought on by mental health issues.

    1. Brett

      After re-reading this a few times, this really does sound like it could be chronic depression. The self-perception of low competency is a big flag, but the inappropriate texting and emailing fits very well too. (Scanning recent research, there does appear to be links between inappropriate or excessive texting and depression, especially at night.)

      1. OP

        That’s really interesting. Yes, I know that the OP has some issues with depression. And I know that she has used our EAP program before.

        1. OhNo

          Perhaps you might recommend that she make use of it again when you have this conversation with her? There’s no real need to mention the depression, unless you guys have that kind of relationship, but it might be worth throwing a line in thereabout talking to someone to help her get over this self-deprecating hurdle.

      2. Pennalynn Lott

        I quit a job once after being there for only three months. I was in the middle of one of the worst depressive episodes of my life and I [thought I] was having trouble remembering and mastering the stuff I was learning on the job. When I gave notice, my manager begged me to stay and told me that I was the best employee they’d ever had, that I had picked up on the [very technical but also very vague] aspects of the job faster than anyone ever had, and that she’d been nothing but over-the-top impressed with me since Day One. But I just could *not* see it. I felt like a massive failure. It was a great job with great, supportive management, but I just wasn’t in a place mentally and emotionally to take advantage of it.

        So if Samantha is anywhere on the slippery slope of depression, I can see this being a reason for her behavior.

        1. Anonymusketeer

          There, but for the grace of God, go I. It’s so unfair that depression can take these opportunities away from people. I’m sorry you went through that, and I hope you’re feeling better.

          1. Pennalynn Lott

            Thanks, Anonymusketeer! That was about 11 years ago, and was one of the last (if not *the* last) depressive episode I’ve had. I wish that situation could have gone differently. But if it could have, it would have. Such is life. :-)

            1. Julia

              I quit a great grad school and wonderful supervisor over something similar and still sometimes bemourn it. (It was fairly recent.) Glad to hear you are doing better now!

              By the way, I love your user name! Hope the Depression wasn’t caused by Richard leaving you for Emily.

  6. Engineer Girl

    I know of few jobs where something is so specialized and technical that no training exists. If no training exists then no standard exists. How does someone truly know if they are hitting the mark?
    Another problem is giving Samantha verbal instructions. Some people just can’t absorb info that way. They might need the instructions written down. There’s also more accountability from management if you are willing to write the instructions down. If you can’t write the instructions down then I would say that the task isn’t clear in your own head – how do you expect others to understand?
    The biggest problem I see is a lack of benchmarks and standards. Samantha can’t know if she’s meeting expectations because no one will write them down.
    What is clear is that Samantha doesn’t believe you when you tell her she’s doing well. Maybe it’s because others have told her she’s doing well right before the rug was pulled out. Maybe she doesn’t believe in herself. But what she really needs is for Hank – her boss – to tell her she’s doing well. And he needs to do it in writing. And he needs to be specific about what things she’s mastering – “I know you are doing well in X because you are doing Y and Z”. Until that happens then it isn’t real.

    1. Observer

      I doubt the problem is that anyone is refusing to put anything in writing. Not that it would hurt to do that, although it might mean a lot of extra time and work. On the other hand, if she just needs to see things written down, why doesn’t she SAY so instead of going on about how inept she is?

      1. Future Analyst

        Some people are not self-aware enough to realize that they need something different. It takes some time to get there, and experience with different training styles to figure out what works best for you. This doesn’t excuse Samantha at all– she would drive me crazy– but it’s not always the case that someone knows that they need and are purposefully withholding that information.

      2. Engineer Girl

        The OP is stating that Hank is giving verbal instructions on something that is specialized and technical. Samantha could be writing this down, but I see a huge problem with verbal on something like this.
        Also it is not a lot of extra time and work in the long run. It is extra the first time around, but pays off when you have to train the 2nd and 3rd people.

        1. Elizabeth West

          Yes, this is how I train. Writing stuff down really helps me learn it better, and it gives me something to refer back to if I forget a step. Not to mention the hit-by-a-bus thing; if anyone else has to step in, we’ve got procedurals in place.

        2. Observer

          Yes, but the OP says that these are one off type trainings, because the situation is not likely to come up again.

    2. Dan

      I’ll address your comment in two parts:

      First…

      I’ve got a job that is specialized and technical, with no training that exists. How do people (including me) know when I hit the mark? IMHO, that’s easy, because an expert in the field can tell when a solution answers the problem. Some stuff is actually objectively correct. I think the more important question is, if I miss the mark, is it because I’m not the right person for the job, or the problem is so difficult that it really can’t be solved with the time and resources at hand? That’s harder, and I think you have to go by established track record, not just a one-time evaluation.

      1. Beezus

        Right, but if there’s a learning curve, and perfection isn’t expected, then it might be hard for Samantha to know if she’s hitting the mark consistently enough to be “good” at her job if she’s not given another clear, measurable performance goal.

        1. Dan

          I guess what I’m trying to say is that clear, measurable performance goals don’t always exist. In my line of work, performance is measured at a higher level. 1) Is this a guy I want on my team, or do I want to boot him and try my luck with someone else? 2) If he says he is unhappy, how hard am I willing to try to make him happy?

          Much about performance in my line of work is also about social skills. If my boss tells me that X needs to be improved, do I listen? Do I try to incorporate that feedback? I’m allowed to say “no” if I do my homework and back it up. But what I can’t do is say “no” without even trying. Even worse, what I really can’t do is email my coworkers and say that my boss is an idiot.

          1. Engineer Girl

            As someone that is considered an expert in aero engineering I’m going to disagree with you. Clear performance goals absolutely exist. You should be creating them with your boss. I know that if I deliver XX by date then I’ve hit my target. XX includes exit criteria that we’ve agreed to ahead of time.
            One problem I’ve dealt with is bad bosses giving soft goals. Even if you hit the goal the bosses claim it wasn’t good enough (even though the customer thought it was good enough). A good boss knows what is needed and is able to specifically state it.
            It is entirely possible that Hank is giving mushy goals. It is also possible that Hank is only giving faint praise or mushy feedback. If Samantha’s co-workers are telling her that she’s not doing so good she could be thinking that she’s doomed.
            One thing I noticed as a women in aero – they guys viewed me as the weak link and would verbally make snide remarks about my ability (always out of the bosses hearing). If my boss didn’t counter this information with his own opinion then I (wrongly) assumed their opinion to be true. It had to do with the volume of the remarks (1 women – 50+ men who are competing with you). I also noticed that men had less respect for me technically – even if I was the expert! It was very frustrating and I needed feedback from my own boss to let me know that I wasn’t crazy. It’s one of the differences between men and women in engineering. Women get criticized a LOT more than then men, and receive far less positive praise. See the Forbes article on women’s tech women’s performance appraisals if you don’t agree.

            1. V.V.

              I am sorry you have had to deal with that Engineer Girl, but I am glad you were/are able to gut it out for so long. It can be discouraging, and it wears on you after awhile, no matter how confident and self – assured you are. It definitely changed me.

              Keep up the good work, okay?

    3. Dan

      Second…

      To your last paragraph, and what she also really needs isn’t just for Hank to tell her she’s doing ok, but for her to tell him what she’s struggling or lacking confidence with. She should NOT be sending all of those texts/emails to her colleagues. That’s rude, and really hard for Hank to deal with.

      1. afiendishthingy

        Yeah, what stood out to me is it sounds like she’s not saying what specifically she needs help with. It really reminds me of middle school students I’ve worked with who take one glance at a worksheet and say I can’t dooooo ittt it’s too harddddd. And for a 12 year old with learning disabilities I would break it down, give them five problems instead of twenty, do the first one with them, and then let them TRY before they announce it’s too hard. But she’s a professional adult and she needs to be telling Hank SPECIFICALLY what she needs help with, and TRY before she announces she can’t do it. I confess I would not have much patience in this situation.

        1. Not So NewReader

          Bingo. This one is tricky one but here is how it works: Want to feel like a professional? Then you HAVE to act like one.
          She can have all the validation in the world but she will never be satisfied, I believe it’s because privately she KNOWS she is not acting the way other professionals act.

          You don’t text/IM other people when the boss is giving you directions. Of course she does not know what he is saying because she is NOT giving him her full attention. She is too busy complaining to someone else. Annnd before he is finished speaking she has already decided that she does not understand. Jeepers, at least hear the explanation through to it’s conclusion. But she is not doing that.

          Secondly, we have a finite amount of energy. She is burning hers right up with all her complaints. If she stopped complaining she would find that she had a little more energy to put into absorbing the material. This ties into Alison’s point about wanting the job. It could be just me, but if I really want a job I put all my energy in to learning. If I make a mistake, I own it, I fix it, and I get back to learning about my job. I do not waste precious minutes talking about how what a poor understanding of I have of the job. The more concentration I put into it then the quicker I will get out of that pit.

          Next, professionals don’t tell everyone in sight how incompetent they are. It’s one thing to say “I am not familiar with X process. I will have to discuss it with someone.” What she is saying is totally different from this. Yes, there is some fake it until you make it that you have to do. It seems to me that numerous people have told her she is good at her job. She is not willing to accept their assurances. Why. The answer here could be as simple as she does not want the job.

          OP, Alison’s advice is perfect. If nothing else, refuse to respond to her messages when the boss is speaking with her. Let her know that this is what you are going to do, also.

          I assume she is basically a likable person, in addition to doing her job well. You may need to lay it out for her something like this: “Everyone here is in the same boat. They maybe working on different levels from you but we all feel that we must really work at what we are doing. There are always new things to learn, work needs to be double checked because it is so easy to forget to dot an “i” or cross a “t”. This is what the job is, it is not going to change. If you are looking for it to change, stop looking for it to change and you will be a lot happier. But every single one of us has days where we feel we do not know what we are doing, we do not think our work is good enough and so on.”

          As you wind down your conversation, ask her, “What are you willing to do to help yourself to get settled into this job and to get yourself acclimated to this work environment?”
          The main problem here is that she has subtly rejected other people’s help in adjusting to the job AND she is not trying to help herself. Evidence for this statement is found in all the complaints she has about herself and her work.
          People cannot do this for us. We have to have a willingness to wade in, go through the burn, feel the pain and get out the other side. No one can do this for her. People are doing everything humanly possible to help her settle in. She can find ways to help herself, too.

          I have to chuckle. My current job is unlike any other job I have had before in my life. I have little cheat sheets all over the place. There are little notes every where. People think I am on top of things. NO. It’s these dozens of cheat sheets and Post-It notes that are carrying me. My boss moved one of my piles today. I said, “You. are. messing. with. my. piles.” She laughed and put it back. I make a lot of mistakes and I correct every single one. Some days I feel the burn really bad. For whatever reason, the next day seems better. And this is what going through a new job in a new arena is. FWIW, I have been at this job for 2.5 years. I will never learn everything there is to learn, period. I made peace with that. In doing so, I found parts of myself I did not know I had.

    4. Meg Murry

      Could it also be an issue with Samantha not understanding Hank when he speaks? I worked at a place where there was a large population of non-native English speakers, and a lot of them had strong accents. I could understand them as long as I was paying attention (although I did a lot of “what? did you say ____ or ____” and sometimes resorting to “lets take this to the whiteboard”) but some of my co-workers just couldn’t get their heads around the accents, and I would sometimes get pulled in to serve as a translator/conversation facilitator.

      Does Hank or the person about him also re-do a lot of her work or heavily edit it? At the same job, my bosses tended to very heavily edit our work, with round after round of revisions to make it the way they wanted – which they couldn’t articulate very well, so sometimes we would change things, and then decide to change them back. That really beat down on some people, but once I got it in my head that what I was turning in was just a draft subject to revision it took a lot of the drama out of it for me. Does Samantha need reminded that no one expects her to be a mind reader or to be perfect, and that revision of her work, or her having to ask Hank how to do it doesn’t make her any less valuable or otherwise make her “stupid” or “useless” or whatever self-deprecating term she’s using?

  7. The IT Manager

    From the title of the post I was thinking imposter syndrome, but I agree with Alison, it doesn’t quite sound like that. I almost feel like it a cry for attention or compliments. She says she is doing a bad job, and every comes back and says that she’s doing great. Alison’s suggestion for you to not engage in the “normal” response may help if that’s why she’s doing it. Instead of validating that she’s doing a good job, you start telling her if she feels so strongly about it then maybe she should leave. If is it not a sly cry for compliments, she probably is feeling stressed and nervous everyday and would be better off somewhere else where she wasn’t under so much pressure.

    1. bridget

      I think it might be even simpler than this. OP knows Samantha’s tone better than I do, but it sounds to me like it’s just a plain old bad attitude, manifesting itself with language that overlaps with imposter syndrome or low confidence. Saying that your boss “might as well do this himself because I have no idea what he wants” and saying you haven’t been trained enough sounds like a tendency to get frustrated and then complain and blame frustrations (like being unsure of how to proceed) on other people. IME, imposter syndrome manifests more in terms of “what is wrong with ME that I don’t get it/I’m so stupid,” not “ugh, I don’t know what to do because everybody else is failing me!” Expressing it so rudely (complaining to OP while not asking her boss for clarification), makes me double down on this interpretation.

      I’m sympathetic to both imposter syndrome and general low self-esteem, but I’m pretty unsympathetic to Samantha. I think the OP and Hank should address it like the attitude problem that it is (especially the part about messaging OP).

      1. The IT Manager

        Great points. It’s very whiney and negative. Some of it being critical about herself throws off the scent, but I did notice that Samantha sounds like someone who complains all the time. Not all of it is about her.

      2. OhNo

        You know, I didn’t even notice that, but you have a good point. The fact that she seems to be blaming most of her perceived failings on other people, in lack of training or poor instructions or what-have-you, does kind of give the impression that she has a bad attitude.

        That’s not to say that addressing the confidence issue couldn’t still help – if she was confident enough in herself, she wouldn’t have any problem pushing through poor instructions or poor training to do what needs to be done – but you’re right that it may not be the first priority to fix.

      3. Sunshine

        Yep. “I was never trained on that” is a trademark for people who thrive on negativity. Whether they do a good job or not, they feel a need to point out that… what? Seen it a dozen times and still don’t understand the endgame.

  8. MsM

    It might be hard to do task-specific training, but it sounds like Samantha could benefit from “soft” skills or some more general project management best practices. Impostor syndrome and lack of self-confidence tend to go hand in hand, and with a case of either this advanced, telling her “you’re doing fine” is going to fall on deaf ears. She needs some kind of concrete baseline to measure herself against. And if the job really can’t provide that for her, then both she and the organization do need to consider whether it’s the right fit for her personally, regardless of whether she’s got the skills to pull it off.

    Completely agreed with Alison on how to handle the texting, though. In fact, I might even pull her aside before it can happen again and let her know you’re no longer available for venting sessions.

    1. Future Analyst

      Agreed on all of this. She should be given concrete metrics for assessing whether or not she’s doing well, and the OP and Hank definitely need to address the texting– that’s so rude and unprofessional.

    2. Andrew M. Farrell

      Yea, to me this pattern comes across as “I know that there is something terribly broken in how I am managing my lack of knowledge and skill in this domain, but I don’t have any clue how to start fixing it besides crying out for help.”

  9. Rae

    I would also ask what resources that she needs to feel comfortable. In many highly technical jobs someone can be really good at one skill like they’re perfect tea timer programers…but are actually very bad at writing or figuring out how far apart the digits should be…etc. I think many people neglect personal development and employee development skills for highly technical people because they have a skill that’s lesser known.

    You have an employee that feels she is not adequately trained. Draw up a budget and tell her to find what training she needs. That’s what a manager does. I find it very frustrating as someone who works with adults students in the IT field how often they are flat-out denied growth opportunities and told they do have tools for their job because someone who somewhat understands the work finds the work “good enough”.

    Just because trainings are harder to find than a Rich Dad/Poor Dad seminar doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile, and just because you feel an employee with technical skills is doing excellent doesn’t mean they are frustrated by their lack of knowledge. The best example I can think of is Excell. It has SOOO many features and so many people spend hours frustrated or doing something tedious because they don’t know a simple function. They still manage to do their jobs well, but if they forgot that trick to say…split columns…they know it and their work is frustrating.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      The OP says there isn’t really formal training for this, though; it’s on the job training, which they’ve been giving her.

      I’m skeptical that that’s what Samantha needs anyway; it sounds like she’s doing fine but just sabotaging herself through attitude and actions (if you feel you don’t know what you’re doing, why for the love of god would you only half-listen to a conversation where your boss is giving you instructions so that you could email a coworker and complain during that conversation?).

      1. emvic

        why for the love of god would you only half-listen to a conversation where your boss is giving you instructions so that you could email a coworker and complain

        Btdt. I was in a very bad depression and it seemed to me I was failing on every level. I was literally suicidal. Somehow my brain decided I *must* be good at something – and it decided I could be an accomplished failure. So any sign of success got me all panicky – I was about to fail even in failure! Difficult to fathom that logic, I know, but for me it was real as hell.

        1. Observer

          That sounds awful. But, in that case, all the trainings in the world would not have helped. It sounds like you got the help you needed, which is good. But it’s not the type of stuff that a supervisor or colleague can provide.

      2. OP

        ^^^Yes. And actually, we do provide several training opportunities throughout the year, besides the OTJ… we are required to get a minimum of 40 hours Continuing Ed annually. Some of the training is mandatory/dictated , but about half of it we can pick and choose what training courses we take. For the most part, though, the most valuable training we get is just through experience.

        1. nona

          That sounds great. I made a comment somewhere else in the post about training – definitely ignore that.

      3. neverjaunty

        Yes, this. That really astonished me. I mean, feeling bad, not realizing that you’re talking too much about a negative self-view, okay, but texting a different manager WHILE Hank is giving her instructions to complain about how she doesn’t understand Hank? That’s not depression or ‘impostor syndrome’, that’s rude and incredibly self-absorbed.

        OP, I agree that you should give Samantha clear feedback, but you should not be “reassuring” her. Try being very factual.

        “Oh, I’m so bad at this, blah blah blah”

        “Samantha, we’ve evaluated the Teapot report you did. It meets expectations and you did what you were supposed to. Now let’s talk about whether you have everything you need for the Spout subcommittee.”

        If (as I suspect) she’s just fishing for compliments, you’ll shut that off and make it very clear that you are not interested in feeding that beast. If she needs clear feedback on her work product, she gets that.

        1. Not So NewReader

          If Sam has standards that are higher than the company’s then a self-check is in order. We work to company specs and bosses’ standards, NOT our own imaginary standards. Some people really wrestle with this. They have their own standards that are ever-growing, always moving and impossible to meet and they are shocked to see that company standards are comparatively stagnate and more doable.
          I worked at a job where I thought that being off by x percent was awful, It was a terrible thing. The company allowed 10 times that amount, or 10x percent. I had to sit down and chew on this. I could not fathom such an enormous amount of wiggle room. Often times, it is not about what we think is right. We must focus on what the company thinks is right.

  10. Laurel Gray

    I feel like Samantha is on the other side of imposter syndrome – the outcome when things never click for a person in the confidence-of-their-competence. She is vocalizing what many people with imposter syndrome would internalize – before eventually getting over it. At this point, her yammering can reflect negatively in how her colleagues and managers view her. Also, she is lacking in professionalism. Even though she is great at the job and picking up the training, she has to work on her professionalism – the venting, the texting while her supervisor is giving her directions. No bueno.

  11. Serin

    Sometimes I’ve known people to use “this stuff is so hard,” “I don’t understand a word of that,” etc., as a way of bonding with co-workers — something like that may be happening here. “We’re all together doing this impossible work with these incomprehensible requirements.”

    Almost like the peasants in old fairy tales calling their children ugly because praising them would draw the attention of the Fair Folk.

    1. afiendishthingy

      That reminds me of Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls pretending to be bad at calculus so the cute guy will like her.

  12. danr

    Some people feel that there should always be training for what is done on a job. No matter how well she does using her specialized knowledge, she’ll always have the feeling that she could do better with training.
    As for the texting, as others have noted, you have to shut it down. Hank may think that she’s taking notes when she’s texting. You might point out to Samantha taking good notes while getting verbal instructions is a a form of training. Texting “I can’t…” is not.

  13. fposte

    It also might be worth outright asking her what is is she’s looking for with these missives. “Samantha, when you email me things like this I don’t know what you want from me. Can you explain what response you’re looking for?”

    1. emvic

      Well, a lot of people do not have the self-awareness necessary for an useful answer. And since OP said Samantha had (has?) some depression issues, it might very well be that she’s unable to give any kind of knowledgeable answer. Depression will do that to you.

      1. fposte

        But you can’t manage by avoiding every reasonable action because of the possibility of a special circumstance. You take a step, and if it doesn’t get you there, you try something else. It’s a reasonable question, and if Samantha doesn’t have an answer, walking her through what that fact means for the appropriateness of the communication is going to be edifying for both people.

        1. Sunshine

          Thank you for saying this. I see this so often here – commenters shoot down a possible action because it MIGHT not work. You won’t know if you don’t try.

          (Not pointing at you specifically, emvic. Just something I’ve noticed generally increasing here recently.)

  14. Cheesecake

    It doesn’t sound like imposter syndrome and it doesn’t sound like low self-esteem either. So she is good at her job, how is she in comms with peers and manager? Sending these messages while boss is talking to you is really low. You should advise her to zip it.

  15. OP

    I don’t think she’s fishing for compliments. She seems really and truly miserable here. I felt the same way when I started, but I eventually just came to terms with it.

    Basically, everything AAM advised, I have tried. Others have as well. I have never engaged when she emails or texts while Hank is talking to her, and recently told her to stop and that it’s her responsibility to talk to Hank. She responds that Hank makes her feel stupid. I don’t see any merit in that statement, I have never seen Hank reacting in a way that should make her feel stupid.

    I think it’s aggravated by the fact that she has gotten significant raises since she started, and the field she would rather be working in pays a lot less than she makes here. So it isn’t like she can just go out tomorrow and find a different job without a significant change to her life style.

    My follow-up question would be: if this behavior/ attitude continues, and she does not make a change, is it grounds for some sort of disciplinary action? It impacts the overall morale of our work environment when one person is so loudly complaining about not being trained. I have noticed that her behavior skews the behavior of other staff members that are at her level and below.

    1. Laurel Gray

      If you genuinely believe she is miserable, maybe it would be a good idea to start a conversation from there. If someone admits to being miserable they have two options: leave or work on being happier where they are. Her pay and lifestyle if she were to leave aren’t really your concern, the work environment you manage is. I do believe you have a duty to do whatever now to save the morale of your work environment. I say have the conversation first and if there is no improvement, maybe the next action should be disciplinary. I’ve had coworkers similar to Samantha and it made me patent a STFU button similar to Staples “Easy” one.

      1. bridget

        I agree – OP has a responsibility to help the overall morale of the workplace. I am willing to bet that Samantha’s negativity and misery (while seeming uninterested in doing anything to solve the problem) is not only making her miserable, but it’s negatively impacting the morale of all of the staff. This is why general “attitude problems” are in fact performance problems that can be grounds for disciplinary action (although a frank conversation seems like the first step, before formal disciplinary action kicks in, so that disciplinary action isn’t a surprise. That’s not good for morale either.).

    2. MsM

      I would say so, but unless the division of reports is an unofficial one, I think it’s on Hank or someone else in her direct chain of command to initiate that. You just have to stand firm that you’re not the complaints department, and manage your own reports. (And if they’re complaining about not getting enough training, either, at least consider finding ways to make that possible instead of taking the “sink or swim” approach.)

    3. Helka

      It’s very possible that it isn’t that Hank openly denigrates her or talks down to her, but that something about the way he gives explanations makes it hard for her to understand. I’ve run into something similar; I’ve been tasked to train various coworkers on a task that I find pretty straightforward and easy to understand, albeit complex — there are a lot of moving parts, but at least to me, it seems very logical. But my coworkers have found it hard to understand, and I get the feeling that even if they can easily figure out how to handle each individual instance, they’re having trouble with the big picture, and so a task that they’re performing fine seems overwhelming and scary to them.

      I’ve also been on that end of things — I got through the tasks I was assigned just fine, but I didn’t feel like I really understood the basic principles, so on each task I was mentally reinventing the wheel in terms of figuring out how to do it, and therefore doing 3-4x the mental effort it would have cost me if I’d grasped the underlying principles.

      So I do think it’s very possible that she is genuinely having trouble. Have you tried talking her through some of the things Hank is trying to discuss with her? It might be that having an explanation come from you might help her understand whatever she’s missing from him.

      As far as disciplinary behavior… that’s a tough one, because on the surface, punishing someone for not understanding something comes off pretty badly. If you really think she’s being deliberately obtuse, that’s something to speak with her privately about. Really make an effort to treat her feeling of uncertainty and incomprehension as genuine; you don’t lose anything by doing so, and pursuing that course over time should help clarify for you if she’s being deliberately obstructive or actually struggling.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        It’s not punishing her for speaking up about not understanding; it’s addressing the fact that she’s handling it in an unprofessional and disruptive way.

      2. L McD

        Yeah, I agree that “Hank makes me feel stupid” could just be a frustrated way of expressing that she simply can’t absorb information the way he’s trying to convey it to her. A lot of this sounds like communication breakdown, on all counts. She’s frustrated, but she’s not doing an effective job of expressing why, or how anyone can help her. I know of a lot of people have suggested scripts, but if you haven’t yet tried to really drill down a *specific* issue she’s having, I’d say that’s worth a shot. It will probably go around in circles for a while, but even just a string of “I don’t get it”/”Which part specifically is confusing you?”/”I don’t know, I just can’t figure it out” etc. will go a long way in determining if there’s an actual solution here.

        Regardless, I think it’s reasonable to tell her she has to stop texting/emailing to complain about her boss *while her boss is talking to her*, and she needs to stop complaining incessantly about not understanding things. These may be legitimate issues but that behavior is not helpful or productive. If she can’t, then that’s a bigger issue than whatever’s going on inside her head.

      3. nona

        +1

        Instructions might not be sinking in for some reason. For example, I blame the way I learn on years of art classes – if you want me to learn something fast, it needs to be hands-on with direct criticism. This is apparently not a popular way to train people at my job.

        But also, I think if Samantha needs different or more instruction, she needs to ask for it. When she complains about feeling that she’s in over her head, she doesn’t tell anyone how to help her. And pointless complaining is kind of a behavior problem that OP or Hank could talk to her about, though I would guess that they’ve already tried.

      4. LiptonTeaForMe

        My learning style is similar to what Helka is saying, if I do not understand how all the pieces fit together to make the whole, then doing X, Y and Z make no sense to me. And regardless of whether I am supposed to know or not, if I then get bored because I am not engaged in the process it makes it harder to do.

    4. Katie the Fed

      “My follow-up question would be: if this behavior/ attitude continues, and she does not make a change, is it grounds for some sort of disciplinary action? It impacts the overall morale of our work environment when one person is so loudly complaining about not being trained. I have noticed that her behavior skews the behavior of other staff members that are at her level and below.”

      Sure, why not?

      “Samantha, we expect you to set an example to the other staff. Your complaining is getting excessive, to the point that it’s affecting the performance of the staff. I need you to rein it in – strongly. YOu are welcome to bring Hank and I specific concerns, but we’ve already discussed the issue of your training. Regardless, I need you to stop complaining to the staff about this. Can you do this?”

        1. Katie the Fed

          I JUST had this discussion with my chronic complainer. It was a frustrating conversation.

    5. Ask a Manager Post author

      So you’re saying you’ve tried all of it, but if it’s continuing, that’s a sign that you need to be more assertive about shutting it down. Have you literally said to her, “this is impacting the way you’re seen, it makes me uncomfortable, and I want you to stop?” And have you directly told her to stop texting you during conversations with Hank? And if she hasn’t, have you told Hank that? He needs to know it’s going on.

      And yes, if someone is causing negativity and distraction like this, you (in this case Hank) can absolutely tell them that it needs to stop, and hold them to that like you would any other performance expectation.

      1. OP

        As far as the texting and emailing me, that stopped when I told her she needed to direct her questions to Hank. However, I know that she often emails and texts others (her peers) complaining… on a regular basis. Actually, she was the topic of another question I sent a while back (top performer constantly emailing, texting at work).

        Here’s the thing. She’s not going to get fired. She knows it. It’s a government job. People don’t get fired. And she is honestly our top performer right now. (Which is not saying much, in a way. We have a few stinkers here, and we have several open positions that we are having a hard time filling.)

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Also: Whether or not it’s something you’d fire her over, I have trouble believing that you and Hank couldn’t totally shut this down by dealing with it really assertively and making it clear it’s Not Okay, and continuing to address it until it stops.

          (And just for the record, I really hate anything that reinforces “people don’t get fired because it’s a government job.” People can get fired from government jobs; it’s just takes time and paperwork. I get that you might not want to do it here, but this is a broader PSA!)

          1. OP

            I have spoken to Hank about her habits (she reported only to me for about a year before this current assignment)… but as far as I know he hasn’t noticed the excessive texting, etc.

            And, okay, yes, people do get fired from government jobs. However, while Hank & I are her direct managers, we are not the ones that make decisions about disciplinary action. I have brought up her behaviors with texting and emailing when asked for input in her most recent performance review, but Hank & I (and our peers) do not see the final performance review, nor are we involved in the administration and presentation of reviews. It’s a broken system, but that’s how it is. If it were up to me, it would be handled much more aggressively.

            1. fposte

              It sounds kind of like Hank isn’t really pushing much on this either, though. If that’s true, I think having her stop texting you and to leave your reports out of her complaining may be the best you can achieve.

            2. Meg Murry

              Even if you and Hank don’t give official, “on the record” reviews, is there anything stopping the 2 of you from giving your employees unofficial reviews? I had a boss that liked to do quarterly “this is what you’re doing well, this is where I see you struggling, these are the projects that will be priority for the next quarter (unless plans change), and this is the role I expect you to take in those projects”. Then we would also have a conversation about what I needed from her to succeed (help pulling Project Tedious off my plate, more support from a technician, training on software XYZ, etc) and what my overall career goals were.

              They were way less work since we didn’t do all the official paperwork and numerical ranking baloney, but it also kept things fresh in our minds for when the time came to do the official review once a year.

            3. neverjaunty

              You don’t make the final decisions, but you are the ones who provide the information that goes to the decision-makers.

              If you’re starting with the attitude of “Nobody gets fired here” or “there’s nothing I can do about Samantha”, then yes, nothing will get done, because you are not taking the appropriate and assertive steps to make sure disciplinary action happens.

            4. lowercase holly

              is he talking to her over the phone? how does he not noticed the texting/emailing *while* they are talking?

            5. Andrea

              I’ve had some success in the past by framing this as a judgement issue – ie that part of your job is to demonstrate good judgment when evaluating things, and you loose credibility when you can’t assess your abilities appropriately.

    6. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

      Complainers make me cranky.

      When I read the post, what I see is someone who has a high need to complain, and I don’t put up with that.

      I’d tell her that she has to stop complaining unless she has something new to say, and has a suggested solution along with whatever complaint she wants to issue. Training isn’t going to change. Hank isn’t going to change. None of the things she is complaining about now are going to change, period.

      IDK how a disciplinary action is handled in government work. In my world, I would fire someone who could not stop complaining and was bringing everybody else down.

      1. Elizabeth West

        This is a good point. Telling someone “If you bring me a complaint, I’d like you to also bring me a solution” forces them to think about what they’re saying and find their own answers. Either that or they’ll stand there helplessly, doing nothing, which you can then deal with on its own.

        *IANAM

        1. jag

          Pushing for more solutions is good, but requiring a solution with each one is a bit much. Sometimes the person noticing the problem may not have the power or even understanding to come up with a solution. I think a good manager can say “Look, we need you to try to think through the solutions to some of these things.” But “Don’t come with problems unless you have solutions” is a good way to avoid problems being addressed at all.

          1. AcademiaNut

            It’s also incredibly frustrating to be told this, and to have every single proposed solution shot down for reasons that you don’t have access to (high level legal or policy issues, for example, or things that were tried three years before you started working there).

            The message that comes from that is either that the powers that be have no interest in solving problems, and are just trying to get you frustrated enough to shut up, or that they’re too disorganized to actually solve problems.

    7. Meg Murry

      Can you approach this as her former peer/friend, not a manager and try to help her get out of the misery a little? Maybe take her out to lunch or go out for drinks after work and say “I know you are miserable here. As your friend, lets talk about what steps you could take to make it less miserable.” Since you say you work in government, is it possible for her to apply for an internal transfer to somewhere that uses more of the skills of her desired field, and less of the current job that is making her miserable? For instance, if you currently work in IT but she really would rather be a teacher, are there positions in your government for people that conduct IT training? Or is there a way she could suggest she to Hank that take on some kind of training aspect for your department?

      The IT / teacher /trainer case is just an example – but maybe as her friend you could help her either transfer (and theoretically keep her current pay rate, since it would be internal) or make an exit plan.

      Or if you were originally miserable but have gotten over it, could you share that with her? For instance, one of the biggest lessons I have learned is that as an adult, I’m not always going to like my job – and sometimes I’m going to hate it – but sometimes I just need to suck it up for 8 hours a day doing something that at least I don’t completely hate in order to pay for me to be able to do the things I love on the side.

      1. OP

        Oh yes, I have tried all of these things. So have the 2 other managers she has worked for.

      2. neverjaunty

        Nooo, bad idea. Samantha needs more reinforcement of workplace norms, not less.

    8. NacSacJack

      OP – have you promoted her, changed her title? Raises are one way of measurement but doesnt really show career progression. I suffer from lack of job title change and that grinds into my self-confidence.

      1. OP

        There is no room for title changes in our government structure. The raises she has received coincide with certain certifications that she has received that are a combination of job experience and exams. She has one more certification in order to be eligible for the next logical promotion in our department. She says that she will not apply for a promotion though, because she doesn’t feel confident enough in her current role to move forward.

    9. ThursdaysGeek

      I’ve known people who think that my spouse make them feel stupid, and it’s not because of the way he’s dealing with them. It’s simply that he has a large vocabulary and a lot of knowledge, and they feel stupid when talking to him. It’s frustrating, because they are not stupid, and he knows it. He treats them like they are smart, and they internally feel like he’s rubbing it in how smart he is.

      I don’t know a solution for that, but that might be part of why she feels stupid around Hank, even when he is treating her with respect and like anybody else.

      1. Pennalynn Lott

        ^^ This. I heard from a friend of a friend recently that I was purposefully trying to make Friend #1 feel stupid because I used “equilibrate” in a sentence and they didn’t know what it meant. I was explaining why I let my food sit in the microwave for a minute or so after the beeper goes off (so the heat/temperature can equilibrate, or reach an equilibrium, across the entire food item so I don’t burn my mouth on a hot spot); they thought I was talking down to them.

          1. bridget

            Totally! If I’m talking to someone who I don’t think is very smart (or more often: children), I don’t use big words just to rub it in. I use big words when they are the right word for the situation and I assume the other person will understand.

    10. Observer

      I have not read the responses to this comment, so I may be repeating what others have said. But,here are my first thoughts (hope they are helpful).

      Sam. “Hank makes me feel stupid.”
      OP “I’m sorry to hear that. You still need to talk to him.”

      Sam. “blah, blah blah”
      OP “You need to talk to Hank”
      Sam. “He makes me feel stupid.”
      OP “We’ve talked about that. You need to talk to him”

      Sam. “blah blah blah”
      OP “Hank. Nothing further to discuss.”

      ======================================================

      If she’s pulling others down, then, yes, it definitely is something to address as a performance issue. And, when you talk to her about whether this is where she wants to stay, you need to tell her explicitly that if she wants to stay here, part of what she is going to have to commit to, is to keep her issues from pulling others down.

      Also, when you have a conversation with her about her attitude, remind her that it’s just fine with you if she’s not enthralled with the job. A lot of people do very good work at positions that are NOT their “vocation”, but are “just a job.” What is NOT ok, though, is slacking (which does not appear to be a problem yet), and rudeness, negativity and constant complaining (all of which she is engaging in.) The bottom line is that she needs to decide whether she is willing to do what it takes to do this job, even though it’s not the field she would prefer to be in, or not.

  16. Anonymusketeer

    As a child, someone once told me to shut down bullying by pointing out my flaws with a self-depricating joke before anyone else had a chance to mock my weight/clothes/large vocabulary/messiness in a more mean-spirited way. As an adult, I’ve really struggled to shut up about my insecurities now that I realize these comments make people uncomfortable.

    I’ve also never felt competent at my job. Not when I was making blizzards at Dairy Queen, and not now, after several years in my chosen field.

    I don’t have any advice, I guess, but I’ll be watching the comments on this thread.

    1. Helka

      I’ve gotten that same advice, and I’ve found that it backfires tremendously. By making self-deprecating jokes about these things, what you’re signaling is that these things are fair game to talk about, or yeah, making them uncomfortable. Especially if they share those traits…

    2. BenAdminGeek

      It’s hard- that is a good mechanism for deflection for some (me!). But telling it to a child who can’t see the areas in which it’s useful/harmful isn’t a great strategy. I’ve struggled with that as well, but it does help in my field when discussing difficult items with clients.

    3. Cleopatra Jones

      Unless you plan to be a stand up comedian one day, this is really bad advice for a kid.

      I mean I get that it takes the sting out of the bully’s comments but the hit that you will take to your self-esteem is not worth it. I think it sets a person up for a cycle of negative self talk and a negative feeling about themselves because you get so used to pointing out your negatives, you don’t appreciate or see all of the positive stuff in your life.

      1. Anonymusketeer

        Yes, I found myself internalizing a lot of the negative statements I was trying to use as a deflection. It also put me on the defensive about traits that absolutely don’t need defending or explaining; there is nothing so noticeable about me that it would become the elephant in the room if I didn’t address it. Yet there I was, looking for any flaws I may not have seen before.

        (I have known people with visible disabilities who use a similar strategy with positive results, but it’s different. They’re more likely to be defusing a polite person’s discomfort, not getting ahead of potential bullies. And of course they treat their disability as a sometimes-inconvenient circumstance, not a blemish or character flaw.)

        Knowing what I know now, I’d be more likely to advise a kid to hold her peers to a higher standard, expecting basic respect and dignity and treating bullying like the exception. Anticipating bullying (and, later in life, silent judgment) never actually prevented it for me, but it likely alienated people who might have liked me.

    4. I'm a Little Teapot

      I’ve never felt competent at my job either, and my long history of screwups, bad decisions, and bad luck has given me a very self-deprecating sense of humor and a general self-image and outward persona of “loser/failure,” so I’m inclined to be sympathetic to Samantha, and watch the comments here too.

    5. Shell

      As a wise-ass who is prone to making quippy remarks of all kinds, including self-deprecating ones, to all and sundry, I never thought about whether that’d make my coworkers uncomfortable. Hmm. In fairness, I don’t vocalize the times when I feel like people want to run me through with a forklift; I vocalize the instances where Coworkers A, B, or C have legitimately stepped in and given me a hand and respond with something like “thanks for the save, I had no idea how to answer that.”

      So far I think I’ve stayed on the side of lighthearted joking, but I’m going to have to think about this some more.

    6. Not So NewReader

      I think some doubt about competence is good for us. It makes us stay on our toes, check behind ourselves, etc.

      I am sure there are a number of ways of growing one’s feeling of competence. And what works for me might be entirely useless to you, because my needs are different than your needs. But one thing that has helped me to feel confident is to do things the same way each time. If I have methods/habits/routines my confidence grows. Consistency leads to familiarity. Familiarity leads to reassurance. Reassurance builds confidence.

      In any new job, I target the recurring tasks. I nail those down and learn those things the way I know my own hand. After building this foundation, then I start to deal with the unique things that come up. I try to take what I have learned so far and reapply that knowledge to unique tasks.

      In this job I have now, we have a lot of X task to do. Oh, my, there is a lot of them! It is probably 75% of my work volume. I nailed that down first thing- I learned everything I could and I kept pushing myself to do X when ever it came up. Once I was comfy with X, I looked around and I realized, “Aw crap- the remaining 25% of my work volume is tasks A through M!” Even though it is 25% of the stuff I tackle, it takes a lot longer time wise and there is a huge variety of things to learn. I started slowly and steadily branching out. I still have to learn how to do task E and task J. But they have only come up ten times in the two years I have been there. My boss has a good handle on them and she would prefer I do something that she does not have a good handle on.
      Here’s the wrinkle in all this: Every day new things are added. I spend huge amounts of time learning the new thing and NOT doing real work. It really helps to have an honest assessment of what your work place is. No, I cannot read emails with 200 page documents AND still complete my stuff I need to do today. Make sure you are looking at the reality of the job, before you decide that you are or are not competent. Be fair to you.

  17. Jillociraptor

    I think it’s really hard to coach resilience and, I’m not sure what the right word is, maybe leadership? but I think that’s what Samantha needs. If she were my direct report, I’d say something like,

    “Samantha, you’ve made it really clear that you don’t feel like you know what you’re doing. But I and other managers have told you repeatedly that you’re doing quite well. Everyone faces moments when they don’t know exactly what to do next, or don’t have the full context for what’s happening, so it’s okay that you feel that way sometimes, but my expectation of you is that you’ll take the initiative to figure out how to get the skills or information that you need to confidently do your job.” I’d probably also charge her with creating a professional development plan to build the skills/context she feels she’s lacking.

    But OP isn’t Samantha’s manager, so maybe you’d need to adapt this. In the moment, I think something like, “Yeah, things move fast sometimes; what are you thinking about doing to answer that question?” Or when she’s talking about how she doesn’t know what she’s doing, something like, “You say that a lot; how do you think you can develop more confidence? It seems like you’re doing a good job.”

    I think the key is to be gently supportive, but constantly reinforce the idea that as a professional, it’s on Samantha to make sure she has what she needs to do her job well.

    1. Book Person

      “but my expectation of you is that you’ll take the initiative to figure out how to get the skills or information that you need to confidently do your job.”

      I really like that wording! Or making it into a more direct question: what skills or information will you need to do your job confidently? Puts the initiative back on her, and might take her out of a negative thought-spiral if she has something concrete to focus on?

  18. Katie the Fed

    I have limited patience for this. As an adult in a professional environment, Samantha really shouldn’t be seeking reassurances from her colleagues. That’s just not appropriate. An occasional “I’m worried about this presentation – I hope I’ll do ok!” is one thing, but this sounds excessive.

    This might be worth pulling her aside and telling her that she might want to talk to someone about her self-confidence issues. If your employer offers an Employee Assistance Program, you might want to refer her to that. This is really something she needs to fix for herself, not have others build her up.

    1. Laurel Gray

      Yes, this! While it could be one or a combination of things suggested in the comments here, I can’t agree more that this is something she needs to fix herself. Be it confidence, depression, misery, whatever – it isn’t fair to her workplace to have to put up with the complaining and lack of professionalism.

      Her behavior is similar to the friend that complains day and night (to anyone with ears) about their spouse, yet is not susceptible to any advice nor willing to make any changes, including leaving said spouse.

    2. LiptonTeaForMe

      Totally agree with Katie the Fed. It is one thing to be thrown to the wolves and expected to pick it all up by osmosis, it is another to complain ad nauseam about it. Either she is able to articulate to you (or Hank) what she is uncomfortable with and offer solutions on how to rectify it to help herself or the issue is not what she is complaining about. But complainers suck all the positive energy out of the room and if this is a constant issue, your team will be suffering the effects as well.

  19. YouHaveBeenWarned

    I have been this person and it was ugly and, in retrospect, mortifying. It may not be the case for Samantha, but for me it stemmed from actually really hating my job. Some part of me wanted to be unqualified for it so that leaving would be inevitable and the right thing to do. In actuality, I am pretty good at it. I still struggle with feeling like I am not doing everything as amazingly as I could, but I keep those feelings to myself. It took me realizing that I was in control of my career and could leave if I wanted to for me to also take ownership of the role I was in while I’m here.

    If this is what’s going on with Samantha, also maybe asking her “what does proficiency at x skill mean to you?” could be a good way of gauging whether she is setting unrealistic standards for herself. And along the lines of what Alison said, asking her “where do you see yourself going with this job?” might also help her refocus on the fact that claiming ineptitude doesn’t absolve her of responsibility for managing her own career.

    1. 42

      This is actually quite brilliant. And I think–of the OP is willing to set aside a chunk of time to get to the absolute bottom of this–it can lead to a conversation that can be eye-opening to all involved. There is always a nugget of truth to be found; it’s up to the OP if they’re willing to set some time to meet ad uncover it.

      Reserve time for a meeting. Starting off with “What does proficiency with x skill [as YHBW up above suggests] look like to you?” Don’t take “I don’t know” for an answer. You want to hear from Samantha exactly how she pictures success.

      Address “Hank makes me feel stupid” with “HOW does Hank make you feel stupid?” Again, do not accept “I don’t know” as an answer. Maybe she says that it’s his tone. Probe further: “What is it about his tone that makes you feel stupid?” …all the way down to the truth nugget. It’s there. It’s a huge onion that needs to be peeled layer by layer.

      Again, all this depends upon how much time and effort the OP and Hank want to expend on Samantha. But she does need to know that one way or another, this behavior stops NOW.

  20. Greenie

    Is there a way to appropriately recommend counseling? Because I feel Samantha is dealing with something she may want to discuss with a professional. I feel like she is stuck in a cycle of: I don’t like this–>I don’t want to do this–>I can’t do this. And some of these insecurities may not even be coming from work. But I don’t know if OP is in a position to recommend that.

  21. AnonAlces

    I sympathize with Samantha, because I struggle with similar sorts of feelings and trying not to verbalize them.

    Often when I get assigned a task, if I don’t understand immediately how to do it, I’m overwhelmed with negative emotions. (I work in a problem-solving field, I’m quite often assigned an issue with novel dimensions). These feelings are a combination of self-deprecation/lack of self-confidence (“I’m too stupid to do this”) and outward frustration (“why does so-and-so assign *me* all these chocolate teapot issues instead of my coworkers?” or “why is this even important?”)

    Usually I get over it relatively quickly, as I start to realize how I can put my knowledge to work. But I still struggle with venting my panic appropriately in those intervening minutes. I suspect that Samantha feels these overwhelming feelings when Hank communicates with her, and seeing the LW as a friend, feels safe venting to her rather than, like, screaming at her monitor. (I usually just swear at my monitor and mutter under my breath — I thankfully work in an environment where this is written off as a personality quirk, although it is still something I am trying to improve).

    I agree that Samantha is being inappropriate for this office environment, but maybe knowing where she is coming from will temper the LW’s response.

  22. Jessa

    It’s also possible that she really does have an issue understanding Hank. Even though she is ultimately getting the task, he may be confusing her and making her think she’s not understanding him. It may really be a communication issue. It could also be that Hank is giving her unintended but subtle clues that he doesn’t think she’s getting it at all. If she did at one point ask for clarification and he handled it badly, she may now be worried that even though she’s doing okay, what Hank is telling her is ultimately going to get her in trouble.

    Also doing quite well at this level, does not mean she’s actually properly trained to leave the nest and go do all the tasks. It’s not known how much Hank is shouldering vs actually teaching her.

    It’s also possible that she’s insecure, or that she’s fishing for compliments, or any other number of things everyone else has already suggested. But it might for her peace of mind at least be wise to put her in the hands of a different trainer for a day, and have them watch and actually evaluate what she really knows at this point vs what she should know. She also may have a totally unrealistic idea of what success at this point in time with the company looks like. She may think she needs to be completely great at a b and c, when she really at this point only needs to do a and half of b and absolutely NONE of c. And she’s upset because c completely confuses her.

    Just because Hank is a good competent trainer, and is known to be fair and not discriminate for instance because she’s female, or new, does not mean he’s an ideal trainer for HER.

  23. Sympathizer

    It sounds to me like Samantha might be dealing with depression and lacks self confidence. I’m told I’m doing a good job at work but I get crappy raises, and I never get picked for projects or more challenging tasks, despite expressing an interest. So you’re SAYING I’m doing a good job, but the facts suggest otherwise. Samantha getting a good raise though sort of throws that out the window, but perhaps there’s something else happening that leads her to believe that despite what she’s being told, she isn’t doing a good job.

    1. ThursdaysGeek

      Are you me? I hear how people like me and think I’m doing great work. I see the work of my co-workers and by my criteria, I am doing quite well. But it has never translated into good pay or increased responsibilities. So there’s always that doubt, that maybe they just like me personally and don’t want to hurt my feelings, and I’m really pretty mediocre.

        1. ThursdaysGeek

          I think what it means is that life isn’t fair, and even if I am the best employee out there, it doesn’t mean I’ll be compensated accordingly. Because if that’s not the case, I’m second-rate and don’t even realize it.

  24. Marie

    Just because you understand Hank’s instructions does not mean that Samantha does. Some people have different learning styles than others, and while everything that Hanks says sounds clear and reasonable to you, it does not mean that she feels the same way. It might also be that she’s extremely sensitive and picks up on cues in tone or syntax which for her imply condescension or disapproval. It could also be that he is unintentionally making her feel stupid by assuming that she knows how to do something when she doesn’t, or treating something as very simple when she actually thinks it’s complicated.

    From what you’ve written, it doesn’t sound like Samantha is just fishing for compliments. It could be that she finds the job extremely confusing and stressful because there aren’t any resources available for her training and development besides Hank’s verbal instructions. It’s also very possible that she is unhappy with her position and is subconsciously (or consciously) viewing everything in a negative light because of her underlying feelings for the job. I know when I’m unhappy with a job, every small thing appears to be the most inconvenient and awful thing that has ever happened to me.

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

      Except that she performs well. If she was actually having those issues, she wouldn’t be performing well.

      1. fposte

        Right, that’s the frustrating part. This isn’t a struggling employee, so the OP can’t help her with her work. If these are cries for help, it’s “Make me happier to be here,” and that’s not something you can really ask.

        1. Not So NewReader

          “Make me happier here”, is how I read this, too.

          And this is not something OP will be able to do, nor should she try to do this.

          We are each responsible for our own happiness or the lack there of.

          After reading this far, I think that this is a person that will only be satisfied by leaving their post.

          Oddly, I just had something similar here. My friend was working at Miserable Job. There were lots of things wrong, half of the things were illegal stuff. Some of it was ethics or moral issues. I talked to my friend. He was not himself and no candy bar was going to turn him back into himself. He was miserable because of the staggering amount of problems. My advice was to resign. (He has other work, this is not a money issue at all.) We talked about this option for a few minutes and I could hear the calm coming back into his voice. Even though he said he was going to think about it, I knew he had his answer. It was not the route he wanted to take, so he had to think about it.

          Sometimes we end up in jobs where we are such a bad match for the job there is no comforting us. My friend was not consolable until I mentioned resigning. I told my friend, if we cannot fix all that is wrong and we cannot adapt to it, then that means there one last option: we must leave the job. OP, you may have to discuss the option of leaving with her in order to get her to calm down and actually listen to what you are saying.

    2. Jo

      Marie, your first paragraph is a pretty good overview of my frustration with my own job/manager. I’m not exactly a Samantha, maybe because I’m by nature less vulnerable; I know I’m actually skilled at the work I was hired to do, but in this specific position, I still feel I can never quite please my manager for the reasons you describe. It comes down to incompatible communication styles (see also the good old task-oriented vs. relationship-oriented issue) and that is really hard to fix. Samantha may do better under a different manager, if this job can be saved for her at all. And for commenters who are only zeroing in on Samantha’s bad behavior, I don’t think it helps to say, step 1) fix her unprofessional behavior and only THEN proceed to 2) consider the underlying communication problems with her manager. If area 2 doesn’t start happening, her frustrated emotions will probably remain too high to allow her to make real and lasting changes in area 1. She might be able to rein herself in for awhile, but the problem will keep coming back.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

        There’s a big difference though.

        Samantha IS pleasing her manager, except with all the complaining she’s doing. She gets, according to the OP, consistent good feedback on her work.

        So your situation is different, by your own description.

        1. Jo

          Whether the manager is actually satisfied with the work isn’t relevant to my point. I’m talking about the employee’s interpretation, right or wrong. The question is whether the manager’s satisfaction has registered in the employee’s brain in a meaningful way, and whether the employee feels they can trust the positive feedback they get.

          In my case, we can’t actually know how satisfied (or not) my manager is with my work. If you asked her, she might say I’m doing a good job in xyz measurable ways, and my last formal review was positive. However, daily interactions I have with her leave me with a vague sense that she’s disappointed, thinks I’m kind of dumb, would rather not have to talk to me, doesn’t trust my abilities yet paradoxically has ridiculously high expectations of me, etc. I have so much trouble pinning down what she does to make feel that way. It comes from subtle cues like her facial expression, tone, how she punctuates emails, when she chooses to be silent (or, on the flip side, interrupt me). Also, I sometimes have genuine trouble deciphering her instructions, and asking for clarification signs me up for another round of indefinable “you suck” cues, which may not even be intended that way, but they feel that way to me, and all I can do to move on is tell myself it’s all in my head. And there is nothing I can say to my boss about it that wouldn’t come across as unprofessional, whiny, and possibly delusional. You can hear my agitation, right? The point I’m trying to make is: communication breakdown around performance is very, very hard on an employee and can be downright crazy-making. Samantha probably isn’t naturally confident in her own abilities. I am. All it’s taken is one incompatible boss to drive me half out of my mind.

          I’m probably straying too far from the original letter. I just saw a lot of myself in it.

    3. I'm a Little Teapot

      This. I recently had a job where my main training resource was contradictory verbal instructions from two different managers and one peer, and a lot of my job responsibilities were things specific to our company’s processes that *no one* knew how to do, and the few written training materials were very incomplete and outdated, and my managers would usually ignore e-mails asking questions and were rarely at their desks. So I messed up constantly, of course, and it was immensely frustrating.

  25. OP

    I just want to say I am really appreciating all the feedback here. It’s almost too much to process, but it’s all good stuff.

    1. AW

      I know that the OP has some issues with depression.

      You meant Samantha, right?

      Frankly, this right here probably explains everything. She keeps putting herself down because her jerkbrain is telling her she’s bad at everything and she needs to warn people that she’s about to screw up. So that aspect of it is a bit of CYA; she expects things to go wrong and thinks the only thing she can do is tell you ahead of time. It’s also a bit of a preemptive apology.

      If you know about the depression and EAP usage because she told you (and I hope that’s why you know) then do you have the kind of relationship where you can suggest more outside help?

      I can sympathize with how hard it is to stop berating yourself once you’ve fallen into the habit. This advice would be more for her but one way to break the habit might be to have a “swear jar” but instead of putting in a quarter for swearing she puts in a slip of paper where she writes something nice about herself. Ideally work related stuff. Having a real log of workplace accomplishments might help her feel less anxious about her work performance as well.

        1. OP

          And I know about EAP because she has told me. Because I suggested it in the past, she said she’s maxes out her EAP counseling sessions every year. She also mentioned that she takes medication for depression. Past that, no, I really don’t feel comfortable getting more involved in her personal depression issues.

          1. KJR

            Something to consider about the EAP — it’s x number of sessions “per issue” per year. While what you’ve outlined might be related to her depression, this is a work related problem that they might consider separate enough to warrant more sessions. It’s worth a try!

          2. Meg Murry

            Most EAPs only allow something like 6-12 sessions per year per issue – which may not be enough to get to the heart of the matter. It sounds to me like what she really needs to use the EAP for is as a transition to find a permanent therapist and/or psychiatrist that she sees more often. And if this is the same person that you wrote about last year always on her phone, email, Facebook, etc – her issues could also be coming with a side of ADHD, which often comes with depression when untreated or if it has caused years of her “feeling stupid”.

            Not to armchair diagnose. But EAPs aren’t meant as a substitute for ongoing therapy if that is what a person needs – they are supposed to help the person deal with the overwhelming parts, like finding a therapist who takes their insurance and is taking new patients – like I said above, it is a bridge, but it may not be enough in and of itself.

            1. KJR

              I used mine recently with excellent results. The first three sessions with the therapist were covered under the EAP, then it transferred over to my insurance. When I called for the intake, they matched me up with someone who was close to work and took my insurance. I coordinated with the therapist from that point on, making the appointments, etc. Great experience for me so far, and has helped tremendously.

  26. Dr. Speakeasy

    I admit to not having time to read through all the comments so sorry if this is a repeat…. I see this ALL the time with students (not all students, just 1 or 2 per class). I teach a somewhat difficult course and I always have one or two that do this “I have no idea” “I can’t understand” “How could anyone possibly get this” and while in some cases it is impostor syndrome in so many cases it is more “sin license.” If you frame something as impossible, then if you fail at it well… it’s not really your fault is it? It’s ego-protecting but SO ANNOYING when you’re trying to get concepts across and they seem to be shutting down. One thing that helps a lot is pointing out that other similar people have been able to understand and have been able to do these tasks. Because yeah, after high school “I just don’t get it” is not a reasonable answer to life.

    1. Jillociraptor

      I think this is right on. It’s about lowering expectations. I understand the vulnerable feelings that lead to the behavior, but you’re right — that’s just not a reasonable answer to life. Managing the gray areas is a necessary skill in almost every job, not to mention your life outside of your job.

    2. Anonymusketeer

      I spent much of my adolescence in this exact frame of mind. Can’t say I recommend it. School came so easily to me as a child that I really struggled when I bumped into challenging material or anything I wasn’t immediately good at.

      1. CaliCali

        That was, and continues to be, one of my toughest issues at work. School came easy; ergo, work should come easy. And I AM good at my job, but because being “smart” and “good at school” were such large parts of my identity, and I realized that without that identity, I wasn’t sure where I fell in the world. I tended to flail without the consistent validation of (good) grades or the occasional challenge that was NOT easy for me to figure out. So yes, Samantha’s behavior is all about ego protection, probably as a result of being a scholastic overachiever that doesn’t experience that consistent smooth sailing in the work world.

        1. I'm a Little Teapot

          “Smart” and “good at school” were large parts of my identity too, but I’ve never been good at my job as an adult, so my identity pretty much fell apart. “Failure” replaced “smart” as my identity in my twenties, and that’s still true to some extent.

          Most jobs are just so very different from anything we did in school that I’m not sure academic success is much of a predictor of professional success, but people usually expect that it will be.

    3. Pennalynn Lott

      Ha, that was me in my Finite Math class last semester. I got an A in the class, but I never really understood what we were doing. After the first exam I gave up trying to “learn” the material and just went for rote memorization instead. I still have no idea *why* I worked the problems like I did, or what underlying process was happening to solve them, or why one method was better than another (there were plenty of types of problems I could solve using techniques I learned through my years in business or through sheer common sense, but I wasn’t allowed to use them in the “show your work” parts of the exams). And no matter how many times I asked my instructor to explain a concept a different way (because her way wasn’t working for me), she’d just double-down on her original explanation. So, yeah, “I have no idea,” “I don’t understand this at all,” and “I just don’t get it,” *absolutely* came out of my mouth multiple times during the semester! :-)

      Oh, and I did do the “Other people seem to be getting this, and I’m not an idiot, so I should be able to get it, too,” trick. It got harder and harder to do as the semester went on, though, and the class went from 30 students down to just 8.

  27. NickelandDime

    Samantha doesn’t realize this, but she is talking herself out of promotions, pay raises, good project opportunities and possibly building a case for her to end up on a lay off list one day. I hope her manager picks up on this and starts to help her work on this. Nothing good is going to come of it.

  28. Windchime

    I used to work with a woman like this. She was constantly making comments about how fat she thought she was, how stupid she was, calling herself ignorant and ugly, etc. She also had a habit of laughing nervously everytime she said something. I realize that it was a matter of low self-esteem, but honestly, it became exhausting to constantly try to prop her up. I got to the point where I felt like she was just pumping me (and the rest of the team) for constant compliments or reasurrance, and I refused to do it any longer.

    The job was a terrible fit for her, and once we got a manager who actually managed the situation, she resigned within a month or so. Much to my relief. I’m sorry about her bad self-esteem, but it was truly exhausting to deal with.

    1. fposte

      It’s tough, because people really do have great needs sometimes, and depression, as the OP notes Samantha suffers from, is a heavy burden to carry. But the need can be legitimate and still not be something your co-workers and manager should have to meet–or even can meet.

    2. Nina

      I had a college friend like this. She would ask me to tell her what her worse physical traits were, and press me time and time again when I wouldn’t do it. Exhausting is the perfect word for people like that. I had my own self-esteem issues, but I didn’t want anyone to list them for me.

    3. Not So NewReader

      I have a family member like this. For him it is a deeply rooted thing. It started in his childhood and has been fed, nourished, and protected all his life. If you try to tell him to stop putting himself down he either becomes insulted OR he apologizes for offending you, “but you should know that I always do stupid things and insult people all the time.”

      In this extreme example, this person is either where he wants to be AND/OR entirely fails to grasp that he could have a gentler life.
      Can’t fix this.

  29. Allison

    If someone tells me I’m doing really well in my job, I’ll probably believe them, UNLESS I have reason to believe they’re lying. If my job is to make the handles for the chocolate teapots, and someone tells me I make great handles but then starts making the handles as well, I might wonder if I’m not making enough of them, or if maybe they’re lying to me about my performance to preserve morale. OR if they tell me I’m doing great, but then constantly make condescending comments about how I should be making the handles, or just talk to me like I’m 6 instead of 26, all the while still assuring me that there’s nothing wrong with the way I’m doing them, I’m going to wonder what’s really going on.

    Also, sometimes I’m hard on myself in my current job because in my first job, they had really high expectations of me and failure carried a high penalty, so now I sometimes hold myself to those standards out of habit.

    So basically, if you tell someone they’re doing a good job, make sure you’re not then making comments that inadvertently contradict that praise.

  30. katamia

    Haven’t read all the comments, but I think OP should tell Samantha to ASK when she doesn’t understand something. Nobody walks into a job knowing all the ins and outs, and this is a job with a huge learning curve. Asking (for help, clarification, etc.) is something people just need to learn how to do.

    Also, of course she doesn’t know what Hank wants her to do since she’s not paying attention when he talks to her, apparently.

  31. NacSacJack

    OP – along with the possibility of low self-esteem and self-confidence, which I definitely think is a big factor having read through your subsequent comments, I’d like to ask of you two items: #1 – If you ‘re not her peer anymore (sounds like you moved into mgmt), you may need to remind her that your relationship with her has changed and you cannot continue to function as a recepient of these comments via IM and email. #2 – Is she hard of hearing? Does Hank talk in a tone or a soft whisper that is hard to hear?

    1. OP

      #1 – I think she’s gotten that message, recently, but yes, you are right, that’s a piece of it.
      #2 – No she is not hard of hard of hearing, nor does Hank talk in a soft tone.

  32. JOhio

    Been there, done that on both sides of this, and I agree with many of the suggestions – trying to dig to the truth, recommending EAP, shutting down the texts during conversations, and so on.

    One more thing to try. I like the wording of “don’t talk about my employees that way.” You might even want to go a little further that that and perhaps shock Samantha with a new perspective. “Samantha, don’t talk about me/Hank/your employers that way. You are saying that we are incapable of accurately judging your performance. This needs to stop.”

    1. Not So NewReader

      Amen. At this point, OP, you can say, “I have tried my best to help you with your concerns. I have not been able to help you. My next step here is that you need to stop second guessing your bosses. If your boss says you are doing a good job, it is not yours to second guess that statement. It’s an insult to the bosses.”

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