my employee wants to be micromanaged

A reader writes:

I’m having an issue with one of my employees who hasn’t been improving, and I’m not quite sure how to better the situation. I work for an organization where everyone takes on a lot of responsibility and, in short, I have an employee who wants to be micromanaged. Basically, my employee is paralyzed unless I explicitly give direction to get something done. If I don’t respond in what my employee deems a timely manner, I will get texted while in meetings or on phone calls to respond on something.

I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried being direct by saying, “I need you to be more confident in your decision-making and just move on things. You have my blessing.” I’ve tried just plain ignoring to see if the pressure will make her move. I’ve tried hinting, which I hate because it’s passive-aggressive. None of it works. I’m out of ideas and wondering what else I could do to ameliorate the situation. It’s very inefficient and quite frankly, I have decision fatigue at the end of the day.

Have you tried explicitly naming the issue for her, explaining that it’s a serious problem, and painting a clear picture of what you need to see instead? And doing this in a big-picture, “let’s step back and talk about a pattern that I see” way, as opposed to talking about individual instances after they happen?

When you’re frustrated with an element of someone’s performance, the basic steps to follow are these:

1. Clear and direct feedback after specific incidents — “here’s what I observed and here’s what I need from you instead.” (You want to make this an actual conversation, of course, where you ask for the employee’s thoughts about what’s going too.)

2. Big-picture, pattern feedback — “I’ve noticed this big-picture pattern, and here’s what I need instead.” Managers often skip this step. They talk about individual instances as they happen and assume that the employee will connect the dots and realize that there’s a pattern, but never actually say “hey, this is a pattern.” As a result, employees sometimes truly don’t realize that it’s a pattern and that the pattern is a problem. It’s really, really helpful and important to name it as a pattern and as a big-picture thing about their performance.

So, in this case, you’d say something like this: “We’ve talked several times now about how I need you to make decisions like X and Y on your own and to drive work forward without leaning on me for direction, but I haven’t seen the improvement I was hoping for. It’s become a pattern, and I’m concerned because that approach is crucial for success in this job.” You’d ask her for her thoughts, you’d talk about it, you’d paint as clear a picture as you can for her of what her performance should look like (ideally using some concrete recent examples and talking about how those could have gone differently), and you agree to check back in on her progress in a few weeks.

3. If that doesn’t resolve it, then you address it as a serious performance problem, including a formal improvement plan with timelines if you think that’s appropriate, and including contemplating whether she’s not the right fit for the role.

With this particular issue, it might make sense to do some limited-time, intensive coaching around decision-making and keeping work moving, and see if that gets her where you need her to be. But I’d be prepared to move to step #3 pretty quickly after that (or as part of that), because it sounds like she might just be fundamentally mismatched with the role.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 159 comments… read them below }

  1. Murphy*

    The only thing I would add is making sure you’re not inadvertently sending signals that she’ll be in trouble if she makes the wrong call. I know you told her you’d have her back, which is great, but sometimes we send small signals that suggest otherwise. For example, I know I can get an annoyed face when my team has made a call that I wouldn’t have. I absolutely have their backs, but I need to keep my face in check when that situation arises so they truly believe what I say (action speaking louder and all that).

    1. TootsNYC*

      I agree! Watch for this.

      Also, even if your tone is great, you can send the message, “you didn’t get it right, and I noticed,” if you right away say, “Great, and another way you could have handled it is X.” Because the message is, not “great!” but “You didn’t do it the way I would have.”

      Is there anyone who has observed you, that you’d feel comfortable asking to help you suss this out?

      1. TootsNYC*

        You think you’re providing extra info and training, but the person you’re speaking to hears criticism.

        1. Kira*

          Yes to this. I’m lucky that my supervisors are interested in developing me, but it’s a struggle to hear that I’m wrong. I’ve learned to listen to and understand criticism better, but I seem to have a limit on how much constructive feedback I can take before I start to withdraw and get protective.

      2. NYer*

        Oh wow you’ve finally explained why I always disliked it when people said stuff like that to me as an intern. I knew it was supposed to be polite, so I just thought I was being too sensitive.

        1. designbot*

          “too sensitive” really just means “you’re picking up on something I wish you hadn’t noticed.”

      3. yesyesyesyesyes*

        So true. It is incredibly undermining and demoralizing (or perhaps, “paralyzing”) to be instructed to be more proactive, and then following up on any form of action with “I wouldn’t have done it that way,” “another way you could have done it was…,” “I would have added…,” or “To add on to what [employee] said…” which comes across more like “[Employee] forgot something.”

        1. Toph*

          I hear what you’re saying, but at the same time, it can be both a problem that an employee is not proactive enough AND that they don’t illustrate good judgement. So in theory, that person may need coaching on both, if they’re expected to improve on both. The feedback “you need to be able to handle this without me” both speaks to not being afraid to handle it, but also having the knowledge/skill to handle it. If employee DID forget something, they need to know that too. That said, the advice I’d give would be different if the issue were only “employee knows what to do but is too hesitant to do it without double-checking” vs “employee can’t move forward without double-checking because they genuinely don’t know what to do next without help”. The latter situation though isn’t just one a “well I’d have done it this way”. I’m talking about when what they’ve actually done is missed something crucial, not an equal but different approach.

    2. NK*

      I completely agree. I worked on a team where management complained that we didn’t make enough independent decisions. But when we made a decision on our own that was either wrong or just a reasonable judgment call that was not what management would have done (and there were a lot of those to be made), there was hell to pay. So everyone realized it was just safer to ask. So definitely make sure you’re not punishing her – directly or indirectly – for making some wrong calls within reason, or for doing things differently than you might have chosen to (assuming it was a reasonable choice).

      1. MissDisplaced*

        I agree and that is by far the WORST situation to be in (and I’ve been there too). Management gets annoyed if you ask them to approve each and every little thing, but then wa-la! the minute you make a independent decision there is usually hell to pay and you get yelled at for “not” informing them/letting them decide. Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t.

        I don’t think OP is doing this at all, but OP, is it possible your employee came FROM a bad situation like that? The effects can linger for a long time and I might give the employee some benefit of the doubt here if this is the case. I read this as the employee being highly insecure and/or possibly inexperienced, and perhaps a few weeks of micromanaging (let’s call it coaching!) is worth the effort in the long run if their skills are otherwise solid. But as others suggest, be very clear on what is acceptable for deciding on her own, versus what you definitely want her to bring to your attention.

        1. Kiki*

          I left a job once because of just that. At my exit interview, they made a big thing about wanting me to be honest about everything, and I just said, oh new opportunities, etc etc. They had already stomped on me how many times for speaking up and making decisions, and now they want me to be honest in the exit interview?? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice? Shame on me.

        2. TootsNYC*

          even if there’s not “hell to pay,” if management is fiddling with every decision a worker makes, the worker will stop making ANY decisions.

          I work at such a place–and so people have stopped turning in their best work, because they know it’s just going to be tinkered with, and they figure, Why bother?

        3. Grapey*

          ” is it possible your employee came FROM a bad situation like that? ”

          Hell, the employer might have come from a FAMILY that doesn’t enforce predictable behavior. It took me years to figure out that I was insecure because jumping through the same hoop almost always had different consequences when I was a child.

      2. Doriana Gray*

        @NK That was my last toxic job. Every decision we made was wrong, but if we asked our boss for direction, she’d be like, “Take initiative! Figure it out!”


        1. Audiophile*

          This happened to me during my first real job in my field. I’d regularly get asked to give my opinion and give input on things and then regularly get shut down and told “no.” So I stopped giving input and making suggestions and started asking “what do you want me to do?” or “what do you want me to write?” Then I’d get told “figure it out.” Needless to say that job and I did not work out.

        2. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

          “Well, I’m not going to spoon feed you!”

          -My ex-boss if you asked her for direction, even though she constantly berated us for never doing what she would have done.

        3. Amadeo*

          Did you work for my Dad?

          At least when I do things for him I’m comfortable yelling back. I wish he would fire me – who would do his vector graphics then? ;)

    3. INTP*

      I agree with this, and would add to figure out whether she might be picking up on those signals from elsewhere and try to reassure her if so. Even if the OP is doing nothing wrong, the employee might fear negative consequences due to coworkers who were chastised by their managers for making the wrong judgment call, or a lot of turnover/layoffs/firings in the company without a lot of transparency about it, or past experiences with bosses who overreacted or even fired people over that sort of thing. I know OP has said she has the employee’s back but I know I’ve worked for companies where the managers will give great feedback up until they tell you that you’re fired so it could still be a fear from past experience.

      1. M-C*

        Also OP are you certain that she’d make the decisions you want? refer back to :-). Are you being explicit enough in what is a minor decision, and which way it should generally go? Have you made clear what would be a big decision, and exactly at what point you want to be called in? It might be helpful for you to work on a flow chart of usual mini-decisions that should be handled by the employee.. Could come in handy with the others too for that matter.

        Have you tried introducing the employee to project-management tools (like my beloved trello) so that you can both keep track of what they’re doing easily? So that you can be pinged in an unobtrusive way when your opinion is needed, as long as you check it regularly? Without going all the way to potential psychotherapy over past environments and changing a well-entrenched behavioral pattern completely, you could make the lacks more tolerable to both of you..

    4. The Other Dawn*

      My former manager at Old Job was NOT the master of her face. At all. We always knew when he thought we were being stupid, or he wasn’t happy with something. Not good, because many people avoided him and just worked around him.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        God, this. My former boss (the wife) would get these looks on her face like she thought I was an absolute idiot whenever I would talk to her about what I was working on. I was asking more questions than usual because I was trying to get aligned with her way of thinking about things so that I could proceed independently in the future. I had used the same method to get aligned with all my previous bosses, and a period of checking my thoughts against theirs always paid of in my being able to make decisions going forward that were very close to what the boss would have done. This boss, however, took my inability to instantly read her constantly-changing mind as evidence of stupidity on my part.

    5. Rowan*

      Yes, this. I once had a manager who was great in a lot of ways, but he would do this all the time. He’d tell people to run with a project, that he trusted their judgement, and so on — but when they presented their results, he always had a lot of feedback on little things he wanted changed. So the ultimate message was, “I trust you only as long as you psychically figure out exactly what I wanted.”

      1. fred*

        I have a manager who tells me to run with a project, but he doesn’t give me all the information. He meets with the clients and suppliers, and decisions are made, but he doesn’t tell me about it. I’ve talked to him about this. I told him I can’t manage a project if I don’t have all the information. I’m not actually involved. His response: “I don’t want to micro manage you. One thing follows another. Just do what comes next.”

        I think what comes next is me looking for a new job.

    6. Turanga Leela*

      I came here to say this! I had a boss who sent unintentional but very clear messages that the only right way to do things was precisely his way, and it taught me that I shouldn’t take initiative with my work. I don’t mean that he was finicky or exacting, because I would have been fine with that. I mean that if I sent a reply to an email, he’d question my word choices, or tell me that person X shouldn’t have been on it (even though person X had been part of the conversation). The criticisms themselves may or may not have been valid, but what it taught me was that every single thing I did needed to be approved by my manager first. If I didn’t check with him explicitly, I was likely to do the wrong thing and get in trouble.

      OP, I have no reason to believe that you’re doing this, but it’s worth considering.

    7. Kylynara*

      +1 this whole thread.
      I had a boss who wanted me to take more initiative and not ask his input as much. But every time I did, it was wrong and I had to do the work over again. I know he didn’t realize he was doing it. Once I even had the same situation come up twice in a short period and did it one way the first time, it was wrong and I had to fix it. The 2nd time I figured I knew the right answer. Nope I had to redo it, the way I had done the 1st one. That was the point when I gave up on using initiative.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        That’s how my one boss was! I never could count on being correct even if I did something in a way that was correct the last time we spoke. She could never make a consistent decision, and it was always all my fault.

    8. Rachel*

      This whole thread is entirely summing up my work right now, I was struggling to describe what isn’t right about the environment at work but this is entirely it.

    9. Serin*

      If you look up “learned helplessness,” this is exactly what they’re talking about — people who have been taught that every decision will be the wrong decision make the quite rational choice of making no decisions at all.

    10. Kira*

      Great point! Reading this I felt like the employee, because I’ve starting getting very wary of taking action without a higher-up’s buy in. I’ve been burned a lot recently when people didn’t like a decision I made/was part of/somebody thought I made. Often the criticism has been framed as “Did you ask X about this?” or “This has important implications, you should have identified that and brought it to X’s attention.”

      So I’ve been trying to protect myself by making sure somebody else (typically my boss) has heard my rationale and had a chance to stop me. I know it’s not the healthiest approach to the workplace, and I want to eventually grow out of it and become more independent again, but I’m just really scared of being wrong.

  2. Ad Astra*

    Point #2 would be key in every similar situation I’ve encountered. Many of my managers have been good at specific feedback after an event/incident, but never bothered to point out a pattern or give some general “What to do when…” guidance. A few of my managers have been the opposite, where I they explain the big picture but never tell me how to get there.

    OP, is it possible you’re being unduly critical when this employee does make a judgment call? I have had managers who would berate me when I made a decision that wasn’t what they would have done, and it made it continually harder to trust my instincts and do what I thought was best. They said they trusted me, but their reactions showed they didn’t, and it was paralyzing. Nothing in this letter suggests that’s the case here, but nothing in the letter rules it out, either.

    1. CherryScary*

      The flip side of this may also be that in a previous role, the employee was constantly berated for making judgement calls, and so now is having issues trusting that she is making the right decisions. It may just be she has a bit of workplace PTSD, and is a bit unsure of herself now.

      1. embertine*

        YES. OP, if you’re my boss, this is why! Sorry. I will try to do better.
        (j/k, but this is an incredibly common problem that a bad manager will leave an otherwise fine employee with. It happened to me and a lot of my friends, and it is absolutely paralysing.)

      2. fposte*

        Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the need for her to perform as her workplace requires. That’s kind of the double whammy of a bad workplace–you’re hurting when you’re there, and if you take the behaviors you learned there to the next job, you’ll be hurting at the next as well.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I came here to say exactly this — this might explain it, but ultimately the OP still needs a different performance from her. If she takes the steps in the post and it doesn’t solve it, this is probably not a person she can keep in this job.

          1. mortorph*

            I wondered to myself I’d this question is related to the previous post about mangers not giving clear directions? It’s entirely possible that the OP feels like they are giving clear directions (enough where her employees should make independent decisions) but in reality is making them read her mind more often than not.

            1. Cafe Au Lait*

              Something I’ve run into a my job is that things are done S way. As the new person, I’m looking at S and thinking “How the heck did they arrive at this decision?” Y, overall, is an easier solution to implement and maintain. In my position, I start aligning my processes with Y. Coworker gets upsets. It turns out that Client L is really offended when Y happens. Although we’re not *suppose* to pander to clients, we/the library makes an exception for this client because they’re such a pain to deal with on small matters. It’s easier to take on the extra work than to deal with the fallout.

              While the OP might want her employee to make independent decisions, it’s entirely possible that independent decisions are impossible due to the interpersonal nature of the work provided. There might be a lot of backstory to the processes and why process A is far preferred over process B. Both are correct in terms of workflow, but only one is correct for the environment.

          2. TootsNYC*

            True. but the manager can help identify if that’s what’s happening, and see if there’s any way to assist the employee in making the transition.

          3. Kate M*

            Oh definitely the employee needs to be able to do the job, but if it IS related to a past job where she was micromanaged/berated for making decisions, it could help if the OP knew that and said something like, “You’re not going to be fired/yelled at for making a simple error once” (if that is in fact true). Of course patterns have to be dealt with, but it might help the employee to know that OP means it when she says to make a decision.

            OP – I know you said she has your blessing to make a decision, but have you had an actual conversation about it? Not just in the moment? Sometimes, you need to really spell things out, i.e. “I see you doing X a lot. This is a pattern. I need you to do Y instead. When you’re doing Y, generally we follow these procedures. If you need to veer from these procedures in doing Y, I trust your judgment. Do what you think is best, and we can reevaluate after if there’s a better way to do it. There might be multiple ways of doing things, so try your best to make decisions, and as time goes on you’ll get more used to how things work.”

            You may have already said all this already, and this employee just may not be what you need. But I think people have a tendency to think that they are being direct and explicit when they’re not (myself included). Sometimes people try to soften the blow or walk things back a little, which can leave ambiguity.

          4. Just A Girl*

            Alison, off topic but I just have to tell you – In my imagination, you drink a LOT of tea :-)
            (presumably because of your pic and frequent references to the teapot factory)

      3. Ama*

        *Raises hand* Hi, this would be me. Nearly three years out of the bad role (where sometimes even when I did exactly what I been told in writing to do, I was *still* read the riot act for not intuiting that big boss had changed their mind), and I still have anxiety over making judgement calls way more often then I’d like.

        My current boss is really good at providing positive reinforcement, so quite often when I do have to make a judgement call I get a follow up email from her with “thanks — that was good thinking” or something along those lines, which has helped me regain some of my trust in my own instincts.

        1. Ama*

          *had been told* grr

          And also to add, I’m not sure how to get an employee who won’t actually try to make calls to do so, except for maybe to outline for her some basic situations where it’s fine to move ahead if you aren’t available? I’ll admit I kind of relearned that by necessity when my original hiring manager here at new job had a health crisis and I had no choice but to start making some decisions on my own.

        2. Just me*

          Been there. Why do bosses expect you to read their mind?! Still going through my PTSD, though it’s only been a month out.

        1. Kat*

          This is real! I had one boss who battered me so badly I wasn’t sure how to spell my own name without checking with her and when she left, I was lost. It took a very kind and supportive boss to get me back on my meet and being self-sufficient.

          Not a cure for the OP, but I feel for the employee.

      4. BRR*

        This is the situation I am in. I think my AAM reading helped me realize rather quickly that was the situation though as it was never told to me (and I sometimes don’t pick up nuances). It’s not even that I can’t make the decisions, I just went from being a small fish in a big pond to a big fish in a small pond.

      5. TheLazyB*

        Yeah, I’m struggling with this currently. I’m getting better, and it helps that my line manager has been clear about it, but it’s hard!

    2. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Your second paragraph nails it.

      I had a boss who used to berate me for the smaller things, and she’d tell me she was tired of micromanaging me because I was in a senior role so why can’t I be more proactive?  Then I’d be more proactive, which would result in a three paragraph-long email from her about how she wouldn’t have made that call and who gave me the authority to do what I did and why am I acting with such disregard for her input?  

      The cycle was on repeat for two years until my hair started falling out and I left.

      I doubt that you’re this bad, but I’m using an extreme example in hopes that you’ll re-examine your reactions to her.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        And in the interests of fairness, we need to also include that the OP may not be in the wrong at all or have anything to fix. Some employees aren’t right for their roles and won’t be right, even when a manager is giving clear guidance and doing everything correctly.

        The OP absolutely should consider her own behavior and see if there are things she needs to change, but we shouldn’t assume she’s causing this because it’s perfectly plausible that she’s not.

    3. OP*

      The issue isn’t that she’s received bad feedback and is no longer unable to make a judgement call, it’s that the judgement call is left to me. As mentioned above, I might be giving off inadvertent annoyed vibes. Perhaps because the inaction was the decision as opposed to my employee deciding?

      I’ve laid out specific situations where I’ve said, “No need to wait on me for that. I trust you.” Or, I’ve said, “You got this. I really trust your expertise on this.” It might be a little bit of confidence, and maybe workplace stress, but I do support my employees’ decisions–right or wrong.

      1. Student*

        When she asks for your input, have you tired a simple, “What do you recommend?” response? That might help you get at the underlying problem.

        If she replies with a comprehensive plan and just wants your buy-in, that’s very different problem to address than “I have no idea what to do in this situation”, which is also different from “I don’t want to be held responsible for this decision”.

        1. GOG11*

          This has worked well for me. My previous manager was far more hands on than my current one and when I went to New Manager recently for approval on something he turned it around and asked me what I think needed to be done. Old Manager never did that and it’s really made me feel more supported in making my own decisions.

      2. Meg Murry*

        Have you laid out not just specific scenarios, but also generic ones? For instance, if she knows that you don’t care if she changes brands of blue pens because there is a better deal so long as they are still click-y pens, is she extrapoliating that to red pens? And highlighers? Etc. Or is she simply thinking “ok, I can order blue pens on my own” and not realizing that you are actually giving her leeway in a lot more situations?

        A good boss once also told me “and what would you have done if I wasn’t here today and my phone was dead? Ok, do that”. It’s not perfect advice, but

        Relatedly, could you also set specific times to meet up with her and go over her questions? Part of my issue with direct reports having to ask me what to do a million times a day is that they just pop into my office every 30 minutes to ask, or grab me on the way to a meeting or the bathroom and try to talk my ear off for 30 minutes when I’m supposed to be elsewhere. Have her come to you with a list of questions X times a day or week, and her answer as to what she thinks you are going to say or what she would do if she had to make the decision on her own. She might not realize how often she is doing it when it is one question at a time but you see it as 20 questions a day.

      3. fposte*

        Maybe step it up a little and say “I expect you to make this decision without consulting with me again–it’s important you be able to do this independently”?

  3. Sophia Brooks*

    Is this employee perhaps transitioning from something like retail into office work? I know when I was in retail, you really were supposed to “call a manager” for every little thing. When I got to an office, it took me a while to realize I wasn’t going to get reprimanded, written up or fired for not doing exactly what I was told.

  4. TootsNYC*

    Also–are there certain types of things the employee gets paralyzed on? Maybe drawing up “safe” procedures will be helpful.

    1. Former Retail Manager*

      YES…to both of the above comments, Sophia & TootsNYC. Also, if the person is on the younger or more inexperienced side, they may not yet have the judgment to realize what matters really warrant involving their manager and which ones don’t so they’re erring on the side of “better safe than sorry” by looping the manager in on everything. Safe procedures are a great idea. I also wonder if the person’s training may not have been as all inclusive as the OP believes it was. Perhaps the employee was assumed/expected to draw conclusions based on information provided during training but the employee didn’t do so. My daughter (who is a teenager & not yet working) is soooooo like this.

      1. Angela*

        Ooooo…I think the part about not having drawn conclusions as expected from training might be a good thing to consider. I worked with someone where she could handle “x+2” everytime, but “2+x” would cause her to seek instruction even though it was essentially the same.

    2. fposte*

      Yes, I think that’s Alison’s #2, and I think that’s really important to be clear on. What tasks do you expect the employee to perform without your input? How long should she expect to wait before she tries to reach you again? What (like, specifically, with a checklist) do you expect her to do to problem-solve before she calls you in?

      If you have staff who’s figured this out through cultural osmosis, it can feel weird to say these things explicitly. And sure, it’s possible that this won’t be enough to train her to self-manage in these aspects. But giving her explicit directions is the best shot both you and she have right now, so it’s worth giving it a try.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        My boss and I have a rule for how long to struggle. We agreed to struggle with a problem for 15 minutes. Then after that, call someone. The nature of our work is that there is always some problem. But sometimes you can kind of figure out what to do by putting pieces together. If you are not careful though, you can struggle with Little Thing for two hours. It’s not worth the time suck. Call someone and find out how to do it.

        OP, can you find your employee a mentor? Someone in a different department that is doing similar level work? That may be a way to corral some of these questions. It could be that she is not absorbing your answers and a peer would be less intimidating for her.

        1. Rex*

          +1 to this suggestion. If the type of job is one where a mentor makes sense, it might be really helpful for this employee.

    3. Snazzy Hat*

      “Don’t over-think it” was a common phrase from one of my bosses. She was very supportive and understood my need to not mess up, but it really showed how terrified I was of trusting my own instincts. Another boss (same place, different sub-department) was generally friendly and down-to-earth, but her job was so stressful that I frequently believed I would be outright bothering her if I asked a question. Sure, maybe she could easily handle the stress, but I knew I couldn’t handle it if I were in her shoes, so I would ask myself, “how stupid is this question? can I figure out the answer to it? if not, is there another co-worker I can ask instead so I don’t interrupt my boss?”

  5. Former Retail Manager*

    OP, if you have the conversations that Alison suggests then I’m sure the reason that the employee is acting this way will come out, but I’d be interested to know why they’re behaving this way. Are they accustomed to being micromanaged because they were for several years and are having a difficult time adapting to a more independent work environment? Do they lack the knowledge/skills to actually make the decisions you’re asking them to make? Do they just need more structure to ease them into independence, like having a list of “to do’s” every day indicating what they need to accomplish by the end of the day? As others have mentioned, are you sending mixed signals that say “make your own decisions” which you may later contradict, or they interpret as contradiction incorrectly? So many possibilities….I’d love to hear an update on this one. My husband is encountering a similar situation with someone he manages. Best of luck!

    1. Kristine*

      I’m someone who has issues making decisions at work sometimes. I come from multiple past jobs where I was either strictly forbidden from making decisions and only existed to carry out orders or where I was told “do what you think is best” and then reprimanded for my actions not being what my manager envisioned. It’s hard to accept decision making authority when you’ve never had it before, and very easy to convince yourself that you should check with your boss “just in case”.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Sometimes bad bosses give good advice. My bad boss said, “When faced with choosing between A and B, chose the one that is the most easily undone if it is wrong.” I had complained because I was making upper management decisions when no one was around. I had no choice. I was not comfy because I did not know the surrounding context and yet, here I was deciding. That said, my boss KNEW if I had a question it was going to be a whopper, I was fairly self-sufficient.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      Sometimes it may help to think backwards and tell the employee “I really only need to you come to me for decisions in W, X, Y, or Z situations,” and then clearly lay out what those situations are/might be. For everything else they should have a clear plan in place for their regular duties and how to handle them and/or whatever your regular “check in and update” process is (usually once a week).

  6. Tammy*

    This was something I struggled with earlier in my career – it wasn’t that I wanted to be micromanaged, per se. Rather, for a lot of reasons that aren’t relevant here, I had trouble trusting my own judgment sometimes. One thing my then-manager did really helped. During a one-on-one, he told me, “Because I need you to be more confident making decisions, I’m making you a commitment: If you make a judgment call and it’s a reasonable call, I will back you on it even if we have to subsequently change direction later.” Knowing that my manager had my back even for the reasonable-but-ultimately-incorrect judgment calls gave me the confidence to start making decisions more confidently. This was huge for me – and I make a similar commitment to my employees now that I’m a manager myself.

    1. justsomeone*

      Oh man, this! My small organization is very much led by the executive leadership and just when I was starting to feel like I could make decisions on my own, something completely blew up in my face and I’ve struggled to make decisions relating to that task ever since. It’s been a year and a half and I still don’t trust myself to make that call any more. So I lean really heavily on my boss and director to help make those calls. (It doesn’t help that our leadership is divided and unpredictable….) If my manager would come out and say “make the call, I’ll have your back” It’d be a huge help in regaining the confidence to make those calls again.

  7. Anne*

    I wonder if the employee is having trouble grasping tasks/things that need to be done. Your letter states that “everyone takes on a lot of responsibility” but if she’s on the newer side it may be that she’s unaware of her role in this. Have you sat down with her and outlined things she could do or could take on?

    Also, thank you for the phrase “decision fatigue”. I need to explain this to my husband when I get frustrated with being the person who makes every. single. decision. for our toddler.

    1. alter_ego*

      off topic to the current subject, but relevant to your husband and toddler, I’d do some googling on emotional labor as well. There’s been a lot of conversation recently about how being the one to keep track of what needs to be done, regardless of who eventually carries out the task, is it’s own form of labor that can’t be discounted.

      1. Anna No Mouse*

        As the wife of someone with ADHD and the parent of a toddler, this is a big reason why I am moving from full time to part time at my current position, at least temporarily. I just cannot work 40+ hours a week, be responsible for making every decision from the color paint we put in the bedroom to what’s for dinner to when my son’s doctors appointments should be. Decision fatigue is a real thing.

        1. Artemesia*

          Men who ‘help out’ around the house sometimes don’t get this. My husband and I have always traded cooking chores — early on it was alternate weeks, with kids it was me during the week and him weekends due to our schedules, now retired it is sort of haphazard but we have the groove on this so it is fairly seamless. The BIG DEAL here is the person in charge of dinner makes all the decisions about what to have and how to cook it — dinner appears. It is the planning that takes the psychic energy not stirring the pot.

          But just as at home, the control freak needs to let go a little, at work a boss needs to live with a little variation in the work from her optimal choice. You can’t have it both ways.

          1. Meg Murry*

            Yup, I agree with this 100%. My new response to “what do you want for dinner?” is “Food I don’t have to buy or cook myself, unless you are asking me to tell you what to make because you don’t want to decide, in which case I will.”

            And then since I didn’t give any feedback, I don’t get to complain about showing up to dinner already made.

            I’m working on having a similar philosophy at work. If the other person made a decision or used an approach that wasn’t necessarily what I would have done, but wasn’t flat out wrong, and I didn’t have to do it or make a decision about it, I’m good, check that off the list, lets move on.

            As others have said here before: perfect is the enemy of good enough.

          2. TootsNYC*

            My mother once said, when I was a teenager: “I really don’t mind cooking. That isn’t the hard part. That hard part is deciding what to have for dinner.”

            I’m 56, and I still remember that revelation.

              1. potato battery*

                I find that I can do one or the other, but not both. It’s hard to make the big picture plans and also execute the fiddly details, which is what that feels like to me.

            1. Janice in Accounting*

              Your mother was 100% correct. I do all the meal-planning, shopping and cooking for my family of four, and meal-planning is by far the hardest part. Between us there are two people that can’t have any dairy, one that can’t have raw veggies or nuts, one that won’t eat shellfish or pork, and one that won’t eat fish. The youngest told me recently she’s thinking of going vegetarian and I threatened to go on strike–I can’t manage any more restrictions!

        2. Katie the Fed*

          Is that an ADHD thing? Decision fatigue – I get that too. It’s probably the biggest source of stress in our marriage.

          1. GOG11*

            I hope I’m not misunderstanding your question, but I don’t think decision-fatigue (not the term, but what the term means) is something linked very closely to ADHD, or at least I’ve never come across it in the research I’ve done since my diagnosis 8 years ago. However, if a person has difficulty focusing, it can impact their follow through on certain tasks or their ability to map out a process and see it through beginning to end. If those things are happening and the other person wants a decision to be made, they can become the de-facto decision maker. I’m not sure how commonly that happens.

            Personally, I dislike making a ton of decisions and get overwhelmed, but I’m not sure if that’s due to my ADHD or not.

        3. Winter is Coming*

          Wow. I had never heard of this! But it makes so much sense. One of our children just went through a really rough experience, and everything fell to me. There were a lot of moving parts over a period of about 6 weeks — decisions to make, doctor appointments to be coordinated, as well emotional support to be given, in addition to some administrative school issues to take care of – and it all fell on me. I finally told my husband I was about to crack and could he PLEASE step up and help me. He agreed, and did take some of it off my plate. I still had the majority of it, but just knowing he was willing to do some of it helped. I definitely had decision fatigue!

          1. M-C*

            Thinking/talking about managing children as ‘helping’ is I think exactly where the rub is. Isn’t this his child? You don’t need help, you need a peer, another parent. Well, I shouldn’t presume, maybe you need help too, but you can always hire help. But do you want your child to grow up a semi-orphan in effect?

        4. Ife*

          Decision fatigue, yes, it is real. “Can I have a juice cup? Can I watch TV? Can I go to friend’s house? Can I… Can I… Can I…” After a certain point, I feel like, “Literally, I do not know. What is this TV you speak of?”

          1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

            OMG yes! I get questions all day at work. When I come home, I don’t want to answer the phone and I don’t want to make any decisions. “Food? Dinner? What is this ‘eating’ of which you speak?”

            I might agree to let the boy to go play in traffic, whatever, just don’t ask me to decide.

      2. Kristine*

        I’m going to show this to my husband. He’s a wonderful man, but he plans nothing. If I ask him to cook dinner or vacuum or be at our friend’s house on Friday night at 8 then he will do it. But he would never take the initiative to plan meals or chores or manage our social calendar. I don’t think he realizes how much goes into that kinda stuff or why I’m tired before we even hit the grocery store.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      Then on the other hand, some organizations suffer from “no-decision fatigue” whereby everything must go through a committee of some sort in order to get everyone’s “INPUT” and NO decisions ever seem to get made as no one wants to take the responsibly to just say YES THIS IS OK-GO WITH IT.

      1. carlyland*

        That would be my organization! Gotta loop in at least 8 people just to decide if we’re going to write Corporation or Corp. on the proposal submission. Such a nightmare.

        1. Kelly L.*

          YES. And then after about 15 rounds of dithering, then suddenly they want to know why I didn’t send it out to the final user. Um, I had no idea that this Really Really Final Version was actually the final version, unlike the last 25 Really Really Final Versions.

        2. Windchime*

          My boss calls this “admiring the problem”. People just get together and have Very Important Meetings about the problem, but nobody ever makes a decision. They just book more meetings to loop in more people, and then they can all just sit around and admire the problem.

          1. HR Pro*

            Haha! Admiring the problem – I love it. This will give me a chuckle at work when we are sitting around admiring the problem for the millionth time.

      2. Elizabeth*

        It is also called “institutional inertia” and “paralysis by analysis”. My organization has suffered from both in the past, but we’re moving in a direction that pushes us to make decisions & move forward, rather than sitting and dithering.

    3. Ad Astra*

      I’m totally going to remember “decision fatigue” when my husband refuses to pick a damn restaurant. I make all the money decisions, plan all the at-home meals, put together grocery lists, and determine when it’s time to do each household chore. The least you could do is decide whether you want Mexican or Chinese!

      1. pomme de terre*

        Decision fatigue is a very real thing, often with serious consequences!

        A lighter tale of decision fatigue: I accompanied wedding dress shopping with my sister. After a few hours of being asked tons of questions and being shown so many dresses, it was time for lunch. I offered my sister (the bride) a choice between two places. The first was a BBQ place (way more delicious) and second was a diner with healthier options (perhaps more suited to a dieting bride-to-be). She whipped around and said, “I CAN’T MAKE ONE MORE DECISION. YOU PICK.”

        We had BBQ.

        Decision fatigue is real, especially when factoring in a hangry decision maker.

      2. Elizabeth*

        There is a really interesting article about President Obama and decision fatigue that I read a few years ago. When he was elected for the first time, he had been reading about psychological research that indicates that there are only a certain number of decisions any one brain can make in a period of time. Because he recognized that he was going to have to make a lot of major decisions every day for a number of years, he simplified his life. He quit picking out his own clothes, even down to “Mondays are blue suit days, Tuesdays are gray suit days”, and left the picking of appropriate ties, socks & underwear to his valet. He abdicated decision making for family meals, asking his wife, daughters & mother-in-law to make decisions about what they would eat each night of the week, and that Friday night would always be pizza night.

        I’ve applied some of that thinking to my own life ever since I read the article. Since there are a lot of decisions that we just have to make as a part of doing our jobs, eliminating the optional decisions on days when I can or moving them to days when I have fewer decisions I must make has really helped me not fight the mental fatigue that goes with being overwhelmed by them.

  8. Myamitore*

    I’ve had past managers who micromanaged everything I did, so when I eventually ended up with a manager who preferred that I work more independently and make decisions on my own, it was a tough transition. Now that I’m used to it, I like the freedom a lot more, but it took some time to change the way I handled things. Perhaps this employee is the same way.

    1. Tax Accountant*

      Agreed. I recently changed jobs and I’m still getting a feel for what the new expectations are around here. At my old job there was a lot more micromanagement– At my level I was not allowed to contact the clients, my work was gone over with a fine tooth comb, there was a consistent undertone of “you don’t know what you’re doing and you might embarrass us by asking a stupid question”, etc.

      At my new job, I was handed a list of clients I’d be working on and told to go for it. It’s definitely an adjustment learning how much farther the boundaries of my own independence and responsibility reach in this new job.

  9. Anonymous Educator*

    People have already named a couple of plausible explanations (she falsely interprets you as being scary; she’s actually still scared from a previously scary boss), but another thing to consider is that maybe that’s just the way she is. I’m not saying you should accept that in this job. You should, however, consider that maybe that’s her personality, and she’s may not be suited for this job.

    I haven’t met a lot of people like this, but there are people I know who honestly need to be told explicitly “Do X, Y, and Z in this exact fashion” and then “Do A, B, C when you’re done with X, Y, and Z.” They’re not horrible people—they’re just not self-starters. In fact, one person I know like this is actually an amazing, detail-oriented, industrious, and enthusiastic worker… she really just needs explicit instruction.

    1. videogame Princess*

      I love this. Maybe you need to move her to a new role in the company, that she’d excel at. Think about her skills and ask her if there’s something else that she’d rather do with them, and maybe you can find a way to keep her in the company, and make everybody happy. :)

    2. Me!*

      I am like this, and I’m on the spectrum. The two are definitely correlated, and I’ve accepted that it’s not something I’m likely to overcome. I’m a terrific soldier, but I’m not officer material. And there are definitely others like me.

    3. LQ*

      I know someone like this. She’s fantastic at super specific stuff, but if you gave her a big picture she’d fail. Give her a detailed task like as she’s awesome.

      I have a coworker who is along this spectrum. He does ok on his own but he is much more productive when he’s got a detailed to-do list.

      (I’m a HUGE fan of the to-do list but I make my own, which I’d say is not something either of these people can do.)

    4. Observer*

      What is interesting about people like that is that they often don’t even need that much management in the conventional way we use the term. For instance, if tell “June”, who has your credit card and knows your three favorite restaurants “Please order lunch for me” it might not happen, or it might take 15 questions. But, if you give her an exact list of tasks that need to be done to prepare for your board meeting tomorrow night, she’ll get all of it done without breaking a sweat. She’s not lazy and she’s not irresponsible. But, she can’t make decisions. But, once she knows exactly what you want – it will be done, no muss, no fuss. No nagging, no check ins, nothing.

      1. greta garbonzo*

        And then when June is asked to prepare for another board meeting or a similar event requiring the the same equipment, liaising with the same colleagues, performing a similar order of operations, she knows exactly what to do and how to do it. Boss then asks June to work on another coordinating type of project and reasonably assumes that June will know what to do. If June needs to hear Boss say, “I’d like you to work on this project for the next week and it can be handled/should be handled/is handled just like the board meeting prep, please see Carole Lombardo for even details,” then Boss will have to spell it out. The question is, how will Boss know to do so?

  10. AnonEMoose*

    Depending on the employee’s experience level, it might help her if you could walk her through the decision-making process you’d like her to follow, or that you use (or both). So, something like, “I made this decision based on X, Y, and Z. A, B, and C are also factors, but less significant in this situation because…”

    She might be struggling a bit with understanding not only what decisions you’d like her to make, but how to make them. If you walk her through your thinking on some of these decisions, she might be able to follow it for future instances. Might be worth a try, at least.

    1. Mephyle*

      This is good. If I were in the employee’s place, this is what would help me.
      It probably seems obvious to you how her tasks and potential tasks sort out into decisions and factors and pathways through the procedures that have to be followed, but when she came into it, everything was new and it may not have been clear what was what. To invoke a metaphor, it’s like when you first start learning a completely unfamiliar language, at first you don’t know how the sounds group into words, and once you start getting a handle on that, you still don’t know which are the verbs and which are the nouns, or how to put them together into sentences.

    2. TootsNYC*

      If you think she does have the knowledge and instincts to make the right decision (you’ve seen her do it), and you think it’s just a crisis of confidence, or perhaps needing “company” while thinking or problem-solving…

      You might also steal the software developer’s “explain it to the duck” / “rubber duck” system of debugging.

      Have her explain the problem and her solution out loud to a “duck”–and see if she realizes that she actually knows what a sensible solution would be. (Does she have a room she can go in to talk to the “duck”–or to the literal duck?)

  11. AnotherHRPro*

    I’ve dealt with a similar situation and what I figured out was that my employee just lacked confidence in their own judgment. I had to learn to not give them answers. So when they came to be and would ask, “what should I do?” I would turn it back to them and ask them “what do you think it the right approach?” or “what do you recommend?”. I also set the expectation that when they come to me, they should always come with a recommendation, not just a question. After a while where I fairly consistently agreed with their recommendations, I reinforced that I did trust their judgment and told them that they didn’t need to bring these types of issues to me as I felt they knew what they should do. I also set very clear expectation on what types of issues I did want brought to my attention. There were occasional slip ups, but this particular employee did grow and get more confident and that resulted in them not needing as much oversight.

    1. animaniactoo*

      lol, next time, can you let me know in advance that you’re going to write a succinct (something I suck at) version of what I’m going to write? And post it before I do because I’m still writing while you’re all done posting? ;)

    2. Snazzy Hat*

      I encourage this behaviour! “What were you planning on doing? Maybe you were going to make the right decision.” {underling reveals plan} “Precisely! I had a feeling you were on the right track.” Kudos.

    3. TootsNYC*

      You could also add to that: “Are there any potential problems that might arise with your solution? No, don’t abandon this solution–identify the problems. How likely are those potential problems, really? How serious are they? What could you do to cope with those problems? Does that sound like something sensible? Well, you’ve clearly thought it out thoroughly, and you’ve got good coping skills if something does go wrong.”

    4. Purple Jello*

      Exactly! thanks for writing this out so I didn’t have to!
      Also: “Do you have all the information you need to make a decision?” and “What’s the worst that could happen if we do option X?” But, it’s possible she’s a “worst case scenario” thinker and freezes up because she can’t figure a way out of all the worst cases. When my daughter would do this, we’d ask her “how likely is it that this weird, obscurely possible thing might happen?” When she realized that her “what ifs” were so unlikely, she quit worrying about them and could make the decision.

      The only additional thing I would do to start would be to have set times each day to review her questions so she’s not interrupting you.

  12. animaniactoo*

    One thing that I think might also be key to helping her change tracks and build confidence in her own judgment, is soliciting her judgment when she asks you to make a decision. Train her to understand what you’re looking for, so she’ll have a better feel for it, by involving her in the process of narrowing it down.

    So she says “We need to do X or Y, which would you prefer?” or “We can get 500 of this for X price, or slightly better quality one at 300 for X price, which do you want?” you say “Which one do you think is a better choice? Explain why to me.”

    Then, hopefully most of the time, you say “That sounds right to me, good thought process, go with that.” Work through that a few times, and then “You know, I think you have a handle on this, don’t worry about asking me about this kind of thing next time, just go ahead and do it yourself.” You may have to repeat a few times “I asked you to go ahead and make this kind of choice yourself, please do so.”, instead of allowing her to push you into making the choice for her again (or discussing her thought process about it). Literally stopping her and saying “I’m not going to make this choice, I need you to do it.” if she continues to push you for an answer. If she can’t do it under those circumstances, I think you do have an unsolvable problem on your hands.

    Other times you might say “Hmmm. Normally, you’d be right about that, but this specific instance has X factor which Choice 2 works better for.” Now you’re educating her about a specific instance that may carry over to other times, and something that she can use in helping her to narrow down more accurately. While validating her previous thought process, and letting her know that she had something right even if it was wrong here. Those times should be relatively rare, or become relatively rare fairly quickly.

    In this mix, probably the most useful thing you can do to show her that you really do expect her to make the decision and you’ll work with however it comes out, is that when it’s not your preferred choice, but it’s also non-critical, you say “Hmm. I’m not sure I’d have approached it that way, but I understand your reasoning. Go with that, and let’s see how it works out.” And back that up.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Maybe also get her to work out “what would happen if I picked the wrong one?” To show her that all the things she fears are actually not scary.

      What’s the worst? The company wastes a little money, or time. Will anybody die? Will the company go under? Will anybody go to jail? It’ll be fine.

  13. AndersonDarling*

    Does the employee understand that they have the authority to make decisions? Are you asking an admin to decide if a flyer should be green or asking her to decide if the company should spend an extra $5K on an event.
    The OP may need to say where the line is. “You can move my appointments, but ask me about setting up meetings with new clients.”

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Oh yes, this. My boss said that I can make all appointment decisions about x’s, but on the y’s I had to check with her. (Y is a more serious situation and should involve her more often, so it makes sense from my angle.)

      Likewise, with letters vs. formal documents. I am pretty much free range on letters. Formal documents I’m on a leash. I don’t mind. I prefer this set up because if I get the document wrong it’s a bfd.

  14. Katie the Fed*

    Al make sure you’re praising and acknowledging when she does make decisions – even small ones. Once she realizes her instincts are good, she might start doing it more.

  15. WLE*

    I would actually try to positively enforce the heck out of it whenever this employee actually does make a decision on his or her own. It sounds like there is some confidence lacking, and a little positive reinforcement might help. Early on in my career, I remember being very nervous to make decisions without my manager’s approval, but as time went on, and I continued to receive positive feedback, I felt more comfortable. I respectfully disagree with Alison’s advice. I think this type of reprimanding will only make your employee more gun shy.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The thing is, though, ultimately the person needs to do this to be successful in the job. And she deserves to know that so she’s not blindsided if the OP does end up needing to let her go. Positive reinforcement is great, but she can’t hide the consequences from the person.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        We had a rule of thumb that we kind of believed at once place I worked. The rule went this way: You have to compliment people five times before they hear you give ONE compliment.
        In reality, I thought it was at least three times before they heard me say ONE nice thing.
        Something OP might want to be aware of, you may be complimenting her where you can and she may not hear a word you say. So it could be that you gave her several compliments this week and she can’t remember the last time you complimented her. Not that you can fix that, but you can be aware of it as you talk about issues with her.

  16. pomme de terre*

    I love the advice that you really need to explain that it’s a pattern! I had the exact same thing happen to me a year ago, almost to the date. My boss was a nice but relatively inexperienced manager who would point out individual things, but I thought of it as one-off advice about specific tasks.

    Eventually I had my review, and it was brutal. My boss’s boss sat in on it and (more or less) explained the pattern thing and it was like a light bulb went off. (The big boss was a much more experienced manager.)

    In February 2015, I had a brutal review. By May 2015, I got a raise and a promotion.

    Incidentally, I was struggling with almost the same thing — getting the message that I needed to be more proactive but also getting blow back when things didn’t go well. Mostly I had to establish better approval processes and build more time into my schedule to allow people to get back to me. So that might be helpful to the OP’s report too.

    Maybe the OP’s report would do well with a tiny confidence-building project. Give her something autonomous but realllly low profile (so if she messes up, it’s low stakes for her self-confidence and for the business) so she can practice her decision-making skills.

    1. Mephyle*

      Also, the flip side of needing to explain that it’s a pattern is the opposite case when the manager keeps talking about generalities like “need to be more proactive,” “need to work more independently,” without relating them to specific things the employee does, and the employee hasn’t figured out on her own how to connect the dots to relate the things she does and doesn’t do to the manager’s admonishments about working more independently.

  17. Rat Racer*

    Oof and ouch! I had an experience like this with a member of my team last year and it is MADDENING. I felt like I was trapped in and indefinite rendition of the song “There’s a hole in the bucket ” She drove me nuts!

    One thing that has helped with other members of my team – especially when they are new – is to walk them through my own thinking when I’m addressing a problem, so that they get a sense of how my own approach. It helps to model the language I use, the questions I ask, the resources I tap into.

    It’s an upfront time investment, but it pays dividends. Another helpful tactic I’ve found is to invite members of my team to higher level meetings, just to listen, so that they are tuned into how our executive leadership thinks and problem solves. That context helps when they’re asked to make decisions independently.

    Unfortunately though, the “Dear Henry” employee above was just not a good fit for a role that required independent decision-making and problem solving.

    1. Argh!*

      Good reply! Yes, and we don’t always have enough insight into our methods to know what kind of personality is a good fit. It’s hard to quantify. I inherited people who were not a good fit which is a challenge too. They knew more than I did at first, so I had to transition to the manager rather than trainee. I have found at times that the supervisee actually misinformed me about workplace procedures, but my boss would assume that these people would fill me in so gave me very little training.

  18. Not So NewReader*

    It really sounds to me like the employee does not know the scope of authority she is supposed to take on with this job. Granted, there could be other things at play here, too. Some jobs are very strict and some jobs are very free range.

    Make sure she understands her range of authority. Earlier I was talking about my subordinates that would tweak the workflows for efficiency. I told them they can tweak to their heart’s content, but if they needed to move furniture or large machines they had to discuss the change with me before doing it. That set their range of decision making. Initially, they made a few poorly chosen tweaks, we discussed why the tweaks were not good and how to make better tweaks in the future. After 2-3 of those conversations we never revisited the conversation again. They did a great job.

    I would set some limits on when she asks you questions. Maybe you can tell her not to call/text when you are in meetings. Tell her that you will check to see if she has questions before you leave for the meeting and she should look over her work and have those questions lined up so she can keep working while you are the meeting.

    Thank you, btw, for trying to salvage this employee’s job for her. It may not be a job for her, but some bosses would not even try to figure it out. So thank you for trying.

  19. Ismis*

    OP – is this something you interviewed for? Depending on the answer, is this something you can use to look for a solution?

  20. CrazyCatLady*

    I’m not a manager but when my coworkers come to me for help in making a decision, I usually ask “what would you do and why?” and then we’ll talk it over to see where they have good points, what might be missing, etc. Could you start by asking the employee to come to you with a suggestion on how it should be handled? Then maybe she’ll develop more confidence in her decision-making.

    I make decisions on my own regularly but sometimes when I’m struggling, I let my boss know the problem, tell him what I think we should do, and let him know my hesitations. He seems to appreciate that at least I have a suggestion and have considered all the possibilities.

  21. Terra*

    My best advice would be making sure your employee knows what decisions you want them to make and what decisions need to wait. I’ve had a lot of bosses say “you can handle it and I’ll back you up” and that’s great in theory but there’s almost always a line where you need to bring in a higher authority and knowing where that line is can be tricky and disastrous if you misjudge it.

    Have you asked this person why they wanted to wait for you to make decision x, y, or z? They may have a specific reason that you could address directly such as not knowing where their authority ends, getting mixed messages, or something else. It’s also possible that the answer will be that they don’t know but it can’t hurt to ask at least.

  22. TootsNYC*

    My mother used to say to us: “What would you do if I wasn’t here?” And wait for the answer. And then she’d say, “Well?”

    She didn’t actually say, “That sounds good, do that.” Because it was actually another way of making the decision for us.

    1. animaniactoo*

      For reasons I can’t put my finger on, I feel like this employee’s response would be “Ask Elwoody to decide” at this point. I could be wrong, but think that right now this employee needs specific feedback that the choice they feel is right IS good/right.

    2. hermit crab*

      Haha, I have a story about this! One year in undergrad, I found myself in charge of cooking large meals for large numbers of people each week for a faith-based student organization. Assorted students, faculty, staff, family members, etc. would come by and help. One time I had a senior professor chopping vegetables for a salad or something. He asked, “How big should I make these carrots?” Without thinking, I gave my mother’s answer: “How big would you want them to be if you were eating them?” And he said, “I would ask my wife.” :)

      1. TootsNYC*

        I love that answer!

        When I’d ask my mom stuff like that (how much tomato sauce?), she’d say, “Oh, such-a-much.”

  23. Observer*

    I think that you have gotten some good feedback. But I also think you need to address the other piece of it. Not just that she is not making decisions, but she is disrupting work. She needs to understand that not making a decision is NOT the “safe” thing to do. Disturbing your boss during a meeting or phone call for anything less than emergency is not a good thing. Perhaps it would be worth asking her why she thought that your input was so necessary that it was appropriate to interrupt your meeting.

    1. fposte*

      I definitely agree that the employee isn’t realizing there are big risks of omission as well as risks of commission. I think the phraseology you offer sounds unnecessarily adversarial, though; I’d just be specific about the intervals she needs to go without communication and make clear that not meeting that expectation is a problem with performance.

      I do think it’s possible that this is somebody whose anxiety is just too great to let her work without handholding. If so, that’s therapist work, not manager work, and the best you can do is be kind and clear about her not being able to work for you any more and what if anything your company can do to cushion her transition to another job. (It doesn’t have to be severance pay; even some time to let her interview would be a big boost.)

      1. Observer*

        I don’t think it’s adversarial. Rather, it’s helping to clarify one of the issues that is being caused by this constant need to get feedback. This person is not likely to understand and appreciate the issue of decision fatigue. But explaining that these constant interruptions keep her boss from doing HER job is something she should be able to understand and it clarifies why this is important (at least to some extent.) It also makes it clear why the boss really is likely to follow through with consequences – no “Oh, no ever gets fired by double checking with the boss.”

        1. fposte*

          It’s not the question, it’s the phraseology–the “*so* necessary” is not, as the psych folks would say, a soft startup.

          Honestly, I don’t even know if I’d bother to go into the “this is the impact of your questions on me” anyway; I don’t think decision fatigue is that significant in the reasons why the employee needs to work independently, and that’s a little I-messagey for my managerial taste.

          1. Observer*

            I don’t think it’s a problem for a manager to tell a staff person that a specific behavior is having a negative impact on the manager. Even so, I do agree that the decision fatigue issue is probably not a useful thing to share. But, I do think it is important to help the employee understand why making decisions herself is necessary, and why it is NOT the “safe” thing to do. The wording could be changed, but it needs to be clear and unambiguous.

            Perhaps it might be better worded something like “When you don’t make these decisions on your own, you either delay getting things done, or you wind up disrupting my work and wasting my time and sometimes others’ as well.”

  24. Argh!*

    This person may have a learning disability or an emotional diagnosis that you can do nothing about. I have supervised people who cannot take step #1 if every single step hasn’t been outlined for them. (“J” in Myers-Briggs typology) I have also supervised someone who cannot remember some parts of a job task no matter how many times he made the same mistake. If the final results are satisfactory and there are no behavioral issues you can just decide that this person needs a certain kind of management, do that management, and not be judgmental about it. In my current position the corporate culture is rather OCD and most people make fewer mistakes than the general population would. I supervise someone who makes more than the average person would, which in our environment stands out. I would love to just fire him and hire someone who’s a better fit for the culture, but he is what he is so I work with what he is. My hope is that he’ll learn from my coaching and move onto a job that isn’t so detail-oriented and do well at it. He requires extra time to supervise to catch mistakes and the OCD types require extra time to supervise because they take for-EVER to finish something because they’re too persnickety or can’t decide between two equally good options and then stuff doesn’t get done in a timely manner.

  25. Nate*

    Maybe encourage them to take initiative, but more importantly – if the do make their own decision, back them up on it, no matter what it is. If you criticize it, they may never do it again.

  26. shep*

    I know I can be guilty of getting bogged down by the minutiae of my job, but my boss is always very understanding. I am also dealing with laws and regulations, so any mistakes I make in what I tell people or handle a situation could lead to serious issues.

    I also like to think I’m getting better about making my own judgement calls a year on in this position, and also keeping pace with any regulation updates in my particular area of expertise.

    But yeah. I’ve been there with asking ALL THE QUESTIONS and feel for the OP. Also, apologies if you are actually my supervisor! ;)

  27. Anonymity*

    I’d guess this is not the case, but OP… are you giving this employee any structure or direction, providing a starting point or guidance? Ignoring, hinting, and ‘just move on things’ isn’t necessarily sufficient for a lot of people (I had a moment of ‘is this about me?’ but other details indicate it’s not).

    My boss will sometimes hand our team a new employee with no notice and no instruction on what to train them on. It’s not uncommon to have the same happen with new projects. ‘Here’s this thing to work on, figure it out.’ It feels like I’m being sabotaged when that happens, because I do not work that way. Anxiety spikes and my brain freezes. It’s mental quicksand.

    He’s very much the sort of person who jumps in with both feet, but he has a near total disregard for other people NOT being like that (and is also guilty of expecting us to be mind readers).

  28. Nick*

    Really nice answer, Alison. I think that this desire to be micromanaged may be a byproduct of today’s larger employee engagement issue (only 32.5% of US employees were engaged in January 2016, according to Gallup research).

    I agree with the steps you’ve suggested to solve this problem (using direct feedback and big-picture, pattern feedback). I’d also add that this situation could be solved with regular weekly check-ins. During these check-ins, managers provide clarity of job expectations for their employees. Employees are more likely to laser focus on their responsibilities (and succeed in them) when they know exactly what’s expected of them. Perhaps this employee needs even more clarity than the average direct contributor – this can be achieved when you meet in a one-on-one setting each week. Better alignment and communication are an added benefit, but most importantly, you’ll instantly drive employee engagement when you provide 100% clarity of expectations for employees – especially those who may require a bit more precise direction than others.

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