my coworker relies too much on my help

A reader writes:

I have a friend at work, Anne, who joined our office a couple of years ago. She is frequently asking for my help – most of the time, it’s to explain procedures or policies (not to actually do her work for her). She seems to be understanding most of it, but she still comes back to me “just to check” that her plan of action is correct.

I wonder if I’m actually hindering her progress, because she relies on having that “safety net” there. I get that she might not be confident in her ability, but in our line of work, if you make a mistake, you just go back and fix it. Obviously, we don’t want to make mistakes but we all do at some point and it’s not like we’re doing brain surgery or something that can’t be fixed.

It doesn’t bother my bosses that I help her and it doesn’t affect my work. In a way, it helps me sharpen my skills by having to teach her. However, Anne is in a higher position so it looks strange to our coworkers and other people in our office that she has to run stuff by me. Sometimes people go to her for help, and she asks me to join the conversation. I’ve heard from coworkers that Anne’s boss is befuddled that I seem to always be helping Anne. Anne’s boss has made one teasing comment (in my presence) about how she should just give me Anne’s job since I do the work. And Anne doesn’t hide the fact that she asks me – she tells everyone how much I help her out.

So I’m wondering if there’s some way that I can tell Anne that I believe she understands enough of what she’s doing and that she should trust that she can take care of her work alone? I obviously don’t want to just say “stop asking me – figure it out yourself!”

I think you should be straightforward with her and tell her something like, “You know, I’m happy to be a resource for you, but I worry that you’re selling yourself short by not trusting your own instincts more often. I’m worried we’re creating a dynamic where your boss and others think you rely on me, and then you won’t get as much credit as you should.”

However, Anne may not care. She may be someone who is simply happier having the security of the safety net you provide, even if that comes at a cost to her career advancement. So your obligation is really just to point out to her the impression she may be creating and the fact that it may have consequences to the way she’s perceived. What she does from there is really her call.

Now, if you were annoyed and wanted to get out of helping her so often, I’d give you different advice — along the lines of setting boundaries, being unavailable more often when she comes to you for help, and so forth. But you don’t sound annoyed, and in fact — wisely, in my opinion — recognize that it’s developing your own skills to be put in that role.

So I would say point out to Anne what she may not see, but then let her figure out how she wants to act.

And by the way, at your next performance review, you should definitely point out that you are a much-relied-on resource for Anne. This is the kind of thing that is often a precursor to higher level positions.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Kristin*

    I had a co-worker who did that at my last job (but she was my peer, and in the same job title). She'd constantly ask me to re-send things to her because she couldn't find them (even though she also constantly made fun of the way I organized my e-mail).

    I acted annoyed (because I was), and she still did it anyway. I left the job a few months ago, so hopefully she got her act together.

  2. Anonymous*

    I have a coworker like this. She is a director and she always asks other directors how to do her job! She always goes to them and they get annoyed because she is so pesky. Her boss actually moved her closer to his office so he could "keep an eye on her."

  3. Anonymous*

    The glorious part of this letter: People have noticed what you do for Anne! That makes all the difference.

  4. Anonymous*

    I just want to say that it's nice to read about situations like this, where no one's being a jerk, the question writer is looking out for a co-worker, and said co-worker appreciates the help and gives credit where credit is due.

  5. Anonymous*

    Do note – not all employers commit to performance reviews and if she’s directly above you and conducting it you’re not going to get the chance to raise this. I’d just misinform her on the next advice she seeks and take her place when the shots are fired; worst case she tries to pin it on you for not doing her job correctly (see what I did there?)

    I love not having a conscience.

  6. Allison*

    As a non-manager who has been in my industry for almost 30 years, I’ve found myself in the same position a number of times. But I basically only carry it so far. If I’ve told someone more than 2-3 times, I’ll suggest that they write it down. Or I’ll point out that we’ve done this before, do you remember what we did last time? Or, my favorite – What do YOU think? That allows them to use their own instincts – if they’re wrong, they learn (and at my urging, usually make notes!), and if they’re right, not only do they remember it better, but they also get a boost of self-confidence! I have to be careful, though, not to come across as condescending – I truly want to help them, but not do it for them.

  7. Michael C.*

    Say you started up a new career; how long are you allowed to ask “safety-net” type questions until you’re expected to “fly” on your own?

      1. Michael C.*

        Just everyday things (I work in platform productions). There are 2 people who are my initial escalation paths from small things to needing hands-on guidance to bigger issues/work orders.

        I’ve been in the role for 3 months and I don’t think I will get ever 100% proficient with the platform with all of the new features and developments being implemented (this is a growing platform).

        Don’t know if this is the example you had in mind. Is there a time-frame for this sort of stuff?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Very much depends on the job and your seniority level. Do you have a good relationship with your manager? Or someone else on your team? It could be a good question to raise with them — might give you some insight and could end up making you feel better.

          1. Michael C.*

            thank you very much for the advice. your site has been a tremendous resource for any work-related questions I have.

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