how can I coach an annoying employee?

A reader writes:

How can I talk to my employee about her tendency to annoy people? She likes to work collaboratively to develop ideas, but it has begun to be burdensome for her colleagues. She seems to be high maintenance, mulling over minor little details and dragging things out unnecessarily. Is there a tactful way to tell her she needs to build a better rapport with her colleagues? They’ll all need to continue to work together.

The need here seems less about building rapport with her coworkers and more about eliminating annoying habits. (Of course, ending the annoying habits is likely to help build rapport, but it’s modifying the habits that should be the goal.)

I’d have a straightforward conversation with her:  “Jane, I’d like to give you feedback on some things I’ve noticed when you’re talking over ideas with people. I love that you are so collaborative, but I’ve noticed that you often have a higher tolerance for mulling over the details. Details are important, but when you’re using your colleagues’ time, these meetings will go better – and people will be more willing to join them – when you keep them focused on higher-level decisions. I’d like you to try tightening them up, so that people feel like their time is being respected. For instance, your planning meeting last week took more than an hour. I’d like to see you get meetings like that down to 30 minutes, tops. How about before the next one, we review your agenda together and I can help you find places to tighten it up?”

From there, monitor this like you would any other performance issue – checking in on how she’s doing with it, praising any improvement, and addressing it if the problem continues.

It might also be worth coaching her colleagues – if you manage them as well – about how they can respond to this situation too. For instance, you might help them find language to use when they want to cut longwinded brainstorming short and re-focus her on action items.

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    Thanks for taking an empathetic approach with this issue.

    I know many folks like this who are great people and bring a great deal to the table but aren’t so hot about taking in social ques or understanding the difference between deep detail and broad overviews.

  2. A Bug!*

    If she’s endlessly hashing out small details with her coworkers, it also may be a confidence thing. I wonder if there are any indications elsewhere in her work that she leans toward getting approval from others for things that fall within her circle of competence?

    1. Anonymous*

      Look at your environment too, to make sure she’s getting the support she needs. I have been “her”, and a large part of it was that I was getting conflicting messages about how to handle tasks and what items were within my authority. With more guidance there, my confidence grew.

      1. Jessa*

        What Anonymous said. Sometimes this stems from crazy conflicting instructions.

        Also sometimes it stems from lack of any real communication. I once had to outright tell a boss “I don’t need constant hand holding, but lack of communication to me does not mean “okay everything is great,” it just means you’re not saying anything.”

        Mind you this was on a temp job and the supervisor in question was the temp agency person on site at the job. And there were peformance metrics and unlike permanent personnel we weren’t getting print outs of this stuff and could get fired for not doing things right (it was a bank.) She (it was a she) looked at me and realised that the permanent employees were getting regularly scheduled feedback and we weren’t. A lot of my fellow workers were surprised when they found out their talk time was too high, etc.

        They changed the policy to make sure we got the paperwork too.

        But if management is totally silent over a long term project, I’m totally not adverse to going “hey are we on track here?”

      2. Chris80*

        This. I get constantly conflicting messages from my supervisor about my responsibilities and priorities. I tend to clarify things and seek approval more often than I would prefer because I know these things can change from day to day.

  3. fposte*

    Yeah, quantify, quantify, quantify. The more specific you are about what she can do, the easier it will be for her to be confident she’s doing all right (as Bug notes, likely to be an issue here). For one thing, has she even been told that she’s expected to work more independently than she’s been doing? Tell her, and maybe give her a goal/limit of x collaborative check-ins per time frame. Is the problem that she’s overfocusing on minutiae at the expense of the big picture? Talk to her about identifying priorities, return on time investment, and letting the small stuff go. Is she noodging people repeatedly rather than giving them feedback and letting them do their jobs? Suggest that she create a regular meeting or communication time and save stuff up for then.

    1. Jessa*

      There may also be ingrained habits from former jobs where they were over-managed to the point that any original ability to work solo has been stepped all over.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, that can definitely be how people develop such behaviors. However, they still have to be retrained.

  4. Legal Eagle*

    Mulling over tiny details and dragging discussions out are productivity issues. Discuss her tendencies in a direct, factual way with examples.

    Working collaboratively may be great for larger issues or projects, and a waste of time for small issues. Is she insecure about her decisionmaking, when she is actually capable of making decisions on her own? Give her some guidelines and hopefully she will act accordingly.

  5. CoffeeLover*

    This is a huuuge pet peeve for me. I can’t stand being trapped in meetings while the other person takes 10x longer than necessary to make their point. Even worse is when they try to hash out small details in a group setting. Small details should NEVER be discussed in a group setting. What should take 5 seconds to decide now takes an hour of discussion. People that let this go on don’t understand how to use meeting time properly and how to control a group. Can’t. Stand. It. -.-

    OP this shouldn’t be a discussion about how she annoys people though. It should simply be a discussion of how to properly use meeting time. This is a much easier conversation to have because its about her performance and not about how everyone doesn’t like her.

    1. Christine*

      Ugh….hear, hear! I remember at one past job, we had one girl that would use the “round table” portion of our weekly meetings to bring up a gazillion other topics; she’d even giggle knowing she’s dragging out the meeting, probably in response to my not-always-discreet look of disgust. lol.

    2. Jamie*

      1000x this. When a meeting is for “how can we streamline Y” then bogging down in minutia of job X6729586-Y isn’t helpful. Have a meeting with the relevant people about that, if needed, but it completely derails big picture meetings.

    3. Esra*

      This is something that drives me nuts at work. I’m on a design team, and every initial meeting we have to get introduced to a project, my art director jumps directly into design specifics. Even though I will be the one designing the brand. And need to do research. And her ideas are terrible. Then later she gets upset because neither I nor the other two designers ever use her terrible, off-the-cuff ideas.

      As you say, CoffeeLover, it’s a case of just not knowing how to use meeting time properly. Both making your points concise, but also specifically relevant to that meeting.

  6. Christine*

    I too tend to hyperfocus on details. I don’t know that “annoying” is the appropriate term unless this employee is checking in about every. single. detail. before going forward with the work at hand. I like fposte’s suggestion of saving up questions to ask at meetings at reasonably-scheduled intervals; this is something I do. Although, even then, too many details can get tedious.

    I’ll be interested to see if any other suggestions are posted here…I could sure use the tips!

    1. fposte*

      It can be annoying even if it’s not every single thing, though, since it sounds like it’s co-workers, whose jobs don’t include supervising this person, who are being called upon to validate her. (I’m thinking now of an AAM post from last year or so about a co-worker who was doing just that.) At that point it can also be worth 1) gauging how much other people on the team check in with one another and 2) asking the person you’ve been most relying on how to make this as easy as possible for them.

      1. Leslie Yep*

        Agreed – It’s one thing to pick others’ brains about a thorny decision you’re trying to make (even about a super minute detail), and it’s another to actually abdicate responsibility for the decision-making to others. Managers delegate to get things off their plates and out to others in a streamlined way; when employees bring them back to the manager or group rather than take their assigned action on it, it creates more work for everyone.

        Christine, one of the things that has really helped me ask the right questions and get off on the right foot up front with new projects is doing a quick repeat-back to my manager, “As next steps, I’m going to [action]. I think it will look like [this] and it will function to [that]. Does that sound right?” It helps me to make decisions about details when I firmly understand the overall vision of the project, and it helps my manager understand exactly what she’ll be getting at the end. Then of course incorporate the appropriate touch points along the way so that your manager can give feedback before you hit a point of no return on something.

  7. Anon*

    Sigh – I wonder if this is my boss writing in.

    I ask for feedback on a lot of details because it never fails that when I don’t ask, someone questions why I did something a certain way or I find out that I did something wrong.

    Of course, I expect to get over this after a year or so in my position, but I wonder how long is too long to get over wanting feed back on minor details.

    1. Christine*

      Ditto – I always ask, “did I do that right?” or “is this resource appropriate?” to head off that very problem. Drove a previous manager nuts.

      1. fposte*

        I don’t know if this is you or not, but I think that sometimes that comes from people who take corrections very personally and do everything to head one off. (I’m kind of like this myself, so I do get it.) And while there are workplaces where corrections are treated so harshly, mostly they’re not, and it takes more time to validate an employee every time than it does to correct them once a month.

        It can be hard to develop the meter that reads when you should check and when you shouldn’t, but we do need to accept that receiving corrections can be part of the procedure.

        1. Christine*

          Yup, I do tend to take corrections very personally; I’ve always been like that. I did have one job that was incredibly focused on accuracy, although it was due to the nature of what we were working with. Didn’t make it any less tedious, though. I just hope that I can reign in those tendencies when I finally get a job.

          Although, I’d probably make a really good auditor or quality assurance person ;)

    2. the gold digger*

      I ask because I am not really sure what my limits of authority are. I have a boss who doesn’t like to be bothered with the details, but only last week, after I’d been here almost a year, did he say, “Only come to me if it involves spending a lot of money.”

      Fine. I just need to know.

      1. the gold digger*

        (However, this is the same boss who told a co-worker, who had scheduled a two-week trip to China at his request that perhaps she should take some vacation days during that trip because otherwise, it would look like she was just traveling for fun on the company dime. So you just can’t know where you stand with this guy.)

    3. Legal Eagle*

      Change your framing! Instead of asking about minor details upfront, is it possible to make decisions and have someone review?

      For example, when I wrote the first drafts of opinions for a judge, I make tons of minor decisions. The judge would review my work and let me know what changes needed to be made. Most of the time, she would agree with the choices that I had made. She would rarely tell me that I made a mistake, but if she did it was not personal.

      Making the minor/medium decisions was terrifying at tines, because we were deciding people’s legal issues. But I learned how to trust my own judgment and the difference between a minor issue and a major issue. Knowing what needs to be addressed upfront and what I should handle on my own showed good judgment.

  8. Anonymous*

    This could be my boss writing in about a coworker.

    One thing that is crucial is to look at what kind of feedback do you give in general. If someone writes a report that is effective, communicates the message/s, isn’t filled with errors, but might not be exactly the way you’d write it, do you rewrite that and send it back asking for it to be fixed? Does your office spend hours quibbling over 1 word? Does your office require that everything go thru many levels of approval with each level putting their own stamp on it and making changes so that it is clear they had a say in it? Do you have processes and guides that you talk about but that have many many exceptions, far more than follow those guides and processes?

    If any of these are “Yes” then it might be that you/your company is creating this kind of behavior.
    (It could still be that the employee in question is annoying.)

    1. 22dncr*

      Anon – do you work with me? We’ve had 2 hour meetings about ONE WORD and whether to staple or paperclip. SO wish I was kidding!

      1. Chinook*

        “We’ve had 2 hour meetings about ONE WORD and whether to staple or paperclip.”

        I know why that 2 hour meeting went so long – there was an indepth discussion, once it was decided to staple, about what direction the staple should be facing and where it should be placed on the paper exactly (vertically on the inner left hand bar of the flag). I still can’t believe I sat through a meeting about that, especially since the ones doing the stapling were told our opinions didn’t matter (i.e. they wanted it to look good, not be efficient or reduce carpal tunnel from having to pick up 500 tax returns and staple them, then later unstaple them for scanning and then rescanning them).

        I swear I stapled every single one of them horizantally and diagonally through the flag just because I wanted to see what that disciplinary action would look like!

        1. Jamie*

          The ultimate Bike Shed Effect – also known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.

          Googled that in the midst of a four hour meeting to decide between two shades of brown for a website font. Shades so close I couldn’t tell them apart…I knew this kind of torture had to have a name.

          1. fposte*

            Okay, this is absolutely brilliant, and I can’t believe I haven’t known about that before.

            I’m also dying to know how you created a Google search that got you there.

            1. Jamie*

              I don’t remember the combo of keywords – I was just punching things like mind numbing, trivial, meetings, I hate my life…etc…into google. :)

              Oh and since we did a test that proved not everyone could see the same nuance of colors (and I’m atrocious except in pinks and blues…which are the only colors I really like…odd) but since I couldn’t see the difference I tried to get excused based on that.

              When they ordered lunch to continue my head hit the table in despair and no one looked up. I run those meetings now and that doesn’t happen any more.

              1. the gold digger*

                I spent eight hours in a meeting whose only agenda item was, “Should the organization serve Mapuche women or young Mapuche women?”

                That was when I started bringing my knitting to meetings.

                Then that was when I was told my knitting was distracting. By a woman with a baby at her naked breast.

              2. fposte*

                It makes me think of Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel, the movie about the interminable party that everybody’s sentenced to until somebody realizes that they could all just, you know, leave.

        2. the gold digger*

          I spent many an hour in the basement down at copy services, removing all the staples from the left-hand side of the presentation for the board of directors and re-stapling on the right-hand side.

          Man did I hate corporate finance and that company.

          1. Jamie*

            Some days that actually sounds wonderful. A simple task done without thinking, in silence.

            Reminds me of Robert Fulghum’s essay about polishing the stick in “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” The longing for a simple and incredibly basic task to be your only responsibility – and the only thing on which you’re judged that day.

            I could staple the hell out of anything in exchange for a day like that.

            1. the gold digger*

              Jamie, it would have been fine if it had been during the day. Problem was, this was always at 9 or 10 p.m., after I had already been at work since 7 a.m.

  9. Jen in RO*

    My boss could have wrote this…

    I don’t mind it that my coworker asks questions, but it gets really annoying when she doesn’t do any research, interrupts me even after I tell her I’m busy and then second guesses everything I say. If you don’t trust me, just stop asking and we’ll both be very happy! And, beside my personal issues with her, it creates a bad image for our small department… she tends to grab a person for a “few quick questions” and hold him/her hostage for an hour, going into the most unnecessary details… I can see those people’s faces and they are not happy. (And then, of course, “whine, whine, all the people I work with are obnoxious and unhelpful”). Is there a tactful way to tell her that if *all* the people she works with are so bad, *she* might be the problem?

    And, on a more serious note: I guess this is something our manager should talk to her about, in light of her future career, right? When your job revolves around interacting with people, I don’t think you’ll go far if you annoy then… (She was passed up for a promotion fairly recently, for these reasons exactly, but I don’t think the boss told her why.)

    1. Jen in RO*

      I came back to say thanks, Alison! I sent the Intuit QuickBase article to my team lead and she will have a talk with the coworker. Fingers crossed!

  10. jesicka309*

    OP please be specific when you talk to this annoying worker. In my last performance review, I got knocked down from a perfect rating to ‘average’ because my interpersonal skills needed working on. What does that even mean?? Which skills? What was I doing wrong? Was it a talking thing, or an attitude thing? I was too shocked to ask for clarification at the time.
    Cite specific examples and suggest solutions. It’s not fair to say “you annoy everyone with your questions” if you can’t help work out an alternative way for her to get what she needs.

    1. fposte*

      That depends on what she needs, though. If we’re talking a hyperanxious risk-averse person who always needs to know that her work is okay, the message may be that sometimes she has to do without that.

      However, I’m definitely with you on being clear on the specifics if you’re going to head into such a subjective but important area. As your experience suggestions, it’s horrible to be basically told “Don’t be how you are” with no guidance as to what specific things you should do less or more.

      1. jesicka309*

        Exactly. Having a discussion with her about what she needs might uncover that everyone completely ignores her emails, hence why she’s harrassing everyone in person, for example. For all we know, she’s developed this annoying habit in response to situations at work, and if it’s the only way she’s found this works…
        Talking about it and presenting solutions, rather than just nit picking and saying “good luck fixing your personality!” is much more constructive. As you say, even if it’s just telling her that she might have to deal without the constant reassurance.

    2. the gold digger*

      Yes, specifics. I had a boss once tell me that “I used big words and made people feel stupid,” but couldn’t give me any examples of either the words or the people who felt stupid.

      1. Jamie*

        My back literally went up when I read this. I have also had this complaint – the hell?

        Especially when it pertains to email. If you have company email you also have access to online dictionaries. That combined with the gift of literacy means you can freaking look up a word you don’t know, not whine about it.

        I love Rana’s expression about not doing things “at” people. No one is using “big” words “at” anyone…they are just speaking.

        One of my greatest joys still is hearing someone use a word I’ve never heard before, looking it up, and now it’s mine to use as well. When I was little I used to have lists of new words from when I read books and I called them my Word Collection. Dorky I know – but it was one of those things I thought everyone did …I didn’t know the alternative was just to force others to use only words you’ve already learned. Way to limit yourself.

        Sorry – kind of ranty today.

      2. Jessa*

        Actually, it was probably your boss. A lot of bosses use “other people,” when they mean themselves.

    3. Cassie*

      I got a lower score for “customer focus” on my first evaluation with a new boss – he said he didn’t know what that category meant so he gave me a lower score. What?!

      I think “customer focus” was definitely an area that I could improve on, but the explanation was just ridiculous.

  11. Anne*

    Prior starting on my own, I had an irritating co-worker and an annoying boss. All those days with that company I was juggling between them both.

  12. LadyOrange*

    I think it’s really important to not use the word “annoying” but instead focus on specific items that are directly work-related. I was given the score just below perfect in my performance review this year, but then told: “The word your co-workers use to describe you is ‘annoying'”….I expressed surprise, asked for examples, and after the meeting promptly went and cried for about a half hour in my car.

    I scheduled a follow-up meeting to discuss specific examples and develop an action plan. My boss could give no examples and told me to stop worrying about it. He told me that he had purposely held my review on a Friday afternoon because he knew I would be very upset, and that all I had to do was “think more” and it would all be fine.

    It was extremely strange and upsetting….

  13. Cassie*

    Ditto about being specific. Giving a specific incident, and then explain the bigger context, would be a good way to go. I keep hearing feedback from supervisors (both staff and faculty) that is very general: not good at writing, makes mistakes, not detailed, etc. And I don’t think it serves any use at all, because it’s so vague.

    I’ve been thinking about feedback and stuff lately – I think our office definitely needs rubrics or key performance indicators. For example, about the writing – good writing would 1) answer the question being asked; 2) have the appropriate tone for the audience; 3) require little revision from the boss; 4) have minimal (or no) typos. Poor writing would 1) not answer the question or contain factual errors; 2) use inappropriate tone for the audience; 3) require major revision from the boss; 5) be cluttered with typos.

    I know it’s very college-y and may be not appropriate for a professional workplace, but I would rather have concrete guidelines that I can compare my work. It would also help supervisors with their evaluations so we don’t get these vague performance reviews that again are pointless.

  14. anonymous*

    hi there, I am having lots of issues with my manager, i would like to go HR to explain some of my concerns, please advise on process

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