my employee gets stressed and frustrated and snaps at me

A reader writes:

I work at a small company; we have around 35 employees, and the office is very laid back. We don’t have HR; we have great hands-on leaders who are accessible, and there are no real structures around management.

One of the people I manage is recently graduated; this is his first full-time office role and he struggles quite a bit with anxiety. When I assign him projects, he is immediately overwhelmed and panicked. No amount or type of support mitigates this, but the next day he comes in feeling much better. We then reflect on how easy it is to feel anxious when doing new things but that sometimes we just need to work through it, and how awesome is it that he was able to do X, Y, Z and get so far from where he was the day before.

I’m fine with all of this and helping him work through it to the amount I can, but when his anxiety is spiking, it is so evident that I have had other coworkers email me and ask what’s happening and if my team needs support (we don’t!). I then have felt obliged to respond and explain that we’re fine, that he just tends to get a bit anxious with new projects, and that I’m working with him on it. It feels so strange to have to say this, but everyone likes my new employee a lot, I’m the only one who assigns him projects so no one else sees this cycle/works closely with him, and I don’t want to come across like I’m doing a bad job managing/mentoring our newest hire (which I realize is my own fear about how I’m perceived, as I’m also new to the company).

The part that I’m finding frustrating is that when I give my employee feedback about his work, he often responds with very irritated sounding sighs and an exasperated tone of voice, and he often argues with me about what I’m saying. I have historically just ignored this and responded calmly. After an initial bad response, he then goes and does what he needs to. Aside from these things, he is very smart and capable, and I enjoy working with him immensely (we work fairly closely together day to day). I sat down with him the other day and calmly raised for the first time how he had responded in a specific scenario a few days prior (sighing, sounding exasperated), that it’s not a great dynamic, and asked his thoughts for how we could work together more effectively. He took the feedback well and was open about sometimes feeling overwhelmed. The problem is that this behavior continues.

When he reacts this way in our small, open office environment, what should I say in the moment? Anything harsh or strict would be out of character in our office and would get me in trouble. I almost asked him to take a deep breath this morning (I have small children) but that’s obviously not appropriate. And it’s incredibly irritating to make time to answer his questions and then have him respond in such an insulting way.

You’re trying to be very kind and accommodating here, but I don’t think you’re doing him any favors in the long run.

It’s very likely that his next boss isn’t going to be so accommodating, and if he goes into his next job expecting to be able to lean on his boss for this type of support — let alone thinking that he can snap at and argue with her — it’s not likely to go well for him. By allowing him to respond to you that way, you’re training him to think it’s okay, his pattern is getting more ingrained, and it’ll be harder for him to break if in the future. It’s in his best long-term interest to put limits on the amount of support you’re giving him, and you should not be doing the amount of emotional hand-holding that it sounds like you’re doing.

It’s good that you’re starting to address these issues with him, but telling him “it’s not a great dynamic” is a pretty soft message, and one that allows a lot of space for him to think it’s not the huge problem that it actually is. Instead, I’d have this conversation with him: “We talked the other day about you sounding irritated or arguing when I give you feedback. It’s continuing to happen, and so I want to be clearer with you that this is a serious problem that cannot continue. It’s disruptive to our workflow and makes it hard to give you the feedback I need to give you for both of us to do our jobs. It sounded like you were on board with that when we talked, but since it’s been continuing, what’s going on?”

If he tells you he gets overwhelmed or so forth, then say this: “I understand that it can be tough to hear feedback or take on new work you’ve never done before. But I do need you to find a way to respond professionally, and this is going to be something you’ll need to do in every job you have in the future too. You’re smart and capable, and want to see you succeed in your career, and this has the potential to really hold you back if you don’t get it under control.”

Then, if it happens again, you can say something right in the moment:

* If he sounds panicky about a new assignment: “Take some time to think about how you’ll approach this and what questions you have for me, and then we’ll meet again later this afternoon once you’ve had a chance to digest it.”

* If he sounds frustrated or irritated: “You sound frustrated right now. What’s going on?” … followed by, if necessary, “This is an example of what we were discussing about taking feedback. Do you want to take a few minutes to yourself and then come back and resume our conversation?”

* If he pushes back or argues with you: “This is the decision I’ve made, so let’s talk about how to implement it.”

* If he keeps arguing: “This is an example of what we discussed. Do you want to take a few minutes to yourself and then come back and resume our meeting?”

And really, if it continues much more after that, then you have a pretty serious problem on your hands and I’d be reconsidering whether it makes sense to keep him on your team. It’s not a good use of your time and energy to have to do this much work to manage someone else’s emotions, especially someone entry-level, where it’s especially key that the person be open and willing to learn and reasonably easy and pleasant to work with.

{ 249 comments… read them below }

  1. AMT*

    I agree—the LW’s methods of supporting him sound more like what a parent or therapist would do, not a boss. Some level of coaching should be a given, especially for someone new to the workforce, but at a certain point (like, now!), the LW needs to be able to say, “I need you to be able to do X and Y tasks without snapping at anyone, and I don’t want to have another conversation about this.”

    1. Courageous cat*

      Agreed, my first thought when reading this was that the employee is being treated more like a child than an employee. Treat him like an adult, and have higher expectations for him as you do for all other adults.

      1. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

        Thanks for this comment. Your point about having high expectations really resonates – mine are currently quite low, which only exacerbates the situation.

        1. Courageous cat*

          Yeah, it’s an easy habit to fall into with certain people, so I get it. Luckily the best way out of it is to be cognizant of it.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I apologize if this appears, again, on the list, but you may want to refer him to Thanks for the Feedback. It’s been one of the most effective books for breaking argument cycles with my “feedback problems” reports.

        3. Anonymoose*

          I think the largest lesson you can teach him with this behavior that will help him long term (and it’s not even really your job,tho it would ne a nicety of you) is that he needs to learn to use a poker face when he’s stressed out. It’s a dumb analogy either pretending you’re trying to bluff, or completely learning to shut off your feelings during stress is the #1 way that my behavior has changed compared to when I was younger. He’s not expected to in college (at a tremendous disservice to all undergrads, btw), but if he doesn’t learn to curb his lack of filter, he’ll find himself totally unemployable very quickly. That’s a very important thing you can share with him. And it’s not a cruelty to say any of it – you’re helping him in the long run.

          Also, does it make lists? Does he have adhd tendencies? I ask this because I have adhd (and lack of filter, such a terrible pairing), and my ability to contribute is closely tied with my self-worth. If he’s similar, it will make the lessons above even more imperative until he can learn to not make work personal.

          Hang in there!

          1. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

            Thanks so much to everyone on this thread – really helpful suggestions and ideas.

            1. Flash Bristow*

              It’s always lovely to hear positive responses from the letter writer.

              Do give us an update in due course. I agree with Alison that you’re going to have to be clearer and firmer; I hope it works out for you (and him). Good luck!

    2. BRR*

      I have a coworker like this. I sort of feel bad for them because they’re very nice but have had a huge disservice done to them. I hate using this phrase but I feel like they need to be told, “it’s not personal, it’s business.”

      1. Amber T*

        Agreed – they need the distinction drawn for them. If they’re getting a lot of emotional support at work (waaaay too much, to the point where it’s not benefiting anyone), then they’re probably not seeking it elsewhere. It’s definitely not OP’s (or anyone at work) place to suggest anything, but it might be the wake up call they need that makes them go “hey, maybe I need to start doing X in my spare time” to help with their anxiety.

    3. aebhel*

      This. I mean, everybody gets stressed and snaps every once in a while, but it sounds like it’s a constant thing, and it sounds like he’s not doing any work to manage it, which suggests that he doesn’t feel like it’s a big deal. This isn’t something that a boss can be endlessly mitigating; this is something HE needs to work on.

    4. GreenDoor*

      I work in public education and the OP sounds like a special ed teacher talking about how she’d handle a student with anxiety management issues. But that’s….a child. OP, your employee is an adult and should have, if he has a bona fide anxiety condition, learned some coping skills by now. If not, this is something he’d ideally be working out with a therapist. You’re role is to manage him, not coddle him the way we would a child who is still learning. (Not that I’m saying be nosy about whether he has an actual condition or that you should intrusively suggest therapy….just that it’s not your role as manager).

  2. MuseumChick*

    Regarding issues with giving feedback, I think it’s very common among new graduates without a lot of work experience to think that they can/should push back or discuss critiques of their work. When in school you are encouraged to voice your opinion, argue your point etc. so it can take some time to adjust to working world where more often than not, that’s just now how it works.

    It might help to say something like “I need to be clear, when I give you feedback about your work it’s not a discussion. I’m informing you what I need from you. If you have clarifying question I am, of course happy to answer them.”

    1. Snark*

      Yeah. I think I once said something like, “To be clear, I’m not arguing or debating this with you. If I can clarify, I’m of course more than happy to, but this is me telling you what I need from you.”

    2. A Nickname for AAM*

      I actually like the way you phrased it in the end of the first paragraph, “When in school…but in the working world…”

      A big impediment I’ve noticed is that kids in school interpret being spoken to as being “in trouble,” whereas at work, being spoken to just happens and isn’t an issue most of the time, because honestly, no one gets an A at work. If you do an excellent job your boss will “grade” you to a higher standard thus lowering your “grade”, or they’ll get annoyed at you and ask you to stop showing off. If you do a poor job, chances are you’ll get away with it for a long time and get bumped up to “satisfactory” unless you perform so terribly that no one ever wants to see your face again.

      1. BRR*

        I so strongly agree with your point about people learning that you’re not necessarily in trouble. I have coworkers who take any correction very personally and I wish I could somehow get this point across to them (but it’s not my place).

      2. seller of teapots*

        Ah you just helped me realize something about myself! And I’m not entry-level…I’m 33 and (newly) a director. A supervisor here (not mine, but someone I work closely with) recently gave me some feedback and, while the conversation was fine, I walked away feeling so anxious and embarrassed! But that’s because I’m trying to get an A at work, instead of rolling it into the regular flow of work. I knew my internal reaction was out of proportion, and I sort of struggled to make sense of it. So thanks for the insight!

      3. Anne (with an “e”)*

        I had a student teacher a few years ago who cried every time I said anything the least bit critical about what she was doing. If her feedback wasn’t praise or neutral, she would burst into tears. She simply could not handle negative criticism no matter how professionally it was presented to her. (Note: I always gave her feedback in one-on-one settings, after school, without students present.) I believe she thought that somehow she was “in trouble” when all I wanted was to give her realistic, actionable feedback. There is no way a student teacher can learn from their internship if they are told how to improve.

      4. LSP*

        I get annoyed at pretty much any adult in any situation who refers to “getting in trouble,” whether it’s a husband “getting in trouble” with his wife, or an employee “getting in trouble” with their boss.

        My 4-year old gets in trouble. My husband does not. He gets something brought to his attention for us to discuss. The same with people at work. Issues get raised. Discussions are had. No one gets grounded. No one loses TV privileges.

        1. Coywolf*

          Agreed! Sometimes at work people will tell me “oh yeah didn’t you get in trouble with boss for doing that?” And I’m so taken aback, I just say “no, we talked about it.” I’ve noticed that talking to their managers about things they’ve done means they’re “getting in trouble” to them.

        2. Ann Nonymous*

          My husband and I have some conflict with this perception as well. When I ask him to change what he does (“Please put the grated cheese on your tortilla over the sink” [as he often spills on the floor, can’t see it and therefore it falls to me to notice and clean up]) he reacts way too strongly. I do not chide him or use a bad tone of voice; I think he regards me saying anything like this as scolding or getting in trouble when it is totally a matter-of-fact issue.

          1. Lynn*

            Oh, I so strongly believe that women get accused of nagging partly because of this. It’s just a reminder to do something that the partner doesn’t notice, and for these reasons it’s taken badly even when asked pleasantly. Add to that needing to ask more than once (perhaps because it’s been a few days and it’s still an issue) and boom, reasonable request is nagging.

          2. Dr Laura's ghost*

            DrLaura is not here to make this point, so I will make it: there is zero surprise that your husband reacts negatively to this. He’s your husband and you’re treating him like a wayward child. (When you say you don’t chide him, you mean that you don’t *perceive* you’re chiding him.)

            I don’tknow whether this is a once-a-year, once-a-month, or once-a-week sort of thing in your relationship, of course. But the more often it happens, the more likely it is to adversely affect your relationship.

            1. Dust Bunny*

              Yeah, so what else is she to do *since he’s still ACTING like a wayward child* and making a mess that she has to clean up. The solution ought to be for him to either clean up after himself or not spill cheese in the first place, but if he’s unwilling to do either of those . . . what do you suggest? Because waiting on him hand and foot ain’t gonna happen.

            2. Starbuck*

              Yikes. Classic shifting of ‘blame the person who pointed out the problem’ rather than ‘blame the person who actually created the problem, then tried to solve it by just ignoring it.’ That is toxic.

            3. EmKay*

              Husband is making a mess and leaving it for wife to clean up. He’s causing the problem. He needs to fix it.

              1. Okie Dokie*

                I wouldn’t tell him how to do the cheese as that is treating him like a child. However if he drops it on the floor and “doesn’t see it” I would point that out so he can clean it up like an adult.

          3. Dust Bunny*

            Oh, god, this. If my parents finally kill each other it will be because of my dad’s inability to handle reasonable requests without interpreting them as criticism.

        3. Sketchee*

          I feel the same, this language of being “in trouble” doesn’t describe the dynamic of work. Similar to how informing a higher level coworker at work isn’t “tattling”. The words sound at worst childish and at best a misrepresentation of a work situation

      5. TootsNYC*

        also, in school you get a one-time grade on a test, and that’s the end of it.
        At work, you get a correction or some training or an explanation or a goal.
        And then we evaluate you later.

      6. ket*

        Honestly, as a college/masters’ program prof I think that point of view is useful even in school. Someone failing a test in my class has a problem that we can discuss mitigations for. They’re not “in trouble” the way they remember from third grade. Adults have competing priorities and letting my class slide to focus on other things is in face a possible rational action — even though for most students that’s not what is going on. In school at the stage I work with students, they’re growing into making these choices for themselves (“I need to learn this material to reach my career goals, I need this GPA to get this scholarship,” etc) rather than just based on interpersonal feelings (“I need to not do this because my mom will be mad at me”).

        When I’m telling you you have a C, I care about you as a person/student, I care about how you’re learning or not, but I really don’t care what grade you got. It’s not my grade. Really, I don’t care. I am searching for additional ways to gracefully say that in a positive way.

    3. Remote Worker and Dog Lover*

      +1.

      I’ve had a similar experience that MuseumChick talks about. I work with a lot of college students and recent college grads at my job, and getting them to take feedback constructively has been a real challenge.

    4. GlitsyGus*

      This is so true. I’ve caught myself wanting to argue back to my supervisor about things when I really thought I was doing it right or had figured out the best option. It isn’t about “right” or “best” all the time, it’s about what the department as a whole and your manager specifically needs. There are times when there is room for discussion, but it also isn’t personal if you’re told to do something different. We aren’t kids anymore, we are adults working with other adults and it isn’t about being in trouble, which I think is where a lot of people go in their heads as a knee-jerk reaction.

      If your manager turns it into that situation, on the other hand, and I’ve had that happen where a manger did start talking to me like I was a child in trouble, that is a whole different problem.

      1. TardyTardis*

        I had a manager who expected me to read her mind–there is more than one supervisor in the world, and frankly, I have run into many different ways to provide information according to GAAP. And yet she would never just say ‘this is the way I want you to do it’, I was supposed to guess what it was (and since she was a morning person and I am an afternoon person, asking me these questions at 7:30 am before my coffee had kicked in was, at times, counterproductive). She finally ran into someone who *could* read her mind, but not before going through multiple people.

    5. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

      Yes, this is a great point. Definitely something for me to address, and a good way to articulate the difference between work and school.

  3. Snark*

    I’d argue you already have a serious problem. Smart and capable is great, but this level of emotional labor and management is a significant hole in his soft skills. If this doesn’t change very quickly, I think you need to consider hopping the train to PIPtown. There’s a thousand smart capable people out there who won’t flip out when he gets work assignments and basic constructive feedback.

    1. Sara without an H*

      I noticed that the OP makes it sound as though the employee has a panic attack every time he gets a new assignment. That is definitely NOT normal, and needs to be addressed quickly.

      1. Luna*

        Agreed, even if this industry is one that gets many last-minute assignments, that is the nature of the job and the employee needs to be able to handle it. If there is a problem with a manager constantly assigning projects at the last minute or not understanding how much time something takes (which I do not get the impression is the case here at all), that is when the employee needs to be able to have a professional conversation with the manager, not panic every time and snap at the boss.

        And the arguing & sighing is a huge problem.

      2. Observer*

        “normal” or not is not the issue here, and it’s better for the OP not to even go there. It’s just not appropriate to the work and job, and that’s all she should be focusing on here.

    2. neverjaunty*

      This. If he has trouble managing his anxiety at work, it’s on him to figure that out – not to expect the LW to be his mom or therapist.

    3. animaniactoo*

      Ditto. To me this is a simple statement. “I have been lenient because you are new and I understand that you are struggling with anxiety issues. But I need you to find a way to manage this so that it does not have so much of an impact. Starting with the eye rolling and sighing.”

      And then I would not use Alison’s scripts, I would call him out in the moment. “Excuse me? Did you just roll your eyes at me again?” with a pointed raised eyebrow look. “Excuse me, you don’t have to love the change of direction here, but don’t sigh at me like I’ve burdened you.” with a flat calm tone.

      Yeah, the open office portion of this sucks, but the other part is that what people are then seeing is employee being directly and openly rude and insubordinate in those moments and nothing from manager about it.

      I mean, if possible, she can immediately call him into a conference room or some such if they have it to say it privately. But no reaction to it is not what everyone in that open plan space should be seeing from her either.

      And she can possibly train him out of it by getting to the point where she just raises an eyebrow at him and he immediately recognizes what he did.

      1. AKchic*

        And my concern is: Does LW know for sure that there is a diagnosed anxiety issue, or is she assuming there is based on what she has seen/experienced? Having an actual, diagnosed issue allows the company to give certain leeway; but if there’s nothing there, why is he being treated with kid gloves and allowed to disrupt other people (since other people are overhearing some of his outburts and reaching out to “help” with the workload)?

        1. Ali G*

          Yes…it is entirely possible this is a learned deflection technique that gets the guy out of all kinds of situations.

        2. LSP*

          I don’t know that it matters if this employee has an official diagnosis, or if it is just a deflection technique. Either way, he needs to get it under control. If it’s actual anxiety, then he needs to seek professional help. If it’s deflection, then he needs to just stop it.

          1. aebhel*

            Yeah, that’s kind of my feeling. If it’s a diagnosed condition, then he can certainly ask for accommodations, but that means asking for accommodations, not flipping out at his boss continually and expecting it to be okay.

            1. Thlayli*

              Also, even if he has asked for accommodations for a diagnosed condition, reasonable accommodations do not include getting to roll your eyes and sigh when your manager gives you feedback. That’s voluntary behaviour he is choosing to do, not an unmanageable reaction caused by a mental illness.

              1. Thlayli*

                If he had Tourette’s, it might be reasonable to let him sigh and roll his eyes, but those are not symptoms of panic attacks or anxiety.

              2. aebhel*

                Yeah, exactly. ‘Can you give me assignments by email’ would be a reasonable accommodation. ‘Put up with my childish, disrespectful snippy BS because I can’t handle criticism like an adult’ is not.

        3. animaniactoo*

          Eh, I’m for people have some quirks and not everything needs to be 100% diagnosed to have some leeway.

          However, the flip side of that is “there’s only so much leeway available so if you have learned that claiming anxiety is a way to deflect, you should learn now that it has limits and it is not a catch-all that will get you out of having to stop doing that.”

      2. Serin*

        Well, it sucks to be corrected in public in an open office … but it sucks to be repeating office-inappropriate behavior in public in an open office.

        Roll your eyes in public, get corrected in public.

      3. TootsNYC*

        But I need you to find a way to manage this

        I feel like there’s still to much “I” here.

        I think I’d say “You need to find a way…”

        It has nothing to do w/ me; it’s not about pleasing me, or my needs. It’s about them meeting a standard that’s not negotiable and not personal.

        I did once find it easier, as a manager, to frame it as NOT being about me, and I literally said to someone, “The job needs you to do X.”

        1. animaniactoo*

          I would argue that as a manager – i.e. somebody I am managing *I* do need you to do this in order for it not to be an issue. It’s problematic behavior and while it benefits you to correct it, as a manager *I* need you to do it. I can see that there would be places that wouldn’t be the right point for the audience but at this point, I would actually go that way as a point of authority where the employee has felt free to unload all over OP.

        2. AKchic*

          Perhaps: “I’ve helped you more than I should in this, now you need to do this on your own. You need to find a way to manage your emotions in the office in an acceptable, professional manner.” ?

        3. ket*

          I see animaniactoo’s point, but I’ll agree with TootsNYC that it may be useful to try taking the “I” language out. A dynamic I’ve had (and I am “nice” woman teaching college students!! in a male-dominated STEM field! so there may be other factors in play!) is if I say, “I need you to (provide files in a readable format, turn your homework in on time, etc)” I get a response that looks like the student saying to themselves, “Well you’re not my mom! you can’t make me!”

          (Then I’m the one eye-rolling…)

          But if I phrase it as, “You need to (provide files in a readable format, turn in your homework),” well, then, it’s, like, a statement of fact, not just some lady’s opinion.

          1. ket*

            “Nice” btw doesn’t mean I’m actually a nice person, it means I’m short, female, and I smile.

          2. Mathilde*

            If your students think that you cannot make them do what you want, or that what you tell them is just “some lady’s opinion” then you have an authority problem that you should definitely work on. Changing the phrasing just glosses this over, IMHO.

      4. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

        This language – “I have been lenient because you are know and I understand you have been struggling” – is fantastic. Thanks for this! I’ve also already made a shift where we check in exclusively in conference rooms to make it easier to address these behaviors in the moment.

    4. Turquoisecow*

      Yeah my thought reading this letter is that OP is very nice to do this, but no one – or almost no one – is going to do this for him in the future. At some point someone aside from OP is going to ask him to do something and then what? Maybe it’s within the company, and OP kind of covers for him, or maybe it’s outside the company and he gets fired immediately.

      I’m sympathetic to anxiety issues, I really am. But if he can’t handle being given a new assignment? He’s not going to be much use to any employer. He needs to figure out some kind of workaround.

      1. Half-Caf Latte*

        I wanted to like this article, but I was struck by how the author states she doesn’t do emotional labor because she’s not married with kids and outsources chores, but then talks about how women usually perform those low wage chores for hire.

        It felt exceptionally lacking in self awareness

    5. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

      A lot of people have suggested PIPs, which makes me reflect on how different small-office management is compared to large-office management. This sort of approach would never happen in my office. I really appreciate everyone’s advice and support though, because it’s ultimately on me to figure out how to better manage this situation – we don’t really have coaching or manager development at all in our office.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        You don’t need to be in an office that does formal PIPs in order to use the general concept. You can still give him clear warning of what needs to change, explain the severity of it, tell him you want to give him X weeks to meet your expectations, and let him go at the end of it if that doesn’t happen. (But make sure your boss is in the loop and on board.)

      2. HR Evil Uncle*

        LW- Google and you can find PIP samples/templates, no honor guard, lawyers, or trumpet squad needed to apply. Best to keep it clear and simple addressing specific behaviors and timeline.
        The tough part is that you need to follow through on necessary consequence if he doesn’t meet the goals.

  4. Artemesia*

    So agree with Alison here. This guy should know he is on the road to being fired if he doesn’t become professional in the way he handles things. Other people are noticing; they are wondering if your team is overwhelmed; they are wondering if you are a competent manager as a result. This guy is not a poor baby who needs to be hand held; he is a grown man with a job who is behaving unprofessionally in ways that reflect on his manager. IMHO you need to aggressively move in the direction Alison suggests and make it very clear to me if stepping up the bluntness doesn’t work that continuing this behavior will result in termination. If he doesn’t shape up after the next conversation about whining, sighing and arguing, he should go on a PIP. Lots of people have anxiety; he needs to develop strategies for managing his discreetly.

    1. MissCPA*

      the fact that his anxiety is causing alarm in other departments is also a concern! You don’t want one person who is freaking out about 8 hours worth of work to cause everyone else anxiety!

      1. Washi*

        Yep. I worked with someone a bit like this, who was very snappish when stressed, and also had what I would consider a low bar for being stressed. When I brought it up to my manager, she told me that everyone gets stressed and snappy sometimes, that she’s told my coworker that it’s a problem, and that she can’t do anything more about it. Well, then I was stressed from not knowing when my coworker was going to be nice and when she was going to bite my head off! Attitude does matter, and this guy is will not be very effective in his role if people are afraid to approach him.

        1. Bea*

          Any manager who says they can’t control someone with a bad attitude is lazy and sucks at their job. You write people up and terminate employment if someone is such an unpredictable jerk that they cause others stress. Teamwork requires everyone to be civil and that includes not snapping or acting a mess when approached by a colleague.

          1. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

            Wow, this feels a little harsh. There are some offices that I’ve worked in where this would definitely be possible, but this is definitely not the approach at my current office. While there’s certainly room for me to do better – and so much great advice here for me to take in – there ARE limitations to how I can act as a manager based on the culture of my very small office.

            1. Specialk9*

              Agreed, that was overly harsh.

              My key advice for you is to shift your ideas of what managing is. Right now you are too heavy on the unpaid therapist / mothering side. Instead I’d work on clearly communicating expectations for professional behavior, and then turning the responsibility over to him to follow. I wouldn’t do a lot more accommodation, but you might buy him Alison’s book, because it lays out how to act at work. But he’s really an adult.

              Being able to get away with being an argumentative pissant to his boss is not good training for him, and not reasonable for you. It’s hard to lay out boundaries and expectations, but you can do it. We’re cheering for you!

            2. Lindsay J*

              If the culture in your office doesn’t allow you to set and enforce boundaries with a person who is acting out, the culture needs to change. Otherwise your company is going to lose people who have better options and don’t want or need to deal with their coworker’s emotional regulation issues, and will be left with only people who don’t see this as a problem, or who have no other options.

              I have never worked anywhere where someone rolling their eyes or sighing at their boss on a regular basis would be accepted. Maybe once, for an employee with an otherwise good track record with serious extenuating circumstances, would it be let go. Otherwise, it’s a pretty serious show of contempt.

              I’ve found that in a lot of places there is the idea that pervades that as long as someone is competent, how they treat their coworkers doesn’t matter. But in well run companies that is just not true. It’s generally not an either-or situation where you get really competent but a jerk, or completely incompetent, but nice. There are plenty of completely competent people who are also not jerks. Similarly, since I don’t think you believe this guy is being a jerk (I kind of do) there are plenty of nice, competent people out there who can also regulate their anxiety and emotions and that would benefit from having a job with a manager who is so willing to work with them on weaknesses

              If your office doesn’t allow you to set standards that include not acting out on their emotions in a way that is detrimental to their relationship with you and their coworkers, and does not allow you to enforce those standards with appropriate levels of discipline, I would be concerned.

              Ultimately, in order to manager, you have to be able to set, communicate, and enforce standards. You can’t always cajole people into doing what you want or need them to do. Nor is everyone always capable of doing what is needed by the job function. Is there is only so far coaching, retraining, etc, can go.

              If you’re not able to do all three things, or are not permitted to do all three things by higher management or company culture, you’re being set up for a ton of frustration and ultimately a low performing team.

              1. KolKani*

                I’m living proof of your comment Lindsay J.

                The company I work for is very small and accepts the most absurd behavior. I am going to be person #3 to quit in a year. New people don’t last because of the emotional regulation issues of 1 person. All that is left are other toxic people who think it’s ok, or those who can’t quit because of a lack of options (some of them great workers who are extremely depressed).

                The anxiety and anger of this 1 person has infected everyone. I’m fortunate that I have options and am leaving but the fact management hasn’t done anything despite the revolving door is beyond me. It’s a very lax company where they coddle people. Management is too nice and hence the toxicity. To my understanding it wasn’t always like this but over time it became a cesspool.

      2. Antilles*

        Especially because once other departments start *thinking* your department is in panic mode, it often creates a problem in and of itself…even if that’s not actually true!

    2. Courageous cat*

      Very well said, especially about how his behavior (rightly or wrongly) will eventually reflect on you as a manager. You are well within your right to not excuse this behavior as being uncontrollable due to anxiety.

    3. RVA Cat*

      This. He needs to learn that how he is behaving is way more serious than if he was making mistakes – which are going to happen and are just part of doing business and adulting in general.

  5. MissCPA*

    What really concerns me is the argumentative portion. That needs to be addressed in a way that says “I welcome discussions about things, but I have the final say and if I make a decision or tell you to do something, I need you to get on board (or take this feedback seriously, etc).” As a relatively new person to the professional workforce, if I was doing this, I’d want to know pronto how to fix it and I’d appreciate my boss being very direct by using Alison’s suggestions.

  6. Hey Karma, Over Here*

    ” I don’t want to come across like I’m doing a bad job managing/mentoring our newest hire (which I realize is my own fear about how I’m perceived, as I’m also new to the company).”
    The metric for determining a good or bad manager is not whether or not the staff are good or bad employees. It is whether or not good employees are rewarded appropriately and bad (unsuccessful, immature, etc) are given clear instructions for projects and given clear ramifications for not completing project. In some cases, yours, it requires teaching professional norms and then hold your employee to them.
    That’s good management.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, this is a great point! In fact, doing a good job managing him would mean addressing this and managing him out if you don’t see quick improvement (unless this company is very dysfunctional).

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        (And if the company is very dysfunctional and the OP isn’t allowed manage this guy in a reasonable way because of that, that means she isn’t being allowed to do her job and that is quite serious.)

  7. Alldogsarepuppies*

    If anxiety is also an issue, should OP help make sure his report has access to tools. Such as PIP if the company offers it, or allowing a flexible schedule to allow for therapy. Anxiety can be really hard to control, and isn’t always a sign of being unprofessional, its often a sign of medical need!

    1. ArtK*

      Did you mean “EAP” and not “PIP”? An EAP (Employee Assistance Program) would be appropriate for dealing with anxiety.

    2. Luna*

      While it is a medical need, it’s not a need that a manager should be responsible for. Yes, if an employee asks for a flexible schedule for valid reasons, and it can be accommodated, then give him that. But the employee needs to be responsible for doing whatever it is he needs to do to make sure he can behave professionally at work.

      1. Alldogsarepuppies*

        I’d argue a good manager makes sure their reports know what the company can offer them, even if its asking if they need to rework schedule to fit needs (i.e. time for therapy) or showing them how to access EAP. Just as I would expect a manager to let a report expecting a child know what type of parental leave is offered and how to contact HR to arrange it, and not wait to see if they brought it up themselves.

    3. ABK*

      Anxiety is definitely a legitimate and possibly serious condition. Like all other conditions, it shouldn’t be treated in office by your boss/therapist. I agree with adding to the script a suggestion that he seek outside therapy to work through his anxiety and setting up flexible hours to allow him to do that. Managers shouldn’t be doing that work for him.

  8. NicoleK*

    Sounds like you hired my coworker. The only difference is that my coworker doesn’t snap at people when she’s stressed. But the anxiety, the amount of hand holding, the “awesome” perception from people who don’t work closely with him….it’s on right on. Unless he manages his anxiety, not much will change and it will continue to impact your work since you work closely and manage him.

  9. GradNowLawyerLater*

    As someone who graduated from college in May — just a month ago — and is four weeks in to my first real, professional, full-time office job, I can say I’m totally appalled by this behavior. I second the comments that say this is more like therapist or parent level than supervisor! Really, OP, the fact that you need to hold his hand on this level is NOT normal support for a new grad. I would be so, so embarrassed if I was in your employee’s position, and you’re not helping him to let it continue!

  10. Ann Perkins*

    I’ve seen this happen at least twice in my previous job and I really wish my old boss had heard advice like this, because when this type of behavior isn’t dealt with, it doesn’t really go away no matter how long the person’s worked there.

    I actually had a coworker who would sigh, groan and even cry sometimes in meetings when she received assignments that she was nervous about, and this turned into constantly trying to get others to do her work for her because she was too anxious to approach it herself. Even after years doing the job, her anxiety never went away. We witnessed countless freak outs over minor stuff. Seriously–take care of it now.

    1. Anne (with an “e”)*

      My sister is a manager of a small team. She joined her organization about four years ago and inherited an employee who frequently has melt downs when given new assignments. This is a man who is in his sixties and has worked for the company for over thirty years. According to sis, she gives an assignment, then employee freaks out, rants and raves, and sometimes curses. In general he acts like a big baby. Then, he goes home, thinks about the assignment over night and comes back the next day with a refreshed outlook, ready to meet the challenge. Apparently this happens ALOT. As I said, my sister inherited this problem employee, and was quite taken aback when she first encountered this behavior. The organization’s way of dealing is to not allow sis to manage and wait for this guy to retire. My point is, if LW doesn’t stop coddling the employee now, he will continue his bad behavior until and unless someone forces him to stop. He will learn that it is okay to be a PITA.

      1. Blue*

        I agree with everyone that it’s the employee’s responsibility to manage their own anxiety, but I wonder if it would help OP/your sister in the short term to try to assign new projects toward the end of a work day? If the employee just needs time to freak out and then they’re ok, would that do the trick?

  11. Had Matter's Pea Tarty*

    I gotta admit, I can see myself in a lot of this letter. That is to say, the anxious and snappish young worker who panics when given new projects and sometimes questions their instructions. Except the supervisor/LW in question isn’t just acting like my parent in my case – as I mentioned in my comment in the last Friday Open Thread, my supervisor at work is literally my mother. Now I feel even more that this arrangement will do nothing but hurt my future chances of getting and keeping a job.

    1. Elemeno P.*

      I don’t think it has to hurt your future chances. The important thing is that you notice it about yourself and address it moving forward. I can also get anxious and have snapped in the past, but I thought back on those moments and considered how to address them moving forward.

      Do I feel like too much is happening at once? I ask for a moment to gather my thoughts and then continue the conversation after a few minutes.

      Do I feel overwhelmed by assignments? I say, “Hmm, I’m not sure what to start on first here. What should the order be?” I have a manager for a reason; they can help me manage!

      Do I feel irritated or attacked? I push that aside for a moment and tell myself that it’s not about me. Afterward, I re-evaluate the situation…and if I still feel irritated, I vent to my coworkers/friends/fiance (depending on the situation) briefly and then I feel better.

      This isn’t foolproof and it’s a constant road to self-improvement. I’ve gotten to the point where I may snap and then apologize, and the person legitimately does not think I seemed irritated. The goal is not to snap at all, but…working on it!

      1. Michaela Westen*

        I don’t know if it’s just me, but I found minor feelings of irritation go away in a few minutes if I ignore them.

        1. Lindsay J*

          Same here. It’s something that I’ve actively focused on doing.

          Because I like to vent. I’ve worked in some dysfunctional environments where venting was common and a way to bond with people.

          But I’ve found that venting about something only allows me to hold onto it for longer. If I get cut off by someone on the way to work and tell myself I’m not allowed to complain to other people about it, I am annoyed about it for a moment and let go of it long before the end of the trip.

          If I let myself talk about it, I’m annoyed by it throughout the whole trip because I’m holding onto it in my mind to talk about it. Then I’m still annoyed by it when I’m telling my coworkers or my boyfriend about it. And then they commiserate with me and reinforce that I’m right to be annoyed, which just keeps me feeling like that for longer.

          It is different if it’s not a one-off thing, though. If I’m aggravated by someone’s loud chewing I’m pretty much going to continue to be annoyed about it until it stops, and can’t let go of it before then.

    2. Shinobi*

      What is it about new assignments that makes you anxious? Is that now you have something to add to your list of things? is it fear of the unfamiliar? Is it being blindsided by a task and having to change your timeline?

      I think understanding this might go a bit to thinking about how you manage your anxiety. For my team we have a pretty long lead up, so we know a bit in advance that something will be coming. But I do still get concerned about my team and workloads when 3 things get dropped on us on one day. \

      I’ve started keeping a “coming soon” list of things that will likely be added. it’s fine if they aren’t added immediately or even ever, but knowing that they might be helps with planning and not feeling a sudden shift. Is there a way you could work that out with your supervisor?

    3. TootsNYC*

      There’s a conventional wisdom that children can be on their best behavior at the babysitter’s, but the moment Mom or Dad shows up, the kid acts out. It’s because they feel safe; they know they will be loved and their anxiety will be soothed. So they act out.

      I would bet a huge part of that dynamic is present. Good luck finding someone else to work for!

      (I could never, ever, ever be my children’s boss. Ever. It would be horrible for both of us. Hell, it’s hard enough being their parent!)

      1. Mad Baggins*

        Yes! When I babysat, the parents were always shocked that their kids were no problem. It’s always easier to take correction and keep it together when it would be embarrassing to cry in front of that person (ie not a parent or spouse!)

    4. E.Maree*

      I just flipped back to your post in the open thread, and while there’s no harm in following this job for now, I think you’d be well-served by actively looking and finding work elsewhere. This whole situation is putting a dampener on your confidence levels, and you won’t feel free from that until you’re in a new role.

      But it won’t *hurt* your future chances of getting a keeping a job. Being gainfully employed is a plus when applying for work, not a negative. Work experience on your CV is a plus.

      Your comments come across to me as if you’re being pretty hard on yourself. It’s a tough job market out there, and there’s no shame in staying in this job until you find something new. The other commenters on Friday gave your some really good tips on how to show your own worth while you’re in this role, and it was fantastic advice.

      If possible, you might want to put some of your wages towards therapy, especially if you’re staying with your mum right now. You’ve got a *ton* on your mind right now and you mentioned some serious things in the open thread (eg your worries about being unemployable, which I promise aren’t true) that a trained pro can help you work through. They can also help you control your anxiety at work, because being “snappish” in a professional workplace and questioning your instructors will really harm you if you don’t correct the habit.

  12. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    I work with someone like this. It gets extremely grating after a while. At first, when he’d flip out, it would whip the office into a frenzy. Once we got used to it we just ignore it, roll our eyes, and steel ourselves. If you ask him to do part of his job…he gets all huffy. Starts slamming stuff around. And then spends the rest of the day muttering as he walks by. Management doesn’t seem to do anything because, I suspect, they just don’t want to deal with him.

    LW, do yourself and his future coworkers a favor – stop the hand holding. Use Alison’s scripts. There’s no need to be harsh, but you definitely need to be firm. He needs to learn how to handle his anxiety/being overwhelmed/etc so he can learn what he needs to do or ask for to be a better employee and coworker.

    1. RVA Cat*

      This. Some of the scripts over at Captain Awkward may help the OP. The employee’s feelings are not the OP’s problem – it’s the fact he’s having them AT her and everyone else in the office.

  13. Sara without an H*

    OP, it’s wonderful that you want to be supportive, but you’re going about this all wrong:

    When I assign him projects, he is immediately overwhelmed and panicked. No amount or type of support mitigates this, but the next day he comes in feeling much better. We then reflect on how easy it is to feel anxious when doing new things but that sometimes we just need to work through it, and how awesome is it that he was able to do X, Y, Z and get so far from where he was the day before.

    Do you realize that you are treating your employee like a child? “We then reflect on how easy it is to feel anxious…” You sound like a guidance counselor dealing with a small child. I know you mean to be compassionate, but you are infantilizing this young man in ways that will come back to bite him in his future career.

    You need to set clear performance expectations for him ASAP, and then follow through with consequences. It isn’t necessary to be “harsh or strict” about this. (Well, at least, not harsh.) But if you don’t clarify for him that this behavior can’t continue, you will be hurting him as well as yourself.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      Yeah, if nothing else, I wouldn’t engage with his anxiety. Depending on the work, it may be totally fine to give someone an assignment today and then come back tomorrow and start doing it. If you can do that, great, but you can stop trying to help him through it.

    2. Tuxedo Cat*

      I noticed that, too. I worked with several people I suspect was treated more like a child than a full grown adult. It really did them no favors, from people just not wanting to work with them (because that’s ton of emotional labor/time people needed for other things) to them actually not knowing how be resilient and problem solve their own challenges.

    3. Specialk9*

      Yes. On top of the huge emotional labor toll on OP, it really is super infantilizing for him. (Though he’s acting immaturely.) This is how one talks to a 4 year old or an older child with special issues.

    4. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

      Yes, this is a good point – I realize that my approach has not been setting my employee up for success, because no one else would tolerate this behavior. I’d hesitated to address it earlier because he has been having some challenges outside of work and I didn’t want to pile on to what was clearly a challenging personal time, but ultimately I think it would have been better had I addressed the behavior earlier regardless. Lesson learned! There is a difference between productive compassion and unproductive compassion, and I’ve definitely fallen into the latter category.

  14. Jady*

    I’m wondering if it would help to notify him in advanced, say by email, and then have a meeting later that day or the next.

    This is likely industry-specific. In my own experience, my boss or coworkers never sit down with us and hand over tasks or projects. Tasks always come in through our system or via email. I myself have anxiety, but since it’s all electronic getting a new task or project doesn’t trigger it.

    Since he’s new, I’m sure there’s a lot of things that merit a face-to-face discussion just on that alone. But, would some advanced notice beforehand allow him to get his thoughts together and reaction under control?

    Just an idea from someone with anxiety.

    1. lisalee*

      I was just about to suggest this as well. Personally, I find it much more difficult to absorb information verbally, and I can understand how it could exacerbate anxiety to just have your boss dropping by randomly with new projects.

      1. Agreeable Andy*

        Yes exactly! I would go so far as to start an email process when allocating projects and finish with ‘Come see me if you have questions’. Then the person is forced to write out their concerns and this is evidence eventually when they are sacked for this behaviour.

  15. Lobsterman*

    I’d watch the employee to see how he treats other women, if he’s willing to be this disrespectful to his boss who’s female. Red flag.

    1. Murphy*

      I think that’s a bit of a leap from the info that we have. It sounds to me like his behavior can be explained by anxiety, including the sighs and arguing. Anger isn’t an uncommon anxiety reaction.

      1. Antilles*

        Yeah, I don’t see any reason in the letter for the genders to matter here. This sounds like way more of a general anxiety problem and inability to take feedback than anything relating to a female reprimanding him.
        Also, for whatever it’s worth, I don’t see where it’s actually specified anywhere that the LW is female. I made that same assumption too based on the way OP has tried to handled the problem and the use of the phrase “I have young children”, but it’s not actually specified.

        1. Specialk9*

          I read this whole situation as incredibly gendered, which I recognize is an assumption. But it seems to so closely mimic gendered patterns of relating that I’d be gobsmacked if OP isn’t a woman. Personally I didn’t get manipulation vibes from him, but I did get “mommy I’m so HELPLESS save me!” vibes. Which seems more like relying on a child’s tactics to avoid responsibility and work. I’m open to new data that goes in the other way though.

      2. Artemesia*

        So many men who ‘just can’t help it’, can help it just fine when dealing with male bosses. A young man who is snotty to his female boss should be assumed to be behaving in a sexist manner unless proven otherwise. But that doesn’t have to come up. The boss needs to manage this NOW and not allow the behavior regardless of its cause. The longer he is there, the harder it will be to get rid of him if he can’t change and control himself.

        1. anonforthis*

          A young man who is snotty to his female boss should be assumed to be behaving in a sexist manner unless proven otherwise.

          Seriously??? Assume sexism without any other context or evidence. This is why claims of sexism are viewed with extreme skepticism by many people.

          1. smoke tree*

            I’m pretty sure the reason why many claims of sexism are met with skepticism is because many people don’t want to confront sexism.

            That being said, I don’t think we can definitively assume that the actions of the employee in this situation are influenced by gender without any further evidence (and I don’t think we know whether the LW is a woman in any case) but I don’t think it hurts to ask the LW whether it might be a factor.

    2. Serin*

      It did cross my mind that there might be something gendered about the interaction here — either that he doesn’t feel the need to act like he’s talking to a boss because he’s only talking to a girl, or that getting a lot of sympathetic female attention is more satisfying to him than actually being good at his job.

      It might be none of the above, of course. But it’s reasonable to keep an eye open.

    3. Em*

      +1 to this. There’s no harm in keeping an eye on how the employee treats other employees and seeing if there’s common factors (is he only snappy and disrespectful to one gender? Does he behave differently around his own age group? Does he have any ageist hang-ups, eg the common techbro thing about making interfaces ‘so simple even a mom could use it’?).

      It really feels like the employee is putting the letter writer into a surrogate-parent situation.

    4. ket*

      I think it’s worth watching whether this is the case. It might be, it might not. It might be “unequal treatment based on the conscious belief that women are inferior” (what everyone jumps to when sexism is mentioned — how horrible! no reason to think that! how could you accuse this nice young man of that?) or it might be the banal & everyday “I’m used to interacting with my mom and I’m transferring that behavior pattern” or “My boss is really nice and I feel like I have a safe space to vent unprofessionally about my feelings, and she’s ok with that ’cause women are good with feelings.” Conscious thought, malice, and intent are all pretty irrelevant most of the time — we all just have habits, many of which would benefit from modification!

    5. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

      There is no gender issue here, and I don’t believe any deliberate manipulation. I think it’s mostly a lack of awareness of office norms (which is on me to address) and on their own reactions (I don’t think my employee realizes that sighing/eye-rolling happens).

      1. Competent Commenter*

        LW, are you really sure that the employee doesn’t realize that he’s sighing and eye-rolling? This reminds me very much of the excuses I used to make for my (now) ex-husband. He behaved terribly and I kept thinking that I just needed to help him understand the impact of his behavior. But he did understand it, and he was doing it on purpose, and I haven’t cut others that much slack again.

        I think I’m pretty much always aware when I’m sighing and eye-rolling, or huffing my way through a chore, etc. It’s not the same as having a grouchy-looking resting expression. Sighing and eye-rolling are actions and we are generally aware of our actions.

        Offering this as sympathetic support, not as criticism of you!

        1. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

          Fair point – it’s clear that I have leaned way too far on the understanding/compassionate side of the spectrum; my gut response here could totally be off. If I assume that my employee is blind to his own reaction, it’s easy to give him a pass; if I assume that it’s deliberate and he knows what he’s doing then giving him a pass really isn’t a viable option anymore. Such an interesting insight into how much our interpretations color our responses. I’m going to think about this more- thanks for the comment, and for the last line. :)

      2. Sam.*

        For the record, LW, my boss fairly recently decided to give feedback on a habit of mine I did not recognize I had. (Specifically, I’d respond to something like, “X partner office wants us to do Y,” with something critical and dismissive, like, “Well, that’s dumb.”) He didn’t mind me being critical because I always had a good reason for it, but he had an issue with the way I did it, which – fair enough.

        He broached it by saying, “I don’t think you realize you do this, but…” and I agreed to work on it. But I genuinely didn’t realize when I did it, so he pointed it out the first couple of times it happened after our initial convo. He didn’t say anything in front of people but mentioned it very shortly thereafter so it was still fresh. After a couple of times, I became conscious enough of the pattern that I would realize I was saying it literally as it came out of my mouth, and I was then able to work on stopping it preemptively. It definitely required an assist from him to break the habit, but he gave me the benefit of the doubt because he realized I didn’t recognize it was happening and because it didn’t go on indefinitely once he started pointing it out. If I hadn’t made efforts to fix the thing he asked me to fix, he and I’d be having much more dire conversations now, as we should be.

      3. Lobsterman*

        Thank you for responding. I just want to be sure I’m understanding the situation — do you know that this employee is also engaging in this behavior when only male employees are around? As Artemesia above says, “uncontrollable” behavior often becomes extremely controllable when a person is around authority they respect.

        My 2c, YMMV, that’s the red flag I saw based on my life experience.

  16. BeenThereExperiencedThat*

    “and the office is very laid back. We don’t have HR; we have great hands-on leaders who are accessible, and there are no real structures around management”

    Danger, danger Will Robinson. No HR and no structures? Good managers are great, but they’re not a substitute for an HR department

    1. JobinPolitics*

      BeenThereExperiencedThat, I had the same thought reading the LW’s description of the workplace.

      Managerial structure and an HR department go a long way to alleviating employee anxiety and assisting managers in resolving issues with problematic employees.

    2. Bea*

      And 35 people is a lot to not have HR covered. That is right in the area where most employment laws apply to organization.

    3. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      This comment. Because what LW is actually saying is that they’ve never had a problem employee before, so they’ve never noticed the absence before. Now there is someone who is just not getting it and LW doesn’t have guidelines for PIP, for ADA (what if this is a diagnosed anxiety issue – in addition to his unprofessional behavior.? )

      1. Observer*

        what if this is a diagnosed anxiety issue

        Unless and until he tells his boss that he has a diagnosed issue, they have no obligation. He doesn’t need to formally request an ADA accommodation in many cases, but he DOES have to “put them on notice”. Acting like a hyper-anxious jerk doesn’t qualify.

      2. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

        Yes, this is totally the case. I think this is our first “problem employee” and unfortunately while everyone else just sees hard effort and a great personality, no one else actually sees the “problem” part first-hand. Our CEO has actually told me that he thinks our employee is really special, and he is personally vested in making sure we are taking care of him well. I responded by sharing some of the challenges that affect work output, but this is definitely an added stressor.

        1. Sara without an H*

          Oh, LW, you need to start bringing your own superiors into the loop. You mgt try expressing it as a request for advice. “Moody ButBrilliant sometimes gets very anxious when assigned new projects. I’ve tried several things, but so far it hasn’t helped. Do you have any suggestions? He’s young, and we all want him to succeed.l

          1. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

            Thanks @kiwi and @SarawithoutanH – appreciate both of your comments. @Sara, I won’t get into the challenges around my own lack of a manager, but you’re totally right. I’ve done this a bit but should do this more. And @kiwi, thanks for just being kind. :)

    4. Anon attorney*

      An HR department isn’t a substitute for effective management, either. The company probably would benefit from a professional HR function, but the OP still has to manage this individual.

    5. Rachel Morgan*

      Not every business is large enough for an HR department. Mine certainly isn’t, and most public libraries (especially the smaller ones) certainly don’t have an HR department.

  17. Admin2*

    As someone with general moderate anxiety, it’s much better to learn early the world will not enable and you have to learn to compensate, cope, and deal with it directly- you can’t avoid or dismiss. Do it with compassion and understanding of the struggle, but it’s not an option. Be a place to come to with questions and support- but not tolerating inappropriate responses.

    1. Competent Commenter*

      Well said. And better to learn these things early in your career where the stakes are lower and you’re also expected to be learning some of the basics of work behavior. I’m also anxious and now I’m in my fifties and my god how horrible it would have been if I’d been behaving like LW’s employee and no one called me on it until I was in my fifties! Ugh!

  18. Bea*

    I vividly remember starting to work and was a ball of nerves for most of it. I needed coaching on quite a few things, I was straight out of HS and no college to speak of. So I’m sympathetic to a point.

    However melting down over every assignment and needing a boss to tell me I can’t just snap at them when I’m stressed over feedback…no. That’s not normal. He’s being babied and not coached or mentored in my opinion. He needs someone to demand he act like an adult and do so professionally. I’ve fired this kind of guy before, it’s exhausting. Everyone likes him now but he’ll wear that out quickly when he snaps at the wrong person.

  19. strawberries and raspberries*

    I just fired someone like this. I was extremely patient with him for a very long time, and gave him lots of very concrete, actionable ways to manage his time and manage his stress and at bare minimum appear prepared and unruffled when talking to me and to the rest of the team about his responsibilities and things that were expected of him. Still and all, everything we discussed went completely over his head, and at the end of the day he still thought that it was appropriate to tell me that he “didn’t see the point” of things I was assigning him to do and giving me attitude in front of our clients (like I’d tell him we were running late on our scheduled meeting and he’d say, “I’m helping this gentleman. Should I stop helping?”). He did that last one while he was on a corrective action plan. I get the impulse to want to be unconditionally supportive, but if your employee is someone who uses “let me act as anxious and awkward and weird as possible so that people will wave off my serious mistakes as a funny quirk,” they need to be told that their reactions are not acceptable and their stress responses are impacting the quality of their work and the way they relate to the rest of the team. (And I say this as a manager who also has a lot of anxiety about how I’m perceived and whether I’m doing a good job, so I definitely feel your pain.)

  20. S Stout*

    If I had to talk to an employee about a problem like this, I would not ask, “What’s going on?” I would simply say, this cannot continue (or a variant, such as, if this continues it will result in a PIP, or whatever consequence). I don’t really want to know what’s going on; I want the behavior to change.

    1. Kate*

      I feel like generally Alison suggests this not to give the person the opportunity to make an excuse but because the answer may affect how the OP chooses to handle the situation. For instance, if the employee was genuinely overworked (this does not sound like the case, but hypothetically), and they answered something like, “My time is consumed by X, Y, and Z, so the addition of A, B, and C made me feel overwhelmed.” This gives OP a better view of the situation. Maybe the OP can lighten the employees workload or help them prioritize tasks, but at the very least respond with, “I understand the problem, but you cannot continue to act irritated or argue with me when I give you assignments.”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yep. Or that their parent is dying, or they’re having trouble adjusting to a new medication, or so forth. It doesn’t change that the ultimate response is still “you can’t continue to be argumentative,” but it can impact your perspective and tone and approach.

      2. Washi*

        I think it can also give you an insight into how the employee sees things. Sometimes I’ve gotten a response to “what’s going on” that has changed my perspective on the issue, or at least allowed me to see it from another side and helped me address it more effectively.

        In general, I feel like it’s part of the philosophy that treating people as if they are reasonable (unless they have already made the jump to being abusive) makes it easier for them to be reasonable and for things to stay cordial, just like the softening-type language that people also object to here.

        1. TassieTiger*

          Ooh! Can you give us an example of an answer you got that changed your perspective?

  21. Michaela Westen*

    OP, can you make clear to him that responding the way he does is rude? It sounds like his parents failed to teach him that. It’s more his behavior than his feelings that are the issue here. It’s normal for employees to occasionally feel annoyed by work demands and managers. What he needs to change is the way he expresses it.
    Since you’re so nice about supporting him, maybe suggest different ways to deal with those feelings: keep the sighs to himself, sound respectful not irritated, ask clarifying questions instead of arguing.
    He might be wondering about something and that’s why it seems like arguing. For example, yesterday you said you would have him do X that’s urgently needed. Now you’re telling him to do Y. And he’s wondering if X is still needed and he’s supposed to do that too. If it’s like this, he needs to learn how to ask without seeming like he’s arguing.
    Good luck!

    1. TootsNYC*

      One thing I said to my kids when dealing w/ situations in which their emotions were coming out inappropriately is this:

      You can feel what you want to feel. But it is not appropriate to express it. Other people don’t want to have to deal with all your emotions leaking all over the place. It’s not their job to deal with your emotions–that’s YOUR job. It’s rude to make other people give up their time and energy to deal with you like this. Now you need to figure out how to handle the expression of your emotions so that you aren’t dumping them on everybody else.

      (When they were little, they got short amounts of sympathy and comfort. And then it was time to stop crying because they were disappointed about going home. I -would- defend their right to be disappointed, when Grandma would say, “you’re crying over nothing.” It wasn’t nothing, I’d argue to her–it was disappointment. But to them I would then say, “Now it was time to stop EXPRESSING that disappointment, and time to start dealing with it and controlling the way you express it.”)

      (Sometimes people look at managing in far too parental a way–but I think there ARE useful parallels sometimes.)

    2. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

      Yes, this is totally spot on, and regardless of my company’s culture and approach toward management, I owe it to him to point this point.

  22. Daria Morgendoffer*

    It would be a good idea to get your employee on a “Giving and Receiving Feedback” type course as well. This would help him develop and practice how to respond to feedback more appropriately. Responding to feedback doesn’t come naturally to even the most experienced staff member.

  23. Anon-er than usual*

    Maybe this is more of a Friday open thread thing, but does anyone have advice for what to do when you’re the employee in this situation, but it’s much more mild (as far as you can tell)? My boss has given me the feedback that I sometimes appear annoyed with her or like I don’t think she’s doing her job well (okay, not exactly the same situation because it’s typically when she agrees she has dropped the ball on something, not my response to receiving feedback). I have to admit, I don’t really know what she’s talking about, and wonder if she’s being insecure, but of course I have to treat it like it really is something I can change. I’ve asked for clarification but her responses are vague. I’ve tried to mentally check this against other people’s feedback towards me, and I had a Hermione-ish streak that was kind of pronounced when I was younger, but I thought I had outgrown it. If I were sighing, rolling my eyes, or arguing, I would know what to change, and I don’t *think* I sound exasperated, so I don’t know what to change.

    1. Marley*

      I’d find a way to deflect–like explain to her that the face she thinks looks annoyed may just be your “concentrating really hard” face.

      Think about the questions you ask and the tone you use too. What may seem a neutral clarifying question to you may sounds like criticism to her.

      I’m also Hermione-ish–I understand. :)

      1. Anon-er than usual*

        “What may seem a neutral clarifying question to you may sound like criticism to her.” Thank you, this is a really important one for me to keep in mind! I think my tone is okay, but clearly she doesn’t, and framing it in my mind as “what sounds neutral to me may not sound that way to her” could help.

    2. I'm A Little TeaPot*

      I would talk with her and ask for immediate, specific feedback when she notices it. That you’ve reflected, and you’re honestly not seeing what she’s referring to, and you certainly do not want to appear anything less than professional. Without specifics, you can’t really be expected to do anything different.

      1. Anon-er than usual*

        I agree with you, but I’m not sure I’m going to get specifics out of her, sadly, based on my attempts so far.

    3. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      When your boss makes a statement that is basically admitting she messed something up, don’t agree. Not even a little, “well, it happens.” Jump in with something, “is there something I can do to help this project get back on track?”
      Work from that angle, she must be asking you as an employee to do some work, not as a peer to commiserate. Because she may think she wants the latter, but then gets upset/annoyed by it. Don’t go there.

      1. Anon-er than usual*

        Thanks for this. I will definitely try to work on jumping to the next step rather than talking about the mess-up (although maybe she thinks I’m being brusque?). I don’t know how to explain the specifics without the situation being recognizable, but this often comes up when I’m in a position of “managing up” and she fails to do something she said she’d do, or falls behind the schedule that she expects me to enforce. So, it kind of feels like a double-bind — I’m the one asking her for the thing (because she expects me to), then she says she messed it up, and then I have to respond. But, I like your theory that she may think she wants one form of communication, but doesn’t, so I have to assume the situation calls for more professional communication.

        1. boo bot*

          Oh, I have actual advice on this! I have to do this (reminders, etc) with clients and other people above me in the pecking order. What would I do with someone like this is, deny she’s done anything wrong.

          Me: Hi, I wanted to check in about the edits for that ransom note.
          Boss: Oh, I’m so sorry! I know you’ve been waiting, I will get it to you next week.
          Me: No problem at all, thanks!
          Boss: No, I should have gotten it to you, the family will be putting up “Missing Dog” posters by now.
          Me: Well, that’s a contingency we plan for, right? Next week is good.
          Boss: I really did mess up, huh?
          Me: Nope, we’re still good!

          Anyway – these days I don’t actually work with anyone who takes it past the first exchange, but if you can cheerfully and steadfastly refuse to admit she has messed up while moving on to the next thing as soon as possible, it might be helpful.

          1. Anon-er than usual*

            Thanks for the example and advice. That makes sense (as frustrating as it can be to implement!). Boss has suggested before that she wants to know how badly she has messed up the project timeline, so on some occasions I’ve said things like, “it’s okay, I can still finish in time since this is my highest priority project right now.” [As far as I know, I’m using a neutral tone, not passive-aggressive or anything.] But your and other people’s feedback here are making me think that even when she asks for that kind of information, I should be more careful about assuming she actually wants it.

            To your comment below, I think you may be right, but I also changed her wording in case a work colleague sees this, and I think her actual wording was more ambiguous as to whether it’s projecting or just poorly-worded real feedback.

            1. TardyTardis*

              Sometimes bosses feel guilty and want to vent, and then are angry at the person who was messed over. This may not be the case here, but sadly, it does sound like it a bit.

    4. boo bot*

      For what it’s worth, “I sometimes appear annoyed with her or like I don’t think she’s doing her job well,” makes me think she is projecting a bit. “You sometimes appear annoyed,” is a reasonable observation, but the second part is taking a leap that doesn’t make any sense to me.

      That’s not very actionable advice! But for me sometimes it’s just helpful to have the awareness that someone’s reaction is about them, not me. That said, I’ve found that when I’m concentrating, people tend to think something terrible has happened to a puppy or something – I have learned to put on a pleasant expression when getting feedback, etc – things that I would usually have my “thinking face” on for, were it not for the effect it has. But yeah, I think she is projecting.

    5. My Dog Is Asleep*

      “it’s typically when she agrees she has dropped the ball on something”

      Anon-er than usual, who “typically” points out that the boss has “dropped the ball”? How often does this “dropped the ball” issue come up? If you are the one who is pointing out the boss’ mistakes, I can completely understand where the boss is coming from. Usually, it’s not the employee’s job to give feedback like this to the boss. In fact, the only time I have ever been asked to give this type of feedback to a supervisor was an anymous survey which I did not trust to truly be anonymous. Thus, I gave only positive, glowing feedback. It’s not your job to evaluate your boss. If your boss is picking up any sort of vibe that you are, in fact, doing that it’s not a good look for you. Remember, this is not like in school when students sometimes evaluate their courses and their teachers.

      1. Anon-er than usual*

        I hear you, and I appreciate your point. I think it might apply, along the lines of what Hey Karma said about what my boss wants vs. what she thinks she wants. But, I’m not giving her feedback for feedback’s sake — the convo usually goes:
        Boss: I need the teapot reports from you in three weeks. [The teapot reports require a spout spreadsheet, and boss has made it clear in the past I’m not expected or sometimes even allowed to do spout spreadsheets myself].
        Me: Three weeks, got it. Would you be able to send me the spout spreadsheet in the next two weeks?
        Boss: Yes. If I don’t get to it, remind me?
        Me: Sure.
        *two or two and a half weeks later, depending on how essential it is*
        Me: Could you send me the spout spreadsheet I need for the teapot report I’m working on?
        Boss: Shoot! You needed that for the report that’s due Friday. I’m sorry, I really dropped the ball. I’ll have it to you tomorrow or the next day.
        Me: [I don’t know what I typically say here? I think I say “okay, thanks” but maybe in reality I have been saying “…okay, um… thanks.” If that’s the case, that would be the problem, but I don’t think that’s what I’m doing.]
        I’ve asked for clarification on how much she wants me to “manage up” and she says she wants as much as I’m doing, or more. If have any suggestions, or you know of any resources about how to manage project timelines for people who are senior to you without sounding like you’re giving critical or evaluative feedback, I’d love to hear about them! I’ve been looking for more resources on this but coming up dry. The best I’ve got so far is suggesting earlier deadlines, which has helped but not enough.

        1. My Dog Is Asleep*

          Based on what you say here, I think you and Hey Karma have probably hit the nail on the head. What your boss *says* she wants does not sound at all like what she *truly* wants. Either way, I would follow Hey Karma and boo bot’s advice. Going forward, deny that your boss has done anything wrong. She really does not want to be told she has done anything wrong.

          Also, it doesn’t sound at all like you are correcting/ criticizing your boss or anything close to it.

          If I were in your shoes, I would create a folder for every assignment that has a deadline, for example June Teapots Reports. Then, all email exchanges that you have with your boss about June Teapots Reports could be saved to that folder. If you haven’t been asking about deadlines over email you could start now. Anyhow, if she hasn’t sent what you need by x date, send a follow up email asking for the spreadsheet. Maybe the second request could be forwarded along with the original exchange?? Or maybe not, that could be too passive aggressive. IDK
          I would just say something like, “In order to have the June Teapots Reports ready by x date on my end, I need the spreadsheet from you by y date. Thank you.”

          If it’s just a “these are the facts” email, it’s not a conversation. There is also no judgement. (I’m not saying that your present script is judgmental—- it doesn’t sound like it is, IMO. But, your boss might think it is??)

          I hope this helps. It sounds like your boss is really rather challenging. Best wishes.

        2. Sam.*

          Do you guys have standing meetings? My boss requires a lot of managing up, and having a standing biweekly meeting helps a lot. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent watching him pull reports/send emails he’d previously promised, but hey, it gets me the stuff I need, so I’m not complaining. (He’s also very easily distracted by shiny things, so I have to wrangle those meetings pretty aggressively and redirect his attention quite a lot!)

          1. Anon-er than usual*

            We do, but I might be able to make better use of them. I’ll think on that, thanks.

  24. AKchic*

    Ai ai ai.

    I wasn’t even halfway through this and I was talking at my screen, saying “y’babying the boy! Stop that!” A plumber coming into my office thinks I was talking to one of my kids on Bluetooth. Whoops. Oh well.

    I understand not wanting to look like a bad manager, but in the process, you are well on your way to becoming one. How? By setting your employee up to fail in the long term.
    You aren’t your employee’s therapist/counselor or parent. He should have learned how to manage his anxiety and frustration well before coming into the workplace. If he hasn’t, that is on him (and maybe his own parent/guardian people). It is time to reset the dynamic, hard and fast.

    See if your company has an Employee Wellness program. If so – give him the card. He can utilize those resources to look for a therapist/counselor who can help him learn the tools he will need to manage his own darned anxiety and frustration.
    Utilize Alison’s scripts to tell him to stop having outbursts in the office. He is no longer allowed to have them at you, directed towards you (or any other staff member, because he may start redirecting towards another person if not expressly told he can’t), and he needs to stop drawing attention to himself with his anger/frustration. I don’t think this is so much anxiety so much as someone is using “anxiety” as a catch-all phrase to explain what his problem is. I think he’s frustrated/confused/overwhelmed by a new task and is acting out inappropriately in panic rather than just general anxiety.
    However, that is my personal opinion, and it is moot because regardless of the actual reasoning, his actions are inappropriate for the workplace and they need to stop. They are patently disruptive if you are getting contacted by others with offers of help.

    1. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

      “He is no longer allowed to have outbursts directed toward you, and he needs to stop drawing attention to himself with his anger/frustration” – yes yes yes. I am going to set this as a clear boundary in my own mind and anchor to it. Thank you.

  25. Ms. Ann Thropy*

    He needs a therapist. His manager is (presumably) not one, and definitely not his. I don’t think he’s ready for full-time employment.

  26. EmilyAnn*

    I have seen situations in the workplace where people let superiors or direct reports treat them badly. Each time I lost respect for the person who allowed someone to “s**t on them” on a daily basis without managing the behavior. OP it may seem like you’re trying to help him, but you’re managing his emotional state at a cost to your own reputation.

  27. TootsNYC*

    asked his thoughts for how we could work together more effectively.

    I’m really not a fan of this. Sometimes you just need to say, “You need to stop X behavior.” Sometimes it IS all on them, and it’s fine to make it be their problem and not yours.

    1. Artemesia*

      I agree this phrase suggests weakness on part of the manager at this point; it is something you can talk about very early as you begin to work together, but in response to disrespectful behavior and unprofessional behavior it just suggests that the poor baby needs further catering to. He isn’t getting it now; it will have to be pretty blunt as in ‘this sort of behavior needs to stop. Your sighing and making faces when I provide feedback and your making a fuss and drawing attention to yourself every time you have a new assignment cannot continue if you want to remain in this job. If it happens again, we will have to move to a PIP with the very real possibility of terminating your employment here.’

    2. Courageous cat*

      Yeah, it’s tricky because this terminology gets thrown around a lot for roommates/colleagues/people on the same general level, so it’s easy to just default to that line of thinking in general, but the manager/employee relationship is a totally different ballgame where you’re not going to see nearly as much compromise or collaboration in that way.

  28. Leela*

    Speaking as someone who has terrible anxiety myself and has had to work a lot to manage it in the workplace: if there is any other employee around with anxiety who sees this, it’s likely to make it very, very difficult for them to manage their own anxiety. I definitely appreciate that you’re considering his anxiety and trying to work with it! A lot of times we can just be written off as problematic when it’s a serious mental disorder (and you wouldn’t call an employee in a wheelchair “problematic” because they have needs specific to them that might disrupt the office in some way like taking up more space in an elevator, being slow in halls, etc…you’d just be aware that it was a need due to their condition). However, an employee who needs a wheelchair and comes in without one and expects everyone to do things to bridge that gap for them is closer to what you’ve got here, and this employee needs to find something that helps him manage his anxiety. It can be incredibly difficult, especially at a young age. He might not even know he has it, he might know he has it but have no idea that anything can be done about it, or know exactly what to do but not have the resources to actually do it. Stigma around mental illness doesn’t help, but don’t be fooled into thinking that stigma and requiring a viable performance out of your employee are the same thing! For the sake of anyone else in the office who might be managing anxiety, please find a way to be firmer with this employee, as awful as it can feel. As long as you’re respectful and professional it’s something that he’ll really need to learn

    1. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

      I have anxiety, but almost never experience it at work (crowded spaces and traffic seem to be my main triggers). I have one co-worker who melts down every so often, and one time it was when we were both working late and I was the only other person in the office. She was arguing on the phone with another co-worker in a different part of the building and after slamming the phone down she started screaming and crying. She sounded so distressed (seriously, it was the reaction I would expect if someone she’d loved dearly had died) that it triggered an anxiety spiral of my own even though I had nothing to do with the situation. When she didn’t stop after a couple of minutes I had to run to the bathroom and curl up in the corner of the stall for a while before I could get my racing heart and shaky hands back under control. As soon as I could I went back to my desk, grabbed my things and left without a word. Seeing someone lose control like that in a place I considered safe really did a number on me for a while.

    2. MsAlex*

      I agree with what you said, Leela (as someone who has anxiety but didn’t realize it for what it was for a very long time so I know I was absolutely difficult at work sometimes). It took a specific caring but firm type of management to get me on the right track – along with the insight age and experience bring.

    3. Jennifer Thneed*

      Wil Wheaton recently did a speech on this topic, which is also a great essay. He talked about how his undiagnosed anxiety played out in his childhood and teenage years, and how a lot of it was because he didn’t have anything to measure against to say that everyone else did NOT have the same experiences. That’s true for so much when we’re young — we assume that the experience we have is the experience everyone else has.

      I’m going to put the URL in a reply to this, because it will get stuck in moderation for awhile. But for anyone who wants to read it now, search on “wil wheaton anxiety” and it should be a top result.

  29. OCD gal*

    LW, is there an EAP at the company? Since he has said that he has a lot of anxiety, I think it would be helpful to him and to you to remind him that the company has this program, and it may benefit him to look into how they can help him work through this issue. And I’d make it obvious that’s why you’re referring him. When you’re in the thick of a mental health problem, you’re not thinking normally. In the past I was “referred” to an EAP, but the language used was just saying “We have an EAP offered at the company.” I didn’t know what that was or why they were telling me that, so I never looked into it. Later, I was concerned that since it was a company program, maybe I wouldn’t have confidentiality.

    TLDR; Since this is linked to a mental health problem, it would be helpful to refer him to any resources the company has like an EAP.

  30. Shinobi*

    you should develop a standard for professional behavior that you expect from any employee, and you should hold him to that standard, the same way you would anyone else. This is not mean, it’s not unfair, it is actually the best possible thing you can do for him. People will rise or sink to your expectations!

    I am a fairly young manager and my first employee was a guy not long out of college. (I am a woman, in a tech field.) He often would become defensive, he would interrupt me, and he would argue with me. I didn’t handle this by having a nice chat, I handled it the way I would handle a student or a child doing these things.

    I would stop the behavior in the moment and call him on being inappropriate. Sometimes it was with a stern look. (Think also awkward staring silence while you wait for them to realize they are being terrible.) Sometimes I would just overrule them and tell them this was not a discussion and they should do it my way because I said so and we could discuss other ways of doing this at another time.

    It’s not fun, it feels awful to be mean like this, and I constantly questioned if I was doing the right thing. But we’re 4 years in and now he’s a delight to work with, he is the senior team member and does an amazing job on new projects and with clients and is getting his masters degree. At our last party he got drunk and hugged me and thanked me for pushing him so hard and believing in him… so… worth.

    If you’re concerned about how that will be perceived by others I would make sure to inform your supervisor that these issues are popping up. They may also have some suggestions. You shouldn’t wait until this has gone on forever and you can’t take it any more to make sure other people are aware.

    On the anxiety front, I also had an employee for a while who became very anxious any time I told him anything. He would literally panic in front of my face and frantically try to fix the problem while really just panicking. He was a very sweet smart person, but it became a problem when no one in the office felt they could talk to him.

    We handled this mostly by moving major communications to e-mail. This gave him time to deal with the question, take time to answer it, calm down and respond in person or via e-mail. I’m not sure if it helped his anxiety but it did mean people were not as freaked out by it. (He was very competent, as long as you couldn’t see him freaking out it was fine.)

    I’m wondering what it is about the new projects that triggers his anxiety? Is it not knowing how to do something? is it having his plans for the day/week changed?

    I’m not saying that you need to accommodate his anxiety, but, it might be something to understanding what the source of that anxiety is. Maybe once he has a better handle on it he will be able to find strategies to mitigate it. (Such as getting a list of upcoming projects from you, or creating detailed task lists or some other time management tactic?) That’s something he could work through with a therapist and that might be a good suggestion for him.

    I think it is likely partly a school transition issue. In school you usually know what assignments are due when MONTHS in advance. So you can plan for the work you’ll have to do and you know what your going to need to do to get an A. The transition to work is hard. The quality of your work matters more in some ways, and less than others. You aren’t being graded, but the work you are doing has a real world impact, and that is both scarier and less scary.

    You have my sympathy, I know how hard it is to break in green people even when they are smart and talented. I remember how hard it was to break me in. But remember, you’re not doing him any favors by making his job easier, anything he doesn’t learn from you he will just learn from someone else later on and it will be much harder for him. Sometimes to be a good boss you have to be mean. (or what feels like mean anyway.)

    1. Shinobi*

      (When I say accommodate I mean, avoid giving him new work or doing anything that might upset him. Sorry I just realized that wording was not good. If there are strategies that are not extremely difficult to try that would help him not get as anxious when given new assignments I think those are worth trying as long as they are reasonable. You might even find some of them improve your workflow.)

  31. Hippopotamus4Xmas*

    It sounds like your report could possibly be on the autism spectrum – this behavior sounds similar to people I have encountered who have Asperger’s.

    1. Myrin*

      That might be true, but it’s actually against commenting rules to try and diagnose people here unless specifically asked for! (I hope I’m not sounding brusque but Alison is always firm to nip this in the bud because it usually becomes derailing very quickly.)

      1. Scarlet*

        Exactly. Also, it doesn’t change anything to what OP needs to do, since they’re his boss and not his therapist.

        (Seriously, armchair-diagnosing strangers on the Internet drives me bonkers)

        1. Hippopotamus4Xmas*

          so sorry to armchair diagnose! I didn’t know about that rule and brought it up since maybe the approach would need to be different if the cause of the behavior were medical – it wasn’t to judge. Perhaps, as with any other medical condition, accommodations could be made to prevent the behavior from happening (different or fewer projects, or projects with far-out deadlines).

          1. Anonymosity*

            He has to ask for them, though. It’s not up to the manager to guess what those accommodations might be or for what issue. For that, he needs a diagnosis and probably recommendations from a professional.

          2. Observer*

            If you think that this would necessitate a different approach, you should have mentioned what you had in mind. General comments of this nature are really not useful otherwise.

            If you were just throwing it out as “well, it might be medical so ADA”, then it’s worth noting, that it doesn’t work that way. To start off with, if someone MAY have a problem but no diagnoses, it is totally inappropriate for the employer to try to guess and then do things that they think will work around it. If the person does actually have a problem, they still need to inform their employer. It is NOT on the employer to figure out they have a problem (outside of paying attention to obvious stuff – eg a guy shows up with a wheelchair, you clearly know that he’s got mobility issues.)

    2. Dust Bunny*

      I’m on the spectrum and we’re perfectly capable of learning to behave in professional situations, thank you. At this point, he’s waaaay beyond being able to use this as an excuse.

      1. Julia*

        Yeah, I’m not a fan of people going “autism” or “mental health issues” when someone is a jerk. Not every jerk as a diagnosis. But guessing that they do kind of makes it seem as though only people with diagnoses can be jerks.

        1. Scarlet*

          Yeah, that’s what really rubs me the wrong way about this. Whenever someone is being a jerk/creepy/rude, you can start the countdown until someone goes “spectrum! Asperger’s! ADHD!”. I’m sure most people who do this don’t mean it that way and probably have good intentions, but it really creates a false equivalence between unacceptable behaviours and mental illness. On the one hand, it contributes to the stigmatization of mental illness. On the other hand, it contributes to people excusing appalling behaviours.

  32. TootsNYC*

    It’s not even great parenting.

    One of the things I did w/ my kids, when they were little and they had a tantrum, or they were upset or something–they got some reasonable sympathy, and then I said, “Now it is time for you to figure out how to be calm.” And I went away and left them to it!

    I read Dr. Richard Ferber’s book “Solving Your Child’s Sleep Problem.” One point he made has really resonated:
    You cannot teach a child how to fall asleep. You can only offer a situation in which they can and must learn it. Then, and only then, will they be able to teach themselves.

    I have applied that in SO many ways.

    OK, sure, you can set them up for success by modeling the tools they should use (bedtime routine, etc.). But they have to figure it out for themselves, when it’s that internal.

    I think this is just like that.

    1. Robin Sparkles*

      I agree with this completely – I try my best to use similar strategies with my almost 4 year old and 1 year old.

  33. Robin Sparkles*

    I agree with the comments that say you are measuring your competency as a good manager by his success and happiness. You need to hold him accountable for the behaviors he is exhibiting that are disrespectful and affecting your ability to manage him well. Arguing back, sighing loudly, and acting irritated are not OK or acceptable behaviors with anyone in a professional setting let alone your boss. I don’t love that he is using anxiety as a way to explain away bad behavior. Anxiety is a real issue and many people manage it in the work world without acting this way. You definitely need to start calmly and professionally remind him that this is a big deal and he needs to manage it. Give him some time but really if you don’t see changes, I strongly suggest heading down the path to firing him.

  34. Amber Rose*

    As someone with severe anxiety, the idea of lashing out like that is more upsetting than taking on work I’m worried about. Before seeking treatment I often lashed out at people due to anxiety (not gonna lie I still do, though not as bad, as often, or at work), and I was always immediately mortified. Those memories still make me feel embarrassment and shame. People who just lash out and feel no concern over doing so baffle me. I know everyone experiences their own issues differently, but to me this seems to indicate a manipulative twist to their behavior.

    There used to be a site that had the Manipulator Files, about how people twist you around to doing what they want, and I can see how anxiety might drive this person to use your kind nature against you in order to try and have some control over things.

  35. Molly*

    Related to receiving feedback from the boss, I understand that it’s not okay to argue with them, but what if you want to add context? I came to my current workplace straight from school and have now been there for 4 years. I have a lot of autonomy in my position and my supervisor is not involved in 95% of the decisions that I’m making. My current boss (it’s rotated a lot) does NOT give her employees the benefit of the doubt and, if she hears from upwind that there may be some question over something I’ve done, immediately jumps to critical feedback.

    I worry that I come across like the employee that OP described. Should the employee be expected to sit back and say “ok” to critical feedback without being able to defend themselves?

    1. TootsNYC*

      I would say, bring the context later. Ask to revisit the issue, and explain what the framework was.

      But also–how much does the boss hold onto the criticism?

      i had a person who would immediately provide the context, but her TONE was defensive, and it felt as though she wasn’t really listening to me. It almost felt as though she wasn’t going to make the correction I’d requested, or was arguing that it wasn’t necessary. If she’d said, “OK, I’ll look into that/fix that,” and then come back LATER and said, “I fixed it–I just wanted you to know, I’d asked the guy directly, and he confirmed.”

      In my case, I KNEW she did her job properly, and it’s just that something had gone wrong, and I really didn’t care what it was, I just wanted it fixed. In fact, her defensiveness made me pay MORE attention to the error, mostly because it made me think she was so focused on defending herself that she wasn’t listening, and wasn’t open to admitted the error, which is the first step to figuring out if you need to change something to avoid it in the future.

    2. Amber Rose*

      There’s a difference between complaining/whining about what you’re told, and responding to feedback.

      The first involves a lot of attitude. Picture the most teenage teenager, the kind that show up in movies. “But whyyyyyyy?”

      The second is a conversation about how to improve. “I did X instead of Y because Z. How do you want me to handle this next time it comes up?”

    3. Lindsay J*

      I have this problem.

      It’s related to the whole “A+” mentality that people talked about either above or on another post recently, I think.

      I want to get full points. I don’t want my manager to think less of me. I certainly don’t want to be “in trouble”.

      I struggled a lot with one manager I had who wasn’t a great manager in a lot of ways. But one of his mantras was, “Explanations are just fancy excuses,” and I think it was helpful to me in some ways.

      He didn’t want to hear a breakdown of exactly went wrong and why. He just wanted it fixed. It didn’t matter that the error came about because someone else gave me the wrong information, or someone else missed a deadline, or that he himself told me to do exactly what I did. The end result was the same – the wrong thing happened, he needed it to not happen again, and needed it fixed to the right thing.

      So I had to learn to stop providing context and explanations for the most part.

      I would say that it depends on the situation and the type of feedback you’re getting whether you should speak up.

      If it’s outright misinformation (you’re being spoken to because you missed the Thursday at 1PM deadline for the teapot report to be in, but you did have it in by then) I would correct it in the moment. “I’m confused. I sent the teapot report out at 11am on Thursday, and Annie acknowledged receiving it.”

      If it’s a recurring problem (you need the spout report from Betty to complete compiling the teapot report, but Betty is always late getting you the spout report which leads to the teapot report being late) I would accept the feedback in the moment, then come back later and provide the context, probably in the guise of asking what you can do to solve the problem.

      If it’s something that is being brought up in a context where it could affect your job or your pay, like a performance review or if you’re being officially disciplined for it, I would provide context.

      If it’s just a one off, “The teapot report was late getting sent in today. It needed to be sent in at 1PM. We had to push back a client meeting because we didn’t have the report in time to prepare, and the client is pissed.” I would just say, “I understand. I’m sorry. I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.” It doesn’t matter if the context is that Cat told you the report was due at 2PM, not 1PM. Or that the spout report excel file was corrupted and you had to wait for Betty to get back in the office for her to resend you a different one. Or IT shut down the system you needed to use at the time you needed to use it for patches. Or whatever. The report was still late. The client was still pissed. You know what happened so you can make sure that it doesn’t happen again in the future. Your boss doesn’t need the explanation, it’s enough that you know it.

      You’re not being marked down in the grade book because of it. You’re not going to get detention. Your boss probably isn’t mad at you.

      For some things – if this happens a lot and you’re concerned that the impression is that you’re not good at your job because of it. If you’re concerned because Cat told you the wrong date and time and either she might be telling other people the same wrong information (or you’re concerned that she purposefully told you the wrong date and time to set you up to fail), etc it would make sense to bring that kind of stuff up in a big picture conversation in another meeting.

      But I wouldn’t do it upon receiving the feedback because it can sometimes seem like arguing/justifying even though that’s not the intent.

      1. Lindsay J*

        Oh, and I forgot. If it’s something I legitimately don’t understand, I would acknowledge the feedback, and then ask.

        “I was told in training that we do XYZ in that order. But here you’re telling me I should do ZYX. Should I always do ZYX, or was there something about this particular case that should have told me that that was the way to go?”

  36. Tired of being the whipping boy*

    I have exactly this problem at my office except that it’s our CEO who is the one giving everyone else grief. It’s why I’ve started a job hunt despite loving almost everything else about what I do.

  37. MF*

    Seems to me like a big piece of what’s missing here is the employee is not taking ownership in managing his anxiety around new assignments and criticism.

    OP, have you actually asked him to come up with a plan on how he will solve this problem moving forward? Have you put the onus on him to give you solutions on how he (with your help) can fix this? It’s great that you’re willing to accommodate and coach him, but ultimately it’s up to HIM to figure out how to manage his anxiety. Nobody can do that for him, not even you.

    1. Koala dreams*

      I missed you comment before, but it’s very good. It’s so important to realize that his anxiety is his to manage, and nobody on the outside can do it for him. It can feel sad, but it’s the truth.

  38. Jennifleurs*

    As someone who also snarls when at peak stress levels and is trying to stop, this is all a bit painful to read! I would say he needs to be aware that he Needs to stop it, and maybe needs to digest instructions in silence for a little while? I know that’s what I would like, just a moment to realise that this isn’t a disaster and I can do it.

  39. Anonymosity*

    I didn’t read all the way through the comments, but then I got to someone wondering if this is an officially diagnosed anxiety disorder or a learned technique. I can only speak from my own experience here. Apologies if I missed a response from the OP.

    THIS WAS ME.

    This is the exact way my anxiety (sort of diagnosed) manifests itself. For many people, panic attacks are just that–panic. They go straight to the flight response. I hit the fight response first. It comes out as snark, defensiveness, and a lightning-quick temper. Only if it goes unchecked does it escalate into actual panic (and it always does, if I don’t do something about it). It. Sucks. Balls. It took me years of struggling on the job, two PIPs, and a termination to figure it out.

    I did actually seek therapy when I was at OldExjob, because a lot of stress was coming FROM the job, and my supervisor referred me to her therapist. She was going for the same reason. But in the course of counseling, we discovered that my anxiety was more deep-rooted than just OldExjob being a PITA. I lost my therapist due to a job change before we could officially document it, so all I carried forward was 1) that I did have some problems with anxiety, and 2) a breathing exercise that semi-helped. I had NO idea what my triggers were or how they manifested. But goddamn if they don’t sound exactly like this guy.

    Even if he does feel like it might be anxiety, that doesn’t necessarily mean he understands how it’s affecting his behavior. Or he might realize it but doesn’t know how to stop it, so he’s blaming it on externals and leaning on you to help him control it. I don’t think you have to support him as a therapist would. If your company has an EAP program, it might be worth mentioning it to him. If you intend to put him on a PIP, I’d definitely mention it, since he did bring up feeling overwhelmed. As someone above said, it’s up to him to ask for accommodations–a good therapist can help him figure out what will work best for him.

    And don’t feel guilty if you have to PIP him. He needs to stop doing this. You and your other employees aren’t required to put up with it.

  40. Argh!*

    Been there, and got stuck with someone who was just god enough not to be fireable but at random intervals had “issues” that I shouldn’t have had to deal with.

    They key for me is having the support of *my* boss. My boss won’t let me refer to employee assistance, or write up formal warnings after multiple memos & discussions, so the message from the organization is “We don’t like this but we’ll put up with it.”

    If you aren’t sure your boss has your back, then good luck to you. People like this don’t change, in my experience. Plus, you can’t tell someone their emotions are not valid. You can only describe unacceptable behaviors.

    Putting yourself in the position of mentor or therapist is a losing proposition. This person may need drugs or therapy.

  41. LKW*

    About 20 years ago I completed a Masters’ Program and one of the classes was on “Group Dynamics”. We had to develop a project over the course of the semester and in parallel track our own group and individual behaviors. We developed a maturity model that pulled together a couple of different models that essentially was “Immature: Yells, blurts and then goes about day with no acknowledgement or apology; Not-as-Immature blurts or yells then apologizes and Mature: Acknowledges news or information but does not react emotionally. May need time to process before returning with plan to address issue.”

    It’s not your job to coach someone on how to manage problems, but it’s a kindness that you are doing so.

  42. Koala dreams*

    Have you told him he needs to cut out the sighs, arguing and whatever he is doing to make other people worry about your team? If not, you need to do that. Clearly communicating expections is a good thing, and getting new assignments and receiving feedback are important parts of the job. Just as you give feedback and instructions on other job duties, you can give feedback on these things too.

    As for anxiety, is can feel condescending when people, especially your boss, holds you to lower standards because of an illness or disability. It can also cause tension in the work team. I understand that you do it out of kindness, but in the long run, you’re not doing your employee any favour.

    If your employee brings up his anxiety, you can take the opportunity to briefly introduce your company’s police on sick leave/PTO/requesting accomodation (whatever is applicable). If your employee wants accomodation, you can discuss what’s reasonable within the demands of the job. No new assignments ever is probably impossible, but maybe you can find a better time of the day or a better channel for new assignments if that’s possible. Otherwise, his anxiety is his and not something you need to, or can, solve.

  43. Observer*

    We then reflect on how easy it is to feel anxious when doing new things but that sometimes we just need to work through it, and how awesome is it that he was able to do X, Y, Z and get so far from where he was the day before.

    You need to stop this NOW. You are infantilizing and disempowering him, and you are relieving him of responsibility for his behavior.

    “We” should not be reflecting on HIS behavior, HE should be – and at this point, he should be doing so on his own time. “we” don’t need to work through it, HE does, and he needs to do this primarily on his own. You are not his mommy, teacher, or training wheels.

    And there is nothing “awesome” about basically getting your together after melting down over routine issues, YET AGAIN.

    I’m fine with all of this and helping him work through it to the amount I can,

    Well, you should NOT be “fine” with this. It’s not obnoxious, unlike the rudeness, but it’s out of line and inappropriate. And it undoubtedly feeds the rudeness and other misbehavior.

    By the way, if you are worried about how you are being perceived, you can be sure that what you are currently doing makes you look a LOT worse than actually managing him and cutting off this behavior.

    1. Scarlet*

      +1000

      That first sentence you quoted, in particular, sounds like a parent congratulating their toddler during potty-training.
      “We reflected on how awesome it was that we managed not to piss our pants yesterday! We deserve a cookie!”

  44. bolistoli*

    When I have questions or want to provide context, I often preface it up front that I want to be sure I understand why what I did was not correct and that I will make the changes requested (not in those exact words). It’s more my way of getting THEIR context so that I can figure out if my way is always incorrect or only incorrect in the particular instance. I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem with that approach. Typically the person delivering the feedback is more than happy to provide context. I take this approach when giving feedback too – that I welcome questions/discussion, but I make it clear that we may still do it my way for whatever reason. But I always give the reason (sometimes it simply – that’s the way we do it here).

  45. Jake*

    I learned some bad habits from a boss early in my career that make me wish he’d told me to knock it off.

  46. Llama Grooming Coordinator*

    Okay so I had a bunch of questions and then I read the letter again – and realized that I had a whole new set of questions!

    LW, it really reads to me that your company doesn’t have the best handle on what’s appropriate. It sounds like your (adult! He graduated college so he’s probably over 22!) employee is regularly melting down in the middle of the office and is inconsolable every time he’s assigned a new task. More importantly, you feel like you have to comfort him or else you’ll be reprimanded. That’s…not great! You are his boss, not his therapist! If the expected behavior is that employees can regularly have tirades and their bosses hug them, that’s an unhealthy and unprofessional dynamic.

    You SHOULD have support in setting healthy boundaries. And if you don’t, then you should consider going somewhere else because that’s a big red flag.

    As for your immediate problem: tell Josh that he needs to control himself at least in public. Ask him if he needs to step outside for a moment and return to the situation when he’s having a meltdown (if it feels like reprimanding a toddler, that’s because he IS being a toddler). Don’t be his therapist any more than necessary. And also – weigh that in his ability to do the job. He might be likable and productive when he’s happy. But if he’s prone to disruptive behavior, that’s a factor in his ability to do the job.

    1. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

      Thanks for this, @lamagroomer. This is my first time working at such a small company and there’s a lot there that I really like – flat structure, very little politics, great team of people. But there’s zero guidance on management. We don’t do performance reviews, and the extent of “training” I had was to be told “yes, you’ll manage him”. I’ve had to go searching for basic information on anything that is in/out of bounds beyond that. My own management (management of me) has also been a bit convoluted/frustrating at this company. So one of the things I’m seeing clearly as I read your comment and others is that, as well intentioned as my company is, this is a big gap. Which makes me feel a bit better about not having done the best job as a manager thus far.

      1. Llama Grooming Coordinator*

        Thanks!

        For what it’s worth, I was trying to avoid saying that you were messing up because…honestly, I could definitely tell you’re providing a lot of support to this guy, and it sounds like he needs at least some. He’s lucky to have you as a manager. But also – like, I really do have to question how Not Okay it is for you to say, “dude, that’s not cool, cut it out” – because it shouldn’t be Not Okay. And if it is Not Okay, then that really undermines your ability to do the job – and that’s what I was reacting to.

        …and on third read, that might actually be the solution to your problem. You’re going to have to deliver a harsh message (that his behavior is Not Okay and Needs To Stop), but I think the main issue most companies would have would be tone and approach. I don’t know how long you’ve been reading, but you should listen to the podcast that Alison did about tone of voice – that might be a huge help in how to approach this. And you might be surprised by the amount of support you get from your company – if your company is reasonable (which it might not be – I know what site we’re on right now), your coworkers are already pointing out his behavioral issues, just in an indirect way.

        For what it’s worth (and I’ll note that I’m a 6’5″ dude who is painfully aware that I’m a 6’5″ dude and over-uses softening language when dealing with discipline), to go back to asking him to remove himself, I’d probably say something like, “Hey, do you need to step outside for a moment? We’ll check back in later if you need to,” and then say something like, “Well…you really can’t do that at work – that’s pretty inappropriate.”

  47. Courageous cat*

    Something I thought about upthread really resonated with me the more I thought about it: There are a lot of different roles we take in life, such as spouse, friend, roommate, sibling, colleague, etc… and in all of those situations, we are taught to use the kind of language and overall approach you are using. “How can we work together best” discussions, positive reinforcement, calmly raising issues so as not to cause upset, etc.

    This is all great for all of the aforementioned roles, but manager/employee is so different, and it’s hard to get those scripts out of your mind because you’re so used to fulfilling the other roles. I definitely think it’s worth taking the time to reflect on how your overall approach is going to differ as a manager.

    1. LW - My Employee Gets Stressed*

      Yes, totally true. Did I mention in the letter that this is my first time managing? It’s truly amazing how hard it is to figure out when you’re just getting started!

      1. Khlovia*

        Oh, man, your first management gig and right off the bat you get this problem employee? And no advice or support from your not-very-leadery leaders? Please completely get off your own case. You’re doing brilliantly, considering. I mean, totally stop doing everything you’ve been doing so far with this guy and switch to all the scripts you’ve been given above; but you’re fine and brave and earnest and kind and you’re going to be a top-notch manager inside of three months.

        1. Khlovia*

          Of course, since you’re getting nothing from above you, you’ll be spending those three months autodidacting management off the Internet, starting with AAM, like teaching yourself French; but you’ll succeed.

  48. Kitty*

    Highly doubt he’d expect this much emotional labour and hand holding from a male boss… :-/

  49. kjdubreuil*

    I have an employee I am struggling with. She usually argues about how to do any assigned task and then goes ahead and does it differently than instructed. She always has a reason for that. She also argues about all feedback. If her argument is not accepted she gets a very flat expression, looks sideways and says “I’ll be sure to do it that way if you want me to” (in a tone of voice that means completely the opposite.) The last time I spoke to her about refusing to do an assigned task(she passed it off to another employee) she said “you don’t need to raise your voice” (I wasn’t) while refusing to look at me. Then she put an expression on her face that could only be described as a smirk. A “what are you going to do about that? Now if you say anything at all I can just accuse you of raising your voice and bullying me . . . .” SMIRK. So I lost my temper (a bit) and said (with a soft voice) “When I am talking to you you need to look at me and you need to take that smirk off your face.” Amazingly the smirk instantly disappeared and the behavior corrected itself. No problems since then. It was like a miracle. I vote for telling it like it is (but minus the losing your temper part.)

    1. Michaela Westen*

      Ick. She sounds like a very manipulative and self-centered person.
      If she’s as bad as she sounds, she will continue to manipulate and undermine, and, I have a feeling, bully anyone she can get away with.
      I would watch for more manipulation and sneakiness and un-cooperation (but more sneaky). I’m not a manager, but I would never be comfortable around someone like that.

  50. Matt*

    I have been hiring for entry level positions for more than 25 years, and this is a problem I have come across more and more over the last five years or so… Employees expecting their emotions are as important, or more important than actual work, pushing back against managerial decisions repeatedly, and outwardly expressing attitude when things don’t go their way. I didn’t have to deal with this 20 years ago. Now it’s a somewhat common occurrence. People are entering the workforce with less knowledge and preparation than ever before.

    I try really hard not to blame it as “Millennial” behavior, because I was never a fan of being labeled “Generation X”.

    1. Michaela Westen*

      I was like that in the 80’s – 90’s, and it’s because I wasn’t raised right. Maybe it’s more common now, but it did happen back then.

  51. Safetykats*

    I have one suggestion that might be helpful. I actually had an employee (brilliant, and an expert in his area) who didn’t process new information quickly. We agreed that I would, when possible, send him new assignments or feedback late in the week, in writing, and wait until Monday to discuss. This gave him time (including the weekend if necessary) to process, and worked really well. That extra time seemed to flip a switch between panic and problem-solving.

    I’d also like to say this is why I just don’t understand how or why people think working for a somoany in which management is expected to do the job of an HR professional is somehow a benefit. Is the business owner also asking you to do payroll? Manage issues with benefits? My guess is not. It doesn’t matter how open and accessible you are, as a manager you really don’t have the background or training to deal with a whole range of HR issues, and it’s unfair for management to ask you to do so just so they don’t have to pay a professional. Plus, eventually it will put you (and the company, of you’re lucky, or alone if you’re not) on the wrong end of a lawsuit. Please people – HR has a job other than making the badges and handing out the packets. That job covers soooo much of what ends up on these pages. Every third column (at least) I give thanks for my HR people.

  52. Micklak*

    I would start keeping a log of incidents and what you’ve done to try to remedy this to share with your boss when it comes time to escalate.

Comments are closed.