my employee wants to be micromanaged

A reader writes:

I have an employee who wants to be micromanaged. She seems to be paralyzed unless I explicitly give direction to get something done. If I don’t respond in what she deems a timely manner, she will text me while I’m in meetings or on phone calls, looking for direction.

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

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 140 comments… read them below }

  1. Ciela*

    Ha, I was that employee many, many years ago.
    About 3 months into my then new role, my boss said “Why do you keep asking me about this? You’re better at this that I am.” Well then, with that confidence boost, I went forward and decorated teapots without asking for future hand holding.

    1. Anonys*

      I think when you are very new to a job or working life in general this very common. If this employee is young and in a very junior role I would probably cut her more slack on being insecure. Maybe she was also micromanaged in the past and thinks she has to get the ok for everything?

      In addition to having a big picture talk with her, if she’s fairly new I would maybe direct her to a few colleagues who can answer questions or guide her. My manager is rarely my first point of contact for questions on how to do something, unless its a big decision he needs to sign off on.

      Also, if she does start being more independent and then gets something wrong or makes a decision OP wouldn’t have made, be gentle with her. Not saying that is the case here, but there are some managers who don’t want to be bothered with too many questions but then aren’t happy if something isn’t exactly how they would have envisaged it.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, this. I think the employee is simply totally terrified of making even a minor mistake, to the point that she’s completely paralyzed if she doesn’t get step-by-step instructions.

      2. LT*

        I agree 100%! And the paralysis can even happen after being experienced! When I’d been in my job for several years, a new higher-up was hired and suddenly I found myself in states of paralysis, because it always felt like if I had a choice, the one I made was the wrong one. The questions were always “Why did you do it this way?” It may have been that Higher-Up was trying to help me learn how to explain the path I took so I could explain succinctly to outside parties, but it always always always felt like “Why did you do it this way, you should have done it the other way.” So I took to going and asking a lot more questions than I ever did with other Higher-Ups I’d worked with. Then the answer usually seemed to be along the lines of “you should know how to do that.” It really screwed me up for awhile. I lost confidence, even on my other projects, and second-guessed everything I did. It was really the low point of my career confidence. So yeah, OP, please make sure you’re not doing something like tearing apart things she’s taken the initiative of doing without asking! Especially if she’s new to the company/field.

    2. Mina, the Company Prom Queen*

      Yes! Around the beginning of my career when I was in an entry-level role, my boss used to say “I have complete confidence in you to make the right decision (or whatever the topic at hand was).” That helped me build up my own confidence to move things forward without having to ask about every move I made. To this day, whenever I’m doubting myself, I still remember my boss saying that and it still helps.

    3. Calanthea*

      Ah, same! I worked in the civil service for a bit, and at junior level it’s quite process oriented. As I’ve got more senior I still sometimes have a double take when I’m able to suggest we do something and people just agree.

      Your suggestion that the boss approaches it with an attempt to confidence boost the employee (possibly in combination with “when you do this, it causes me extra work. It’s *useful* when you take the decision”) is really good. Depending on the reasons the employee is like this, treating it as a performance issue might make them more anxious to avoid mistakes.

  2. Richard Hershberger*

    Many years ago I was a department manager in a Walmart. The position isn’t as exalted as it sounds. We were still paid hourly, a bit more than the other employees, and had relatively stable shifts, usually in the morning. I had my two aisles, which I mostly had to take care of myself. But we also got afternoon shift workers assigned to us. We would give the afternoon guy a list of stuff that needed to be done, then go home and hope some of it actually got done. There was this one guy who had an IQ of, I would estimate, around 70. Think Forrest Gump. He was a hard worker and a genuinely nice guy, but if he didn’t understand what to do, he would freeze up. The other department managers didn’t want him as their afternoon guy because of this. I requested him. I had figured out that I couldn’t tell him the end result of the tasks, but rather had to give him explicit step-by-step instructions: Take this stuff I am pointing to and put it in a cart. Then take this other stuff I am showing you now and move it here. Then take the first stuff and move it to this place I am showing you now. And so on. Once I figured this out, I could go home, assured that it would get done. I never revealed this to the other department managers, so that they wouldn’t steal him from me.

    That being said, this should not be necessary with someone with a higher IQ than Forrest Gump, and it probably wouldn’t work anyway with a more mental job.

      1. JSPA*

        Yep, it’s not (or not always) an IQ thing. It can be an executive function deficit thing. Add some anxiety from life experience (life is not kind to people who can’t even begin to put tasks in order!) and ability to function takes a gigantic hit.

        Sometimes, by surfacing the task of “making a process,” people can kind of learn to fake it Not only, “what do I need to do first” (that’s way too big a task to break down, if your brain doesn’t do it) but (using the example of groceries):

        A. Will anything spoil or be damaged if I don’t deal with it first?
        B. what places are available to put things?
        C. What size and weight of things can be put in those places?
        D. What absolutely can’t be put on the bottom, because it will be damaged?

        Of course, for moving files on a computer, or organizing books, or de-cluttering, or deciding on what order to do elements of a graphic design, the specific list will be different…but it’s within the bounds of possibility that someone can give you a detailed enough rubric for you to make a decision tree without needing guidance every single time. And then you have to be OK with doing things “a way that’s adequate, but may strike onlookers as inefficient.” Or, if you’re excellent enough at something else, you hire one of the many people who do this sort of decision tree very efficiently to do that for you, and you do the whatever-it-is that you do excellently. (A lot of people’s first response will be to react as if you’d hired someone to wipe your backside because you just can’t be bothered…but an inability to do organization tasks is no less real a handicap than an inability to clean yourself without help.)

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          Very, very few of us with executive function problems *raises hand* can afford to hire someone to break down our work tasks for us!

          I mean, I make $16 an hour, with extra taxes taken out because I’m an independent contractor.

          There’s this weird notion that people with disabilities are all AMAZING SUPERSTARS who have some magical skill that earns them enough money to pay an assistant. Or that we *should* be.

          Hell, I’d love to have some super skill that earned me gobs of money, but I don’t. I’m just an ordinary working stiff who happens to be on the autism spectrum with a nonverbal learning disability and a history of mental health issues, and I kind of suck at everything. Which generally isn’t conducive to a great work history or a fat paycheck.

          1. hufflepuff hobbit*

            Gazebo Slayer – sorry to hear that you think you “suck at everything” — I don’t have any work advice (sometimes even if a person has a magical skill, it isn’t something that actually pays enough to live on, anyway). I wanted you to know that I enjoy your comments and I hope you hang in there.

            1. Gazebo Slayer*

              Thank you so much – it’s good to know my comments aren’t just yelling into the void, haha.

          2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            You’re being taken advantage of by anyone who is paying you $16 an hour as an independent contractor. That’s sadly sickeningly common for someone who’s already at a disadvantage to find themselves being taken advantage of.

            I’m not sure where you’re getting that you should hire an assistant! You should have a BOSS who breaks it down for you, that’s a bosses job. This isn’t about a boss needing help even, it’s about an employee who leans too heavily on their boss and the boss needing to find out how to empower a staff member.

            1. JSPA*

              It’s in response to my suggestion that the (perhaps rare but assuredly real) people who have executive function deficits AND ready cash AND hiring say, should not feel bad about hiring one of the many people who are organizationally competent.

              I bring it up because the burden has three prongs:

              1. the deficit itself
              2. the risk of being seen as low-IQ, not employable, or not worth mentoring and developing
              3. the shame of not being able to handle things, even with herculean effort, that other people do more-or-less automatically (or with a little effort).

              Part 1 has some workarounds and coping tricks, but it is what it is.

              Part 2 needs a lot of education, but you can’t think other people’s thoughts for them.

              Part 3 you can approach through therapy or self-affirmation or application of fierce logic.

              But if you’re lucky enough to have some money or charm or pull–enough of any of the above to get someone to put an hour of their day, into organizing your day, such that you can turn your efforts towards something other than “hell, how do I organize this”–all three of those issues are very much reduced.

              Of course, not everyone can make that happen.

              But I suspect there’s someone who’s not regularly employable, or (say) on formal disability, who’d gladly take $6 to look at your list of projects, and come up (within half an hour) with the day’s list of priorities. If that takes you from being paid $16 an hour to being paid $16.50 an hour, and from feeling snowed under to feeling coping, it’d presumably be money well spent.

          3. K*

            Gazeboslayer, I’ve been where you are. Also on the autism spectrum.

            Things which have helped for me are:

            Planning my week out really strictly so I don’t have to make decisions on the fly about what has top priority. The first difficult thing for me is distinguishing which tasks are urgent, which are important, and what weighting to give to each. It’s helped to have some time each week to work on important things that do not have screaming deadlines.

            Secondly, I try to reframe open questions as closed ones when I’m discussing new work with my boss. This is much more difficult but cuts down on those times when I come away and realise I don’t know how I ought to proceed with something, and my boss is now in a meeting and unavailable (or whatever).

            I also really like to have written procedures for all my repeated tasks. Sometimes this means I have to write them myself.

            There’s no magic wand. But if I can do this, you can!

            1. Gazebo Slayer*

              Thanks for the tips! Yeah, written procedures definitely help, and sometimes writing my own is especially useful.

          4. JSPA*

            That’s why I started with “tips to break down tasks.” But I didn’t want to imply that there are no well–paid superstars in any field with executive function disorder. I’m pretty sure there are, and pretty sure I’ve met some of them.

            So anyway… tips for breaking things down, for most of us; a tip of the hat to those who can hire their way out of the problem.

          5. JessaB*

            If you’re in the US look up your state’s vocational rehab department, (if not in the US your country probably has something similar.) They do things like testing for disabilities, providing aids and help – I got my hearing aids, my adaptive headset, and the letters I needed to get reasonable accommodations from my bosses, including the doctor appointments for zero cost.
            They also provide job assistants and coaches, or arrange things like interpreters. If you need a coach to learn the functions of your job they’ll provide one at no cost. Their mandate is to try and keep the disabled off benefits and working if they are able to. They want their clients to succeed.

          6. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            You do have a talent for expression. Nobody would think the person writing that comment sucked at writing.

        2. Richard Hershberger*

          I certainly don’t mean to suggest that it is always an IQ thing. But in this case it was.

          1. Anonys*

            This does sound more like executive functioning problems tbh. Also, he presumably remembered many detailed (verbal?) instructions from you. Imo it’s kind of mean hyperbole to speculate about someone has an IQ of 70 (below which it would classify as a mental disability) based on them not being great at independent thinking in their work setting. It should be enough to say he wasn’t very good at figuring out tasks without explicit and detailed instructions.

            1. Glitsy Gus*

              This. My uncle had a traumatic brain injury from his time in the military. He was really quite intelligent, but the injury affected his executive functioning. The once a situation was laid out for him, he was golden; he had no issue with completing tasks or problems themselves, just figuring out the order of operations. If you just gave him a bunch of stuff and expected him to figure out the order, or work out a priority chain, etc. he would have a really hard time, though. If he didn’t have to do that part, he was the best worker you could have.

              I know there was absolutely no insult, assumption or judgement intended with the original comment, but, yeah, there are many ways this same kind of issue can develop in a person.

              1. Anonys*

                Yeah so many possible reasons. Some people also might have a paralyzing fear of doing a small step wrong when having to figure things out for themselves.

              2. Door Guy*

                I’ve always said that my issues are that I can’t go A,B,C,D when I’m doing something on my own, I always ended up trying to go A,B,G,D,T,Z and then get frustrated. I always want my finished product NOW and have tons of issues with the in between.

                However, if I have even halfway decent instructions to follow for a step by step, I’m golden and will fly through it.

          2. Aut-onymous*

            “That being said, this should not be necessary with someone with a higher IQ than Forrest Gump, and it probably wouldn’t work anyway with a more mental job.”

            My IQ is 138. I’m also Autistic and need specific instructions if something is to be done a specific way. This mindset is why we’re chronically underemployed.

            1. JSPA*

              This isn’t surprising at all to me, but it’s likely surprising to people who don’t realize how many of the bright people they deal with daily are using an inordinate percentage of their attention, skills and intellect to register as “dull-normal” in some aspect of their daily functioning.

              This comes up often for spectrum stuff that’s human-focused (noticing emphasis and emotional responses). But it’s just as true for the many times we expect people to do it “the standard way” (which may be standard because of history, or because of important regulations, or because of respecting feelings and status and chain-of-command) rather than some other way that is so much easier and makes so much more sense to the individual in question.

              Recognizing that “what’s simple and obvious for me seems to be really complicated for you” and going a step further to, “is there context here”–from people on BOTH sides–would go a long way towards making workplaces function more smoothly for all concerned.

              At times, some of this could fall into “reasonable accommodation” territory, while in other cases, it’s “core part of the job” level.

        3. Door Guy*

          Between anxiety, ADHD that went undiagnosed from probably around age 12/13 until I was 25, and just plain bull headedness, I do not do well with “generalized” tasks, at least at first. My last job was satellite TV install, my duties were always changing but always the same basics so I managed fairly well once I got enough experience to be able to know “do this when you encounter this, don’t do this if customer has this” etc. Towards the end of my tenure, they had moved me into brand new fields that were nothing like what I had been doing (people counters on storefronts, cell phone screen repair, “smart” home device, product assembly on Amazon purchases, to name a few), and I completely locked up. It was made worse for me because they kept adding more and more and I’d never get a chance to really learn one before another one was dropped on me. I am ashamed to say that on one occasion I completely lost it and refused to do a task – my only real saving grace was that it was my day off that was already being taken partly away from me due to a mandatory work function, and I had dug in my heels when they tried to take the rest of it.

          Thankfully I’m out of there now, and although I still have all sorts of “new” things to do, they no longer involve me standing in a customer’s living room looking lost and having a minor panic attack.

    1. Mazzy*

      This is very interesting. I like reading articles and studies on intelligence. I think it’s interesting that it’s probably the biggest factor in someone’s like trajectory, but it’s taboo to talk about or acknowledge. I saw one comedian joke about how economist say “10% unemployment, so bad” and he turned it around and said “how the heck do 90% of people have jobs?” There was a thread of reddit once of people who were supposedly low intelligence, and what they understand or don’t understand about life in general. I found it so fascinating. You realize we don’t all live in the same world, because all of this stuff is going on and a lot of people are not aware of it and some people can’t grasp it. You think some people can grasp certain concepts if they try hard enough, but they can’t.

      1. Neon*

        I saw it similarly phrased as “Would you want to hire the bottom 10% of your high school class? Well, neither does anybody else.”

        1. Junger*

          I mean I wouldn’t hire most of my high school class. Because they’re high schoolers.

      2. winter*

        Intelligence might be one defining factor, but not the… I’m confident that a more intelligent black person has more trouble getting a job or slot at university than a less intelligent white person (just as one example). Intelligence doesn’t save you from getting mistreated by institutions either.

        But to not get too far off track: If an employee has issues I think it’s important to work with what you have (be it performance anxiety, executive function, lack of documentation,…) and see if reasonable improvements can be made to keep them in the role.

      3. Hercules Mulligan*

        I’ve had people who, even with training, just can’t do the job. They clearly have had success in our industry in slightly different roles, but when they have to think creatively – they can’t do it. One was very aggressive when I finally had to let him go because he was saying he was “working so hard” (not quite, he wasn’t doing many of the things I asked, he just wanted to do the things HE wanted to do), but even if I work so hard, I can never work for NASA as a rocket scientist. If you can’t do it, you can’t.

        1. LT*

          Ugh, yes. The ‘if you work hard enough, you’ll succeed’ canard. Lies! Why do we set our children up for disappointment!? My favorite Demotivational poster was ‘Quitters never win, winners never quit, but those who never win AND never quit are idiots.”

    2. Anon Admin*

      Getting the afternoon/overnight people a list of things that needs to be done and hoping some of it gets done is a still very much a problem at Walmart.

      I’m not knocking Walmart- all of my siblings and I worked there as teenagers/early 20’s and it’s honest, steady work. My youngest son (23) is currently the “dairy department manager” and getting the afternoon/overnight people to actually do anything is a miracle. Apparently, juice and creamer is supposed to magically jump from the pallets onto the shelves! When it doesn’t, he comes in to liquid all over the floor where the person that had to stock juice/creamer got mad and slammed it on the shelves creating leaks and “forgetting” to mop it up. It’s being “handled” since the store manager almost slipped in the mess when she went in into the cooler to check something.

      1. Professional Merchandiser*

        Yep. I do work at Walmarts, and everyone I go to I hear the same thing from the Dept Managers. Afternoon/night people don’t do their jobs.

    3. rubble*

      as someone with at least average IQ (I’ve never taken the test), I promise you, I would have needed that approach. Especially for the first two months. After that I tend to be able to work it out myself. It’s not about intelligence, it’s about executive function – I have two disabilities that affect that, so my executive function is…….. very low. I have basically no ability to take initiative, especially when there’s a bunch of decisions to be made one after the other!

    4. Cassie*

      I think I would have preferred these step-by-step instructions as a new employee – that way I know that if I do it as instructed, it is exactly how the boss wants it! Sometimes there’s just too many possibilities and I’d be worried about getting it “right” (sometimes “right” is in the eye of the beholder). And I know there are some supervisors who think these instructions are not necessary for someone who has “experience” – what I’d counter is that even if you have a new employee w/ experience, they might be used to a different set up than what you have or what you want. What’s so bad about spelling it out (at least once at the beginning)?

  3. rayray*

    I wonder if this employee worked in other places where they were micromanaged. I know I have tendencies like this because of the culture at my past two work places. At one, even little mistakes that could be easily fixed in a matter of seconds would sometimes get made to be a HUGE deal. There was such a blame culture and witch hunting that would happen over simple typos. Mistakes would be caught and there would be amazing mental gymnastics trying to pin it on someone else.

    At the place after that, I was severely micromanaged. I even complained about it on multiple open friday threads and told friends about it. People were shocked at how crazy my boss was. She’d nitpick everything and get angry over the littlest of things. Even when I was brand new, she’d lay into me for missing things that she hadn’t even trained me on.

    To say that I am a little scarred is an understatement. I worry so much about pleasing my bosses and coworkers and not getting screamed at or hearing rude remarks. I hope you can find a way to let this employee know that they’re doing a good job and they don’t need to worry about everything.

    1. Leela*

      It’s very hard to undo the effects of an angry, micromanaging boss. I’m still working on it almost ten years later. Props to you for weathering it and recognizing it!

      1. rayray*

        Thank you! I know I really need to work though it. I am hoping that when I find a job again I can be confident and also be somewhere with a healthy and positive environment. At my first job, I was respected and always commended for my hard work. I had started in the call center during my senior year of high school and I ended up getting a new position at the company because I was dependable and worked hard. I also did a volunteer gig once a week in a cafeteria for my church and was always highly complimented there. Things like that remind me that not all bosses are terrible, and that I am a good worker. I had bad experiences that I need to let go of, but I know in my future full time job I’ll have to put forth a lot of effort to be confident and to not worry so much.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Even to this day I edit all the fonts on my screen to be tiny and unreadable to someone standing behind me because ONE boss about 12 years ago would stand over me for hours and criticise every line of code I wrote.

          1. rayray*

            ugh that’s the worst! I hate when people hoover over you and point everything out, like when you make simple typeos “YOU MADE A TYPO RIGHT THERE!”

            Also when people stand over my shoulder, I just freeze up and my brain forgets how to do simple things. I can barely even move my cursor around properly!

            1. Calanthea*

              ahhhh so much this. Even when they’re a friendly person. Have you ever tried to write a document *with* someone? I always just… forget how to open word, how to spell, how to change font… Nightmare!

    2. MsChanandlerBong*

      That is my guess. I have an extraordinary amount of freedom and flexibility at my job. But when I started, I was always asking for permission to do things. My boss was like, “Why are you asking me this? I hired you because you’re smart and you are very skilled in what we do. Unless it involves spending a lot of money, just do what you think is best.” I honestly don’t know if I’d be able to work somewhere with a lot of micromanaging after this because I love being able to determine the best way for me to get things done based on my work/learning styles.

    3. MissDisplaced*

      Yes, that definitely will do it, and it is very difficult conditioning to undo.

    4. Irene*

      Very much yes! I worked in the same company and same boss for about 10 years. My boss, even though he was a good manager, was involved in EVERYTHING I did, so much so he was sometimes doing my job! I was the manager and he was the director, and he was keeping track of my staff’s attendance and PTO, ran all meetings with my staff, and you get the idea. Given that I had worked with him for so long, I did not see anything wrong with it. My biggest shock was when I moved to a new job 2 years ago, I was surprised at how much autonomy I have compared to the old one that I realized what is reasonably expected of me.

    5. my goodness me*

      Exactly what I was thinking. Because I’ve been there.
      My first boss was awesome. He would explain something and give me the freedom to go ahead. I felt comfortable talking to him about some new ideas, and he was always very eager to listen. Unfortunately he had to close the business due to illness.
      Later I had a different boss who insisted that everything be done his way. But nobody ever really knew what “his way” was. He would nitpick every little thing. Even when my work was technically perfect, he would still find something wrong (“wrong” font, this thing on the drawing must be slightly bigger, etc.) I had to compile a handover file for one of our projects, and had to stay at the office until midnight, because he found something wrong every time I changed the file index and showed it to him for approval.
      This dude destroyed my confidence, and 5 years later, I’m still struggling with it.

    6. Hercules Mulligan*

      It depends on what the job is – I need people to take what I tell them and APPLY it to other situations. Some people thrive (like me), others just can’t make that jump, so they eventually have to be managed out.

      My own boss can be very mean and gives no direction. I have a lot of anxiety, but if I want to stay here, I need to adjust and work past my anxiety and take a leap.

    7. WantonSeedStitch*

      Yeah, that takes a long time to get over! I remember when I started working at the place where I am now, every time my manager called me into her office, my heart would start pounding and I would get cold sweats because I was SURE I was going to be scolded and belittled for making mistakes. 95% of the time, it was just, “hey, I have an assignment for you. Here it is.” The other 5%, it was “thanks for doing this assignment, but I saw you did X in here. Can you go back and do Y instead so we have that information available in the deliverable? Thanks!” It took a while of being corrected in a professional, calm, and civilized way to get used to the fact that making a mistake didn’t mean I was going to have contempt heaped on me until I cried.

      1. rayray*

        I think one issue is that many people aren’t skilled in approaching issues/mistakes in a helpful way. I would be fine if a manager did so like in your example above, but I have had far too many experiences of being belittled or yelled at. Too many experiences where they spend more time freaking out about a minor issue than it takes to actually go correct it. At one of my toxic workplaces, I was a proofreader/editor of documents and I’d have to go to the processors sometimes when mistakes were made. I tried very hard to use a kind tone and make sure that I was approaching them so that we could correct it and make sure they had the right understanding, vs managers and long-timers at the company who would be snarky, mean, and loud about it.

  4. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I wonder if she had a bad boss in her background who has made her afraid to take ownership of anything. I know this is an older letter, and I feel like this might have come up on the original (or on a similar one), but if this employee is fresh out of a toxic work environment, it could be hindering her progress.

    1. rayray*

      Exactly. I am currently unemployed but job searching. I am thinking about how I have these fears and anxieties because of the culture and how I was treated at my past two jobs – mostly the last one though, I am seriously thinking about writing an article about it because it was SO bad.

      I couldn’t have ownership over ANYTHING. I kid you not. Oh hell…it was so crazy. EVERYTHING had to go through her. I had to manage the calendar for our big-boss who is a well respected and well known businessman in our state. He has many board meetings and events to go to. Rather than letting me be copied on any emails from these boards, she’d have them email her the info first. Then, she’d forward it to me. Then I had to enter it in the calendar and respond back to her email that it was done. THEN I had to print her email and the calendar entry for her to review. It was madness.

      I didn’t even get to have my own email address, it was litterally “”. She also chose the password for my computer, and one day when I left for a dentist appointment, she went through all my emails and organized them how she wanted them. She also questioned me on many things and got mad that I had removed some old emails that were in there from her last unfortunate assistant.

      I’ll stop now, I’m getting upset again just thinking about it all and I need to job hunt. Haha.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        That is… I am not sure what word properly expresses how awful and unnecessary that all was.

        Good luck with your job search!

      2. hufflepuff hobbit*

        rayray – this is nuts and no job should be like this. *virtual hug*. You deserve better!

        1. rayray*

          Haha thank you. I was trying to just put it all to it being a new job at first, but I finally let loose and vented to a friend one day. Her exact words : “This lady is f*cking stupid! You are not at fault here” and I just about burst into tears.

          I am hopeful to find something soon. Honestly, my layoff was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I was job hunting anyway, but having that stress off of me and the time to spruce up my resume has helped. Even with the pandemic, I have had more response to my resume than I did before.

          1. Gina*


            I am split between three teams at my job. On 1 of my 3 teams I am this person you described. While I dont’t text my boss often I contact them on skype for clarification. I do this for 3 reasons.

            1. The instructions are unclear or contradictory. They say do in x was but last week theh alluded to y. Then other coworker on the team says what about z?
            2. I already work 60 hours a week. I spend 20 of those 60 hours with the team where my boss devotes 100 percent of his time to that one team. I cannot do everything for him…
            3. My boss would like me to move something forward but he is trying to do something that requires approval or his input is written into a checklist.

            This is an issue only with 1 of my 3 teams. Please double check it is none if the issues adove! They are large stressors for new or younger staff.

    2. SheLooksFamiliar*

      I wondered about that, too. A previous manager went ballistic whenever our team members made a judgment call. Even if it was the right call, she had long and intense ‘little chats’ to make sure we understood who the boss was, and that only she could make decisions out of the norm. Demoralizing and tireseome stuff…

      We got into the habit of getting her approval on everything, just to avoid another chat.

    3. Roxie Hart*

      Yeah, it sounds like PTSD from a former manager. She’s probably in her head second guessing everything.

      I’m still recovering from my toxic workplace. I was micromanaged, told off for making judgement calls without running by my boss’ and then would be told I shouldn’t depend so much on my boss. And nothing would be consistent!

      1. Cercis*

        I had a boss that insisted I make decisions and then at the 11th hour would tell me they were wrong and I needed to change everything about the event I had planned for the next day (I wish I were kidding, but she actually made me call volunteer speakers and tell them that we had rearranged the schedule and they’d be at 9 instead of 11 and vice versa). After this happened 3 times, I stopped making final plans until she’d given them her blessing, which of course, meant that things didn’t happen and I ended up on a PIP.

        I’d corner her and say “I need you to approve the final agenda so I can get everyone lined up” and she’d nod and then not do it. In the PIP she claimed that I never communicated any of this to her, despite the fact that I included in my weekly report that I was waiting on final approval. The final straw for me was when I specifically called out something as a potential issue and was told I was overreacting and then it became an issue and she yelled at me in front of the event participants. And still, people were shocked when I quit.

        1. my goodness me*

          One time I was with my crappy boss and a client, and I was working on something and they were talking about how to wire some piece of equipment. I wasn’t really listening, but I knew what they were talking about.
          The next day boss dude mentioned it to one of our colleagues, and the colleague said “no you’re wrong, it must be wired like this.” And I said “he’s right”, and drew a picture to explain why he was wrong. And then the got pissed off and asked “why didn’t you say something yesterday? You made me look stupid in front of the client?”
          The same guy would check my work, change it and make terrible mistakes which I then had to spend hours correcting. And he would blame me for his mistakes.
          I ended up in therapy because of this guy.

  5. glitter writer*

    In my experience folks like this have also usually been taught — at previous workplaces or in the current one! — that the stakes and penalties for being wrong are incredibly high, and it’s a reaction borne of fear.

  6. Elizabeth West*

    I’m guessing this could be an anxiety or horrible former workplace PTSD thing, and I think it probably is the employee’s issue. But there’s no sense from the letter as to how new the employee is, or how they were trained, or by whom. I mention this because I have experienced situations where the boss expected me to know what to do but then assumed I knew how and when to do it, when I didn’t. Not because I was inexperienced or incompetent, just that I didn’t receive adequate information.

    I would also ask the OP to make sure they’ve clearly spelled these things out, or that the person who trained the employee did. If that’s the case, then when OP sits down with employee to discuss the pattern, also see if they can find out which tasks are the most intimidating and why. Apologies if they already did that.

    1. ugh*

      I couldn’t help but wonder what this looked like from the employee’s side. I have a manager who will do much of what the OP describes here, but they’ve never trained me on a particular process and expect full knowledge, or they need to do something on their end that they don’t want to do, or they have never indicated which result out of several is the one that they’re looking for. Ignored messages are difficult from the employee’s side, because very likely, in their eyes, they’re just trying to do their job.

  7. Leela*


    Making no claims that this is you! Just something that caused me to behave like this employee, and it’s possible that either
    1) you could be engaging in this behavior (not saying you are!)
    2) the employee feels that you are, even if you aren’t
    3) someone else is engaging in this behavior and it’s causing this

    but here’s what happened for me:

    I had a manager who never, EVER clearly told me what she needed. She’d either clearly explain something and then later tell me I’d done it wrong when I’d followed her instructions exactly, or she’d say something that I couldn’t parse out but get extremely frustrated with me if I tried to ask for clarification, claiming that she was so busy and overloaded that she didn’t have time to explain every little thing to me, but it wouldn’t be something where I could rely on my own knowledge for (like how she wanted me to organize one of her folders on her computers for her, my first week when I didn’t know anything about the company, and it was just thousands of random files with no dates or clear themes or anything and I had no idea how she wanted me to organize anything, so I asked and she got mad and I apologized and said that I just wanted to do it in a way that worked for her but I couldn’t see what she needed specifically, and that made her angrier.)

    It’s possible that this employee is leaning on you so much because for whatever reason they don’t feel like they have the information they need to proceed and they can’t ask more than they have. Another thing that’s gotten in my way before is I’ll have my job’s responsibilities explained to me, but not the rights to do something without permission/instruction, and then someone gets upset with me for not doing something I’d be willing to do but I had no idea it was my right (just because a system we use lets me click here and there and choose different things doesn’t mean I should be doing it, so why is “but the system let you, didn’t you think to try it?” isn’t a great thing to hear when you have no idea what the implications of doing so would be, because you know it’s on you if you just up and try something and it breaks work for others).

    The manager I mention up there told me multiple times that I needed to be more confident in my decision making, and that I had her blessing as well. And then I’d get reamed for doing something that seemed very logical and appropriate, without any idea what specifically I could have known because all the context that would have stopped me from doing said thing only comes to me as I’m getting yelled at after the fact.

    Have you sat down with your employee and asked why they don’t feel like they can do X, Y, or Z? Have they reached out to you to ask for something, and looking at the conversation, it just seems like you’re exasperated by them, too busy, or otherwise just don’t want to have to answer those questions? Has it gone well for them always when they’ve tried to do something on their own? If it hasn’t and something blew up, or if anything I’m describing doesn’t come from you but a previous job and now they can’t shake the stress of it, those could be interfering!

    1. Gazebo Slayer*

      I have also had this boss, unfortunately. More than once. One would invent his own terms for things and expect me to intuit what he meant.

        1. Lexi*

          I had a boss who was all for initiative until she wasn’t. So if I was normally supposed to respond to a group of clients and one was upset about something, I’d get yelled at for responding to them. Now if I was in the loop, then this would have made sense, but I was supposed to psychically know that there was an issue. And when I asked how to avoid this in the future, I was told to figure it out. Because I’m a smarta$$ who believes in large emergency funds, I would suggest that they should hire a psychic if that’s what they expected.

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            It’s amazing what a well-timed requisition request for a Ouija board can accomplish.

    2. Aquawoman*

      And then there’s the employee who emailed me to ask me if he could send me a calendar invite for a specific date and time. He’s new to the professional world and for months I felt like I was playing an extended game of Mother, may I? I made a lot of headway by telling him that in certain circumstances, he should just email me what he was planning to do, and then I could jump in if there was a problem.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        I still do that. Just because a time slot is open, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something scheduled that is private.

      2. Leela*

        It sounds like telling him to just e-mail you the plan and you could jump in worked well which is great!

        The main issue is with the manager I’m talking about up there, she would have said the same thing, and then LOST IT when I did. I was constantly getting feedback that I needed to take more initiative and not bother her when she gave me a very small amount of the information I needed to accomplish her secret goal she wasn’t sharing and I’d only find out about after the fact. But it felt like I was constantly stepping on mines to proceed that way because I’d just wind up getting reamed for doing something, and also reamed for NOT doing something without running it by her. It took more than one job after that to not feel like I needed to make absolutely sure (no really? REALLY sure? You are REALLY okay with me making calls like this?) before I was able to trust a manager enough to take a level of initiative, and while I understand that’s frustrating it doesn’t make sense to expect a person to not be affected by previous relationships just because they’re somewhere else now, it’s a nice sound bite but it’s not how humans work.

    3. Hills to die on*

      Thank you for this. While the letter is in regards to the employee I wonder if the OP could have a hand in the situation as well. And that will only come into play if the OP does some self review because the employee might not bring it up. I’ve been in that place where the manager is “pro initiative” but is also a micro manager and constant mind changer. And it makes you so nervous and so paralyzed. Which can go one of two ways. You end up in “freeze” mode where you constantly ask for help/input – which is annoying and only causes your manager to be more frustrated with you. Or in an angry “F this” mode where you just want to defy your manger. You end up not asking for help and/or documenting everything your manager does so you can show it was their fault not theirs. And that doesn’t go well either.

      1. Leela*

        That last sentence is exactly what happened. I had to tell her that we were having so many communication issues we had to do something, and I begged her for months to please give me instructions in writing, so we could refer to them later, and walk through them, and what I’d done, and we could work together to find out where the breakdowns were because it was always “Hey Leela, do X” (I do X) and that turns into 1) “Perfect!” (she passes it to the person who gave it to her, they wanted Y but my manager didn’t ask for Y so that’s not what I gave or 2) “That’s not what I wanted at all” (but it is exactly what she asked for, and this isn’t her acknowledging that she’s now changing her mind, this is her acting like she’d always told me what she wanted and I just messed up).

        Finally I got her to give me written instructions and when those situations came up again and we referred to our written communication, it showed up that she was the issue every time. I never said that, and I was very, very careful to tiptoe around her explosive ego when mentioning “okay this is where I think, I read this as X, but now I’m hearing that you wanted Y? This sentence reads very X to me, in the future if you bring up (all the things that make it Y) I think I’d have a better picture of how to proceed for you?” And she stormed off and refused to communicate in writing with me unless it was “hey can you come here for a sec?” and then she’d tell me in person, everything that she should have given me in writing, so she had plausible deniability later.

    4. Elizabeth West*

      #3–yes, I wonder if someone else trained her and didn’t make things clear, or perhaps she’s getting pushback from someone else and doesn’t know what to do.

  8. Akcipitrokulo*

    I’m thinking probably taught by previous boss to be afraid to take initiative – possibly while still *saying* that they should feel confident to take action.

    Spelling out “it is a requirement of this position that you make that kind of decision independently” would be kind.

    might also help to add “for the first X days, email me if you would like to confirm AFTER you have taken the action to tell me what you have already done”. That would need to be very short term though, or let them send you a brief summary at end of each day.

    1. Nanani*

      That’s my read too.
      If they have a work history filled with micromanagment, they will need time to learn that no really, you mean it when you saw they should make decisions on their own. And of course, you need to back up your words with actions.
      Taking initiative is a learned skill, give them the time and support to learn it.

      1. allathian*

        And when they do take initiative and make a decision that turns out to be bad, don’t go ballistic on them.

    2. Dasein9*

      Ooh, this is a good solution! A middle-step, so to speak, that would help build confidence.

    3. 2e*

      Another option that may be helpful is for your employee to begin putting you on negative notice (at least that’s what we call it at my office) of next steps she’s not totally sure of. For example, to do this I might send an email that says: “Hi [Boss], this morning [Client] asked us for [items]. We see no issues with providing them, so we will plan to send them over around 5 pm today. Please let us know if you disagree or prefer that we hold off.” If I don’t hear anything, I send the things just after 5 pm. If my boss is busy, but wants more time to look more closely or get involved, he tells me to hold off and we go from there. (Obviously I don’t do this when I know the boss may not be looking at email at all (vacation, business travel)).

      Maybe it would be helpful to make this the default with your employee, OP. It sounds like you’re understandably bothered by having to weigh in on things you want your employee to handle herself, and this makes your non-response the default while still allowing a way for your employee to run a proposed response for a legitimately tricky situation by you.

  9. Cordoba*

    I had a good boss one time whose oft-repeated standing instructions were “If you see something within our purview that needs done and it isn’t illegal, immoral, or unethical – do it. I’ll back you up on the decision and take the heat if there are any problems.”

    This boss got excellent results from the team, as everybody was comfortable using their best judgement to do The Right Thing and was confident that as long as they were acting reasonably they wouldn’t be unduly punished for a decision made in good faith.

    It’s probably not appropriate for all employees and all jobs, but LW might want to try this approach if it’s suitable for their work.

    1. Leela*

      I love to see a statement like that both made by and followed through with by a manager!

      I agree it’s probably not appropriate across the board but I think the real strength of it was the autonomy given to the employees and responsibility taken by the manager, and that I think probably has an appropriate version across industries, although the implementation likely looks very different. Awesome that you had this experience!

      1. Cordoba*

        That’s true, it only worked because this manager had demonstrated their willingness to follow through and *actually* behave consistent with their promise to take the heat when needed.

        If we as the employees didn’t trust that they’d do it, this whole whole approach would collapse.

        This type of management mindset is captured well in a quote from Dave Pericak about his experience leading the engineering team for the Ford Mustang:
        “My job’s not to yell at people. I mean I’ll do that if I have to, but that’s not my job, my job is to be the biggest cheerleader in the group. It’s funny, I think people are more than willing to walk out on a limb, even if they think that limb might break, if they know that you’ll be there to catch them, and I think that’s the biggest thing…There’s a lot of smart people, a lot of smart people are held back by their own fears or inhibitions…

        If you allow them to go out on the edge, hang out a little bit, knowing that no matter what happens, you will catch them, they will go out on the thinnest branches, even though they think that thing’s going to crack, they’ll go, because they know you’ll be there for them. And when they start doing that, the power you unleash is unbelievable. Because when everyone stays reserved and ‘I’m not going to do that because I might fail or get hurt or whatever,’ then the whole team doesn’t progress as far forward as they could. But when they’re out there slaying dragons, because they know that if the dragon gets a little unruly, that you’re going to come in and finish it off, they’ll slay dragons all day long for you.”

  10. Elbereth*

    I really hated being expected to read my manager’s mind. They knew what they were asking – I was never that sure.

    My solution was to write myself a general playbook, and got that blessed by the boss. With it, I could approach my work fearlessly. The “blessing” process highlighted a couple of inconsistencies that were ironed out, and we
    The “write a general guide” approach made it easy to train new people and handover work when I was on holiday – always a good thing!

    1. K*

      Yes, this. Written procedures are just so helpful – for learning, for training new people, for that day when Jane is out and you have to do something that used to be yours but you haven’t touched in a year…

    2. Mockingjay*

      Yep, this is exactly what I do with difficult bosses. Write up processes and get them to bless it. Works like a charm, most of the time.

  11. Nanani*

    Is there any chance their previous work experience has been heavy on the micromanagement?
    If they have a history of being punished for taking initiative, then they have learned not to ever do anything without input. Unlearning that pattern will take time, and its especially hard to unlearn if their earliest jobs were micromanaged.

    Definitely address the pattern and be firm, but give them time to learn how to exist in an environment that is new to them.

  12. Reality Check*

    I wonder if procedures are inconsistent. At my place there are 5 people in my role & if you ask everyone how something should be handled, you’ll get 5 different answers. I don’t know if I’ve done something wrong until I get yelled at. This can make a person very indecisive and fearful of making a decision.

  13. Budgie Buddy*

    Allison did a great job breaking down how to address this as a pattern in a way that’s more specific and helpful for both OP and employee. OP’s original does read like “I tried 1) Telling my employee just not to do what they’re constantly doing 2) Ignoring the problem 3) Passive aggression.” :/ I definitely see how the message wasn’t getting across to this person. Honestly all three of those responses seemed designed to undermine the confidence of an employee who’s already struggling with knowing what the heck she’s supposed to do.

    Another thing I would suggest is having a blanket ban on texts/phone calls during meetings and other times the OP is busy. The employee can be explicitly told to save all questions for a check-in that’s happening at a specific time. That’s a clear boundary that the waffling employee would probably understand and appreciate, and it might also encourage her to seek more solutions on her own while she’s waiting for the meeting rather than giving in to the temptation just to check in with boss quickly.

  14. Sharon*

    For some employees, it’s helpful to ask the employee to suggest next steps when they come to you for direction – e.g. “I got this complaint from a client; should I answer it myself or forward it to the complaints department?” Initially this approach gets the person thinking about what would make sense to do next instead of just saying “What should I do?” and then ultimately they will hopefully get to the point of being able to guess what your answer would be and proceed without asking. This approach can also be helpful if an employee is continually skipping a step or asking for input vs. following an established procedure – they ask “is this OK to send out?” and you say “Did you run it by the teapot manager per procedure?”

    1. Person of Interest*

      Seconding this suggestion – ask the person what she thinks she should do, rather than just telling her. That way you can gauge if her instincts are on track and she just needs the confidence boost of being told she does actually know what to do, or if she really doesn’t know and needs more or different training, or this isn’t fixable, or whatever.

  15. Zephy*

    I hope this LW and their report figured things out eventually. I agree with some of the other comments, though, there’s something deeper at play here. If the employee isn’t carrying baggage from a toxic previous job, then the other possibility I see is that this job has a lot of nitty-gritty detailed processes that are poorly documented. It could even be both of those things.

    I was this employee for a good little minute at my current job, asking my boss constantly about everything because it felt like every time I “got it,” I’d encounter another special case – as in, I finally nailed painting geraniums on the blue teapots, but the teal ones get roses, except the ones without lids, they don’t get any flowers at all, unless there’s a mark on the bottom, in which case etc etc. It’s certainly not uncommon for companies to have internal documentation of systems and processes that could be best described as “an arcane garbage fire.”

  16. Bob*

    Perhaps you have discovered a new piece that should be added to job applications.
    Want to be micromanaged people can be matched with micromanaging bosses.
    A new kind of dating service but for employees.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      Victims usually don’t want to be reunited with their abusers. Just saying–the accuracy on that criterion is going to poor at best.

      1. Bob*

        I am saying that people who want to be micromanaged can choose bosses who like to micromanage.

        1. Altair*

          I read Sola’s comment as saying that those who seem to want to be micromanaged are demonstrating this behavior as a result of being abused by superiors who punished them for showing initiative and/or not mindreading. So, what such people need is not actually more micromanagement from the abusive micromanagers. Based on my work experience I definitely agree. (Sola, did I read you right?)

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            That’s what I meant. Mentally, I flashed on a (hypothetical!) personals ad that says “Fergus is a known domestic abuser. Send photos if domestic abuse is what’s missing from your life!”

  17. Serafina*

    Hmm, I wonder, does employee really want to be “micromanaged”, or has the manager/supervisor been unclear as to the true scope of the employee’s authority? I ran into that a lot at different workplaces. On one hand, Boss wanted me to make my own decisions, but as to conveying those decisions/recommendations to clients, only she had the AUTHORITY. Certain types of communications and choices weren’t within my authority, but Boss wasn’t clear on what exactly was and wasn’t. Meant for a lot of frustration and guessing.

    In the alternative, LW’s employee may have just come from a place like my old job, and a talk with employee about the level and scope of his/her AUTHORITY might help make it clearer what decisions the employee can feel free to make without the boss’s blessing.

    1. MD*

      Yes, authority can play a big role. I quit a job without anything else lined up because I had no authority to help myself. I kept finding that I had very little work assigned to me, and my boss kept telling me to “be proactive” and find work for myself. However, I had no authority (or big-picture oversight) to assign myself work.

      If I didn’t know we had new clients or projects because I was not privy to those meetings, I could not delegate that work to myself. If I had no oversight of my colleagues’ workloads, I could not volunteer to take work off of their plates. If I was not given access to files, I could not amend documents on my own. It was a nightmare. I felt extremely stupid every week begging my manager and my peers for “scraps”; but if I did not constantly ask for work, I literally had nothing to do but stare at my screen and scream internally. My skills were completely wasted, and I ended up leaving after 6 months.

  18. SomebodyElse*

    A lot of comments about the employee previously being micromanaged. That could very well be the case, but that is something the employee is going to have to work on and fix. The manager’s role here is to lay out clear expectations.

    a. I expect that you’ll be able to X, Y, and Z independently after training
    b. I expect you to make decisions within these parameters; x, y, z
    c. I expect you let me know if Q, R, S happens
    d.I expect you to move on to something different if you get stuck and need input until we can talk
    e.You have authority to do L, M, N, O, & P

    Unfortunately that’s the easy bit… then you have to coach to these expectations and be consistent.

  19. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I inherited a staff member that was fantastic except for their anxiety about making decisions that were well within their scope. I knew quickly enough from word of mouth of others that they were forced into this habit by a previous boss.

    One of the other comments touches on this but it’s key to push them to do things, then you praise them for it. This builds trust in themselves and that I’m not going to get mad at them for whatever they’re doing.

    But in the end, you do have to escalate it to the point of saying “it’s not an option to ask me about this kind of thing. You must start making your own decisions when it comes to this or we can’t keep you in this position.” That should be your very last resort but remember some people are not comfortable or a “fit” for positions that require some digression and independent decisions. It doesn’t make them “bad” people, it means they just don’t do well in that position and you have to stop trying to get the square peg into the round hole at some point. But you need to first make sure that you have confirmed the peg won’t fit if you rotate it a bit, etc!

  20. Nesprin*

    This read like 2 things to me: being unable to make a decision or being punished for the wrong decision. The latter strikes me as more likely- if you’ve had a tyrant for a boss or a boss who pulls the “if you make a decision, its your fault when things go wrong” I can really really understand wanting explicit direction on everything. If it’s the latter, adding more pressure by asking the employee to make decisions could back fire spectacularly since being pushed to make a high risk decision that the employee could get wrong in a higher stress environment will prob make employee double down.

    I wonder if OP has tried to de-risk ownership with this person- if they get it wrong, what would be the consequences? Have they been communicated to the employee? What happens to other people who make minor mistakes?

  21. Harper the Other One*

    Having been in the employee’s position at one point (in a not-terribly-functional environment that had very unclear guidelines for what you were able to do and what you weren’t) there are two things I would have wanted as an employee:

    1) a few step by step walk throughs from my supervisor: “Okay, the client is looking at product X, and we know we’re going to have to incorporate products Y and Z to make product X work. We want to provide a competitive, but also thorough, bid. So, what I usually do is…”

    2) some broad guidelines: you can discount up to 15% without consulting with me; you can give accounts receivable up to 10 days of extension without approval; you can book appointments on any day between 1 and 3 as long as something isn’t already in the calendar.

    Then, follow up by making sure that any debriefings don’t seem blame-ish. I got a lot of “it’s your decision, price it however you want!” and then in the debrief “why would you discount it that much??” – even when I’d just seen someone else discount the same product more and get praised for making the sale. And if there is a disparity with decision that other staff make, please explain the reason: “Fergus has a long-standing price arrangement with that client, so that quote isn’t representative of how we would normally price that item.”

  22. ThemeParkGal*

    I was this employee for a while after I transfered to my current department.

    I had come from a department where I was so micromanaged (as a team lead!) that I couldn’t make the decision to send a team member on their break early without running it by a supervisor or manager or else I risked getting chewed out because of it. I got to the point where I called them about everything, which was what they preferred, but it destroyed my confidence at work.

    After transferring to my current department I would call the supervisor on duty a few times a shift to run stuff past them until a supervisor (very gently) told me “We hired you as a team lead because we expect you to be able to make these decisions on your own.”. It was a wakeup call for me that I had more power than I thought I had and that my managers thought more highly of me than I thought they did and it ended up being a great thing for my attitude/confidence about work.

  23. DireRaven*

    Levels of management delegation, with 1 being the lowest:
    1. Do only what I tell you to do and do it exactly how I tell you to do it. Don’t think and don’t make any decisions.
    2. Research the issue and report the information you discover to me. We will discuss it and I will make the decision and tell you what I want done.
    3. Research the issue, outline the options and bring your best recommendation to me. Let me know the benefits and drawbacks of each option, then tell me what you think we should do. If I agree, I will authorize you to move forward.
    4. Research the issue, make a decision, and move forward. Then tell me what you did and why, keeping me in the loop so I am not surprised by someone else.
    5. Research the issue, make a decision, and move forward. No need to report back. I completely trust you and you have my full support.

    Probably what happens is people are jumped to level 4/5 without having the requisite context and knowledge. Then, when something blows up because the delegatee made a “wrong” decision, the manager overreacts and pulls the person from level 4/5 all the way to level 1, maybe 2. Or their job is threatened over it, if not fired because someone’s head needs to roll for this “embarrassment” because they were tasked with making a decision above their pay grade because someone did not apply Vroom’s Development-Driven Decision Tree (or even the Time-Driven Decision Tree).

    If I were to have a new subordinate to whom I needed to delegate work, I would probably start at level 2 until they gained familiarity with my thought process. I would work with them through the decision-making process. Once I felt confident on that, I would move to level 3. And so on as they gain confidence. Always be clear on what level of authority the delagatee has to make a decision and carry out that decision. Sometimes different projects/situations can lead to different levels of delegation, so a person normally at level 5 might need to be brought to level 2 for a specific task (perhaps regulatory or licensing issues are in play, so the final decision needs to be made by a person who has the proper credentials). Be clear so they don’t think you lost all confidence in them.

  24. schnauzerfan*

    I had a co-worker like this. Jane was a good steady worker. Once she knew what she needed to do she dug in and did it. But. If anything was odd or different she got stuck. If she had a new task she had no idea how to get started. The boss (who had no idea how our new computer system worked daytoday) couldn’t help with the little sticking points. She could give an over all picture of the results she wanted on a new project but didn’t have the nuts and bolts… She asked me to help Jane. I got so tired of helping Jane. Then I finally hit upon the trick of asking her what she thought might work… Well we could maybe try x or y? Yes! Either X or Y would be great! She was seldom totally off base. Once in a while I’d have to suggest that Y was a much better idea (in my opinion) but not that often. Jane never became decisive. But she did get to the point that she’d call or email with a solution rather than a problem.

    1. SomebodyElse*

      I once was talking to a manager (in a social setting) and we got on the subject of employees coming to him for every decision to be made. He had tried all of the usual things to get people to work more independently, but finally had it when all wasn’t working.

      I do not suggest this as a real tactic (but I have been tempted to use it before!)

      He finally would tell any employee who came to him with a problem or a decision to be made to leave and come back with 3 solutions. They would, then he’d ask which one they should go with. When they’d choose he’d say ‘great do that’ … soon the employees started to realize that they were wasting a lot of time coming up with 2 extra solutions when they usually started with the 1 that would work, and that the manager always went with one of the ones they came with. They finally started getting in the habit of running past the solution they thought was best with the manager and it mostly solved the problem for all of them.

    2. Aquawoman*

      IMO it’s 100 times less annoying to be presented with a solution than a question.

  25. Hannah*

    I really sympathize with the LW! I have a similar problem.

    Let’s say I tell my employee I want her to decorate a teapot. She’s got 8 years teapot decorating experience but mostly it’s been done via template. I want her to move into freehand though.
    First she demands that I tell her how it should be decorated. If I say something like “oh flowers would be good”, it’s What type of flowers? What colors? What size? Where should they be placed? And at that point, I’m basically decorating it myself.
    I started telling her she needed to figure things out on her own. So she’d go to Google, search for a teapot and then just send me the link saying “Here, that’s the decoration I’ll use”. When I explain I wanted a something she developed on her own, she’ll change a single color. When I tell her that wasn’t quite enough, I get a tantrum about how I’m telling her to do things on her own and then won’t let her make the decisions.

    I’m stumped. I don’t know how to convey to her that she has free range but it does require that she put some amount of work in. She’ll be moving departments soon so it’ll no longer be my problem but just wow.

    1. SomebodyElse*

      I think if it were me, I’d ask her for a mock up of a design. Give a few more details then let her know you’ll review together… so instead of “How about flowers” you could say “3 different types of flowers in a warm color palate with a contrasting solid background”

      So it’s enough detail to get her going, but you’re not designing it yourself.

      She may not be the free hand type though… which could be a problem if that is what you need. The other thing to consider is people to get burned quite a bit with vague ideas from other people… so it’s important if you do this that greater than 95% of the time you really are good with whatever they come up with and aren’t going to ask for revisions.

      1. Hannah*

        I’ve been working with her on a mock-up but again, that is when she will grab somebody else’s work and copy / paste it. Which is not technically unethical in our field but I’m paying her an extremely high salary for what I could hire a high school student to do.

        I agree on letting her run with her own ideas though! That is something I’m very conscious about. If she does the work to actually produce something on her own, I sign off on it every time. I’m willing to sacrifice a few odd looking teapots to get her to grow!

        1. SomebodyElse*

          Then it sounds like she just may not be the right fit for what you are looking for. Maybe add “Original” to your details :)

          It’s probably best that she’s moving on. It sounds like you both may have an opportunity to find what you’re looking for.

    2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I go through this a lot, but from the other end of the table.

      Boss: We need a teapot.
      Schlep: Gotcha. What size?
      Boss: Figure it out.
      Schelp: What material shall we use?
      Boss: Figure it out.
      Schlep: What color should it end up?
      Boss: Figure it out.
      Schelp: Does it need a certain design?
      Boss: Figure it out.
      Schlep: Do you want to save us both a lot of time and trouble and just write me up for doing it wrong now?
      Boss: Is there really a need to be insubordinate about it?

      Your employee sounds like someone who doesn’t enjoy being reprimanded or required to do work over again due to missing requirements. My usual strategy is to do it as wrong as humanly possible so I can flesh out the real requirements from the complaints about pass 1 to get it right on pass 2.

      1. Hannah*

        Yes but see my point above. Anything that is her own work gets approved. Maybe a few additional requests to add on to what’s she’s done but I’m very deliberate in avoiding this dynamic.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          I’d suggest when you send it back for insufficient changes, you point out that just changing one element’s color probably isn’t enough to protect you from a copyright infringement claim. That way your employee is up against something concrete instead of a vague preference, and there is a tangible threshold to meet.

          Some people, myself included, just have trouble with Empty Sheet Syndrome. I can compose a program to perform X task in Y way easily–the more (specific) requirements, the better–but to come up with a problem and its solution from whole cloth is a Herculean effort.

          It might be worth burning an hour of downtime to compose a list of generic teapots, and then just send her one at random:
          A red teapot with golden coins.
          A blue teapot with rose vines and blooms.
          A teapot with abstract Eastern designs.
          A teapot with Donkeys and Elephants in a harmony.

          1. Wintergreen*

            I’ve never heard of Empty Sheet Syndrome but can totally relate! With absolutely no direction I can’t come up with anything. Give me just a little nudge and I am off to the races.

            I hated school science fairs when I was in school because I could never think of a topic. Self-grading here but none of my projects were better than a C-. Now if just one person would have told me to do a project on butterflies, I would have done an A+ project. Not because I like butterflies but because I would have at least had a starting point.

    3. Brownie*

      Your employee could be me from grade school until now re: doesn’t know what to do when asked to do something freehand. For me the decision paralysis comes from “flower” to me being a wide range, from skunk cabbage to hibiscus and everything in-between, while for my boss “flower” is limited to something they could find in the florist section of the grocery store, and without knowing that I have no idea if my drawing of a fossilized Montsechia vidalii will get me hauled up for insubordination or be praised as an industry ground-breaker. When I figured out what “flower” meant to my boss by asking for previously created examples and examining them I was able to dramatically reduce the number of questions I need to ask my boss and that in turn helped our relationship since they weren’t perpetually frustrated with me. This is also where things like policies and procedures can help a lot and pointing those out may allow your employee to build a framework which she could then use for freehand work.

    4. Sam*

      I’ve been through this exact scenario before. I moved to a new role and inherited a report who was, on paper, more qualified for my job than I was but day-to-day he needed instruction to the level you would need to program a robot to get anything done. It would have been faster to do the work myself. The final result of that situation was they chose to resign rather than go on a PIP, at which point I got the impression it wasn’t the first time he’d made that call.

      I went through all the steps of checking that the behaviour wasn’t a hangover from micromanagement/no management in previous jobs, or not understanding the limits of their authority, or not understanding ‘the way we do things around here’, or in my specific case terminology issues and language issues were also potential problem points we walked though. If faced with the same situation again I would still go through all those checks but I would get to ‘they’re just not suited to this job’ a lot faster. The amount of time it cost me to give them the benefit of the doubt over and over again, probably for about a year, was way too much, even for my ‘we don’t fire people here’ mega corp. Sometimes the answer is just that simple.

      I still have a half written letter to Alison in my drafts folder about the situation titled ‘Can you coach for judgement in a senior employee’

  26. Captain Stubing is my spirit animal*

    Have your employee make lists. I process requests that are time consuming because the requests have to go through as many as 7 different departmental processes. New managers do not necessarily know this. They just know they want the document processed. So when they give me a request, I will confirm that the processing has begun and also give them a list of what the next steps will be to completion. Then if they request follow up on status, I can say – you are on Step 3, but I expect that to complete and your request move to step 4 by EOB, with completion by this Friday.

    If the employee has a overview list -which you can either provide, or better yet ask them to provide you, because this way they get the confirmation that they are doing the right things, and your confirmation of such will help build their confidence. Also similar tasks in the future will just be cut-and-paste lists.

  27. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Had a staff member so seriously in fear of making any mistake whatsoever that she was asking me to check every email she sent, every call she answered, every technical fix she was going to suggest. I was burning out from the constant requests and had to sit her down and assure her that she’d been at the job long enough to know what she was doing, I’d never had any complaints, and even if there WAS a mistake it is not the end of the world.

    Then I told her about how I’d knocked out several thousand computers once with an untested patch (30,000 actually) and said that as long as you admit a problem and work to fix it it’s fine! And they promoted me even after that problem in my past so it’s not a job firing offence to make a mistake.

    Took a little while longer but she calmed down. I think also seeing how I reacted to one of her coworkers who made a mistake helped because it was proof, in her eyes, that I wasn’t going to slam down like a ton of bricks.

    (Dunno how I’d deal with someone who really needed daily check ins or management to do their job though so can’t comment on that)

    1. Nesprin*

      Yep- I used to tell my lab trainees that if they broke anything more expensive than my crappy old car they were in trouble, but anything else, as long as it reported, didn’t hurt anyone and was cleaned up appropriately (which in a lab usually meant ask someone), was fine.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        You sound like my old lab boss! (I started out as a virologist and then changed careers to IT). Great guy, even did a list on the wall of ‘things you’re not allowed to do at work’ that included stuff like ‘don’t cook your dinner in the sterilising autoclave’ and ‘never explode anything more expensive than your rent’

  28. Inca*

    I’ve read Alison’s response, and to me, it seems that this way of approaching may not be the most helpful. Usually when people freeze or are asking for more directions (even to the point of being clingy or insecure) they’re not helped by being told they ‘just’ need to do better.
    I’d rather think it’s good to see what it actually is what she is asking for, and most importantly: why.

    So, are the directions and procedures clear? Then: is it clear how you expect her to weigh decisions? (Which to prioritize, what details to pay attention to, etc.) If it were me, I’d like to talk through a few of the indecisive situations and figure out: which decision is the one she’s hesitant about? (Not as a general procedure btw, but as a special conversation to be had once or twice.)

    This is also a good check to see if there aren’t (unintented) contradictory instructions in procedures or feedback. I think it needs to be an exceptionally safe conversation where this can be explored, and where she can voice those questions and comments one usually doesn’t (like ‘you said x last time, why is it now y?’)

    I’d also invite you to look at the things she actually does do without directions (because those are probably there too.) How is she handling that, but also: how was the feedback to that? What were the results? Was there unintentional feedback – even from outside or unforseen sources? (Like, if various customers dropped out of projects for reasons all their own, nothing to do with your business *but* they also happen to be all her projects, it might still have impact in how she perceives how she’s done.)
    How is she handling the feedback in general?
    Are you on the same page with feedback: if something is of minor consequence and more a ‘good to know’ heads up, does she know it is, or is it read as ‘you did this wrong, make sure you do better in the future’ comment?
    (Of course: the confusion or contradictive directions may have been from the past. If that’s the case, that’ll probably come up too.)

    So, lots of exploring and if that happens in a safe atmosphere I think with clarity the solutions will present itself.

    Apart from that, I’d think it’s useful to actually agree on a procedure about things she wants/needs directions about: how to decide if something qualifies as ‘needs direction’ and when she can expect those directions (is it possible for to lay aside the things that are unclear and continue with other stuff, and have a few set moments in the week where you go through the questions? Which situations call for urgent texts, which can be done by mail, which require some direct interaction?)

    Well, lots of words here! It sounds like a lot and like a lot of hassle. But actually I think when you channel it, it takes one or two longer conversations to work through the underlying issues, and a set procedure for unclarities /insecurities and it will work out. But start from the assumption that there is underlying confusion about some issues (be it procedures or underlying values), that is helped by finding out what those are and are also probably not helped by saying she should be more confident or something like that.

    1. Altair*

      I agree with your comment, and I think it needed to be this long to lay out the process clearly. :) To be honest if I asked, “how do you want me to do this/how best should I do this” and I just heard “I want you to be more confident” as the entire reply, I would assume I was being set up to fail so that my superior could enjoy punishing me. In my experience people have clear ideas of what they want and if they don’t want to communicate those ideas it’s often so they can punish those who don’t guess or intuit correctly. Whereas more of a framework, or even just examples of what “doing it right” would look like, would be more useful in ensuring what I produced more closely matched what my superior was envisioning.

      1. Teri Anne*

        I agree with Altair. If my manager told me “you need to show more confidence” when I asked a question, I would become confused, humiliated, and even more anxious. Not only did I not get the information I needed, I would have no idea how to project confidence. And being admonished like that is also humiliating because it is telling me that me that as a person is not ok. I once had a manager like the OP, and these kind of comments made me shut down. I agree with Altair that I would think the manager was setting me up to fail, and I would be quickly dusting off my resume.

  29. Atalanta0jess*

    The best thing I learn from this column is how often people think they’ve “tried everything” but actually haven’t tried the one thing they need to: explicit, concrete feedback, and clear, maintained boundaries. It’s such a good life lesson.

  30. Asperger Hare*

    I am one of those people who needs to know the clear structures in which I must work. I can only work where I know the limits and extent of my job; I can’t just work ‘on instinct’. I literally cannot judge what is appropriate within the boundaries of my role.

    If you’re like this too, here are some things which helped me:
    – writing out my job role, daily tasks, weekly tasks
    – writing out step-by-step processes ‘to check I understand’ which I then run past the boss – then I’ve got the written process to work from, and I don’t need to check in with that task any more
    – asking to shadow people in similar roles so that I can be sure I’m behaving within reasonable limits, what kind of attitude and persona to present on the phone, etc. etc.
    – setting up regular review meetings with my manager (e.g. every six-twelve weeks, decreasing as time goes on)
    – little verbal check-ins with a nearby line manager to see if I handled something the right way (two minute conversations, maybe once or twice a week, decreasing as time goes on)

  31. Jennifer Juniper*

    Maybe she needs a referral for EAP. Decision paralysis is a symptom of Dependent Personality Disorder. I have been diagnosed with this disorder by multiple doctors. I have this symptom myself, along with crippling anxiety.

  32. IRV*

    When people refuse to take initiative it can often be due to getting bitten in the past. I worked for managers early in my career who talked the talk re: ” I trust you and support whatever choices you make” then brought the hammer down when the action taken wasn’t what they would have wanted. No one in the department would take any actions without specific instructions as a CYA measure.

  33. James*

    I haven’t read the comments, but these are the ideas that spring to mind….

    1) They’re new to this position. I was in a similar situation when I first took over my position. I didn’t know what choices I could make without input, how much latitude I have, who I needed to get approval from, etc. Once I worked that out, I did really well.

    2) They worked for a really bad boss in the past. They are afraid to move because in the past if they did, they got in trouble. Bad bosses alter one’s definition of “normal”, and can make one doubt one’s abilities.

    3) They don’t want the job they now have. Maybe they were happy at a lower position, and are genuinely not comfortable in a higher one. I’ve met people–good people, people I depend on daily, some of whom are family, many of whom are incredibly intelligent–who never wanted to move up the ranks. They wanted to do the job they liked, at the level they liked, until they retired.

    4) You were unclear in your expectations. I DO NOT mean this as a criticism. Communication is really hard, it turns out–what you think are clear instructions (say, “Get the TPS reports to Jill by COB on Friday”) may not seem simple to them (what if Jill’s out? why is Jill asking for them on Wednesday? what if someone doesn’t turn in the information for the TPS reports? COB in which time zone–Jill’s in Eastern, but I work in Nevada!!). I could tell you all kinds of stories where this has happened to me, on both ends!

    Many of these can be resolved with a semi-formal lunch meeting or two. Part of it is getting your point across, yes–but a bigger part as far as you’re concerned is getting to know the employee. What makes them tick? What are they afraid of? How do they see themselves? How do they see you? Once you understand your employee, you can figure out how to move forward.

  34. Steve*

    My general mentoring style with such questions is to not answer them, but not avoid them either. Instead, firmly respond with “What do you think we should do?”. Most people will quickly transition from “I don’t know what to do” to “maybe this” pretty quickly. In my experience, with a combination of regular meetings, i.e. 1-2x/week where there is a structured place for people to ask questions and form a plan, then they will transition into mostly-independent operation (assuming at least that they have been hired for a role at an appropriate level).

  35. Llama Llama*

    One solution that may be good for something moving forward would be how to address questions. Maybe they can compile all their questions for the day and you can review them at the end of the day or maybe each morning. Maybe you don’t even need to be together to answer them. Can they leave them for at the end of the day to review? Or maybe it can be something to review on a monthly basis. And then you can parse out what is a “save for later” question and what is a “alarm, text during meeting” question. Also having these questions compiled can help you determine where training needs to be done or what needs to be added to your training manual for future employees.

  36. somebody blonde*

    If you’re not exactly sure how “intensive coaching” would go, one thing you could do is tell her that she needs to explain why she needs your input every time she has to check something with you. “I think that I should do x because of y factor, but I’m not sure if z factor means we should do something else.” If she has to think specifically about why she needs your input, it may help her better recognize when she definitely doesn’t.

  37. Astra Nomical*

    I went from working in a call centre environment (heavily micromanaged) to the public service (you’re an adult, manage your time accordingly) and for the first few days I would ask my boss if I could go to lunch 3 minutes early, or stay behind 3 minutes if I was late back – that sort of thing. It’s a very hard headspace to get out of, because in a call centre, that kind of thing can constitute a written warning.

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