my employee is snippy with people and dramatic about stress

A reader writes:

I am a first-time manager to a small team consisting of a few departments in a service-based industry. A woman I manage, “Lucinda,” appears to thrive on manufactured stress. I like Lucinda and she garners positive feedback from clients, but it is common for her to come off as exasperated or overwhelmed to me, her teammates, and even industry partners, especially in the face of changes or busier times of the year. She also points out other department’s perceived “issues” more frequently than anyone. Several of her colleagues have mentioned their annoyance or offense at Lucinda being snippy, playing up her workload as much heavier than others, or being dramatic to the point of deception.

I can say unequivocally that Lucinda does not have an unmanageable workload, and actually has quite a bit more flexibility than is common in this role. There was a time during which her department was understaffed and I could somewhat sympathize, which is something I mentioned to her, but that time has long passed and an attitude adjustment is still needed.

Over the past few months, we’ve had a “check in that everything is okay, as a few people have mentioned you’ve been a little short lately” conversation and a more serious “your behavior during that internal meeting was not acceptable” conversation. She seemed shocked at the first and apologetic at the second. I’m not sure how to effectively communicate “It’s not impressive for you to seem at the end of your rope so often and you need to be less abrasive.” What should my approach be to mitigate her panache for drama that’s alienating her colleagues?

I wrote back and asked: “How clear were you about exactly what she’s doing that needs to stop? And has it continued unabated since that last conversation?”

When we had a formal annual review in May, we discussed that I was concerned that she was “wearing stress on her sleeve,” but I also said I found it understandable given that her department was understaffed.

In a one-on-one in June, I asked if everything was alright as colleagues said she was a bit short. She was about to go out on vacation so I hoped she could relax and come back refreshed. So I suppose both of those times I was making more of an implication than a directive.

In August we had two discussions on the topic. The first was her relaying a dramatic incident between another department manager and a vendor. She did not witness the event first hand, but it happened in association with her client. After further investigtion, the incident was not handled perfectly but was not near the disaster she relayed. I basically told her everyone does their best and to trust other manager’s decisions even when it’s not exactly what she would have done.

Our second discussion was regarding inappropriate behavior at a staff training during which Lucinda made comments about both the training and the new workflow being inefficient and how the new procedure would make everyone’s job easier except her department’s (simply untrue). She generally huffed and puffed through the entire training. At our next one-on-one, I said that her behavior was totally unacceptable for any professional and even more so as she is the senior person in her department. I told her she needs to be more flexible and handle changes with leadership and professionalism and that I am here to support her in any training on the new (and very badly needed) workflow. She agreed that she did not act professionally and apologized.

We have not had attitude-related talks since, but we are halfway through our busiest two months of the year (for all departments) and her colleagues are irritated.

I’ve learned to always ask managers “how clear were you about exactly what she’s doing that needs to stop?” because at least 75% of the time when I ask that, it turns out that the manager has not been super explicit, either about the problem or the fact that it’s a serious issue.

So let’s take a closer look at the discussions you’ve had so far. In the first, you said her behavior was understandable (and I get the impulse to do that — you were hoping that you could keep it kind and supportive and she could save face, and she would hear the message and solve the problem). In the second, it sounds like you mainly encouraged her to relax on vacation, and in the third you gave her feedback that didn’t really get at this problem (you just told her to trust other people’s decisions). It wasn’t until the fourth one that you really got serious about it — but even then, it sounds possible that she thought it was specific to that incident and didn’t realize you were speaking more broadly.

To be clear, it’s not crazy that you expected that she would get still get the message from these conversations! Many employees would have gotten the message and that would be that. But when you’ve had these softer conversations and the behavior is continuing, the next step is always to get really, really clear about exactly what needs to change. Ideally you would have done that in the second conversation, but it’s not too late to do it now.

So. Sit down with her and say this: “We’ve talked a few times this year about you being short or with people or overly negative, but the behavior I’ve been concerned about has continued since then. For example, recently (insert a couple of recent examples here). This is impacting your work and other people’s work, and I really need you to get this under control.”

You could also ask, “Do you feel like you understand the sort of thing I’m talking about?” If she doesn’t quite get it, you want to find that out now, so that you can give her more examples and makes sure she’s clear on what needs to change.

The part about her coming across as overwhelmed is a different issue. Do you have a good sense of whether she truly feels overwhelmed or whether this is just part of her being dramatic? If she truly feels overwhelmed and you know that she shouldn’t, she might actually be in the wrong job; in that case, you’d want to be very honest with her that the workload isn’t going to change, that your assessment is that it’s quite reasonable for the position, and that you both need to figure out if she can handle it or not.

If it’s more about her being dramatic and complain-y, then I’d say something like this: “If you have concerns about your workload, I need you to bring those to me, not complain to your coworkers and definitely not to industry partners, which is really inappropriate. I want to be clear that I’ve looked at your workload and I believe it’s reasonable, based on my knowledge of how long this works takes. It’s true that when the department was under-staffed, your workload was higher, but that’s not the case now. But if things don’t feel manageable to you, that’s something you and I need to talk about it and I need you to raise it with me, not with other people who aren’t in a position to do anything about it. Can we agree that going forward, you’ll bring any concerns about feeling overworked directly to me so we can resolve them together, rather than complaining to others?”

After you have this conversation, you should be looking for immediate and sustained improvement. Hopefully you’ll see it. But if the problems continue, then you need to deal with this as a serious performance problem (which it is), including contemplating whether she’s the right person for the job.

{ 250 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. A+LlamaCuddlesInc

    This sounds tough for all involved. Some people, maybe including Lucinda, use complaining like that as a way to bond or make small talk–in the hallways at my work usually when people say “how are you?” the other person responds “busy!” and that’s quite normal. But to make your stress and exasperation everyone else’s problem or a source of stress for them is indeed over the line. I hope the more direct conversation with her helps you identify the real issue, OP–whether she’s developed some bad social habits at work or whether the job is sincerely a bad fit for her.

    Reply
    1. Important Moi

      I’ve found that some people think complaining/commiseration is the “only” conversation that can be had with co-workers. I find it exhausting. One co-worker in particular, I’ve taken to very shorts or avoiding completely. This person actually resents that I don’t wish to complain/commiserate with them.

      Reply
      1. Gabriela

        Equally as frustrating are the people who think playing up how busy and stressed they are conveys their importance.

        Reply
        1. Turquoisecow

          I’ve had so many coworkers and bosses like that. One guy was let go and some of his work fell to me. It wasn’t that complex and I immediately found ways to simplify it. Other coworkers I had to temporarily cover for I found similar things.

          There was definitely a culture of if you’re not overworked, you’re underworked at my old job. Probably because layoffs came about fairly often.

          Reply
            1. Turquoisecow

              There was also a lot of hand wringing and stresssing about how the layoffs were “totally random!” afterward, while in my mind they were usually justified.

              Reply
              1. Just Snarky Today

                I had a report who “huffed and puffed” and complained how stressful every customer interaction was in our “back room.” The workload was overwhelming. Not. There wasn’t enough time to do EVERYTHING. Sure there was. I was very direct. She filed a Union grievance that as a manager, I was abusive because I “would not allow her to have her feelings.” Fortunately I was at the point where I documented every interaction with her. She was exhausting.

                Reply
                1. Noobtastic

                  She can have all the feelings she wants. She just has to behave herself, anyway.

                  Like I tell young people, “You are allowed to feel hurt and angry. You are not allowed to attack other people because of it. Find positive ways to channel that negative emotion, instead.”

                  And unless her job description directly states that it’s all about the feelings, your job, as a manager, is not to “allow her to have her feelings,” anyway. Your job as a manager is to tell her what work to do, and make sure she has everything she needs to do the job in a safe and effective manner. You’re certainly not supposed to hurt her feelings by bad behavior on your part, but that doesn’t mean you have to coddle her adolescent emotional overflow.

                  I’m curious about the Union response to that complaint.

        2. Artemesia

          I have noticed that the people huffing and puffing and working late and dragging a big briefcase home and complaining how overwhelmed they are are very often people who don’t get much done. Those people are busy plowing through their work. The complainers are spending more time swanning about than working. I have always assumed people who stay late constantly (when others don’t need to, obviously there are ‘all hands on deck’ situations and some jobs are very time demanding) are people who don’t want to go home. They are avoiding the tasks they owe the family or they don’t know what to do with their time.

          Reply
          1. krysb

            I read that one of the Nordic states (I think Finland????) considers people who work overtime inefficient and bad at their jobs.

            Reply
            1. Noobtastic

              I remember reading a book about a business owner who insisted that everyone needed to be done at five.

              “Don’t Work Past Five” was his mantra, and if you had to work overtime, that meant there was something wrong, and it needed to be addressed. Maybe more training, maybe more staff, maybe new processes, or whatever, but overtime was something to be avoided at that company. Now and then, an emergency would come up, and it was all-hands-on-deck, for as long as necessary, but everyone was willing and able to chip in, without complaint, because it was so rare.

              I remember thinking how much I would LOVE to work in that company, even if overtime pay is nice.

              The same book also talked about embracing the speed of slowness. Basically, instead of rushing through your work, you should slow down to the point where you have a comfortable rhythm, and in the long-run, you’ll get more done, and done well. You’ll make fewer mistakes, for one thing, and for another thing, with a good rhythm, you’ll actually need fewer breaks and feel less stress, so that compensates for the speed of rushing, as well.

              Wish I could remember the book. I’d recommend it, if I could. But it’s been almost twenty years since I read it.

              Reply
          2. HigherEd on Toast

            Definitely. I have a colleague who is always and forever saying she doesn’t have time to talk because “Busy!” Or reply to your e-mails because “Busy!” Or she can’t attend required meetings because “Busy!” But in reality, she spends literal hours talking with people about her great dramatic life and the cute things her pets did and [past experience where she totally kicked ass]. Our offices are right next to each other’s, so I do notice. And then you try to get some feedback from her about an issue there needs to be consensus on and she’s promptly acting like she’s fainting from all her grading. And her family is bothering her. And she has a headache. And she’s been on campus 8 hours, OMG. I don’t talk to her because she’s consistently negative and always backbiting about people she thinks gets more than she does and complaining about how the salary isn’t enough and saying she can’t do [Y simple thing] becuase her chronically ill dog was ill yet again. It doesn’t give me the impression of a superstar, it sounds like someone who is completely disorganized and at the end of her rope all the time.

            Reply
        3. Noobtastic

          And yet, the ones who really are super-busy don’t spend time complaining and commiserating. The super-busy people are too busy for that, and if they have a real problem that needs fixing, they spend the time FIXING it, rather than complaining about it, so that they will be able to stop having the problem, and maybe have some time to actually breathe a bit, later.

          People who say, “I’m busy,” with a smile, are the ones who seem like they are working at capacity, and competent at their jobs. Alternately, they may reply to “how are you?” with “I’m not bored!” or some such.

          I think the whole complain/commiserate conversation hails back to high school, where teens were hormonal and cranky, and confused about life, and that was a common sort of conversation. It was a bonding experience to know that THAT TEACHER treated your pal just as bad as he treated you, or that everyone had six hours of homework per night, and you weren’t actually imagining things, and the faculty really were delusional about how many hours were in a day, and when did they expect you to eat and sleep?

          But most people grow out of it. Adults generally don’t like to have adolescent angsty conversations.

          Reply
      2. Zombeyonce

        I have a coworker like this. They have some familial issues that have been going on the last few years and every time you say “How are you?” in passing you get a big sigh, head shake, and mention of the latest problem. It’s not that I don’t sympathize, but when every single interaction is like that, it makes me want to avoid them.

        Reply
        1. Noobtastic

          Time to delete “how are you” from your vocabulary, when greeting this person. Just say, “Hi!” and either leave it at that (because you’re busy and need to get back to work), or else launch into a conversation about a subject that is completely unconnected to problems. Then, at least you don’t have to avoid the person, entirely.

          Reply
    2. OG Anon

      I’m an event planner and I can’t tell you how often people tell me I don’t “seem” stressed. I genuinely wonder if my coworkers would think I’m better at my job if I ran around like a chicken with my head cut off like my predecessor.

      Reply
      1. Gabriela

        If it makes you feel any better, I am usually VERY impressed by people who seem calm and collected when I know for a fact that they are super busy.

        Reply
      2. Demon Llama

        Really? When I had to plan some work events, I was explicitly encouraged to be the “swan” (calm on the surface, paddling like mad underneath.)

        It’s not my natural strength (if I don’t watch out, I wander towards headless chicken territory), so if you’re nailing that, all the kudos to you!

        Reply
      3. GRA

        Same here! The person who planned the events before me was a basket case before every events – she used to worry aloud “what if Race Director drops dead the night before the race???” and made-up scenarios like that routinely. I’ve heard more than once how calm I seem before and during events … Isn’t that just being professional?

        Reply
        1. Jean Lamb

          I’ve been in charge of projects that were suddenly re-scheduled the night before for two hours earlier than expected. You cope, usually with a lot of phone calls and a little wax doll of the person who published the time wrong in the local newspaper. You carry on, smile for the kiddies, and make it look like you *meant* to do that.

          Reply
      4. AMPG

        I’ve learned over the years that there’s a certain type of person who wants to see visible “scrambling” in a stressful situation – keeping calm makes them think that you’re not taking the problem seriously. The catch is to figure out you’re dealing with that type of person BEFORE the crisis hits, so that you don’t get a talking-to while you’re trying to solve a problem.

        Reply
        1. NW Mossy

          One of my fellow managers is like this, and just last week talked to her about it. We were meeting with a director I’ve worked with for years, who generally speaks very softly and doesn’t get visibly worked up about basically anything. My co-manager was incensed after the meeting, thinking that the director wasn’t taking the issue seriously. I finally had to say “That’s not her way. Just because she’s not ripping a strip off of one of her people doesn’t mean she doesn’t care. She cares – she’s just showing it differently than you would.” Thankfully that seemed to click for my co-manager, but you’re absolutely right that some people are so used to seeing intensity of emotion expressed (often because they do so themselves) that someone with a more restrained style looks disengaged to them.

          Reply
          1. MJLurver

            Oh my gosh- I commented earlier about this exact issue at my last job: my co-worker was a daily “chicken with her head cut off ” type and it made me so mad because I spent 20 years mastering the art of APPEARING calm, cool and collected on the outside even when I was freaking out from stress on the inside. One of my first bosses drilled into my head that it’s all about perception, and if you appear to have everything under control, people will believe you have everything under control.

            My supervisor at my most recent job (with the coworker who was always running around like a chicken with her head cut off) almost seemed like she WANTED her reports to act stressed out and overwhelmed – she never seemed to think it was a big deal that my coworker would huff and puff (and sigh and mutter under her breath and type angrily on her keyboard) about how busy and stressed she was all day every day. And when I would go through my day working hard and being productive (but not complaining or acting stressed out), it was as if my supervisor was suspicious of my ability to get the volume of work done that I’d complete. And then I would end up taking on a bunch of my coworker’s responsibilities despite being brand new to the job, while my coworker had been there for 8 (yes, EIGHT!) years and would still be unable to manage everything. It was crazy. My boss would lecture me about how much busier Jennica was, and I’d need to start helping her out since I obviously didn’t have enough to do (because I didn’t act stressed out and pissy all day??!!).

            It’s kind of the Sqeaky Wheel Gets the Grease syndrome, and I feel like having the ability to appear on top of my work and calm & capable is almost a negative thing to some supervisors.

            Reply
      5. Noobtastic

        You strike me as being just like my drama teacher, who told us that if we didn’t feel stage fright, we would totally flop, but that we could not *show* the stage fright. We were supposed to use the energy from the stage fright to power our performance, even if that performance was of a totally calm and collected character.

        It was easy when playing a manic comedy, but when it was a slow drama, channeling stage fright was quite a challenge. But it did give an added intensity to the slow-burn roles.

        Just because they don’t see the stress doesn’t mean it’s not there. It just means you’re awesome.

        Reply
  2. Lil Fidget

    Oh dear I almost wondered if this was my boss writing about me. In my case, I think it’s burnout – and note that OP even noted that this department was short-staffed in the past, and I assume this employee was scrambling to cover everything. I don’t have an answer, but in my case, the stress has built up over time and I find myself being impatient and resistant to changes now. Everything just seems like so much work, even though I know I’m probably not actually overloaded. I’m like – mentally overloaded by all the past crises. The interdepartmental conflicts really wear on me these days too, and “this makes other people’s workloads easier and mine harder” totally rung a bell for me. Since the vacation didn’t work, I hope this employee is doing what I’m doing, and job-searching. I think I need a fresh start.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      Note that I would hope I’m not noticeably unhappy or complaining out loud though! No matter what she’s feeling, she still needs to keep it professional in the office.

      Reply
      1. Future Homesteader

        Hoo boy, I feel you. I had the exact same thing happen. We were understaffed for a year, and even when they hired another person and things got quieter, I felt like I only had two modes – crisis or do-nothing. I couldn’t get back into a regular routine. I found a new job (across the country – anticipating the move was a big part of the reason I didn’t start looking sooner) and a year later, I think I’ve finally just now managed to remember how to work at a normal pace.

        All that said, yup, being snippy and unpleasant is not the way to go. When things are bad and you need to express that, it can be hard to close the floodgates once they’ve been opened, but complaining indiscriminately and picking on other departments is definitely not okay (or helpful).

        Reply
        1. The IT Manager

          “I had only two modes – crisis or do nothing” really strikes a cord with me.

          Precisely the same problem was in crisis mode for a long time and now the periods of actual crisis come and go but it’s hard to get back to where I was before.

          A week of vacation doesn’t reset me. I’m fine but when I return I just have more email.

          Reply
          1. JulieBulie

            Me too – crisis vs nothing. I’m not in that situation now, but earlier in my career it was a chronic issue. When I finally got a job in a more stable environment, it took me a long time to be able to function like a regular employee and not a firefighter.

            Reply
          2. expressionless asparagus

            I have a “regular busy” or “crisis busy” job. And it’s underpaid, no benefits, hard to even get a vacation in (and they even put up a fuss when I wanted time off for a family member’s funeral TWICE in the decade I’ve been here), and when I do get a vacation, inevitably I come back to the same workload, only now I also have a bunch of stuff that whoever was picked to cover me (untrained) has made mistakes on that I now have to fix (and those mistakes can be AWFUL). That’s probably changing as our owner is changing, but I’m worried it’s too late – I’ve felt burned out and drained for so long now that I don’t know if that can be changed. The other worry is, will switching jobs help that, and would I be able to fight my way out of what I totally acknowledge is a pretty bad attitude toward work in general.

            On the other had, even though I feel that way about my work load and the conditions, I love my co-workers (it is one of those rare drama-free zones, I LOVE IT), and I actually do love the job, too. And I get tons of compliments from co-workers, my (current) employer, and lots of our clients. Soooooo… yeah. I dunno. I feel like this job is eating me alive but I love it so much I really am very attached to it.

            And a side note, getting back to the topic of OP’s employee: because we’re so often in crisis mode and I’m constantly being thrown “emergency” work on top of “regular emergency” work, I just tend to ALWAYS be ready to tell the person handing me something “I have projects A and B in front of me right now and project C beside me that’s just waiting on answers then has to be finished in a hurry and Project D in there somewhere that has to be out by x and Project E has to be done by y and I have three client meetings today I only now got the document preparation instructions for and…” …and it’s not “look how important I am.” It’s just plain old self defense. It’s “I need you to choose one of the things I just listed to knock further down the priority list or admit that the thing you’re handing me is not as high priority as you’re trying to tell me it is.” But I can absolutely see how it’d come off as “look at me I’m so important and busy”, and also how it could turn into a bad habit rather than a sanity-saving necessity if you return to a normal workload.

            Reply
            1. JulieBulie

              There’s a difference between telling people you’re working on A and B and C and D and E, etc., vs simply running around with your hair on fire saying woe is you and no one else is as busy as you are. You’re not comparing yourself to other people/departments. You’re just saying what’s on your plate. As the requester, I really do need to know what kind of competition my request is up against.

              Having said that – I might not need to hear the whole list of what you’re doing. It does sound a bit venty (as opposed to toxic complainy like Lucinda). But I would appreciate a heads-up if there are five higher-priority things ahead of mine.

              I read a suggestion on here recently for a similar situation to post a sort of docket explaining what’s in the pipeline, so that people are aware of what you’re working on. In some places this would be welcomed, and in other places it wouldn’t fly, but it might be a handy and neutral way of explaining what’s going on without sounding like you’re overwhelmed.

              Reply
              1. Sloan Kittering

                Agree to be honest, assuming everybody’s busy, I wouldn’t really want to spend five minutes hearing what else is on your plate. “Unfortunately I can’t get to that until the end of the week,” is about all the information I need.

                Reply
                1. Noobtastic

                  Yeah. Or, instead of just launching into the list of projects you’re doing, start off with, “I will need to assess my priorities. How does this compare to A, B, C, D, and E?” That is quick enough, and not complain-y, and if they know about A through E, they can tell you how it compares, and say, “This is more urgent than C, but less than B,” and let you figure it out from there.

              2. expressionless asparagus

                Two problems with that.

                1) The same person who’s bringing me the work is the person who assigned me all the other “crisis” work. If it’s not him bringing it to me, it’s another employee who he hands something I don’t have time to do and tells them “ask expressionless asparagus how to do this.” I have learned that unless I stop him right then and there when he’s handing me something and remind him what else he’s thrown at me that day, nothing changes.

                2) I’ve tried the docket thing. It’s pointless, because of the way I’m handed things. I start with a pile in the morning but then boss comes in and rearranges it. And then throughout the day comes back with “I forgot about this that needs to be done before this afternoon” (and all the other examples I listed in my last post), which further rearranges things. I already regularly have days where I don’t get any breaks in because I’ve got so many ’emergencies’, trying to cram in a written version of “here’s the work you’ve given me, where do you want this new emergency to fit in?” and then edit it all day long just isn’t’ feasible.

                3) Tone can be a problem even if I’m not deliberately playing up the drama. I know I *sound* pissed off when I’m telling him the things above because I’m a) tense and b) in a hurry and c) trying to remember the order of things he’s handed me so far plus any phone calls/emails that have come in saying “your boss promised me you’d have x for me today”. All of that *can* come across as terse bitchiness. My co-workers (once again proving how awesome they are) know what it means when I get terse, but in general and when thinking about moving to other workplaces, there’s that whole issue that “assertive men are assertive, and assertive women are bitches”, so that’s another angle to worry about.

                Thank GOD for me, there’s going to be a major change coming, wherein boss may not be direct boss anymore and there may be far less chaos. Not for sure yet but my fingers are crossed good and hard.

                Reply
          3. BRR

            That strikes a cord with me too. I’m in that situation right now and when there’s not a crisis I find it hard to figure out what I should be doing and feel like I deserve a break (that’s partially because of the burnout this job caused).

            Reply
        2. LSP

          Yeah, this happened to me as well, only not with too much work, but with working in an office of bullies. Even after they left and I actually liked everyone I worked with on the daily, I couldn’t shake that overwhelming feeling of “Need to get out!” The boss was the same, and she was toxic as anything, but I was surprised at how little relief I felt once I was no longer surrounded by people who talked trash behind my back and to my face, judged every move I made like we were in 7th grade, and generally were terrible toxic hypocrites.

          Reply
        3. Noobtastic

          When a crisis has been ongoing for long enough to become the new normal, finding a new environment is often the only effective way to get some real normality back, even when the crisis is over.

          Some people are able to snap back easily enough, but others just get stuck in crisis gear and need a total shake-up to get un-stuck.

          Good for you for recognizing that, and getting that new environment you needed.

          Reply
      2. Midwest

        Ooh boy, I am right there with you. I am trying to keep it professional, but I know I’ve had slip-ups lately. The truth is, I am so worn out from dealing with crisis after crisis for the past year, that I no longer have the bandwidth for anything new. At this point, I’m not sure I’ll be able to reset unless I leave.

        Reply
        1. Queen of Cans & Jars

          In the same boat, here, too. :( I’m just trying to keep my head down and plow on until something else comes along.

          Reply
    2. animaniactoo

      While you’re still working on finding the new job for a fresh start, would you be open to some tips on how to combat the burnout while you’re still in place?

      Reply
        1. Lil Fidget

          Definitely, as long as Alison doesn’t consider it off topic (and if so, perhaps we move this to the Friday open thread). If OP wonders if their employee might be suffering from burnout, it could be helpful to them to have strategies to suggest. (On the other hand OP might not think burnout is a factor, hard to say and they know their own situation best).

          Reply
        2. animaniactoo

          If you’re no longer in crisis/understaffed mode:

          • Schedule regular breaks. Because you can take them now and you’re probably forgetting to actively take them and use them as natural stop points between projects/tasks.

          • Every time you notice a “what’s gone wrong now” or are met with an new change, stop yourself and try to think of what’s worked right lately. You’ve got a lot of negativity that’s feeding on itself and probably creating a confirmation bias loop in your head. If you can break that cycle, you won’t feel the impact as badly when things are going wrong or being confronted with a new change. Right now all change/a middling screwup means to you is “One more thing to deal with” vs “Okay, I’m sure I can handle this” and you want to try to transition back to the second mindset.

          • Try to give your co-workers as much benefit of the doubt as you can. They likely aren’t exactly happy about the changes/screwups than you are, and may also be frustrated with themselves or others, but similarly are having trouble pulling out of the loop.

          • Now that you’re no longer in “putting out fires” mode, what can you DO to help address some of the things that became fires and shouldn’t have? Can you see patterns to where things are breaking down? See if you can address that with those involved to find a solution to the breakdown rather than hitting the “this again?” wall. Usually that wall exists because whatever’s being done to address the issue is not really effective and that means it’s probably addressing symptoms vs cause. If you can get a better understanding of what the cause is (beyond “people are incompetent” (benefit of the doubt, try to believe that’s not it)) you’re more likely to come up with a solution that works.

          • Remember that your co-workers are used to dealing with YOU being in stressed out overworked mode even if you’ve been doing your best not to show it. They’re reacting to that version of you and it’s probably helping to put or keep you back in that mode. If you take even an extra minute or two to work chat, etc. it should help break them out of the idea that you’re too busy for anything and their demeanor towards you should change enough to help feel like the interactions are different and more “normal”.

          If you’re still in crisis/understaffed mode:

          • Schedule one HARD break in the day. You will be more effective if you can take that break, you’ll have more energy and less argh/draggy feeling about getting the next thing done.

          • Similarly, take active time to notice the things that are happening that are right.

          • Benefit of the doubt to your co-workers that they’re doing the best they can also.

          • Self-care when you’re NOT in the office. If it means forcing yourself to cook something simple just so you don’t feel like you’re always eating takeout/Chef Boyardee, then that’s what it means. At least once a week. Or flip side, grant yourself permission to have some takeout/Chef Boyardee rather than slogging through cooking if it will help lighten your “free time” load.

          • When the same stupid mistake comes through for the 3rd or 4th time, kick it upstairs: “This has happened several times, it seems not to be a one-off thing. Who can address this and try and get it resolved?”

          Reply
          1. Lil Fidget

            This is very thoughtful, thank you! I wonder if OP can find anything useful here to suggest to their employee as well.

            Reply
          2. animaniactoo

            And if all that feels like a lot – just start with the first 2 items. Work on the rest after you feel even marginally better about any of it.

            Reply
          3. Jana Appleseed

            Thank you for this great and concrete advice — I’ve spent the past year in crisis busy with a big dollop of bad management. Over the past six weeks, the bad manager left, the business ratcheted down to normal business, my good work earned me a promotion and exciting new opportunities — and I feel more burned out than I’ve ever been. The confirmation bias/negativity loop is a real thing, and this is great help on how to break it.

            Reply
      1. Rincat

        When I was burned out and job searching, it helped me to think ” I WILL find a new job,” and the act of job searching and applying itself gave me a feeling of control over my situation. Part of my burn out was feeling helpless, like nothing I did would ever change anything. But by taking the steps to change it, I regained some power. I reminded myself that I needed to keep doing a good job in order to have better opportunities in the future with a new job. So two things 1) remember the current job is temporary 2) make a promise to future you to do your best. I hope this helps!

        Reply
        1. Lil Fidget

          So true. I know I’ll find something sooner or later, so these feelings really are temporary. You’re right, I do feel kind of stuck right now, which doesn’t help.

          Reply
    3. CR

      I’m in your shoes exactly and also job searching (which is exhausting and frustrating in and of itself). I really try to keep it together at work for the sake of professionalism but it’s hard.

      Reply
      1. Lil Fidget

        Yeah it’s so hard to motivate yourself to job search when you’re already run down and tired! I keep reading the job descriptions and thinking “man, that sounds like way too much work” haha. And like others said, there might be a move involved etc and all of that just sounds like more things piled on the plate. I’m hoping if I take a good break over the holidays I’ll come back with a little more energy to get back out there.

        Reply
    4. Argh!

      We should all get a month-long vacation in Cancun for every five years on the job. That sixth year would be so much easier to handle!

      Reply
      1. Noobtastic

        I remember how surprised I was to find out that our European co-workers (when the company went global) had a month off, every single year. Not simply “everyone gets four weeks of PTO per year,” Nope. They had PTO on top of the monthly vacation. And everyone took it at once.

        The entire department in Europe was shut down for a full month. And there were were, stuck in crisis mode, just like always, with the warning of “use it or lose it” about our PTO, at the end of the year.

        The European department members worked hard for 11 months, but they just seemed so much more chill, and frankly, more effective. And that month off was sacred. Everything had to be planned in advance to make sure that everyone could be off for the whole month, starting on time, and no interruptions.

        I think it is wonderful, and I wish we could institute that here in the USA. As a standard, I mean. Even just one week of sacred sabbatical each year would work wonders for morale and productivity, IMO.

        Reply
    5. Spider

      “Everything just seems like so much work, even though I know I’m probably not actually overloaded. I’m like – mentally overloaded by all the past crises.”

      This resonated so much with me. It’s such a hard nut to crack, precisely because there *is* no current crisis with which you could employ your go-to stress relief techniques to help you cope.

      Reply
    6. Blue

      Late to this but SAME. I was drowning last year, and my boss has been responsive and shuffled responsibilities so that, based on my current workload, I should be quite busy but not completely overwhelmed. Nonetheless, I never recovered from the severe burnout and continue to run on fumes, meaning I’m not performing at the level I am capable of.

      There have been a couple moments when frustration or negativity came through in a meeting setting (mostly because I don’t have enough energy to keep my filter running sometimes), but my supervisor has followed up on those moments promptly and directly, if gently. If it kept being a thing, the “gently” part would probably go away, but the fact that he followed up straight away and was specific in identifying which comments concerned him and why they did so meant that it’s been easier for me to monitor myself and improve the situation. I am also job searching, but it’s slow going since I’m in a niche field and related jobs are few and far between.

      Reply
  3. animaniactoo

    A conversation that might be useful to have is about where her expectations are vs what expectations she SHOULD have of the job and changes, etc.

    Because if she can adjust her expectations, the things that are seriously irking her now will not feel nearly so bad when they’re happening and that should help her curb her visible displays of frustration.

    So, if she expects in advance that another department will handle something differently than she might have done and it might not be perfect but will get the job done, she won’t feel that it was a “disaster” that they didn’t do it the way she would have wanted it done.

    Reply
  4. Sheworkshardforthemoney

    One of my favourite co-workers was the Drama Llama. Whenever our llama went into her llama distress routine, another co-worker would throw her arms up in the air and run in circles, like Kermit the Frog on his TV show. This was in a kitchen setting and standards were slightly different. You may not be able to do this in an office but it did always shut the llama down for a while at least.

    Reply
    1. NotAnotherManager!

      We had something like this for a while (in an pretty stuffy office environment, no less) – my coworker called it the “Panic Dance.” It was hilarious.

      Reply
    2. Rachael

      When I was younger working in the grill in fast food: to lower to the stress and create a happy atmosphere during times of “wholly crap there’s a lot of people” I would pretend I was one of those chefs on “Muppet” and start throwing stuff around (controlled, of course. Not too messy). I wish I would of thought of the Kermit thing, though! :)

      Reply
  5. CA in CA

    Maybe I’m alone here, but I would be absolutely mortified if my boss had to speak to me that often about my behaviour at work.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      Well, to be fair as I was reading this I totally agree with Alison that *the larger pattern of behavior* has not really been pointed out to the employee. If my boss said I was being way too much in a meeting, I wouldn’t make the jump to also thinking I had an overall attitude problem … I’d just think “that was an off meeting for me whoops.” There’s even a framework in psychology where you assume your bad behavior is aberrant from your normal good behavior (while other people’s bad behavior is because they stink).

      Reply
      1. OP

        Yes to both CA in CA and Lil Fidget. Alison hit the nail on the head when she said “you were hoping that you could keep it kind and supportive and she could save face, and she would hear the message and solve the problem”. Totally this. I like Lucinda! She is passionate about our company and I want success for her. I wanted to address specific instances without making it a Big Deal that she could spiral over, but in doing so I failed to make clear this is a pattern of the SAME TYPE of behavior that needs to stop.
        Also, to address a couple questions; I am confident this is not burnout and I also believe Lucinda has the skills to be successful in the role, with a change in demeanor. The behavior is not new, rather I think Lucinda feels important when she is “the busiest one.”

        Reply
        1. Lil Fidget

          Ooh dear, that kind of “drama llama-ing” is harder to point out and correct, I feel like, since it’s more of a personality trait. Has Lucinda always been this way?

          Reply
          1. OP

            Yeah, she just kinda operates that way. It makes it difficult for me to take her assessments of situations at face value and causes considerable of side eye with colleagues. I have to realize that she does not see those effects, the pattern, or maybe both and I’ll need to be candid enough to get her there.

            Reply
            1. NW Mossy

              Your second sentence here should absolutely be part of your conversation with Lucinda – it illustrates very nicely the practical impact of this behavior on how it’s making her communication less effective and undermining her relationships with others because it erodes their trust in her word.

              Reply
            2. nonegiven

              She needs to have pointed out what came off as snippy and what a non snippy version would sound like. Two people can say the same thing and one sounds snippy and the other doesn’t. Two people can hear the same thing and one feels snipped at and the other doesn’t.

              She needs to hear examples of what comes off as negativity and overly dramatic and ask for it to stop. Hearing that is negative and that is dramatic in the moment could help if she does it again.

              Reply
    2. L.

      Your feelings are valid, but just remember that everyone has different weaknesses at work, and managing stress doesn’t come as easily to some people as others. For example, I’ve *never* had any complaints about the quality of my work, my timeliness, my understanding of assignments, my skills… but my boss had the “so you seem annoyed/exasperated a lot” convo with me (now a couple years ago) and we came up with a plan to address it, which took a long time and was really, really hard for me. It is definitely mortifying, but I think realistically it’s also just another work skill – if you’re not naturally good at it, what other choice do you have but to address it head-on and work on it as a skill you’re not good at?

      Reply
      1. Elizabeth West

        This—I have had the same problem, and it took me a long time and the loss of a job to figure out that it was coming from anxiety. Mine definitely tends to present as annoyance or anger first, but all of the most recent bout had its origins in plain old FEAR. To my colleagues and boss, however, it looked like I was pushing back against changes, and that wasn’t really the case. When I couldn’t get any clarifications as to how they would affect my status, instead of calmly thinking, Okay, well I need to start doing X to make sure I can find a new job if necessary, I hit the panic button and came off very much like Lucinda.

        Now that I know this, and I’ve been studying mindfulness (I’m still new at it), I can put the brakes on it before it gets too out of hand. I’ve been practicing doing that when I get irritated driving or in a store, as well as when I start to have fear reactions, since I’m not working at the moment. If all else fails, I can remove myself from the situation for a few minutes.

        Reply
        1. L.

          Anxiety fistbump!!! I have the exact same problem – when I get anxious, I tense up and I stop masking my feelings, both of which make me look like an a-hole. And also I get mad. Mostly, my internal monologue at that point is alarm bells interspersed with a strong flight instinct, but as it turns out, it’s still not helpful to come across like an a-hole to your coworkers even if you’re fighting through a haze of terror.

          Mindfulness is AWESOME for this. I was also recommended a workbook on dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), which is generally for people with borderline personality disorder. That’s not one of my personal mental health quirks, but I grew up with a borderline and bipolar mother, and it was ILLUMINATING to realize how many of my survival strategies and coping behaviours had persisted long after that toxic relationship ended. It’s also based in mindfulness, but with a real emphasis on emotional regulation and responding well in the moment, which has been so, so, so helpful for me. And like you, I practice it when I’m driving and at the grocery store – two places where my irritation and anxiety make me super stressed and angry.

          I’m still not perfect, but once I realized that it wasn’t something wrong with ME, just a skill I needed to learn, things got a lot better. I earned a promotion this summer because my boss could trust me to deal with everyone, and I feel a lot better about going to work, despite working for an office that has some objectively insane stuff going on. I’m definitely not perfect at it yet, but it has made ALL areas of my life considerably better, not just work. So it’s not only possible to correct Lucinda-like behaviour, but also totally worthwhile, if Lucinda’s willing to work on it.

          Reply
          1. Cristina in England

            Which workbook do you use? This sounds amazing and I would like to try it. I have been SUPER snippy with my family lately because I am stressed and overwhelmed.

            Reply
            1. L.

              Whoops, my comment got moderated! Probably the Amazon link. Anyway, if you search your local Amazon or whatever for “Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook” (McKay/Wood/Brantley) you’ll find it!

              Reply
        2. Marley

          Right there with you.

          I was wondering if Lucinda had anxiety too—and hence was feeling disproportionately stressed.

          Reply
    3. JulieBulie

      You’re not alone here. It’s true that the employee may not be aware that OP is concerned about a pattern – but the employee has been spoken to about various types of attitude several times. I’m not exactly thin-skinned, but that doesn’t mean that I’m delighted to know that I have misstepped. So any one of those conversations with OP would have made me think twice about my attitude. A second conversation would have had me asking for more specific feedback. And a third conversation, oh yeah, I’d be mortified and wonder, is it me or is it them. I’d probably put myself on a personal PIP and wear sticky lip balm that discouraged me from opening my mouth. And look for a new job.

      Reply
      1. Adlib

        Your comment about the second conversation is exactly what I thought. If I had this many “talks” with the boss, I’d be asking what I’m doing wrong if I wasn’t getting specifics, but maybe she’s just too mortified each time to ask?

        Reply
  6. beanie beans

    I admit, I read the title and thought, well there it is, someone wrote in about me.

    A good reminder for me to reign in my snippiness and complaining since I’ve let myself slip lately.

    Reply
    1. LtBroccoli

      At first I thought it was me, then my much-worse coworker. Definitely sending this link to coworker #3, the only cheerful one in our burned out triad.

      Reply
    1. Anon Good Nurse

      +1

      It’s one of the reasons I left, I had eight clients, she had two. She wanted to get rid of one and they wanted to give it to me.

      Reply
      1. Jean Lamb

        Oh, I had that happen! We had a new person, I ended up with some of her work, and of course this gave her plenty of time to go over all my mistakes and make sure my boss knew about them. She eventually left, but she was very charming and had the whole office thinking I was the bad guy for a while.

        Reply
  7. CatCat

    I wonder if Lucinda burned out and just isn’t able to come back from that. If that’s the case, she definitely needs to move on. I burned out at one position and never really came back from it. I was visibly unhappy (not snippy or rude, but withdrawn from the team, basically just locked myself in my office, did my work, and went home and stopped really engaging beyond my own work.) Even when my managers eased up on my workload, I basically lived with constant dread that I would be overworked again, especially since the team had a lot of turnover. The only way I could unburden myself from that stress was to get another job.

    Reply
    1. Detective Amy Santiago

      It can be really, really hard to move past that sort of thing. I ended up getting fired from Toxic OldJob after being overworked for 10 months. I was averaging 50 hours per week and still couldn’t keep up with everything. They had to replace me with two people.

      Reply
    2. Lil Fidget

      It’s funny that you also had this thought! OP may decide that it’s not at all the case with this employee, but when I read the description that was the first place my mind went too.

      I assume because it seems like the employee USED to be good and not have this problem, but NOW seem inappropriately stressed out and have become a complain-y pants.

      Reply
    3. A person

      Yeah it reminded me a little bit of me being totally burned out on a job. I’m more the withdrawing type too, so when I start feeling snippy and getting a little short with people it’s generally because I don’t feel valued and fear being taken advantage of/ overworked again. It’s happened a couple times over the course of my career and I find moving on is the best solution once I get to the point where I actually start showing attitude.

      Think the OP should definitely go with the advice given and have the hard conversation to get a sense of whether the employee is willing to make changes to stay or if they will be needing to hire someone else for that position soon.

      Reply
      1. Argh!

        ===when I start feeling snippy and getting a little short with people it’s generally because I don’t feel valued===

        This. I’ve had my moments and I’ve seen this in others. In one place our complainer wanted rewards that just weren’t given to anybody. Our workplace really did suck and really did devalue people. Once you feel this way it’s hard to unfeel it.

        Reply
    4. Elizabeth West

      Yeah, that was the same with me, and it was a hard realization that I should have started looking IMMEDIATELY. My dread stemmed from wondering if the changes in my job would render it undoable because of my dyscalculia (which it did), and so I was trying to get information that would let me know whether I needed to disclose or not. That didn’t happen, because during the transition, the information outlet basically shut down.

      Unfortunately, the dread created anxiety and the jerkbrain took over. But it turned out I was right; even if I’d been Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, I wouldn’t have been able to keep doing the job the way it is now. I could have kept myself from getting fired, however. :P

      Reply
  8. Snark

    Funny, I had to have this talk with a report of mine recently. Except in this case, she was being short, snippy, and exasperated with the clients, who actually complained to me. And I’d had to talk to her before about it too.

    OP, my feeling is that maybe it’s time for a very blunt, honest discussion that levels up past the sort of softened, hey, are you okay kind of chats and corrections on specific events. “Even if you’re feeling stressed out and frustrated, it is 100% Not Okay for you to be abrasive and snappish with your colleagues. Can you get that under control? Also, I need you to rein way in on complaining about your workload and making a big deal about process changes and new procedures.”

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      I’m curious, was s/he always this way, or is this behavior a change from previous? I do think some people are, as someone said above, drama llamas who just like to complain, which makes it really hard to correct.

      Reply
      1. Snark

        It waxes and wanes with her workload and stress level, but fundamentally I think she’s something of a drama llama. Or a crisis camelid. Or an antagonism alpaca.

        Reply
          1. Snark

            Just make a lot of bad puns and one-liners and through sheer production, you’ll say a few funny things. It’s like throwing pasta at the wall to see if it sticks.

            Reply
      2. Jesca

        Yes, the drama llamas like live in that. That is how they have learned to communicate and feel important. It moves past a rut and into becoming a part of their personality and identity. I was lucky enough at a young age to have a manager bluntly point this out to me. She didn’t call me into a formal meeting, she didn’t mince words, she just bluntly told me how I sounded and what problems it was causing. So it is possible to get them to change if they are malleable.

        But I have also been in your shoes more than once and OMG. It is like burn out doesn’t even describe it. Its true fear that what happened in the past will reoccur. I left my last job because of these same things. I don’t think managers get how slapping people with unmanageable work loads even for a couple months can become so damaging. You lose trust and you become afraid of going through that level of stress and turmoil again. You bristle at anything that even hints at getting more work! There was nothing my last employer could do. I was leaving regardless. I was about to leave and take a job at McDonalds – i didn’t even care anymore! They were so angry, but honestly I still feel like they did it to themselves. They mismanaged me right out!

        Reply
        1. Lil Fidget

          This is a really good way to put it (even though OP above says they don’t think burnout is a factor for this employee) – I kind of lost trust in the company not to overwork me, since it happened before, and now I’m defensive of my workflow. At the first hint of changes coming down the pike I jump straight to assuming this is going to take me right back to those periods where I was totally tearing my hair out, and I don’t have faith that my managers will protect me. I’d never really realized the connection before so thank you!!

          Reply
    2. OP

      Yeah, it’s time for me to get much clearer that this is a PATTERN that needs to change. Out of curiosity, has there been an improvement since your conversation with your drama llama, Snark? How did they react?

      Reply
      1. Argh!

        Have you validated her feelings at all? Someone who is the type of communicator who likes to talk about feelings needs to feel validated. If you only tell her that her feelings are invalid and she needs to shut up she will feel even worse about the workplace.

        Also, do you have an EAP to refer people to? Ours is code for “Has a drug problem” so we rarely use it, but if it’s a good one with a good reputation, suggesting EAP could be an option.

        Reply
        1. Snark

          I did, as far as “I understand that you’ve got a lot going on both personally and professionally, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and stressed out when your plate’s that loaded up,” but ultimately I can’t validate too much when it’s our corporate reputation and ability to retain the contract on the line. Valid it may be, but she does indeed need to shut up and keep a lid on it when it comes to the clients, to whom she needs to be unfailingly professional even if she wants to choke the life out of them. I did make it clear she can call me and discuss stressors and how to mitigate them, and I hope she takes advantage of it.

          Reply
      2. Snark

        The conversation was just two weeks ago and she was out on leave, so I’m keeping an eye on things as well. They reacted pretty well, but were mortified that it’d gotten so bad and was very apologetic to both me and to the clients. So we’ll see. I actually am hopeful.

        Reply
  9. Interviewer

    We had a Lucinda that ended up on the list for a mass layoffs. Reasoning was, if you’re constantly complaining that you can’t handle the work, despite having a manageable workload with plenty of training & resources to handle it, it’s probably not a good idea to keep giving you work.

    Reply
  10. imaskingamanager

    I love the suggestions and comments from AAM and the readers of this blog. I had an employee like this one and did not know how to handle it. I wish I had some of the ‘coaching’ that goes on here and maybe that situation would have ended differently. (I’m older and wiser now) This website is such a good resource for managers! I recommend it now to new managers to read and almost all of them come back and tell me this is exactly the kind of training/information/coaching they have needed! THANKS AAM!

    Reply
  11. Cocoa Puff

    So, I have a question about this part:

    The part about her coming across as overwhelmed is a different issue. Do you have a good sense of whether she truly feels overwhelmed or whether this is just part of her being dramatic? If she truly feels overwhelmed and you know that she shouldn’t, she might actually be in the wrong job; in that case, you’d want to be very honest with her that the workload isn’t going to change, that your assessment is that it’s quite reasonable for the position, and that you both need to figure out if she can handle it or not.

    I’ve been dinged for getting “too worked up over small details”. In my case, it’s half my personality and half anxiety. I recently started an anti-anxiety medication and I am seeing a therapist to work on these issues. But there’s a part of it that’s just me. I want to know when there could be issues, so I tend to think down the line and come up with contingency plans in case something goes wrong. I communicate this with my manager, who seems to only want to know when there IS an issue. This comes back to bite me when I get called out on getting “too worked up”. Besides what I’m doing, I honestly don’t know how to change this. I’m hoping the medication/therapy will maybe turn it down a notch, but it isn’t just going to go away all together. It isn’t a case of just looking for different work. I’ve done this in every job I’ve had.

    Reply
    1. Mazzy

      I like your picking up on the overwhelmed part, I’d add though that she might be legitimately overwhelmed (or have been at some point). My boss has forgotten most of the stuff that made me overwhelmed, but just remembers that that was my attitude. So is me not happy if she just mentioned my attitude without a grasp of the actual work that led me there

      Reply
    2. Jesca

      Ya know what I do? I just don’t look at as “personal”. If they can’t see it coming and they are not open to listening about the potential, then that is a business decision they made. They can pay me to listen to my expertise, or they can pay me to correct their mistakes. At the end of the day, I get my paycheck and they get a good final product (eventually lol). To sum it up? Let them make mistakes if they are not open to listening about potential hazards and wait for the right moment to tactfully point it out once the failure occurs.

      Some people are born with the ability to analyze and some people are not. It can be very anxiety-inducing when you are the type that considers all of the variables upfront and honestly all of the what-ifs do create anxiety if you don’t know the tools to control it. Just relax and realize that some people need to learn the hard way and its just business! You go home to YOUR life at the end of the day. And trust in the fact that there is always that perfect opportunity to point out how you called that it was going to go wrong. If you learn to do this tactfully, then people no longer see your DANGER DANGER as being dramatic and you also learn better when to start calling danger and when to let it go.

      Reply
    3. Lil Fidget

      This is a good point. We do a large event every year, and my boss doesn’t like to see me “get worked up” about it. Which means I need to do all my worrying about the details behind the scenes, and not show him my “anxious face” until there’s an actual problem right now that I need his help on. It’s hard, but at least it’s clear.

      Reply
      1. Argh!

        Be a robot! You’re a cog. Don’t show emotion. Don’t complain. Smile and suck it up. We don’t pay you to be human!

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I think that’s actually a really destructive viewpoint to propagate (or hold). Asking people to limit how much their vocal expressions of stress impact their coworkers is not asking people to be robots or cogs; it’s asking them to be mindful of how they impact others.

          Reply
          1. Argh!

            It’s actually my workplace’s viewpoint. It’s a very repressive place and everybody walks on eggshells. Feelings are invalidated, not just behaviors, and the feelings of little people are invalidated the most. It’s a very demoralized workplace.

            Reply
            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              That sounds horrible, but that wasn’t the context you gave in your comment above. And in your comments elsewhere on this thread, you’ve been taking issue with the idea that a manager can/should tell someone to rein in their negativity. That’s an incredibly toxic mindset to have. It sounds like your current workplace is really messing with your head on this (and understandably so), but I urge you to realize that’s happening before it gets too ingrained in your thinking! Coming across as negatively as you are in your comments here will really hurt you when you move on to a different workplace (and isn’t a helpful mindset to push on others; it’s really harmful, in fact).

              Reply
    4. I'm A Little TeaPot

      Cocoa Puff, if you’re spending a lot of time coming up with contingency plans, that’s probably an issue. Assuming it’s not a lot of time, maybe just don’t mention your contingency planning to your manager? Not everyone thinks ahead, if you do a lot of it then people who don’t may perceive it as getting worked up.
      Hopefully your efforts will tone down the anxiety pieces though.

      Reply
    5. Delyssia

      I’m not clear on why you need to communicate your contingency plans to your manager. Keep on thinking everything through, come up with your contingency plans, and then unveil them as and when needed.

      I am good at my job precisely because I overthink any given situation and have contingency plans A-??? ready at the drop of a hat, but 9 times out of 10, I don’t discuss any of the back-up plans at all. On the occasions where I do mention any contingency planning, it’s either very vague (“building in extra time in case of problems”) or it’s the specific first line of defense (“if we can’t print in-house, we can send it to XYZ Printing”), not the entire contingency plan.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        Yes, agreeing on the lack of need to communicate them. If part of your job is to have contingency plans ready, that means it’s not something your manager needs to be across. I assume my staff either have plan B or can come up with one, but it doesn’t make sense to take the time together to describe them.

        That’s separate from the question of whether you’re overdoing the time on planning for those contingencies, but if you stop communicating them, that will at least make this less of a dynamics issue–and you may find that communicating them was actually the key point for you and without the recitation you don’t have the impulse to failure-proof quite so extensively.

        Reply
      2. Cocoa Puff

        It’s usually because I don’t have the authority to do the things that would be part of my contingency plans. Like if a project looks like it may be delayed, I’m not the one who has to tell the client, my manager is. So I’ll tell her something like, “The teapot painting team is really busy, I don’t know if they’re going to get to the black teapot tonight, you may need to tell the client.” My thinking is that I would need that heads up so I have the time to craft a contingency email to the client explaining the situation. It seems my manager only wants to know at 4:57 p.m. that the teapot painting team didn’t get to the black teapot and then dashes off an email. This ramps up my anxiety because I start thinking, “Oh God, the client is going to be so upset that they’re going to cancel their contract and then there won’t be enough work and I will lose my job.” So part of it is being conscientious of what’s going on around me and trying to come up with contingency plan suggestions for my manager to implement, and part of it is my own anxiety about how my manager’s actions can ultimately affect me.

        Reply
    6. Argh!

      People complain more than compliment, especially to your manager! This is why I try to let managers know when I’ve received exceptional internal customer service. We’re not allowed to vent to each other, but complaining to someone’s boss is perfectly okay, so boss’s here get a skewed impression of someone’s relationships in the workplace.

      Reply
    7. Elizabeth West

      Well, you could do the risk analysis and then NOT talk to the boss about it. Then, if there is an issue, you whip out the contingency plan, and say, “How about this?” Then you’re a superhero. :)

      It’s kind of like disaster preparedness. I know that it’s unlikely my job will have an active shooter scenario, for example, but I make my plan anyway. Same with “what if we don’t have the supplies for rare event Z because Fergus always takes them for X and then we suddenly have Z happen.”

      Reply
      1. Witty Nickname

        I was going to actually suggest this. Read up on how project managers analyze risk, and then do that with all of the things you are worried about in the projects you are working on.

        (I started as a project manager for marketers who really didn’t want to do math if they could help it, but they also tended to hyperfocus on anything that could be perceived as a problem to the point where that was becoming problematic, so I devised a simple way to help them analyze risk. I asked them to list out every single thing they could think of that could go wrong, from “the product won’t be ready in time” to “this product is going to be so amazing, it will sell like gang busters and our operations team won’t be able to keep up with all of the orders” to “we’ll have an earthquake in the middle of sales training.”

        Once they listed them out all, we went over each one. I asked them to describe WHY it was a problem (“if we have too many orders and operations can’t keep up, it will take too long for our customer’s to get their products, they will be dissatisfied, and then they will cancel their entire program with us”), and then we went through each one and put values on it – High, Medium, or Low – for both how likely it was that the problem would happen and, if it DID happen, what the impact to the project/company would be.

        Any risks that were rated High/High were the ones we needed to focus on and put contingency plans around (not that those plans had to be shared, but we wanted to have them ahead of time). High/Medium or Medium/High got some consideration as well. Anything lower than that, we kept an eye on it, but didn’t act until we had to rerate it higher. It kept the team focused on the right things, and we had contingency plans when we needed them.

        The other thing I like to remember is “do nothing and accept the risk” is a valid contingency plan as well!

        Reply
    8. Robin Sparkles

      People already gave you great advice. I’m offering you perspective from the other side because I think you have the polar opposite personality from me- I believe in failing fast to get to the best solutions whereas you believe getting to the best solution is after you have researched every possibility. While I love data and analysis – in my role, we often get stuck in this analysis paralysis and projects do not get off the ground. In an ideal solution people like and people like you would be the perfect partners on a project if we recognized that in each other and played to those strengths.

      Reply
  12. Seal

    One of my former coworkers and fellow department heads engaged in very similar behavior to the OP’s Lucinda. In her case, she had been thrust into a job that was way over her head and then unexpectedly was sucked into a major project that consumed all of her department’s time. By the time I got there a few years later, everyone was giving this woman a very wide berth, because she was so incredibly unpleasant to deal with and wore her martyrdom on her sleeve. Several people told me privately that in her mind this project was the best thing that ever happened to her because in her mind it made her important. According to her, NO ONE was busier than she was, NO ONE was as understaffed as her department was, and NO ONE understood how difficult this project she had been handed was. As my department was supposed to be working in collaboration with hers, this quickly became a nightmare; it was very obvious that the reason this project was taking so long was because of her inability to see the big picture. Despite insisting that no one would help her, whenever I made a suggestion about anything work related she would launch into a screaming temper tantrum that would make a 2 year old proud. On top of that, she was very passive-aggressive and took delight in either reneging on promised resources or changing dates and deadlines at the last minute.

    She got away with screaming at me exactly once. I immediately went to our boss and reported the incident and said I couldn’t work with her. While he wasn’t willing to directly address the issue, I was able to work around her for the next few months. Every time I met with my boss, I made a point of mentioning that things weren’t getting done because of her and that I couldn’t work with her since she clearly wasn’t willing to work with me. As it turned out, this woman was afraid of our boss and went out of her way to not interact with him. Eventually she got up the guts to complain to him about me. But by that point, having heard not just from me but from many others about her antisocial behavior, he told her that he was siding with me and that if she couldn’t find a way to work with me she needed to consider her options. Much to everyone’s delight, she chose to retire. I do have to give her credit for finally seeing the handwriting on the wall, though – my understanding is that my boss was planning to take steps to transfer her elsewhere.

    Reply
      1. Seal

        Indeed, although it was her own doing. Once she announced her retirement, she made sure people knew how much she hated, HATED her job from day one. Despite her terrible performance in that particular job, she wasn’t without skills and could easily have gotten a job elsewhere. Unfortunately, due to the org structure department heads at that level were mostly left to themselves; our director at the time was very conflict adverse and rarely stepped in to address bad attitudes or problem behaviors. It’s a shame she didn’t work for someone who was willing to nip her bad behavior in the bud; it would have saved everyone – including her – a lot of misery.

        Reply
          1. Adlib

            Yes!!! My goodness, I think this all the time. It’s especially sad when I see my friends wallow, and I just think “well, DO something about it then.” (and occasionally say it, depending on the situation)

            Reply
  13. Holly Flax

    Thank you for emphasizing that how the message is delivered by the OP matters. I have dealt with a few managers who wanted PIPs or termination without having the tough, but necessary conversations about their performance or behavioral issues with concrete examples, and instead softened their language with things like “I wouldn’t have done it that way.” It is not fair to assume an employee will correct their behavior when you are not direct. In one case I talked to the employee to get to the bottom of it and it was clear their manager was not giving them constructive feedback so they could make adjustments. Once this feedback was properly delivered, the message was received and change by the employee was swift.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yes! People so often avoid direct language because it feels less kind, but it’s actually FAR MORE kind to let people know when there are serious problems that could lead to serious consequences, so they have the chance to change things before it goes further.

      Reply
      1. Argh!

        I was encouraged by LW’s frequent conversations on the matter, though it started with bringing it up at the annual evaluation. Nobody likes to get a zinger at evaluation time, and that certainly will make it harder to turn things around. If someone is already unhappy, a nasty surprise will just make them unhappier.

        Reply
        1. OP

          To clarify, Lucinda’s evaluation was positive overall and this was just a part of overall feedback. The department had been short for less than a month and a replacement was already hired at that point. I acknowledged she took on a heavier workload that past month and that it was understandably stressful. I assured her help was on the way but said regardless of that, she needs to be professional and courteous in her interactions with coworkers.
          I also have to note that I really don’t think she is an “unhappy” person, in or out of work.

          Reply
          1. Argh!

            Still, if it hasn’t been mentioned before, it’s a zinger. Saying it was a positive evaluation except for that is almost akin to “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show?”

            Reply
            1. Ego Chamber

              Your point seems to be that if a pattern or behavior isn’t addressed the first time it manifests, then it’s somehow unfair to bring it up later. Then what? Free pass forever? That sounds terrible for everyone involved.

              Reply
      2. a1

        I’m always reminded of this quote which I think applies to all kinds of communications, not just writing.

        “Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.
        – William Howard Taft”

        Reply
      3. nonegiven

        I am not a good guesser. Some vague statement that I don’t know applies to me, much less how, might as well not even be said. Tell me directly specific examples of what I did wrong and and what the difference would look like.

        Reply
        1. Argh!

          This! If someone is just being themselves and you’re asking them to behave otherwise, they need a model and specific instructions.

          Reply
  14. Mazzy

    Just wow! I thought this was above t me until the last part. So since I’m basically Lucinda, maybe it would help to explain where I’m coming from? Part of the issue is that I have outgrown my role and there is nowhere else to go, and this is the first time this has happened to me. I realized that what motivated me to “behave well” wasn’t always that I’m such a great, professional person, thought that it was eventually going to be somewhere, be at a raise or eventual promotion. When you are senior, and those things are no longer possibilities, it starts to great on you after a number of years.

    As per the workload issue, I’ve been through periods where my workload looked completely average on paper, but was not actually manageable. For example, I was responsible for many reports that Financial decisions and payments are based off of. They looked simple, but nobody knew the difference between whether I just downloaded the reports and forwarded them, or if I had to spend a day or two checking every line item because there were so many mistakes in the information. A few things like that can pile up and make a manageable workload a nightmare.

    Also, I would say that I raise certain issues multiple times and the people that are truly responsible to fix them are just never going to do it and yes, that has led me to get stressed and complain. It can be very demotivating as well to see the people in charge of fixing things that would make my job much easier never be held accountable or be handled with kid gloves. Once you realize that the problem is never going to be fixed because it is in somebody else’s court, and it makes your life difficult, that will lead to frustration.

    Lastly, you mentioned her being a senior in your department. I have no clue whether this is happening at your company or not, but is she properly compensated and titled? In other words, is she fully aware that you consider her to be senior? You cant consider someone senior just because they’re older or they have been there a long time. If you believe she is properly titled, have you used title upgrades to reward other employees when you didn’t want to give raises, which, without your knowing, can cause others to be confused about the level or scope of their role?

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      This really resonated with me on the topic of inter-departmental conflict that Lucinda was fussing about: ” I raise certain issues multiple times and the people that are truly responsible to fix them are just never going to do it … It can be very demotivating as well to see the people in charge of fixing things that would make my job much easier never be held accountable.” So true! On the other hand, I guess this is always a problem at every larger company, but the demoralizing builds up over time. And then when YOU’RE asked to be a team player and help out another department, you just have no motivation to do it.

      Reply
    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      realized that what motivated me to “behave well” wasn’t always that I’m such a great, professional person, thought that it was eventually going to be somewhere, be at a raise or eventual promotion. When you are senior, and those things are no longer possibilities, it starts to great on you after a number of years.

      One remaining motivation (hopefully) is your reputation — you want to preserve that so that you preserve your professional options. If at some point you want or need to change jobs, you want people who know you and will be excited to hire you.

      Reply
      1. Justin

        Must co-sign this. I sort of checked out at a previous job and then getting the next job was far harder. Industries can be real small.

        It’s hard, external motivation can be draining rather than sustaining. But it’s necessary.

        Reply
      2. Argh!

        If you’re being treated poorly when you’ve got a great reputation makes you turn bitchy, stopping being bitchy won’t solve the problem of other people being jerks. If the organization thinks it’s okay for some people to be jerks and the victims of the jerks have to put up and shut up, they will have more jerks on their hands. If someone is only a few years away from retirement, how much should they care if they’re not liked by the jerks at work?

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Hey, if you’re a few years away from retiring, are absolutely sure about your job security during that time, and don’t care about the impact that you have on other people, then sure, go for it. But that doesn’t describe most people.

          Reply
            1. Ego Chamber

              Since this is a workplace blog, “senior” is typically understood to mean “senior role” or “senior management,” rather than “senior citizen” (unless otherwise noted).

              Reply
  15. Allison

    Lucinda sounds a lot like my cube neighbor, who very often sounds fed up and frustrated with her job and the people she has to deal with. I try to tell myself she probably does have a hard and stressful job, but the constant complaining is bothering me and I wish I knew who to talk to about it. However, she’s one of the few people in the department who was here when I started, we’ve had a lot of turnover since then, so I do wonder a) why she hasn’t left and b) why she hasn’t been fired for attitude problems. This letter gives me hope that maybe this is being addressed behind the scenes.

    Reply
    1. WeevilWobble

      I think a lot of bosses weirdly think attitude problems aren’t punishable offenses (unless someone is actually violent or borderline violent.)

      Which is silly. As Alison says it’s a genuine issue with the work in many cases. But it’s not something a lot of managers like to address.

      Reply
      1. Lil Fidget

        It IS harder to tackle things that seem like “personality issues.” It’s easier for me to point out to direct reports when they miss deadlines or make errors, as these are clear cut. It’s harder for me to tell them not to be whiny because that seems more like a personality thing. But you CAN separate out the feeling from the action and focus on the action – it just takes more skill and aplomb.

        Reply
    2. Jules the Third

      Not to be disheartening, but it probably isn’t. This is actually (to me) one of the hardest things to manage, because who wants to tell someone how to feel? It’s very hard for people to separate ‘how Lucinda feels’ from ‘how Lucinda acts’, so… nothing.

      At your level, the general advice is based on whether you have to work with her. If no, noise-cancelling headphones are your friends, and don’t engage when she complains (‘mm, that sucks’ + subject change). If yes, you can calmly push back in the moment, with I statements – “I think ‘you’re stupid’ is rude, don’t say that around me again please.’ Pick her fave complaints and think through the response, maybe even practice it.

      The reason she hasn’t left is because underneath, she thinks she’s not actually very good at working. The complaining is sometimes projection.

      Reply
    3. Lil Fidget

      I will say, if this person has been there longer than you … wait and see if you can keep a good attitude after five years :P I feel like these kind of job frustrations – unhelpful fellow departments, unsupportive managers – build up over time. Of course the solution, as you say, is to try and leave. Hopefully this person does soon!

      Reply
  16. Rookie Manager

    I think I have a Lucinder at the moment. While I’ve dealt with individual things Alison has given me a timely reminder that I need to talk about the whole picture.

    This week they are upset because the 10+% payrise I got for them is for everyone in that role and not just this one person (the role was undervalued in the organisation). They are not coming to next week’s team lunch because other people got a payrise too. *sigh*

    Reply
    1. Turquoisecow

      This reminds me of my husband’s coworker. Since the company didn’t meet their sales goals, but was still doing well, it was decided to give people a lump sum bonus rather than an outright raise. The highest paid employee complained the most and has now gone from being a decent guy to work with to that guy who complains all the time about how horrible everything is.

      Reply
    2. Menacia

      Wow, you sound like a great manager to someone who is not appreciative or a team player. I wish we could *all* get 10+% pay raises…! It’s probably better she recuse herself from the team lunch if all she’s bringing with her are sour grapes!

      Reply
    3. JulieBulie

      Wow. Most people would give their boss a parade for getting them a >10% increase. Lucinder might be worse than OP’s Lucinda. It is none of Lucinder’s damned business how much money Lucinder’s colleagues make. Someone who boycotts a team lunch because she thinks she’s worth more than her teammates cannot be much of a team player, and might even be a toxic influence.

      Reply
      1. Lil Fidget

        Well, unless she really is doing a better job. She’s probably not if she’s such a drama llama, but as someone who works on a team with a few weak links … I might feel kind of frustrated if we *all* received a raise and I was carrying them 99% of the time.

        Reply
        1. JulieBulie

          Being frustrated or even resentful is fine. Openly snubbing the team and the boss is something you do at your own risk – whether you are doing a better job than your teammates or not. (Rookie Manager did not indicate that Lucinder was doing a better job.)

          Reply
    4. Observer

      Wow!

      That’s some attitude right there. Keep an eye on that one. Even in an environment that’s not HIGHLY collaborative, being able to get along with people and be reasonable is important. This one sounds like someone who really is likely to be unreasonable and uncooperative with people, even if they haven’t been yet.

      Reply
    5. Tuesday Next

      “They are not coming to next week’s team lunch because other people got a payrise too” – whoah. I would address this with them, because it makes them look childish and unprofessional, and creates unnecessary tension in the team. It’s the type of thing that is often allowed to slide, but I think you should include it as part of your “big picture” conversation.

      Reply
    6. Robin Sparkles

      “They are not coming to next week’s team lunch because other people got a payrise too. *sigh*”
      Please do not let her get away with this – I know people like this and wish someone in authority would nip it in the bud.

      Reply
  17. MsMaryMary

    One of the best pieces of managerial advice I’ve ever gotten is to “vent up, not down” Basically, only complain or have a freak out with coworkers at your level or above. It looks unprofessional to be negative and stressed all the time, especially when the workload or clients aren’t particularly unmanageable. At the same time, we’re all human and need to vent from time to time in order not to explode. It sounds like it might help Lucinda if you gave her guidance on who to vent to. It might be making yourself more available, or setting her up with peers in other departments to brainstorm/commiserate with.

    Reply
    1. JulieBulie

      Please, no, don’t volunteer other employees to listen to Lucinda’s whining. What OP describes sounds like frequent complaining, not occasional venting. (And I saw no evidence in OP’s letter to suggest that Lucinda was interested in “brainstorming.”)

      If I were Lucinda’s colleague, I would just as soon she “vented” to someone else. And if the person I reported to was always complaining, I’m pretty sure their attitude would rub off on me and the whole team. “Venting down” (again, considering that Lucinda seems to be doing more than just venting) sounds like a recipe for disaster, setting a terrible example for direct reports and crushing morale.

      Reply
      1. Allypopx

        Right but maybe guidance about who not to vent to would accomplish the same goal without setting up any individual person as an unwilling sounding board.

        Reply
    2. Argh!

      If you work in an authoritarian autocracy, venting up gets you in even more trouble than venting to coworkers! If management isn’t willing to hear out employees, they have to expect those employees to vent some other way. Sure, venting too much to coworkers is counter productive, but putting an end to that behavior without addressing the underlying issues will also be counterproductive. At least validate the person’s feelings! This is the source of a lot of absenteeism due to headaches, stomachaches, and other lame excuses that are really mental health days.

      I used to work with a Lucinda who was a constant downer and I hated being around him. He often did have valid complaints, but nobody above him would hear him out, only a few of his coworkers.

      It’s also possible that Lucinda has an undiagnosed psychiatric condition, so an EAP referral may be in order. Having a little sympathy for the person goes a long way toward reducing complaints.

      Reply
  18. Someone else

    If she doesn’t quite get it, you want to find that out now, so that you can give her more examples and makes sure she’s clear on what needs to change.
    I have a question about this, for anyone who wants to take a stab at it. I do understand the need for examples when explaining to someone what they’re doing wrong, but sometimes I’ve seen an unfortunate side-effect of someone not-getting-it and giving them more examples is that person still really didn’t get it as a larger pattern. They somehow got stuck on the examples given. So they’d make sure to never do exactly those examples again, but continued to fail to recognize that other things they continued to do were illustrative of the same problematic behaviour discussed (would get defensive that they new examples weren’t the same as the old examples, so how could they know not to do that). I’ve been advised in the past against giving too many examples for this reason: that someone can get hung up on the examples and miss the bigger picture, and thus to stress the kind of thing they need to stop, rather than iterating too many literal examples. My question is: a) how do you know where the line is? and b) does anyone have any suggestions for how to deal with someone like that? Or is that just a bigger indicator that the person probably won’t succeed in changing the behaviour?

    Reply
    1. JulieBulie

      I know the kind of behavior you’re talking about. I’m not sure whether the person truly doesn’t understand the problem, or if they’re just recalcitrant and trying to defend themselves on technicalities, but either way, I think it means that the person won’t change.

      Regardless, I think such a person should be addressed exactly the same way as anyone else. Give a handful of literal examples and explain what they all have in common. Also describe the desired behavior and stress that this is what you expect going forward. Don’t let them get away with technicalities “I thought that didn’t apply to xxx” “I said that it applies to everything.”

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yes. You say “I’m going to give you some examples but these aren’t comprehensive, and I don’t want us to pick these apart — I want your focus on the larger message I’m giving you, which is X.”

        Also, if that keeps happening, it may be time to accept the person isn’t right for the job.

        Reply
    2. Jules the Third

      A lot depends on why they’re doing these new things that were not in the examples.
      1) Honest confusion – maybe someone is not socially adept or unaware of their volume / gestures / expressions. They can be defensive, but as in ‘upset by these new requirements that I don’t understand’. If they become aware that they can be misread, or that they are leaking, and they *want* to change, then some commenters here have mentioned that additional coaching can be effective. I’ve heard Toastmasters suggested as a way to get feedback on how you are coming across, for example.
      2) ‘Rules lawyering’ is when they stick to the letter (‘I didn’t say she was stupid’) while ignoring the spirit (‘I just said she was incompetent’). Depending on how committed they are to the bad behavior, you may not be able to get anywhere. You’ll know them by their inner smirk – they know they’re trying to ‘get away with’ something.

      One way to deal with either group is to make sure the example is embedded in a general rule, and that the general rule is emphasized heavily. “Treat people politely, even if you’re irritated. That means no insults, and instead of huffing or sighing loudly when you’re asked a question, try to see how quiet your deep, calming breath can be. Politeness is the core of professionalism.’ I like it because it’s got the goal sandwiching an example and a practical suggestion.

      Also, once you’ve had the talk, following it up with direct ‘in the moment’ responses is really helpful for people who are honestly trying to change. ‘Lucinda, ‘incompetent’ is a personal insult, and we’ve talked about that. Please focus on the actual work, not the person.’

      You do also have to be cautious about gender and race here. There’s a lot of studies showing that actions / gestures / statements are rated ‘ok’ when done by white men, but ‘rude’, ‘aggressive’ etc when done by women or PoC. Be very sure that you’d still address this if Lucinda were Lucius.

      Reply
  19. mf

    “I can say unequivocally that Lucinda does not have an unmanageable workload…”

    OP, it’s not really up to you to say whether Lucinda’s workload is unmanageable to her. We all have different thresholds for stress and overwhelm, and it could be that Lucinda’s threshold is lower than yours and others in your department. Maybe this means Lucinda is not well suited to this role, in which you could ask her, “Look, your workload isn’t going to change. Are you happy to commit to this workload for the foreseeable future, or do you think you’d be happier in the long term if you transitioned to a different role?”

    What you can do is address Lucinda’s behavior–the issue isn’t how overwhelmed she feels but how she expresses it in the workplace. “I’ve gotten some feedback that you’ve been a short with people during stressful meetings/when you feel overwhelmed. I’ve witness this myself: [insert example]. No matter how stressed out you are, this is not professional or acceptable behavior, and it needs to stop.”

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      That’s a good point! Separate out how you want Lucinda to FEEL from what you want her to DO. Do not address how she should feel, as it’s probably not productive.

      Reply
      1. mf

        Exactly. In my experience, telling someone how they should feel NEVER goes well. And I don’t think it is OP’s intention is to judge Lucinda for being too easily stressed out, but I can see how Lucinda might interpret it that way.

        Reply
    2. Alton

      Yes, this is exactly what I was thinking. Ultimately, people have different stress thresholds and react differently to different *kinds* of stress. People can also have stuff going on in their personal lives that affect this.

      There are any number of reasons why Lucinda might feel overwhelmed, and she’s allowed to feel that way. But it’s also her responsibility to handle that, whether it means looking for a different job, talking to a professional, or just being aware of her behavior and working to moderate it. But in order to do that, she needs to know that there’s a problem.

      Reply
    3. Allypopx

      That’s why I really like the language Alison suggests here: “I want to be clear that I’ve looked at your workload and I believe it’s reasonable, based on my knowledge of how long this works takes.”

      That creates an opening where Lucinda can say “Well actually I’ve found….” if that’s true for her, but it also sets the OP’s expectations. I think that’s an important conversation to have.

      Reply
      1. mf

        Alison’s language actually bothers me a bit here. The “I believe it’s reasonable based on…” begs the question: reasonable to who?

        What’s reasonable to one person can be completely unreasonable to another, and that statement could be interpreted by Lucinda as passing judgement on how “reasonable” her stress levels are. If the OP wants to maintain a good relationship with Lucinda, she/he should probably doesn’t want to pass judgement (or seem to, anyway) like that.

        Besides, if OP says, “I believe your workload is reasonable,” Lucinda may see that as an opening to argue whether it is reasonable or not. So maybe it’s better for the OP to say (in nicer words, of course), “Look, Lucinda, your workload is what it is. It’s not going to change, so if you’re planning to stay here for the long term, I need to know you’re okay with that.”

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Reasonable to the manager, who is the ultimate arbiter. As the manager, she gets to decide what the workload is, and whether the person in the job can handle it appropriately.

          I think the wording in your last paragraph is good too though.

          Reply
          1. Anon attorney

            The boss can be wrong about that, though. I used to have a boss who wasn’t interested in anything I said about my workload. I eventually made a business case (including in effect a time and motion study) to employ another person at my level, which was successful. But until then, I was genuinely doing the work of two people and my boss couldn’t have been less interested as long as his pet projects (aka bright ideas with no connection to our supposed business plan) were being attended to.

            Reply
            1. Anon to me

              I think if you have a good manager then they listen to you.

              Unfortunately, more often than not I’ve found that more managers than less in general just aren’t good managers in general.

              Reply
        2. Allypopx

          Unless the point is to open an opportunity for Lucinda to argue. For instance, I love my boss, but he has no idea how long anything takes, and my workload is very heavy. I can handle it, but I’ve been talking to him about tempering it for a less experienced employee as I transition out.

          If Lucinda is genuinely stressed and feels overworked, that might be another angle the OP has to come at this from.

          Reply
    4. Argh!

      –“I’ve gotten some feedback that you’ve been a short with people during stressful meetings/when you feel overwhelmed. I’ve witness this myself: [insert example]. No matter how stressed out you are, this is not professional or acceptable behavior, and it needs to stop.”–

      Lucinda will now be thinking: “What other people feel matters to my boss but what I feel doesn’t matter to my boss.”

      Reply
      1. fposte

        If she’s gotten that mired in distorted thinking, though, that’s not likely to be something the OP can fix, and if she hasn’t, the fact that the conversation is about behavior and not about feeling should make the difference pretty clear. (After all, it doesn’t matter if Lucinda’s co-workers don’t currently mind her being snippy–it’s still not acceptable behavior.)

        Reply
      2. SheLooksFamiliar

        Lucinda will now be thinking: “What other people feel matters to my boss but what I feel doesn’t matter to my boss.”

        Then Lucinda’s boss needs to make sure Lucinda knows her stress and frustration matter, and Boss will help. But Lucinda also needs to know that she is expected to be a good co-worker, and also needs to know when her behavior and/or communication cause problems for the team and their workflow.

        Reply
      3. Alton

        I think at some point, though, considering what other people think is important. Lucinda might be perfectly entitled to her feelings, and her reactions might feel reasonable to her, but if she’s affecting her co-workers and/or clients, that’s a valid issue. Also, the OP might not be able to “fix” whatever is the root cause of Lucinda’s problems, but she can coach Lucinda on professional behavior.

        I think the OP should be open to hearing Lucinda’s concerns and should show empathy if Lucinda is having a tough time, but when it comes down to it, something needs to be done. Things can’t continue like they have been, even if Lucinda is legitimately struggling. It’s not fair to anyone.

        Reply
        1. Argh!

          Exactly. Showing that you care, even if you are powerless to do anything about it, shows the person that they matter to you. If you take seriously the complaints that other people make about Lucinda but not the complaints that Lucinda makes about them, Lucinda has a right to feel demoralized and devalued. The message of the “talk” is then “Keep your feelings to yourself because your feelings are less important than Fergus’s feelings.”

          It may also be that she used to work in a workplace where people could be this way and not take it seriously or personally. Brooklyn, for example.

          Reply
      4. A person

        Good point, the manager should consider making it explicitly clear that s/he is trying to help Lucinda, maybe adding something like “come to me for help with a solution.”

        Someone who is feeling overwhelmed in the moment may actually need help with finding a productive alternative, and “stop doing that” may not be sufficient.

        Reply
      5. mf

        Fair point. Maybe there’s a better way to phrase it that puts emphasis on Lucinda’s behavior vs. how other people perceive Lucinda’s behavior. Something like: “I’ve noticed that in times when you seem stressed or overwhelmed, you tend to be short with people. [insert example] No matter how stressed out you are, this is not professional or acceptable behavior, and it needs to stop.”

        Reply
  20. Allypopx

    “It’s not impressive for you to seem at the end of your rope so often”

    This really jumped out at me. When you’re in crisis mode (like being short staffed) it becomes really natural to wear your stress! Everyone empathizes and holding it in can be difficult, so you learn to vent. And if you’re not stressed in a stressful situation you can come off, to yourself if no one else, as slacking or ignorant of the reality around you.

    Once things get better it’s so hard to make that code switch. She’s probably trained herself that it is impressive or even expected for her to emote this way! Not the gossiping or the negativity, but maybe the stress displays and lack of a general filter.

    I’ve struggled with this a lot in the course of my career. It might be worth having a conversation about how much tension she’s carrying from the environment when everything was short staffed. She might not even realize it. You’re not her therapist and you obviously don’t have to do that, but it might be enlightening.

    As a manager I’ve tried to head off that tendency in my own staff by making an announcement and changing my own demeanor to indicate we’re now out of the woods. “We can all breathe easier now.” “Thanks for all your hard work – let’s all enjoy getting back to the regular workflow!” “Let’s take a break and I’ll buy us some donuts – we have a little extra time now!” Not laying it on too thick, but allowing a few days of transition for people to put their guards down.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      Oh my god would you please become my boss. He “celebrates” all achievements with a grim “well, let’s get ready for the next big disaster coming down the pike.”

      Reply
      1. Allypopx

        I mean I do that with my co-manager or *my* boss sometimes but always just in a dark humor way and never to my reports. That’s stressful, I’m sorry.

        Reply
    2. Lil Fidget

      Also occurs to me, this is a good INTERNAL mental framework for people to use – “the hard part is over for a while! I’m going to celebrate by taking it easy / doing something fun / taking a break before starting the next thing!”

      Reply
      1. Allypopx

        Yes! Someone said it somewhere up thread but if you have time to take breaks after a crisis, do it! Self care is so important in all aspects of life including the professional and you should definitely give yourself a little reward whenever you’ve survived something stressful or work intensive.

        Reply
  21. SheLooksFamiliar

    I was Lucinda when my company was going through major, but good, change. I really did have a difficult workload, but so did everyone else. Heck, our CEO put in longer hours than everyone else. If someone asked how I was doing, I told them how stressed out I was, and how difficult my schedule and workload were, and that management just didn’t care, and threw in some sighs and eye rolls for effect. I did this one too many times, and a teammate snapped, ‘Maybe you’d feel better if you stopped complaining about it and just did your work! I know I would!’ Whoa. Talk about a reality check…I did the low-crawl for a while and stopped complaining because no one would listen to me anyway. Much to my surprise, things did get easier.

    Now, when a direct report complains about his/her workload being ever-so-heavy-and-important, I try to find a nice way to remind them they are not alone in managing tough schedules and workloads. I tell them I’ll help find ways to prioritize and manage their work, and that they can come to me if they need some support. And with a select few, I have to point out their constant complaining makes things difficult for everyone, which is not okay. ..and they can’t use their colleagues as their verbal punching bags. Ever.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      I feel like I earned a comment like this sometimes, even if nobody had the guts to say it to me :) A good reminder. Now to figure out a kinder-and-gentler way for OP to get the same message across to Lucinda!!

      Reply
      1. SheLooksFamiliar

        To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have heard a kinder and gentler message. I didn’t think I was complaining, just ‘informing’ people of my status. I mean, they asked how I was, right? And I knew my team was stressed, but I didn’t REALLY know, if that makes sense. Delusion, tunnel vision, solipsism, self-centered thinking, you name it, it defined me.

        But I agree that kinder and gentler is usually the best way to deliver a message like this.

        Reply
    2. Argh!

      Excellent reply. Simply telling someone to shut up devalues them and invalidates their feelings, giving them more to complain about. If you want to staff your workplace with human beings, don’t treat them like robots!

      Reply
      1. SheLooksFamiliar

        To clarify, a co-worker snapped back at me, not my boss. I’d call it ‘a rude awakening’ more than ‘shut up.’ Or maybe ‘creatively applied peer pressure.’ It worked, no matter what you call it.

        Don’t know if your last sentence was directed at me, but I’ll address it anyway: Since I manage and develop teams now (10+ years), I’ve learned how to deliver difficult messages without losing my cool. We do 360-degree reviews here, and I know how my team feels – and they do not feel like robots.

        Reply
        1. Ego Chamber

          I believe Argh!’s last sentence is direct at Argh!’s own management, as Argh! seems rather tangled up in their own situation, to the point that s/he doesn’t appear to actually be reading all of the comments that s/he’s commenting on and is recycling the same basic message for every reply.

          Reply
  22. rubyrose

    My brain went to this “and actually has quite a bit more flexibility than is common in this role.” If this means that she has more flexibility because she has more varied projects/assignments on her plate, perhaps move some work around so she has less flexibility. Some people cannot handle flexibility. The question in this case is whether she would like the idea, if offered.

    Reply
  23. Project Manager

    I am wondering if she is a complainer, but ultimately completes all of her work in a reasonable timeframe without issue. We have a number of people like this in my workplace, but it’s basically part of the culture at this point. I’m thinking specifically of two director level employees that are regularly complaining about their workload, projects, etc. The complaining is annoying, because we’re all busy, but they also always meet deadlines and expectations. They’ve also taught their direct reports to communicate this way, too. I’m not their manager, but I chalk it up to an annoying quirk when they’re on projects that I’m managing. If your workplace has a similar culture, that might be something worth looking at on a broader scale. Perhaps Lucinda has been taught by other departments that this is a normal means of communication/venting.

    Reply
    1. Sloan Kittering

      On the other hand, I do think a higher-than-normal culture of complaining is objectively bad. It also is very demoralizing for new employees when they come on board if everybody is moaning and groaning. And I can’t believe external partners think it reflects well on your org!

      Reply
      1. Project Manager

        I don’t disagree, Sloan. It was a learning curve for me when I started to identify that what Complainers X & Y said was a big deal was not necessarily a Big Deal. It’s not ideal, but I don’t know how you address a pervasive cultural issue without major overhaul. Especially when higher leadership sees only the successful project outcomes.

        OP didn’t mention this being a phenomenon across the company, though, so if it truly is a one person occurrence, then it would hopefully be easier to address and modify before it spreads to other employees.

        Reply
    2. Argh!

      Extroverted people are more inclined to say how they feel, and introverts don’t want to hear it. If introverts are in charge, the extroverts need to shut up. If extroverts are in charge, the introverts need to get over it.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        In my experience it doesn’t align like that (and I’m an introvert with a huge complaining tendency to boot); there are just complainy cultures sometimes. If you mean quiet people, that’s different; you’re right that you hear less complaint from people who don’t say much.

        Reply
      2. Allypopx

        Introverts are people who get energy from being alone. Extroverts get their energy from people. That’s it. Social dynamics are much more nuanced than that.

        Reply
  24. Argh!

    ===This is impacting your work and other people’s work, ===

    This needs to be spelled out too! Telling someone who is annoyed with their coworkers that their coworkers are annoyed with them won’t get through to her! Why should she care if they’re as miserable as she is?

    Reply
  25. Cassandra

    The advice so far has been great, OP, and based on your responses I think you got this. There’s just one small thing more from your original letter that might merit caution: the word “abrasive.” See e.g. the study linked from my username: the word as used in performance feedback is unfortunately gendered, and I’m sure that’s not an interpretation you intend or want to imply.

    Reply
    1. Tuesday Next

      That’s interesting! I’ve used this many times about male colleagues as well as female. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing – I’m not in the US.

      Reply
    2. Allypopx

      I think as a manager the point is more to be conscientious about giving feedback equally regardless of factors that might produce bias. There’s a male employee on my level who can really only be described as abrasive.

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Exactly. It’s not that “abrasive” is never warranted feedback; sometimes it is! But you need to aware of how some feedback about communication styles can be gendered, and be deliberate about ensuring you’d give the same feedback to either sex. (That said, at this point “abrasive” has become well enough known as an example of something that’s said more to women or men that if you’re giving a woman that feedback, you need to be very thoughtful about presenting it in a way that won’t leave her feeling that your assessment — not the word itself — was gendered.)

        Reply
        1. Argh!

          Since coworkers don’t know what’s being said to their colleagues, how would a woman know that a man has also be called “abrasive” in that workplace?

          Reply
          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Like I wrote just above, you need to be very thoughtful about presenting it in a way that won’t leave her feeling that your assessment — not the word itself — was gendered.

            Reply
    3. mf

      I think one way to avoid this is to name the specific behaviors that need to change instead of using loaded terms that could seem biased.

      So instead of telling Lucinda to stop being so abrasive, the OP could say, “Lucinda, I’ve noted a pattern in your behavior this year that needs to change. You’re often short with colleagues and you frequently complain about your workload.”

      Reply
  26. Rosie

    Hi LW – when you have the conversation with her about her attitude, though, it might be nice to ask her if there is anything going on in the job that’s causing her to act this way. In my last role I was pretty snippy for a long time because I was dealing with a whole bunch of worthy-of-a-lawsuit stuff my managers and eventually our HR just flatly refused to handle. My snippiness was the only thing that got any reaction from anyone. So when people did speak to me about my attitude, my reaction was usually along the lines of ‘oh yeah? well how do you expect me to behave when [office problem] + [career sabotage] + [bullying from colleagues] that you know about is going on and you’ve done nothing about it?’ And they never had an answer for me. It got solved by me leaving, which was not ideal.

    Obviously it sounds like you have a much healthier set-up. But I bet, if you ask her if she feels she has cause to behave so badly, you’ll learn some pretty illuminating stuff.

    Reply
    1. OP

      I can completely sympathize. I’ve also left a position I loved over this type of utter failure to manage solvable problems, so I like to think I keep a good pulse on both being open to feedback and taking action.

      Reply
  27. MicroManagered

    to thrive on manufactured stress

    being dramatic to the point of deception.

    This letter has some really great turns of phrase in it!

    Reply
  28. P

    I’ve had a coworker use this behavior as a tactic to avoid getting more work and distract from the actual issue that they were doing little to no work. I’ve since left the job due to overall negativity, but her boss and above unfortunately never put a stop to it and she ended up gaining quite the reputation as being overall useless. This not only made her look bad but her managers as well since they lacked the authority to call her on it.

    Reply
    1. Corky's wife Bonnie

      Sounds like the episode of Seinfeld where George would look annoyed and just throw up his hands and say, “Well, I have A LOT to do!!” and he wouldn’t get any work thrown his way. Hahaha

      Reply
  29. MommyMD

    Negative bitter snippy people are the worst. In life, not just the workforce. Just quit if you hate your job so much. There’s a line of people ready and happy to replace you.

    Reply
  30. Cafe au Lait

    Hey OP, I’m curious but are Lucinda’s complaints about a specific responsibility or task? One of my main responsibilities has a lot of moving parts. When I say a lot, a single item has five parts that happen concurrently, and multiple items can have up-to thirty moving parts at once. I had quite a bit of trouble staying on top of it all, and was spoken to by my managers. Even when I tried to explained, I received “This isn’t a problem in X department, and so-and-so doesn’t have a problem managing it.” X department had a different set-up, and had more people working on that responsibility and So-and-So received more slack on the process than I was afforded.

    It wasn’t until the process switch from a paper format to an online format, and I had to document and document and document all the issues I encountered that my bosses started to believe me. I’d spent two years telling everyone that the process was more convoluted than they realized. I was lucky–once everything had been pointed out, my boss at the time made it a point to address all the issues I encountered. Being able to say “This is an issue, and Y would make the process smoother” and _ have it happen_ was amazing. The updates to the process have made this responsibility easier to handle. I’m no longer running around feeling like a chicken about to have it’s head cut off.

    Reply
    1. OP

      I’ve spent a good amount of my career in the same role Lucinda currently occupies at different companies where the role had more moving parts and less flexibility, so I have a good understanding of what is involved in her workload. She completes projects on time and with positive client feedback, just not with the best attitude.
      I’m happy you were able to find a good way to get through to your boss and get actual solutions! I know how frustrating it is when people with the authority to implement change let issues fester, but that’s not what is happening here.

      Reply
      1. Anon to me

        Is there any chance that the role has changed significantly enough since you held it that perhaps your perception isn’t as accurate as it once was?

        I had a direct report a few years ago, who would complain to me that I had a warped idea of how long things really took. And, in the end I don’t know that she was that wrong. I mean I don’t think my perspective was as warped as she thought it was, but at the same time, upon reflection when I was in a similar role in the past I worked at a pace that was not sustainable in the long-term. All I saw was that I had a report who was complaining about doing half the work I used to do, while at the same time glossing over the fact that I was at my wits end I couldn’t have kept that up for years on end.

        Reply
        1. Argh!

          Not that the OP is a micromanager, but I have been micromanaged in a profession where things tend to change dramatically every few years. If the micromanager has just been promoted, then that’s natural. But when they haven’t touched your job duties in 20 years it’s beyond infuriating. They mess things up, make poor decisions, turn what should be brief discussions into 20 minute debates… It’s almost worse than having someone manage you who came from a different profession entirely! It’s extremely frustrating, and having to follow the orders of someone who doesn’t really understand the job can really affect your “attitude.”

          Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          The letter says that she comes across as exasperated or overwhelmed to industry partners, which is obviously not okay, and that she’s annoying and alienating colleagues. But beyond that, surely you see why spewing negativity into an office where other people have to work isn’t okay?

          Reply
        2. Noobtastic

          It has a bad impact on the morale of others, who are doing just as much, if not more, work, and not spending all that time complaining. They’ll start to think that if they want any help with their workload, they have to start acting like Complainer/Squeaky Wheel, or else they’ll get jealous that they don’t get recognition for quietly doing their work, while she gets coddled and allowed to misbehave, being mean to others, just because she “has it so hard,” and thus resentments will build up, and resentful, jealous employees tend to slow down their own work.

          It’s the sort of insidious thing you can’t really put your finger on, but the overall quality/quantity of work somehow just slides down until everyone is miserable and nothing is getting done, or done right. Like a virus that doesn’t come with solid symptoms, like sore throat or cough, but leaves you with that general run-down-all-over, please-don’t-make-me-move sensation that is so much harder to treat than specific symptoms would be.

          Reply
  31. Noobtastic

    Some people seem to enjoy complaining, and some people who are actually quite good at their jobs, and *not* overwhelmed, will take pleasure in complaining about how hard their job is, how it’s too much, how they’re just sooooo busy, etc.

    The problem with this is that some people will believe them, and you never know who that True Believer might be.

    If the True Believer turns out to be someone in a position to “do something about it,” that something might be exactly what Complainer doesn’t want. For example, someone who actually has a job with plenty of flexibility, and even free time might spend that flexible free time complaining, rather than working to help others, or improve processes, or what-have-you. Similar to someone who has less work than they can handle, but instead of asking for more, they just slow down, so that they always look busy, but they’re really not operating at capacity.

    Now, in that situation, if a True Believer decides that they need to analyze the job expectations, performance, processes, etc., and really give Complainer a thorough audit, with the goal of finding out ways to trim unnecessary work, or smooth processes, or otherwise make the job doable for Complainer, and in the process finds out that Complainer is simply manufacturing drama, to make themselves “look good,” they are going to make themselves look “REALLY bad.”

    Someone once said that a person who is really too busy to do their job is also too busy to spend time complaining about it. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but I do think that if you see someone complaining more than once a day, it has passed from “I need help and am trying to get some attention from people who can actually help me,” to “Look at me! MEEEEE!”

    Moreover, a person who actually does need help tends to complain directly to someone who is in a position to help them, rather than wandering around with a coffee mug, stopping at all the cubicles for a five minute (each) chat about “how busy I am,” and how “there’s not enough time or staff to handle it all” and they really look pathetic, and frankly, they look like they are being vastly overpaid for very little actual work.

    Add being snippy and short with co-workers (let alone partners!) to this sort of optics situation, and you have a big morale problem, as people who actually are working at capacity, while maintaining polite and civil behavior, are going to feel jealous and put-upon, by comparison, as long as Complainer is allowed to continue.

    Plus, you have the whole “crying wolf” thing, where if Complainer actually does have a real crisis, no one will take Complainer seriously.

    All of these things are points Manager can explain to Complainer during the sit-down meeting.

    Reply
  32. CM

    Sorry, I didn’t read all the comments. But I wonder if there’s some resource that could help Lucinda — a book or article she could read, or a training she could take? I worked with a Lucinda and even when she was talked to directly, she had very little self-awareness about how her drama affected how she was perceived. That was just her personality. She didn’t really see why it was a problem. She ended up getting fired, and I was her peer so not in a position to do anything, but I think she needed some outside perspective and strategies rather than just being told to stop behaving that way.

    Reply
  33. redredrose

    I empathize with Lucinda. Heck, I’ve been Lucinda. The problem is when you have been working non-stop and you get tired, it’s hard to keep your emotions in check, especially if you don’t feel you are being heard by management.

    My management will say work comes in waves, instead of upstaffing us. I recently calculated and I’ve done over 500 OT hours this calendar year so far. I love what I do and I am considered a high performer, but it is hard to stop yourself from talking about being overworked when that is your reality every day. I agree with some commenters that when you go through that, it takes a long time to heal from that emergency mindset. It is very very frustrating as well to see management have no real idea what it is like being on the the front lines of it. So, sure let Lucinda know that all of her negative talk is hurting her reputation. But I think you should ask what her concerns are and really listen to the answer.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Before you comment: Please be kind, stay on-topic, and follow the site's commenting rules.
You can report an ad, tech, or typo issue here.

Subscribe to all comments on this post by RSS