how do I change my attitude toward my needy, frustrating employee?

A reader writes:

I have a staff member who I’m just over, and I really need to change my attitude.

In general she’s good at her job, but she’s just so needy. I’ve worked to address some of that, like not walking around the office talking with everyone and keeping them from work, how to be better at reading body language when people are trying to stop her talking with them, things like that. But I just find her exhausting and it’s really showing in my ability to manage her. I mostly believe this is a ME thing and I’d love some ideas on how to adjust my attitude.

Other things that annoy me, that really shouldn’t be as annoying as I find them:
1. If I give her instructions via email, she has to write back a minimum of three times asking the same thing. I’ve addressed this by asking her what she needs in the original instructions to make things more clear and she basically says,”Oh, I just want to make sure I’m fully understanding” so not answering the question.
2. In our team meetings, we each provide three nuggets of something that you did last week, something you’re working on this week, and if you need assistance on something. She will drone on and on to make sure EVERYONE KNOWS how busy she is. I’ve addressed this individually several times (give three, no more) and as a team, I’m asking for three, no more and finally stopping her — “that was three, let’s move on.” But then she’s extremely hurt that I interrupt her and I don’t do that to others (because they’re giving three things).

These are little things, but I’m over her and that’s not a place that a manager should be. Do you have advice for me to get over myself and adjust my attitude? I know my exasperation is showing, and that’s not who I want to be and it’s not helping her any, either.

I don’t think this is a you thing. What she’s doing is legitimately irritating and distracting.

I mean, yes, it’s true that you don’t want to sound exasperated with someone all the time. As a manager, you should stay relatively even-keeled when you’re talking to your team. But you’re allowed to feel frustrated when someone’s behavior is frustrating and they’ve ignored direct feedback about it.

That said, I’d argue that when you’re so frustrated with someone that it’s coming out in your voice or body language, that’s a sign that there’s more management work you need to be doing — usually having a more serious conversation, giving clearer feedback, or even making a decision about whether they’re right for the role. (Obviously that’s not true if you just hate the person’s screechy voice or that hideous shirt they keep wearing. Stuff like that is a you problem. But disrupting team meetings, repetitively asking the same questions, keeping other people from working — those are work problems, and you need to address them as work problems.)

In some ways, letting frustration show is similar to what I’ve written in the past about managers who yell: It’s usually a sign that the manager hasn’t realized they have more effective tools available to them.

In your case, I suspect you need to be more direct than you have been. For example, with the repetitive emails, you’ve asked what she needs from you originally to make things more clear, but have you said, “You are writing back multiple times to ask me the same thing. I need to cut down on the amount of back and forth we’re having; please do not ask the same question repeatedly. After the first time you ask, if my answer isn’t clear enough, pick up the phone and call so we can figure out where the disconnect is. But if you’re repeating what you’ve already asked, I need you to stop doing that.” And then if she does it again, address it right in the moment (not through email though — call her or talk in person) by saying, “This is what we talked about. What’s going on?”

With her lengthy updates in team meetings, you’ve directly told her to limit herself to three — but have you called out that she’s not doing that and asked why? When someone is disregarding clear instructions, you don’t want to just get annoyed; you want to create accountability by naming it and asking what’s going on. For example: “I’ve asked you a few times to limit yourself to three updates in team meetings. You’ve continued to give more, even after reminders, and you’ve looked upset when I’ve cut you off. Is there a reason you’re not following that rule?” (You’re asking because it’s helpful to understand her perspective — who knows, maybe she’s genuinely bad at figuring out what people need to hear and could use some guidance on that). And then from there, you use the tools that are available to you as a manager, like cutting her off when she’s derailing your meeting.

You’ve been doing that, but you sound bothered that she looks hurt every time. As long as you’ve been clear about the rules and what she needs to change, I think you’ve got to decide to be okay with her looking hurt. You’re not doing anything hurtful — although if that response continues more than a few weeks, that’s a sign that something is really wrong. At a minimum, it would indicate that you’ve got someone who’s really out of sync with your team norms and not adjusting to new information about what you expect of her, and that’s a problem in itself.

But what you’re responding to here is about this person’s work habits and her impact on you and your team. Those things are squarely in the realm of things it’s okay for you to care about — in fact, they’re things you have to care about and things you have to manage. So I think you’ll be best served if you take your focus off of your irritation and instead focus on managing her to operate in the way you need. (In fact, see my advice to another manager who thought she simply didn’t like her employee, when there were real work issues to address.)

If you are very, very direct about these issues — giving clear directions, not suggestions or requests, etc. and calling it out when those directions aren’t followed — and the problems continue, then at that point you’d need to decide what to do about it. Is the rest of her work good enough, and the impact on you/your team minimal enough, that it makes sense to keep her on regardless? Sometimes the answer to that might be yes. If so, are there other consequences it makes sense to impose, not punitively but as a natural result (like changing the types of projects you give her)?

Even if that’s where you end up, having actively managed the situation will probably make it less irritating. If you’ve been as clear as you can be, she knows where you stand, and you’ve chosen to keep her on for Reasons that you’ve thoroughly considered, simply knowing that can stop it from getting under your skin so much. But when it’s still actively agitating you, it’s often because there’s more you still need to do.

{ 292 comments… read them below }

  1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    This really sounds like a situation where a PIP as a veiled instruction to start job hunting would be reasonable. Some of this sounds like the aftermath of being micromanaged/nitpicked/backseat driving/second guessing (clarifying multiple times, specifically). But the rest of it sounds like a bad organizational fit.

      1. ThinMint*

        I think I agree, but I will confess to thinking the more I read…. if she a good employee generally? If OP will have to put in more and more time to getting her to follow directives, I do wonder if it will be worth it.

      2. OP Needy's Boss*

        Agreed, that escalated too fast. This is not PIP worthy. This is all personal development. She is good at her job, but just needs a LOT of reassurance and now that she’s remote (I’m in office) I think she’s feeling isolated as well.

        She may well have been micromanaged at previous jobs, I don’t know, she’s never mentioned that and she’s worked with me for 4 years now. This is a more recent development that I believe Ailsa nailed about anxiety.

        1. Quill*

          Yeah, I can see some of that in myself. Even years after I no longer have a boss who shouted if you asked questions and changed his instructions then pretended he’d never said otherwise, I have problems with looking for the trick question part of people’s instructions.

          But pandemic anxiety has just seriously shot a lot of people’s concentration, as well as short term memory. Personally I’m obsessively making SOP type instructions sheets because I 1) do not necessarily remember what I did yesterday, or how I did it, 2) come from a lab environment. But for some business processes there’s just not enough clear procedure written down, and it’s driving me bannannas.

          That said, you could require your employee to write up some sort of instruction “cheat sheet” for frequently asked questions, i.e. all llama visual inspection reports must be printed single sided in color even though all company policies say not to print in color if at all possible. This includes the hoof inspection, the certificate of llama teeth, the grooming report, and, if applicable, the medical record.

          1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

            I’m not sure if this applies in this situation, but I fully support clear procedures written down after a problem we had at one of my previous workplaces. Boss Tangerina had Deputy Lucinda, to whom some staff training and management tasks were delegated.

            Deputy Lucinda and Boss Tangerina were not on the same page with regards to what they thought the procedures were. Lucinda gave one set of directions and Tangerina gave another set of directions, for the same tasks/priorities. Anytime you mixed staff groups around, you’d have chaos, because not only would the supervisors be irritated at the incorrectly trained staff, but the staff would be irritated with each other because they all had been given different descriptions for the same job.

            1. starsaphire*

              Oooh, yeah, I’ve worked in one of those siloed environments before.

              The company culture was that we were “too cool” to talk out loud or address each other in person, so everything was discussed electronically even though we were all in one tiny “open space” – so there was never any open discussion about anything. There were four teams each headed up by one supervisor, all of whom had dramatically different work styles, and no one cared as long as the work got done, right?

              Except that every time a supervisor left or there was any other shuffling around of teams, there were a fresh round of grievances. (I got shuffled around under three different supervisors in rapid succession and nearly ended up on a PIP for doing things *exactly* the way my first supervisor instructed me to do. Which I was able to prove.)

              TL;DR: Clear communication and standardized procedures are really vital in a team environment.

        2. NotAnotherManager!*

          I don’t think you need to PIP her, but she needs some direct feedback on the impact she’s having on everyone else and possibly a referral to the EAP, if you all have one. This, to me, falls into the good at the technical/deliverable parts of the job but bad at the teamwork and judgment parts of it. She’s wasting a lot of people’s time on her not-really-job-related personal needs. Everyone needs some grace in current times, but that goes not just for her but for you and the rest of the team, too.

          1. OP Needy's Boss*

            Yes, I have referred her to the EAP, and given very specific, direct feedback,

            Things are better since I wrote my letter, but my frustration is now there, and I’m working on managing that on my end.

            1. Massmatt*

              You say she’s generally a good employee and I’ll take you at your word that her work is good but honestly there’s lots you say here that makes her sound as though she’s s not just annoying but a bad employee. She asks the same question over and over, she doesn’t listen, she talks endlessly, she distracts others from their work, she’s self-centered, she doesn’t pay attention that people she’s talking at (not to) want to gnaw off their arms to get away from her, she tries to monopolize meetings (repeatedly) and she acts childishly by pouting when you tell her to move on.

              Honestly I would be annoyed also, and I bet her colleagues are too. A PIP may be premature but if you don’t start seeing improvements I would definitely consider that as a next step.

        3. Hey Karma, Over Here*

          In this blog I learned the phrase “managing feelings.”
          She has found a way to make you manage her feelings instead of her actions. You are more concerned that she is going to look hurt when you tell her that her meeting time is up than you are concerned that she is disregarding the rules, annoying you and coworkers, and ultimately wasting time.
          You are worried she knows you don’t like her. OK. You don’t. You don’t have to like her. But you also don’t need to make her happy.
          She is happy when she has attention.
          And that’s it.
          It is not sustainable.
          It’s workable.
          It’s manageable.
          You can do it.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Eh, I’d tell her there was no need to “make a face” when receiving instructions.

            But I am that person who might answer her question the second time with a question. “Did you read my last email?” “Since i have already answered this, would you like to walk over to my desk/office and talk about this?”

            I agree with Alison in that my own frustration was signalling that I needed to manage the situation better than what I had been doing. It is kind of interesting what types of things would lower my frustration levels. I did not have to “fix” everything, but I did have to start working at it in smarter ways. Oddly, in thinking about handling my own emotion of frustration, I somehow found tips/advice for them to handle their neediness or whatever emotion was running.

            Just an example: Have you taught her what a good question looks like? Usually, it comes AFTER checking one’s notes to see if the answer is there. And usually a good question comes AFTER trying a few things first. Yep, put the time in saying this. People don’t like to do these explanations because they take too long. I’d rather spend 15 minutes explaining something than spend years correcting the same stuff over and over.

        4. anon73*

          Is she good at her job though? Someone who is good at their job is able to do it without hand holding and that’s what seems to be happening here. I don’t think she’s at the point of needing to be put on a PIP yet, but she’s not that far from one.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Someone can be annoying AF and still be good at their job. You shouldn’t be in management if you decide someone is nearing a “bad employee” territory because they’re talking too much. Is she getting the things done in the end? Are there errors? Is it taking extreme extra amounts of time to manage her in the way she is requesting? Come on now.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              I went the other way. People like this usually have lead to some sort of catastrophe in my experience. It’s not that they are talking too much. It’s the lack of thinking and lack of concentration on the work. Maybe if she talked less she would not need to ask the same thing three times.
              I dunno. I am not there and there’s that. I have had to time a lot of people’s productivity. And there are people who absolutely need to talk while they work or their productivity tanks. I am one who needs to be quiet to keep my productivity up. But it does not bother me if others around me are talking non-stop. Actually, I kind of like it. And there are others who need quiet. It’s not a want, it’s a need.

            2. Massmatt*

              The problem goes far beyond her talking too much. Among her many faults I mention above, she doesn’t listen. That is a problem.

            3. JustaTech*

              I’ve worked with plenty of people who were good, even really good, at their jobs but still annoying AF. If you are good enough it will generally balance the disruption you cause by being not great to work around, but when it comes time for layoffs, the annoying people are on the short list (after the ones who don’t get their work done).

              I had one coworker who could have been a great resource to the company, but he talked so much (sweet guy, but could not read the room at all and would just go on forever) that no one wanted to take the time to really manage and coach him, so he was left to his own devices for years, developed some bad habits, and then when someone came along who was willing to put in the time to manage him, the damage was mostly done. When he finally automated the really important reports he was the only person who could run, he was gone in the next round of layoffs because everyone was just exhausted by him.

              So in a lot of ways if you *can* coach someone to be less annoying it’s a benefit to everyone.

        5. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

          So she’s feeling isolated. It’s a pretty common feeling these days. It’s not her colleagues’ job to be forced to do emotional labour to help resolve her feelings of isolation, and she needs to be really clear on that. That’s what an EAP and a life outside of work for. If neither of those work, she needs to compartmentalize at work and do her best to stay out of peoples’ hair.

          Those things are difficult to say, and maybe it’s not your place to say them OP, but certainly someone will if the situation continues.

    1. Ooh La La*

      It’s alarming to frame a PIP as “a veiled instruction to start job hunting.” Don’t put someone on a PIP to set them up to fail so you can fire them (or to push them into quitting so you don’t have to do the dirty work). That’s horrible management and really unfair to the employee.

      1. BRR*

        I got so caught up in how this is not PIP territory that I missed this is not how you use a PIP. This would be the complete wrong way to use a PIP. Don’t give “veiled” instructions ever but especially when it’s about someone’s job.

      2. Wisteria*

        Any form of managing someone out is horrible management and really unfair to the employee. Making someone feel unwelcome and miserable to the point that they quit it’s not management at all. It’s a dereliction of management, and it makes someone not just a bad manager but a bad person.

        1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

          I agree with you that some forms of managing people out are an absolute dereliction of duty, but consider this for a moment:

          You have an employee who you’ve really struggled to coach when it comes to a particular weakness, but you’re at a real diminishing returns point in terms of your own efforts as a manager. Neither you nor the employee are entirely sure how much they can improve, but you’d both like to see improvement and the employee seems willing to make an attempt. You put that employee on a PIP, with the proviso that you’ve done what you can. Everyone involved needs to manage their expectations, which includes preparing yourself and the employee for what happens if their efforts don’t pan out. The employee can choose whether they want to continue fighting what might be an uphill battle or seek out something that’s a better fit.

          That’s managing someone out. Is that less of a kindness than than the alternatives, which include not holding the employee accountable or simply not giving them a last chance?

          1. StrikingFalcon*

            People can choose to quit while on a PIP, sure, but generally when people say “managing someone out” they mean making the job so miserable that they hope the person quits. It happens in retail sometimes – the manager might put someone on all the worst shifts, cut their hours, change the schedule last minute, give them the least pleasant tasks, etc.

            What you described is what a PIP is for – a last chance for improvement before being fired. That’s good management. “Managing someone out” on the other hand is abdicating the authority of being a manager, where part of your job is to fire someone if necessary. It’s also just a shitty thing to do. It’s not what a PIP is for.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Wait, no, that’s not how “managing someone out” is typically used. It’s typically used to mean managing the situation — clear, direct feedback, warnings if the problems don’t improve, and firing the person if the warnings don’t work (often including a PIP). Or it could include a direct (but not mean) conversation where you reach a mutual agreement that the job is not the right match. In no functional environment does it mean making the person miserable enough that they quit; that’s a thing some employers do, but it’s not what “managing someone out” means. (You might have worked places where it was used that way, but that’s not typical.)

            2. JustaTech*

              When my husband has had to “manage people out” it’s a case of everyone recognizing that it isn’t a good fit nd finding a way for the employee to leave gracefully before it damages their career, self esteem or mental health.
              Once everyone sees the situation for what it is then they work together on wrapping up projects and usually choosing an exit date that means the employee still gets their stocks vested. Granted, this is in a high-demand industry where it’s generally easy to get a new job, but it’s always about making an unpleasant situation as least-miserable as possible.

              What you’re describing as “managing out” is bullying.

      3. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        I haven’t seen a PIP that isn’t “a veiled instruction to start job hunting.” How veiled varies, and sometimes the veil is nonexistent (so if you really want to argue on the zero-is-not-a-number concept, have at it). It’s hard to imagine how such an ultimatum could be anything else, at least from the PoV of the recipient.

        There’s no need to set her up to fail. Give her 60, 90, 120 days, whatever the number, to either reprogram her personality & modus operandi (i.e. be “hired” for this job as you want her to perform it) or find an alternative that fits her personality and modus operandi better. If she opts for the alternative, you have your opportunity to acquire your better fit–and the 60, 90, 120 days give you an opportunity to hit the ground running on that search.

        The worst employees I’ve worked with have been the popular, likeable, sympathetic ones whose performances leave an F4 tornado’s rubble in their wake.

        1. Uranus Wars*

          This is almost opposite of my experience. Most managers I know who put someone on a PIP, instead of outright firing them, do so because they want the employee to succceed in the job they hired them…

          This is probably minority (and a small sample size) but of 6 or 7 employees I personally have seen put on a PIP, I only know 2 who ended up getting fired. They just kind of needed the wake up call of “hey, we know you can do this, we tell you about this, we’ve told you your job is in jeopardy, we’ll give you one last chance.”

        2. MangoIsNotForYou*

          I’ve created a few PIPs in my time, and they were never, ever a way to hint to the employee that it was time to move on. That is some indirect communication nonsense right there. I want people to succeed, I want to give them achievable and reasonable goals, and I want them to want to improve.

          I hear you on the sympathetic but anxious or distractable employees who unintentionally sow chaos with every step, but I feel like it’s my job to at least help them find a path to success if at all possible. Sometimes all the TLC in the world fails and you need to move onto a PIP, but you should at least go into that process with the hope that your employee will step up.

        3. gbca*

          I know someone who was put on a PIP recently, and started job hunting. She got a better offer and gave her notice…and her manager was blindsided. Which is totally insane to me, any manager should expect that an employee on a PIP is going to be job hunting. Even if the manager does the PIP in good faith and wants the employee to succeed, it’s a sign your job is in jeopardy!

        4. Massmatt*

          I have put several employees on PIP’s and they were definitely designed to get them to improve, I only fired one person for failing to do so but it definitely was a case where very measurable standards were not met. Two people improved dramatically with the extra coaching, one became one of the top producers.

          To be honest I did find one of them annoying but the metrics for finishing the PIP or not were very clear.

          Sometimes a PIP comes about because an employee has not been trained or managed poorly, or is having personal issues that affect their work, or they just get burnt out.

        5. Dust Bunny*

          The two employees I’ve worked with whom I know were put on PIPs were put on them as a sincere effort by our employer to keep them in the job. One made it, the other just seemed to be determined not to reform and I can’t imagine what else could have been done for him.

      4. FleurDeLys*

        And illegal in some places. I know this is US based, but here in Québec, Canada. it’s illegal to push an employee to quit, it’s called a disguised termination or something. (English is a second language.)

        1. allathian*

          It’s probably constructive dismissal. The same thing has come up here before in reference to the UK, but it also applies to much of the EU.

    2. Jane2*

      I’ve seen this approach taken but there were other elements of harassment by the manager to bully the employee to resign. The manager was annoyed and frustrated by the employee and then effectively created an environment where the employee started to perform worse. A PIP was part of the overall plan to create the hostile work environment. It was unfortunate, but allowed the manager to proceed with his plan. The employee suffered a lot and eventually resigned.
      I think being annoyed or frustrated with an employee could be a behavioral root of harassment and wonder what others think pushes a person to harass or bully another individual.
      I applaud this manager for being self aware and writing in for advice.

  2. Wisteria*

    Re: Asking for clarification three times

    I suggest you just accept that she is going to do this. Your annoyance that she is doing this is probably worse than the actual number of questions she asks, so accept it and let go of being annoyed.
    This is probably a her thing and not a lack of anything in your email. If you prefer a phone call, then make it a phone call, but I suspect that her style is to just get as much clarification as possible. “Needy” is a value judgement, and you can choose a different way to view her communication style. If you can reframe it as her way of making sure she does the right thing and achieve the best results, that might make it easier to accept.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I think it’s right for OP to consider whether feelings about excessive question-asking is a BEC thing, but I also think it would be reasonable for OP to want an employee who can take project directions and get to work without multiple rounds of similar questions that take up OP’s time. Personally, I can’t go three repetitive rounds with everyone I give an assignment to and still get my own work done, and spinning it in a best-possible-interpretation isn’t going to give me the time back. (My team also has a pick-up-the-phone requirement after the second email, and I do orientation training on taking on projects and productively communicating questions/status for entry-level team members.)

      Unless this person has a highly-coveted, hard-to-replace skill, I’d consider starting to managing her out. She wastes her coworkers’ time, she wastes meeting time, and she wastes her boss’s time. I think it’s worth a sit-down to name the issues and what needs to happen instead and also to provide some strategies for better dealing with the problem areas (writing down her three things and sticking to them, where the line is between being friendly and eating into your coworker’s productive time, reviewing instruction/question protocol). But, if this continues long-term, I think the level of effort in managing her may not be worth the squeeze.

      1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        +1. It’s a reasonable professional expectation to have employees who can take direction easily as well as figure out and communicate what they need to receive that direction in a way that’s mutually efficient. It’s something that requires adjustment on both the part of the OP and their direct report, yes, but I can’t imagine that a default three rounds of questions is an optimal solution.

        If you allow this to continue long-term, it sends a bad message to your other direct reports, in that they’re expected and held accountable to be respectful of others’ time and energy in a way that this one person isn’t. It’s not just happening with you, but it’s happening in team meetings and in other interactions with colleagues, so there’s an optics issue that you can’t ignore.

        1. Threeve*

          If I was in those meetings and my manager vaguely addressed something unfair and really annoying a coworker was doing but then just sort of gave up on enforcing it, it would just make me frustrated with both of them.

          1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

            Yeah, this was me in my last job. The annoying colleague (who was a nice person but honestly just lacked soft skills or any real internalization of team norms) was not only crowding out other people in meetings, but also directing their questioning at everyone else, as though we must be messing up our jobs if we’re willing to work with any degree of ambiguity. Our manager wanted to be “nice” and not police this person’s behaviour because it was well-intended and a function of their personality.

            Sorry, but that’s not good enough. You can’t let one person off the hook like this while you constantly hold someone else accountable for becoming increasingly assertive. Everyone needs to be held to similar expectations when it comes to soft skills, otherwise you start generating a ton of ill will.

        2. MatKnifeNinja*

          I left a job because of Ms Needy Coworker. She was a time sink of anxiety and drama.

          When I left, three other people left too. The manager was stuck with two lifers who did the bare minimum and Ms Needy.

          I’m not losing my mind, because someone can’t cope and follow instructions.

          Unless this coworker is a total lone wolf, your team is dealing with it too.

      2. Wisteria*

        You could reframe talking to your employees as a valuable task rather than a waste of time that you will never get back. As I said to OP, take it to a phone conversation if email is too disruptive.
        All employees need some level of engagement about some thing. This particular employee needs engagement with her task definitions. Other employees need engagement with other things. If you are unwilling to engage with your employees, perhaps you’re not well-suited to management.
        I am responding to you because you are the first response to me. My comments apply to everybody who thinks that engaging with an employee is a waste of time.

        1. Kate 2*

          How is answering the same question 3 times a “valuable task”? If an employee needs this they are in the wrong job.

        2. Uranus Wars*

          I didn’t read anyone replying here saying that engaging with employees is a waste of time! And the OP did try to work out their different communication styles. She wrote into an advice column.

          Professional development/engagement should not be spent giving the same answers to the same questions over and over. It doesn’t help anyone get the end result and can affect the entire team if the OP is out for a day (or a week) on PTO and this employee holds questions she has already gotten the answer to.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Yep. She is unable to work independently as each question must be answered 3 times. If everyone who worked under OP did this, OP could be crushed by the volume of questions.

            And that is my standard, OP. If everyone did X, where would that put us, how would our outputs be doing? Everyone had to get to a similar level of standards, that was my rule of thumb. She is annoying in part because no one else does this. And at some point, if nothing else worked I might point out that no one else emails me the same question 3 times. They simply re-read my email OR they reframe their question because they realized I took it as something else.

            I wonder how her number of questions per day compare to the average person in OP’s group. One thing I might consider to “treat and hopefully lessen” my own frustration is actually put together some numbers to get an idea if she is asking more questions than others, not just asking them 3 times. If the numbers showed other actually asked more questions overall, I would tell it to my frustrated self.

        3. NotAnotherManager!*

          You seem to be suggestion that all communication with an employee be considered a valuable task. It is not. The 80/20 rule is a thing for a reason. If you’ve read this blog for any period of time, you’ve surely read about all sort of time-wasting things that suck time from managers and other team members as well as Alison’s scripts for directing the conversation back to productive topics and wrapping things up when they’ve gone on too long – those scripts are one of the most valuable takeaways here. I think that it’s much poorer management to all the behavior described go unchecked under the guise of “employee engagement”.

          There is a big difference between not wanting to engage with your employee at all, which is not what ANYONE here has suggested, and wanting to use the time you have on productive things. I doubt anyone here minds answering questions, clarifying assignments, providing coaching, and training, reprioritizing tasks/priorities, etc. That is not what OP is describing in her situation, so reframing it as something she has no control over and should just accept is poor advice.

    2. D3*

      Oh it’s a her thing, but it’s not something OP should just have to deal with. It’s wasting her time! It’s not at all unreasonable to expect an employee to take instruction and answers to questions and just go do the job instead of waffling around refusing to start until the boss has repeated themselves multiple times!

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I have a family member who does this. Not only did she asked me three times but she asked everyone else three times also. Yeah, people tended to blow her off after a bit, once they caught on.
        I can see once in a great while someone really wrestles with something and , of course, I’d keep explaining until they’d get it. In those instances I could clearly see I needed to give a better explanation, using different words and coming in from a different angle. Usually that nailed it for them.

    3. Allonge*

      I think it’s reasonable to put a value judgment on something that is a waste of time for a manager and serves no visible function?

    4. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      By the same token, OP can say “I will only answer an emailed question one time. If you send me the same question multiple times, I cannot respond. After I answer your question once, I need you trust yourself and begin the work. When you are at X point, we can review your work.
      OP does have to work with employee, but she doesn’t have to give her three or more times the attention that every other employees requires.

    5. hbc*

      “I suggest you just accept that she is going to do this.” Probably a good idea. But what I disagree with is that acceptance of this leads to tolerance or indulging of that behavior. I would find it unworkable to have to interrupt my own work three times to give information I’ve already given or let work that I’ve assigned go undone while an employee waits to hear whether I really meant for her to do an audit of 10 random purchase orders when I wrote, “Do a full audit on 10 purchase orders selected at random.”

      1. Uranus Wars*

        I admit I am going to be biased in my answers because I had an employee just like OPs. If it’s anything similar, it really is the same conversation over and over…and it can lead to missed deadlines or close calls if OP is in all day meetings or at a conference or otherwise not reachable. And the thing is if she would keep or flag the original instructions until the end of the project it would save so much time on both ends!

        OP, maybe you could work with her on an organization type system, or offer to pay for her to take a class or system of her choosing? That would be a way to work with her from a professional development standpoint but could also achieve your goals. I don’t know what to tell you about the prattling on at meetings, though.

    6. tangerineRose*

      Why should the OP accept this? Asking the same question multiple times like this?! This is a direct report, who should be reminded this isn’t OK.

    7. Des*

      I disagree. Even if this particular manager learns to tolerate this obnoxious behaviour, it’s not going to do the employee any favours in her next workplace. The sooner she learns the norms the easier everyone’s life will be, imho.

    8. Momma Bear*

      Has OP considered running the directions past someone less involved? Sometimes when we are too close to a subject we think we are being clear but we are not. Some people respond better to bullet points and a wall of text gets them bogged down. I’m not excusing the employee, but I know that when I send an email to certain folks, anything more than a single question is going to end up with me following up on the rest of the email.

      Also, not to diagnose, but I wonder if the employee perhaps has ADHD or something where lengthy instructions are harder to follow. Chunking into small pieces may work better. More of a checklist. It may also be why the employee rattles on – they forget they’ve said three things. Could the employee be encouraged to come with a written list instead of speaking off the cuff?

      1. Uranus Wars*

        Yes, but the OP did ask the employee what would work for her and the employee said there wasn’t anything wrong with what OP was doing! At some point the employee has to work with the manager too)

  3. Teacher*

    Teacher here- for your three things updates, why not tell her to come to the meeting with all three written down in advance? If you do this for every meeting (or whatever your schedule is), she knows it’s going to happen and could write each one on a separate sticky note, or a paper folded in thirds, or something like that. I do this to help students organize their thoughts prior to a group discussion, and it helps the quieter students speak more, but also the more talkative students to summarize and state their ideas more concisely.

    1. Artemesia*

      Good idea but it does remind me of a grad student I had once. We analyzed research articles and used a set of steps i.e. students identified the key ideas, the methods etc in small group discussion, then we came together and talked about how this work fit into the field, whether it was effective at getting at important questions, what the practical implications were i.e. higher order issues. He was terrible at it and so in working with him I asked him to take the next article and read it and then highlight the one sentence that laid out the key question the research sought to answer. He came into office hours later that week with an 8 page study in which every line was glowing neon pink and said ‘it all looked equally important to me.’ This was an operational definition of not being bright enough to be in an advanced program (would it surprise anyone that his father was a big donor to the university?)

      You may be dealing with someone who does not have the capacity to do what is required. One way to find out is to get more crystal clear and see if she can do this. It may be she has anxiety issues leading to this and you can train her to not embody those in her interactions. But it also may be that she doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to do this work.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Oh, this is going to be my older kid – on the autism spectrum and has terrible struggles with main idea/details and reading comprehension in general. They compensate by having an insanely detailed memory for everything but definitely cannot tell you which of the things they remember is most important. (It’s also not an intellectual capacity issue in our case – my kid consistently tests slightly above average, but the way their brain is wired, they are terrible at tasks like this. And it’s a terrible thing to be terrible at since it affects all subjects, not just English.)

        What the three-things post-it does for them, though, is that they’re at least not going to give you a 20-minute, detailed run down of everything they did at the meeting. They will just read off their notes/post-it (which may not be the three most important things) and move on.

        1. Quill*

          Honestly insisting on having things written down is probably a good idea overall. Yes, I say this from an everything-must-be-documented laboratory perspective, but in my current job there is just a backlog of instructions that were conveyed verbally and never written down, for routine duties that come up unpredictably. And my former mentor, whose job I’m doing half of right now, didn’t have the chance to do any form of documentation when she left, so I’m standing here on a capsized canoe up a creek of poo trying to paddle with a list of external contacts that was last updated in 2017.

          1. Uranus Wars*

            I don’t work in a lab, but I had a huge feeling of solidarity when I read this sentence: so I’m standing here on a capsized canoe up a creek of poo trying to paddle with a list of external contacts that was last updated in 2017

          2. JustaTech*

            If there’s one good thing about the WFH and reduced lab work (which is really my favorite part) it’s that I’ve had time to go through a ton of stuff that should have been written down but wasn’t.
            (Looking at you, Quality, for not writing those reports starting in 2010!)

        2. Bean Counter Extraordinaire*

          This is 100% me – not on the spectrum that I’m aware of, but I’m in my early 30s and was never tested so who knows. Not the reading comprehension part, but the “if it wasn’t important they wouldn’t have included it, therefore…. IMPORTANT”.

          And it probably didn’t help that in elementary/middle school, language arts/English/reading quizzes were like (after reading 20-30 pages of a book) “What was the second thing Frank put in his lunchbox? What was the weather like? What kind of flower did he pick from his neighbor’s yard?”

          1. Quill*

            And all the true / false questions were technically trick questions because they were never about something that was actually unequivocally true or false: they were like “The American revolution occurred because of the stamp act” with no way to tell if the teacher wanted you to say true, because it was one of the causes, or false, because there was more than one cause.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              That to me is a poorly constructed question. But I know I found plenty of these types of questions. In the end I opted for what I thought would please the teacher and that worked well for me most of the time.

          2. willow for now*

            Ooof, I hated those reading “comprehension” quizzes. Frank had three things in his lunchbox eventually, why do I care when the apple went in? He picked a flower – how can it possibly matter in the context of the story whether it was a purple daffodil or an ocher aster?

          3. Jackalope*

            My all-time least favorite was a middle school teacher who wanted to teach us attention to detail, so she gave us an assignment with multiple choice reading comprehension questions. The instructions said to underline the answers to the questions, and if you didn’t underline them, if you just circled the letter for the correct multiple choice answer (for example, circling the A), you got it wrong. This probably meant that you failed the whole assignment, since you weren’t going to underline some and circle others. The annoying part is that she just gave it to us, told us to pay close attention and follow the instructions exactly, and then left it at that. I don’t know that she actually used that assignment towards our grades, but I remember being so frustrated because I had read the instructions carefully, did not in any way take them to mean that I had to underline the answer since every single multiple choice question in the history of EVER had been circling the letter at the beginning (or filling in a bubble on a scan sheet), and so I circled the letters and went back to the text, where I underlined the sentence in the text that provided the answer. This was apparently Not The Thing.

            The annoying bit about this is that in my great desire never to fail at an assignment like this again, I gained a HORRIBLE habit that day. Well into my 30s I’d annoy supervisors by making sure that I understood the instructions EXACTLY, including things that were the workplace equivalent of underlining the answer vs. circling the letter at the beginning. They all said, “We don’t CARE, both are FINE,” but it took a long time to believe it (and it didn’t help that I had a micromanager towards the beginning of my post-college work life who also had some of these exacting requirements for little things that didn’t really matter [“Yes, I’m happy to center the heading in my report, but this is the first time I’ve ever submitted a report to you and that’s not a standard requirement at this workplace so why are you yelling at me about using left alignment instead?”]). That teacher taught me something, alright, but it wasn’t a lesson that helped me in life.

            1. Kella*

              I’m curious about whether the instructions said to underline the answer AND circle the correct letter. If it just told you to underline things, then it’s actively confusing to ask for one method of answer giving but then present the opportunity for a different one. Like, confusing enough that in most contexts, someone presenting questions that way is actively trying to trick you.

              1. Jackalope*

                With the caveat that it’s been a few decades since then, what I remember is that it only said to underline the answer. We all just assumed that we had to circle it because that’s the Way It’s Always Done. (Like I mentioned, I included underlining as well but it wasn’t the right kind since I didn’t understand what they wanted.)

            2. Nesprin*

              That is… almost monstrous. I would have failed because my executive function isn’t great, and it would have taught me nothing (because adhd cant be cured by trying harder) other than to hate that teacher and school. And i say this as an engineering phd who routinely mentors and works with neurodivergent scientists.

              1. JustaTech*

                “adhd cant be cured by trying harder”

                I need this as a needlepoint.

                A 10 foot tall needlepoint.

          4. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            I will say I’ve had a few English teachers at the High School level tell me they will include detail questions to sort out who read the book and who read the Cliff’s Notes/watched the movie. But those teachers were also asking big theme comprehension questions as well as detail. They also didn’t ask so many detail questions that you’d fail, just that you’re not getting an “A” by only reading the Cliff’s Notes.

        3. KoiFeeder*

          Yeah, I unfortunately recognized myself in that.

          The way I got better is that my mom had me write little mini essays on things (not just academic research but like, dinosaur books) and do other reading comprehension exercises until I figured out how to translate my understanding into how allistics want me to present things.

          For me, everything is so interwoven and context-dependent that I don’t remember lists, I remember webs. Great for talking about dinosaurs and carp, terrible for test-taking!

        4. Dust Bunny*

          Same. I’m on the spectrum and one of my biggest problems early in school was being unable to tell what the main idea was of a story, and who were the primary characters, because I couldn’t prioritize them. I was a great reader, I just didn’t know how to tell.

          But somebody who is in grad school should have either learned to do this or gotten assistance with it by then.

    2. Anonymooose*

      ^^^This right here ^^^

      Have a powerpoint template with three topics, one bullet per topic with specific dimensions and font size.

      :) :) :)

    3. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      Yes. She may honestly think that:
      created instructional documentation for ABC book
      Created descriptive documentation for XYZ book
      Created updated documentation for LMNOP book
      can count as one thing.
      and her second thing is
      Generated TPS reports for company 2.
      Generated TPS reports for company 3.
      Generated TPS reports for company 4.
      and then she still has a third thing to talk about, because that was just documentation and reports…

      1. irene adler*

        Shouldn’t it dawn on her that other meeting participants’ 3 nuggets are very different than hers? By “different” I mean, short and to the point.

        If it were me, I’d notice this and bring my three nuggets into line similar in form with what the others are saying.

        Jotting down the three nuggets is excellent!

        Now, can she hold to her notes? Or will she need to expound on them?

        Those other meeting participants are counting the manager to rein this in.

        1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

          I think that with people like this, they often don’t recognize that other participants’ updates are very different from their in form and content. Or they do, but think that their lack of detail is a problem and that their monologues are the right way of providing updates. Not being able to gauge what’s likely to be relevant to a particular audience is one of the fundamental problems in both these scenarios, and that can be difficult to teach someone if they’re not wired to suss that out on their own.

          1. TechWorker*


            I have a colleague who used to use her update for basically complaining about whatever had annoyed her that week. Most people were saying ‘I worked on x and y, z was challenging but we solved it by doing w’. Every meeting she was going ‘team x were useless because they didn’t properly read the information I sent, and I spent two whole days trying to fix y tool because it was broken, etc, etc’. We’re no longer on the same team so idk if she got out of that habit but it was frankly bizarre that she didn’t realise how the tone and content was so different to everyone else!

          2. Uranus Wars*

            I work with someone like this – 7 of us go around a table and she usually uses the same amount of time the other 6 of us use combined. I think you are right that, to her, she sees 10 minutes as “brief and just an overview” because some projects span months. And she doesn’t realize all our projects last months (some years) but we just give status updates that are 1-2 sentences long.

            I will admit in my first 2-3 meetings I gave way too many details. But by meeting 4 I picked up that it was ok to say “Just these 2” or “Still on track with X, Y and Z but nothing new to report” and then NEXT.

            1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

              You picked up on the norms and you adjusted before anyone got fed up and/or told you. That’s to be expected. These kinds of people, OTOH, will never get it and never stop taking up as much space as they possibly can, and will never recognize that these meetings are about meeting the needs of an audience rather than an opportunity to brain dump as hard as possible.

              It comes down to empathy. You have it for your colleagues, so you adjusted. People like what the OP describes don’t. That might be harsh, but I’m beyond giving these types leeway to corrode team cultures the way they unknowingly and efficiently do.

              1. Momma Bear*

                If this is a stand up, this is also time for the manager or scrum master to say “Let’s table that for an offline discussion” and keep the meeting rolling.

                1. JustaTech*

                  When WFH started I was listening to my husband have some kind of meeting where he said very sharply “That’s enough, Fred, keep it moving.”
                  That’s not like my husband at all, so I commented that it sounded like he’d had a tough meeting. “No, it’s a stand up and if you don’t really stay on top of people they’ll go into way too much detail. We’ve got 10 people and a 15 minute meeting, I’ve got to keep it moving and if you’re not sharp with Fred he just doesn’t hear you. We’re working on it.”

        2. Bean Counter Extraordinaire*

          Maybe it would be better to ask for a 30 second update- I absolutely can see myself thinking
          1)Process documentation for ABC, XYZ, and LMNOP
          2)Generate TPS reports for C2, C3, and C4
          3) Pet Llamas 5,6, and 7
          as my 3 things, because to me, those ARE three things.

          1. Sunflower*

            I like the timing limit instead of the items. There are a few people on my team who clearly have a different idea than me when we are asked for updates on our projects. I give a general overview of what’s going on while some people dive into the tasks surrounding each of their projects. The timing limit let’s the person talk about what they think is important.

        3. hbc*

          Since the OP put in the comment about her wanting to know how busy she is, I think the discrepancy is part of the point. Other people are able to bring three things because they aren’t as swamped and busy and omg how am I ever going to get all of this done?!!11!

          It could be that she’s just self-important and competitive about busy-ness (yet would have a lot more time if she stopped bragplaining about her workload and asking for clarification umpteen times), but I’ve also seen it come from something like anxiety, where the fact that other people don’t *look* as frazzled and stressed as she *feels* means she must have tons more going on.

          1. EvilQueenRegina*

            I have a coworker who this letter reminds me very much of, and in her case the “busy” issue stems from the fact that she is on a lower pay grade than the rest of the team (long story behind this involving restructuring and a former manager who held her staff back – when the current manager raised the possibility of putting her on the same pay grade as the rest of the team she said she didn’t want it). So there are certain tasks that Philomena does not do. With the move to remote, and scheduling meetings having switched to Webex, Philomena wasn’t given a licence, which meant that she lost that task. (At the time that decision was made it was expected to be shorter term than it ended up being).

            Our manager explained that Philomena was conscious of the fact that she had less to do, and that was the reason why, if anyone happened to be off, she would always make a big point of offering to take on whatever they were meant to be doing that day, to prove to herself and everyone that she was busy, and then flapping because she wasn’t sure she could get it done in time. It did take quite a few times of our manager or the team stepping in and saying that someone else had more capacity to take it on that day.

        4. juliebulie*

          She is probably not even listening to the other participants’ nuggets. She is too busy mentally rehearsing her own.

    4. Sparkles McFadden*

      I once had to do training for a department in the company where I knew there were going to be a lot of “interrupters” present who would derail the training for everyone in the session. At the start of the class, I gave each attendee two poker chips. I said “Our schedule is tight so I’d like to use these chips as a way of helping you decide when something is important enough to take up everyone’s time. You each have two chips. Use have to give me a chip if you want to ask a question or make a comment. When you’re out of chips, you’re done talking in the class, but you can follow up with me at another time. In addition, there are people who may be reluctant to speak up if I am not being clear. I’d like to encourage those people to use at least one chip each. The best questions usually come from those who are too polite to interrupt. ” The loud mouths used up their chips in the first ten minutes. The quiet folks asked great questions near the end of the training. One guy said “Only time I’ve been in a room with Fergus when he didn’t talk over everyone. Thanks.”

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Our trainer calls them talking tickets – but same strategy. Made trainings with one former coworker so much smoother.

    5. Boop*

      Another option is to ask very specific questions to prompt the updates. If she listed completing X as an action item last week, this week’s update should have the question “did you complete X?”.

    6. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Toastmaster’s techniques might help — the timer in particular.
      And OP could spin it as “getting better at public speaking” (or video presentations, given that so much of our lives are now online).

    7. Butterfly Counter*

      I like this idea and it might work depending on the reasoning she’s doing it in the first place. If she’s not realizing just how much she’s sharing, this will work and I love it and may find a way to use it in my own classes.

      But with this pandemic and the information from OP that she’s struggling with WFH, it might just be that she wants some socialization and attention. I cannot TELL you how many little old ladies at the grocery store these days hold up the line for up to 10 or 15 minutes going over every item with the cashier. Then, when everything is bagged, they start to pull out their checkbook. *headdesk*

      It might be the same: they get a captive audience and think, “It’s MY time to SHINE!”

    8. theletter*

      Yeah I could definitely see how in a work environment, or a work zoom meeting, anxiety can cause someone to lose their train of thought and start to ramble. Preparing and organizing thoughts ahead of time could make a huge difference.

  4. Ailsa McNonagon*

    I wonder if the constant reassurance-seeking is rooted in anxiety? A couple of years ago I had a direct report who was EXACTLY like this (added element of awkwardness was that she’d interviewed internally for the manager’s job that I’d got externally), and although I could see that her behaviour was a direct result of her general anxiety I never found a way to reduce her problematic behaviour, despite using similar techniques as above. I left the job without ever having helped her find a way to cope with any element of uncertainty- and from what I hear she’s still driving everyone bonkers :(

    1. OP Needy's Boss*

      Yes, actually, i think this is a really good line of thinking. She does suffer from anxiety, and I know the pandemic has hit her very hard (stress level), so this is something for me to consider.

      1. Casper Lives*

        Even if that’s the case, it doesn’t mean the behavior is acceptable to continue. Take it from someone who has bad anxiety and worked hard to learn to read social cues! It’s not easy when it doesn’t come naturally.

        She has to want to work on her behavior. If she refuses to even try, you’ve got an insubordinate employee. If she tries and cannot improve, you should consider if she’s a good fit for the role. You’ve got to consider impact on the rest of your team, as well as her needs.

        1. AKchic*

          This. This right here.
          Her anxiety is her problem to manage, cope with and above all else, ensure that it doesn’t (or at least minimally) affect her coworkers/employer.
          When does her monologuing and annoyances start to affect the team morale? When does it become such a problem that the rest of the team starts quietly and slowly looking at other jobs away from her? I am not shy about telling people that the reason I left my last employer was because of my former drama llama of a manager and co-irker. Money was a secondary consideration.

        2. Hey Karma, Over Here*

          Yes, OP. You can’t want her to learn how to succeed more than she does. She is not thanking you for your feedback, she is sulking. She is not trying to get clarification so that she understands your language and expectations better, she is trying to get you to spoon feed her the steps.

        3. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

          This. Remember, if she doesn’t want to work on her issues and you choose not to treat this as insubordination, you have little ground to stand on in terms of how you treat your other direct reports who are impacted by her behaviour. If they get to a BEC point with her, good luck being able to say anything without it coming across as a double standard.

          I don’t mean to be hostile or unsympathetic here, but if you’re annoyed by your employee, imagine how her peers who have no authority to coach or reprimand her feel. It’s important to recognize that she’s probably dealing with issues outside the scope of what you can address as a manager, but that doesn’t make it okay to let her become you team’s missing stair.

      2. CB*

        As someone who is both neurodivergent and has clinical anxiety, sometimes very clear feedback on what the communication means is very helpful in mitigating the anxiety.

        “When I send you the email, you can trust that anything stated in the email can be taken at face value. If/when we realize there’s confusion, I’m always happy to clarify afterwards without consequences”

      3. Smithy*

        As another person who has anxiety that certainly creeps into work – I would just advocate that if anything being even more rigid and concrete is helpful.

        I can recite chapter and verse how evaluations and constructive feedback are important professionally to actually doing well, but when it comes to knowing I’m about to go through that process – I know a rush of anxiety is coming. No amount of my boss telling me that I’m doing great will help that, rather being very clear about the process – ‘this is how we evaluate performance at Company XYZ, these are the due dates, this is what you need to do, this is what I’ll do” – that’s what helps.

        If you want to be mindful of the overall anxiety and realities of the pandemic – then I think that you can perhaps pick 2 or 3 large issues to focus on first. So initially focus on the issues with the meeting, and then later wait for the emails of instructions (or vice versa). But overall, setting more firm boundaries hopefully helps.

        1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

          One of the boundaries should be, no sulking. If she proceeds to pout, offer her a minute or two to compose herself, don’t try to back pedal and tell her “it’s not that bad.”
          First off, because it is NOT that bad. She’s doing good work. She just needs to get to it, right?

          1. Threeve*

            Find a script for it too, and be ready to pull it instead of softening feedback when the lip wobble comes out.

            “Do you need to take a minute and then come back? I do have to make sure we’re on the same page about this.”

          2. Smithy*

            While overall I agree that sulking is problematic, I would be inclined to focus more on less subjective points at first. Pouting isn’t going to put someone in line for a promotion or “exceeds expectations” – but internally that is a behavior that the OP can initially ignore while focusing on drilling down on the OP not blowing past 3 points.

          3. AKchic*

            I would 100% ignore the lip wobble/pout. If she is not being audible about her sulk, and everyone else in the meeting is ignoring her petulance, then be an adult and ignore it in the moment as well. If she escalates to sounds (sighing, sniffling, “muffled” coughing, muttering, whatever), then be the consummate professional and excuse her from the room/meeting to compose herself/attend to necessary matters so they aren’t a distraction (depending on which noises she is making) and then give her The Look until she either silences herself or leaves to actually finish her formerly quiet sulk.

            Some people do wear their emotions on their faces. She may not be pouting at the interruption itself, but at the fact that she was rambling again and is embarrassed to have not been able to self-censor. Her potential anxieties, reactions to clear, concise directions, and having her pouts ignored will help determine whether she has an expressive face, or if she is doing the pout/sulk on purpose.

            1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

              Here’s the thing, though: perception is everything. I’m sure that many people here have been upbraided for misread RBF or something similar. With that in mind, I’m not sure it’s out-of-bounds to coach someone on how their nonverbals send a message that they don’t want to play by the rules that everyone else is expected to, and that that absolutely affects their ability to contribute to the team’s functioning.

              1. Smithy*

                Broadly speaking – absolutely – however I do think that zoning in on this as a key priority is contradictory. If we’re focusing on the internal team meeting there are two issues 1) she talks too much and 2) is upset at being interrupted/stopped short. By focusing on both points, it may be that she no longer expresses that upset to her manager or in the room but may still be talking too much at the meeting. Was point #2 really the key issue to be fixed?

                Now if point #1 along with other examples are eventually addressed/improved upon – then further along the manager/direct report mentoring line, those are certainly lines to be coached. But I just hardly see how focusing on that feature needs to be ranked as a top item to be fixed.

              2. Evan Þ.*

                Absolutely. My boss pointed out to me last year that my body language and tone of voice was frequently saying that I was frustrated, and I’m really grateful he did that – I had no idea that I was coming through that way!

                (Among other things, that made me realize I really was frustrated with that job and set me on the course to getting a new job last month… but along the way, I improved my body language a lot too.)

            2. Sparkles McFadden*

              Yes, some people are just like that. I’ve known people who would get weepy and tear up. I’d ignore it and we’d have a productive conversation.

          4. Wisteria*

            The OP doesn’t mention sulking or pouting (or lip wobbling, either, crikey). Everybody is writing fan fic at this point.

            1. BubbleTea*

              But OP did mention the person being visibly upset at being interrupted – that could look a number of different ways but sulking, pouting or being close to tears are plausible. Also looking annoyed or angry.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, this does sound like the kind of things I used to do when my anxiety was worse than it is now (and I still do some if a procedure is new or we haven’t used it in awhile, although I’m a lot better about it than I was when I was younger). I never got so bad that anyone called me out on it, although I’m sure I was at least moderately annoying.

    3. H2*

      This is my thought, too–I’m a professor, and I find that this isn’t uncommon in students, and it’s generally students that come across as “high-strung” but I think have anxiety about performance (if not generalized anxiety). It’s unfortunate, because it comes across from a student often as grade-grubbing and it can be very unappealing–but in a way we reinforce the behavior by giving good grades to students who do this (and by giving them a forum to voice it when they feel like they have had to do a lot of work to get tiny details/half points hammered out). I have definitely written on student recommendations before that the student is obsessed with doing exactly what is required down to minute details, to the expense of broader thinking and independence.

      No real advice, although it might help to think about how obsessing over tiny details can be a way for a person to assume some control, so there may be ways to give her some control and lessen anxiety that are more productive.

      1. Great Grey Owl*

        If I am writing an email to a confused student, I try to write it in bullet points because that is easier for some students to understand. Perhaps that might be one solution for this employee.

      2. Libervermis*

        Yes, I also recognized my students in the description, and have also found that the reasons behind the behavior are usually unmanaged anxiety or bad habits from a previous teacher. A couple of the ways I manage it include
        1. Scheduling a meeting/conversation if my first email response didn’t do it for them
        2. Deliberately creating assignments where they turn in drafts for feedback and revise a lot, so I can answer the spiral of “just checking” with “turn in what you’ve and we’ll go from there”
        3. Naming the pattern I’m seeing and talking with the student about whether they see that in themselves and where it might be coming from
        4. Talking about the why behind everything, so there’s a reason behind sharing just three nuggets or whatever

        Some of these don’t translate easily to a work environment, since my whole job is my students’ learning and not a business deliverable, but I think at least a couple adapt fairly well. Certainly not magic, some students never quite seem to be independent (at least in the time I see them), but has helped immensely with many.

    4. anon73*

      But it’s not up to YOU to help her cope. It’s up to her to figure it out. Yes you can be aware of it, and take that into consideration, but it’s not your job to fix it.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        So agree. “Here’s the goal. Figure out how you will get there.” There are places that teach people how to hold down jobs, OP’s place is probably not one of them. Much of this is at a remedial level. OP cannot help everyone to this degree. Either this person starts realizing they need to beef things up or OP could decide that she cannot put any more time into this person.

        I see so many ads now that say, “Must be able to work independently.” Or even worse, “We don’t hand-hold. You HAVE to be resourceful.” I guess there’s a need for employers to spell this out.

    5. Elaine Benes*

      So not necessarily something that any manager has to get into, but for the curious- the trick is to not cater to what Anxiety wants (ie what it is encouraging the sufferer to seek out)…. Anxiety wants to avoid, avoid, avoid and it comes up with all kinds of workarounds to do that. For example, kid in school is anxious/startled by sound of fire alarms and triggers a meltdown. The solution that feeds Anxiety is to have the school cater to that by saying “okay, we’ll tell you ahead of every fire drill so you’ll never be surprised by the sound.”- then when an actual alarm goes off, unplanned, the student feels even more overwhelmed and less capable to handle the stressful trigger. The solution that doesn’t feed Anxiety is to have the kid practice listening to fire drill sounds at home enough times to realize they can handle it, maybe listening to lower volume and building up to full volume or whatever feels like a way to meet the kid where they’re starting at. Now the kid has the knowledge and experience that they can in fact handle the alarm even if it’s very uncomfortable.
      Reassurance is the same- Anxiety is telling the person to ask for it, and the more they get reassured externally, the more they doubt their own judgement, so that leads to a cycle of needing more and more external reassurance. The way to handle is to not feed into it, by introducing a cutoff and saying, I’m going to email you what I need and I need you to do the work with your best guess at what I mean before you ask me any questions. I won’t be responding to any questions until you’ve tried to handle this on your own. Or some similar practical cutoff. After more practice of being forced to trust her own judgement, she is able to see that she’s more capable than she thought, and the cycle of self-doubt is broken. But yeah ideally something that she’d practice on her own with her therapist and not in a work setting.

  5. ThinMint*

    I think it’s so hard when you’re at this level of frustration to ask an employee why they keep doing something you’ve asked them to stop. I believe in Alison’s answer, but I can imagine how my frustrating employee would use it as an open forum to whine. Oof.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      It’s important to lay out what you are going to say, what you main talking points are BEFORE starting the conversation. This can be very helpful, OP, don’t skip this part. If you were going to drive from the east coast to the west coast you wouldn’t get in your car and start driving. You’d map out a route, maybe pick out good drive times for congested areas and so on. You’d figure out how to make the journey and how much time it would take.

      Same here. Figure out what your main points are. Figure out how you will state those points. And figure out how much time you are going to put into this conversation and how much time you are willing to wait until you see lasting improvements.

  6. anon73*

    Yes to everything Alison said – these are legitimate issues, not just minor annoyances and they need to be addressed. And it’s not your job to manage her feelings. As long as you’re civil and kind, if she gets upset that’s not on you and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. A lot of people seem to think direct = rude and that’s not the case. As long as you’re not mean and address these issues in a neutral way without showing your frustration, being direct is a kindness. Hinting or beating around the bush with what you need from her isn’t doing anyone any favors.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I have found it helpful to think in terms of what I expect out of everyone else. This helps me find where “reasonable” is. Here I can tell people, “This required of everyone here, not just you. Eh, it’s even required of me from my own boss.”
      I like to think in terms of what most employers would expect. This helps me to find “normal expectations across the board”. I have used the sentence, “Most employers would require this.”

      Annnddd this one is a tough one. I like to think about what if this was a person I really liked. A person who did not push my buttons. What’s interesting here, is I actually find my limits. So no matter how much I like ya, I am not going to explain the same thing 15 times. See, at some point, it becomes moot whether we like the person or not. Annoying is annoying, period. And if the person cannot do the job it’s best to get them headed off into the direction of a job they CAN do. Whether they are likable or frustrating really does not matter after a certain point.

  7. Lalitah28*

    I would also suggest she look into the EAP, if your company has one, to deal with her habits. They can also be indicative of someone with high anxiety or OCD tendencies, or even on the autism spectrum with the issue of not picking up on social cues to stop talking, etc.

    But you probably have to consider NOT emailing instructions but verbally communicating and following up with the outline of what you discussed to see if that cuts down on the Q&A.

  8. Mel_05*

    This person sounds truly clueless and annoying, so this probably is all about her, but you might think through how you’re communicating with her and see if that could be part of the issue.

    I’ve had a couple of managers and clients who aren’t great at being clear, so I might ask them the same question 3 times – because they haven’t answered it yet. And when I was younger, I didn’t have a good idea of how to reframe it or communicate differently so that they would answer it. So I just asked it again in the same way.

    Or, one particular manager would say one thing to start, then change it several times, but never seemed to remember it was a change. I started asking for extra clarification on things, in case I was missing something.

    I’ve also noticed that some people just don’t communicate well to each other – even if they’re clear to everyone else.
    And when one of those people realizes the communication is bad, they will start asking questions that seem stupid to the one who hasn’t realized it yet.

    But, I’ve also known people who were just as annoying as your employee sounds and it wasn’t anyone’s fault but their own – and I know you’re probably dealing with that, so I hope this all shakes out for you!

    1. Llama Herder*

      I had a similar thought. Is it possible that you’re not actually answering the question? I have had managers give me responses that provide information, but don’t actually answer the question. This is probably not a very good example, but maybe enough to get the idea:

      Q: Should the new llama be housed in Stable A or B?
      A: Well, the llamas in Stable A produce more wool but the llamas in Stable B can jump higher.

      OK, I knew that, but all information about this llama is in a contract I can’t access because it contains info about commercial terms etc. My job is simply to get the llama out of the trailer and placed in the appropriate stall with food and water, but no one will tell me where that is.

      I had one manager in particular would do this. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to respond, Was that a Yes or a No? I wasn’t the only person who commented on not being about to get a straight answer from her.

      1. Ethyl*

        I think this is worth considering. I’ve had more experiences than I can count where I get a response to the question the person *thought* I asked, resulting in tons of wasted time and aggravation.

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        I worked with a guy so legendary for this that getting a yes/no answer to an option A/B question became known as “getting Gary-ed”. We ended up having to resort to, “The new llama will be housed in Stable A. The housing requisition is due by 3 p.m., so please let us know before then if you’d like the new llama in B instead.” Sometimes, it involved guessing at the best course of action based on what we knew, but somehow, Gary, who could not be bothered to read the question and select an option, could find the time and wherewithal to write a diatribe about how *of course* the new llama belonged in stable B and here are all of the 37 reasons why.

      3. All the cats 4 me*

        I too have experienced this. It is real and it is frustrating.

        We also have team member, at the top of pyramid, that exclusively uses the passive voice. As in “Yes we should have that llama color dipped in purple for easter”. Oh, OK, are you wanting me to do that (even though I don’t work in llama color), or are you wanting me to set up the color dip appointment (there is a whole chain of processes that are required for this, and it is not part of my usual duties) or are you going to take care of that, since color dipping is only available on direct say so from you (and in that case, are you asking me to diarize it so as to remind you, or are you simply thinking out loud)?

        I have literally billed time to a client with the memo “spent half an hour trying to get Person to tell me what she wants done, and who is supposed to do it”.

        Is it just me, or is it unreasonable to expect manager type people (especially at equity partner level) to be able to give direct instructions with specific information?

        1. Des*

          To be honest, this doesn’t sound like a big problem to me. If you keep a running ‘backlog’ for the team, just say “Sure we’ll add that item to our to-do list so we don’t forget” and move on with your life. The manager will speak up if they want to prioritize actually getting it done.

        2. SimplytheBest*

          I have definitely run into that problem as well. Right now I have a co-worker who seems to use the phrase “let’s just say” in front of everything she tells me, so most of her emails to me with instructions come across like they are euphemisms for something else. And most of the time I have a pretty good idea of what she’s telling me to do, but I do billing for a major synagogue. I’m not running somebody’s credit card for thousands of dollars based on “a pretty good idea.”

          This is what I do, OP, and it may be helpful advice to your employee, whether you are being clear or not. If something isn’t clear, instead of asking a question, I respond by saying “To clarify – You need me to do X because of Y.” I tell her exactly what I think is being asked of me. Then she can respond with a simple yes if I’ve got it, or she can clarify if need be. Maybe if OP’s employee started doing something similar, at least telling OP what she is understanding from the email, that may cut down on the multiple questions or may let OP see patterns of where the miscommunication is springing up.

      4. Des*

        I have this currently with a coworker who is far senior to me, and for him it’s a teaching style. He does not want to give a simple Yes or No answer, he wants to give enough context that you can figure out for yourself which one is correct. In some roles, this is frustrating in the short term but leads to a deeper understanding in the long term. But it does depend on the role in question. And no, I don’t enjoy it but I do understand where he’s coming from.

      5. Kella*

        Yeah some people just don’t answer questions. But also, some people don’t listen to them either. I used to plan live music events and one time I emailed a band leader something like this:

        “Hey, can we schedule another live music session? We changed our schedule so live music now starts at 8:30 or 8:45pm. Are there any Tuesdays that work for you?”

        And their reply was basically: “I’ll ask. Is it still happening on Tuesday? What time would we start?”

        In other words, I gave just three pieces of information in my email, and he asked for two of those pieces of information in his reply. For some reason event organizing is a context where you get a higher amount than average of people who don’t read the information you give them. I can’t tell you how many times people found my event listing, with all the needed information, tracked down my email *which was part of the event listing* and then emailed me to ask for the basic details of the event… that were in the listing.

        1. Mel_05*

          Ha, yes, I’ve dealt with similar people a lot too. Sometimes they’re also the people who don’t answer questions.

    2. EvilQueenRegina*

      I can recognise some of this letter in a coworker, and I do remember that when our previous manager was in post, there were so many times when this coworker would ask her a query, only for previous manager to turn round and reply “Sorry, Persephone, I wasn’t listening.” She once answered my query about a task I was covering for someone who was off sick with “Minerva took that task on ages ago without talking to me first “ – possibly true, but it didn’t answer my questions about how to actually do it!

  9. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I’m curious about how long she’s been in this position. If it’s been a while, has she had other supervisors in this role? And if so, was she this way with them?

    1. OP Needy's Boss*

      She’s been in this role for about 4 years. She’s good at what she does, it’s a difficult field to fill as well. She knows the organization.

      This really has become worse (we were working on things like her taking up other staff time, just presenting the 3 things, etc) before the pandemic, but the constant questions is new(ish). I’ve been her only supervisor in this position.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Huh, that’s odd. I wonder if something is going on outside of work that has made her question her own judgment.

        1. Ally McBeal*

          Honestly, I think we’re all questioning our own judgment from time to time right now. Between trying to figure out what kinds of socializing (and with whom) are safe, and navigating an election cycle where we’re being actively lied to by many people (politicians, news media, etc.), it’s an absolute nightmare.

      2. allathian*

        Could this just be that she’s not dealing well with WFH? I assume she worked in the office before the pandemic, and you mentioned in your letter that she’s WFH now. Was she as hard to manage in the office? Did she come to see you to ask for clarification, or did you give instructions to her in person?

        If you’re in the office, would it be at all possible to ask her to come in, as well? Do you think that would help? Or do you think she would benefit from hearing your voice more often on the phone?

        I know we’re not supposed to armchair diagnose here, but it really sounds like her anxiety has spiked during the pandemic and it’s showing in her constant questions. I really hope for your and her sake that she can find some other way of dealing with that anxiety.

  10. Nonprofit Lifer*

    I think there are times when I probably was an annoying employee, especially in the first few years I was starting my career. Not to excuse myself, or OP’s employee, but there are a few things that I learned the long way that would have made me a better employee if someone had explained them:

    I had to learn that when I’m given a task and there’s information missing or unclear, it’s on me to try to fill in that blank *before* I ask someone for help or additional information. I’m ashamed to remember feeling relieved when I got an assignment and realized I could ask a question about it, because it made it Not My Problem and I didn’t need to put it on the to-do list until the other person got back to me. I adjusted my attitude, and then I discovered it was not a big deal to have to page back through emails or notes to find the information I wanted. It also encouraged me to improve my own filing systems so I could find the information I needed.

    She may also need to figure out why she feels she needs to demonstrate that she’s busy. I had times where my workload was just overwhelming but I didn’t feel like I could say “no” to a new task. Seeming busy was my defense against people asking me to do more or setting deadlines I couldn’t meet. I also had a job that took a lot of skill and labor, but was one of those things where other people feel like “oh, anyone could do that.” I felt like I needed to make a show of all the work I was doing to earn my coworker’s respect.

    I worked those out for myself, and I think I’m a much less obnoxious employee now (I hope!) but I really wish that earlier in my career I’d had a manager who could have guided me a little more.

  11. Helen J*

    The 3 nuggets of info thing: Do you need to have this as part of the meeting? Can it be changed to if you need help on something? That might cut down on her droning on.

    I think it boils down to having to tell her she needs to do things differently or she’s not a match for the role.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      The “3 nuggets of info” thing sounds like the Scrum part of the Agile fad. Get one or two people who have no sense of proportion or enjoys the sound of their own voice and you can kiss half your day goodbye.

    2. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Yeah, I don’t want to be critical of OP because her feelings about this employee are spot-on, but I think the “three things” aspect of meetings isn’t really necessary, or at least not necessary at every single meeting.

    3. PurpleSheep*

      I totally agree. I think this sounds very prescriptive and not necessarily very useful to others in the team… Especially when this section of the meeting is being derailed. Try a new approach in team meetings and remove this annoyance while you work with her on other aspects of her performance.

    4. LinesInTheSand*

      This is a fairly common technique in some collaborative disciplines (e.g. software) where everyone is working on related but different stuff that might have interdependencies. OP isn’t requiring 3 things at every meeting. She is requiring 3 specific items of info from everyone at a team meeting once a week, which is more than reasonable.

      1. Sparkles McFadden*

        Yes, it is part of the whole “agile stand up” thing that can either be very useful or a half hour of torture depending on the workplace.

          1. hbc*

            Huh, I was thinking that it would only be torture if you let the people drone on and on, which OP is curbing. Otherwise, it sounds quick and productive. “I finished coming up with the new winter color palette last week. This week I’m focusing on the holiday-specific stuff. I’d like at least a couple of people to quickly review them in case I hit any cultural or religious issues that I don’t know about.”

      2. Ally McBeal*

        Maybe asking for the three nuggets to be delivered verbally is part of the issue, then. Maybe OP could distribute an agenda on Google Docs or whatever, a few days before the meeting, have everyone briefly summarize their three items (bullet points, not paragraphs), then verbally expand on their bullet points at the meeting. That at least forces OP’s employee to think & plan in advance rather than ramble anxiously.

    5. Uranus Wars*

      If 3 isn’t necessary, I wonder if OP can say 1-3 and then when OP is done she can just move along and kind of cut the OP off? We do 3 in my staff meetings with my boss, but I commented above there have been weeks when I say “Just business and usual, nothing new”…but as I typed that it just dawned on me that in my staff meetings (with my staff) they do have multiple things they are reporting on, because they are more short-term deliverables and mine is more long-term strategy for the department.

    6. BethRA*

      I’ve definitely been on teams where having that sense of what different people were working on helped dynamics. As long as people don’t drone on and you keep it short.

  12. Sharrbe*

    Her not being able to read other’s body language is a big sign that she just doesn’t learn from subtle interactions with others. I had someone in my personal life who acted this way. She could not for the life of her recognize that a conversation was wrapping up and it was time to exchange pleasant goodbyes and go on your way. You could have already have your coat on and your hand on the doorknob and she’d find some minor story about how she bought new food containers recently and “here, I’ll show them to you” even though you had already said goodbye. It was awkward as heck. I finally had to stop waiting for her to catch on and just started pretending not to hear her and walking out when I needed to go, regardless of where she was in her stories. I mean I know its much more complicated to address this in a work environment, but setting consistently clear and firm limits is the only way to manage her and stay sane. Otherwise she runs the show and that just causes bigger problems.

  13. Theory of Eeveelution*

    “…how to be better at reading body language when people are trying to stop her talking with them…”

    THIS right here is the real problem, and proof that this is not a “you” problem. No one likes the co-worker who just will. not. stop. talking. This person is genuinely distracting and will sow frustration and even bad morale. Everyone else is doing their work; why isn’t she? Talking about body language is a start, but really you need to directly tell her to stop.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Eh, I might be tempted to tell her she is talking too much. Match the people around you. Check what they are doing and limit yourself to the same.

      It works well in real life also.

    2. Happily Self Employed*

      It might be helpful to make it a workplace norm to just TELL others that you need to get back to work instead of using body language to hint this. Or if y’all are in a physical space together during a pandemic, just make it a workplace norm not to walk from desk to desk chatting. Use Slack or email or texts or the phone.

  14. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    I have a coworker like this. If this employee is making you frustrated OP, she’s undoubtedly driving her coworkers batty. Instead of answering the 3 repetitive questions, it’s time to stop responding or else redirect her back to the original email; making sure, of course, that her question is answered in the original email. “Sally, please reread my original email. The answer to your question is there; you can keep referencing it as you work.” I’m not sure I would switch to the phone — in theory that sounds nice, but since it sounds like she can’t stay focused she’ll need the instructions written down. When she doesn’t get the reward, she might change the behavior.

    I might even change the meeting rules to be 1 thing each and keep it to just the “needs help with.” Does everyone really need to know exactly what their coworkers did last week and something they’re working on now?

  15. Anonymooose*


    I get the intent but…

    “After the first time you ask, if my answer isn’t clear enough, pick up the phone and call so we can figure out where the disconnect is.”

    She might regret opening up this option!

    1. OP Needy's Boss*

      Right? I’m not sure, but I think I should try that a few times to see if it gets her in a position where she’s not needed all the reassurance.

      1. Wisteria*

        I really don’t think there’s a disconnect here. Obviously, I have never met her, so maybe there really is a disconnect. However, based on your description, I am guessing that wanting to ask questions is less about a disconnect and more about processing by going over it a few times. Just suck it up and have a conversation. If you don’t have good skills on directing conversations and wrapping them up clearly by saying things like, OK what I’ve heard is blah blah so your next action will be blah blah, then you will definitely need to work on those skills. Those are good skills to have in general, though, so look at it as a development opportunity for yourself as well as a connection opportunity with your employee. 10 minutes with her on the phone that you see as valuable could change your life. At least, it is worth trying this strategy for a few weeks.

      2. Ashely*

        The pandemic has made me realize the number of my co-workers that struggle with written information. If I previously verbally gave them the same instructions no issue, but now that most things are done by email we are having more and more issues. Could how she learns / comprehends be part of the issue? It is not a great solution if she can’t follow directions in an email but it might help you with the mind reset that I think you are after if you realize giving her the directions verbally might help.

  16. Cordoba*

    I would be very tempted to just send this person the original e-mail again every time she asks a question that was clearly answered in it.

  17. OP Needy's Boss*

    Hi All,

    Some questions are coming up so I thought I’d answer all now.

    1. Needy has been working here for 4 years
    2. she is remote now because of COVID, but can come in the office if/when she wants to (we do make sure everyone is masked and health screened before coming in)
    3. She does good work (not the best rock star out there, but a good employee at what she does) and it’s a field that is hard to hire for.
    4. Things are worse since COVID, as others pointed out, I think this is probably very closely tied to anxiety.
    5. I have spelled out, like Alison suggested, very specifically – when you send me three follow up emails, asking the same thing, you’re adding to my already over loaded emails. It’s distracting. SInce my last – in person- conversation with her about this, that behavior has calmed down a lot.

    I would love tips on how to get back to a more even keel with her. Now just seeing her, or an email from her, annoys me, I’d love any tips people have on reframing my thoughts while I continue to work with her on the other issues (which, honestly, are nothing that she would be let go for).

    1. Quill*

      More from a “dealing with people” than any management perspective, but is it possible to block out some time that you are NOT available for questions to give yourself a break? Maybe require her to write her questions down during that time instead of coming up with one, reaching out, and then adding another, and subsequently losing the answers in a disorganized email chain?

      I don’t know how routine your field is but if your employee’s short term memory is shot due to stress, maybe requiring her to write down some sort of “cheat sheet” for FAQ’s or for the steps in a process to refer to instead of asking you would help?

      A sort of hybrid checklist + experiment instructions plan works for me for tasks that have lots of fiddly bits but aren’t done consistently enough to become routine.

    2. Four lights*

      Given that she is anxious and it has gotten worse after covid–i wonder if she’s worried about job security??

      1. OP Needy's Boss*

        Our industry is growing during COVID, so no, I don’t think any one here is worried that the pandemic is going to end their job. But because of the growth, it has created a LOT of stress for us all.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s not anxious about keeping her job. It may just be that the job is outgrowing her ability to hold it down rather than the company no longer being able to pay her.

    3. Almost Empty Nester*

      Others may have more eloquent advice to reset your thoughts about her, but my only thought is that she needs to go on a vacation so you can be without the constant follow up and such for at least a week! That might do wonders for your mental health where she’s concerned.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          And EmptyNest is suggesting that Needt now go for a week so you get a chance to center yourself at work.

    4. BadWolf*

      This might sound stupid, but maybe short term, you can do some self positive reinforcement. Email from Needy? Eat a snack (read AMM, etc). Or mental gold star (or check on a post it) adding up to some other reward.

    5. "Helpful" Sister*

      I have a direct report that reminds me a lot of this person. I find that when I respond to their emails/issues VERY quickly (like within a few minutes), it seems to encourage them and they send more and more. If I let their email sit for half a day or so (which, of course, I would not do if the question were truly urgent), they don’t seem to ramp up their question speed as much.

      It might be useful to set an email rule that sends her emails to a folder, if the nature of your work allows it. Then you could review it at your chosen time(s) of day instead of having her pop up unexpectedly. As far as reframing, maybe if you had a canned sentence to repeat to yourself, it would help – something like “X is having a hard time right now” to replace the natural reaction of “Argh! X is so annoying!”

      1. Sparkles McFadden*

        I like this. You get to control when you have to look at Needy’s emails and it won’t be that punch of irritation when her emails pop up in the inbox.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          That may be a challenge given that OP’s email is already overloaded. I have a similar inbox and if I let something sit for an hour or two, I may as well have never received it for as many emails end up on the stack after it.

            1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

              That inbox is my personal inbox.

              At work, if you can’t reprimand me or fire me, and you don’t type my name into one of the To, CC, or BCC fields, your email goes to junk. I only miss ~3 relevant emails per year.

              1. Kevin Sours*

                Nothing is stopping the OP from shifting emails from this individual to their own folder and reviewing them at leisure. There shouldn’t be any reason for them to get lost in the shuffle as you seem concerned about.

                1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                  5. I have spelled out, like Alison suggested, very specifically – when you send me three follow up emails, asking the same thing, you’re adding to my already over loaded emails. It’s distracting. SInce my last – in person- conversation with her about this, that behavior has calmed down a lot.

                  I don’t think OP’s email is as manageable as you want to assert.

                2. Kevin Sours*

                  I have no idea why you think that is relevant. To back up somebody suggested that the OP not respond immediately to this persons email. You stated that in a busy inbox if you don’t respond immediately emails can get lost in the press of emails: “I let something sit for an hour or two, I may as well have never received it for as many emails end up on the stack after it”

                  However if you shift this persons emails out of the inbox, then nothing but her emails will “end up on the stack after it”. It doesn’t change the overall number of emails, but it does allow coming back to them later without worrying about them getting lost in the shuffle.

                  Which is useful if you want to treat them with a lower priority.

          1. Sparrow*

            I don’t think the overloaded inbox impacts the effectiveness of this tactic. In fact, I would see the overloaded inbox as more reason to do it. If you have a specific folder that Needy’s emails (and ONLY Needy’s emails) go to, they’re not going to get lost in a larger flood and OP doesn’t have to see them constantly pop up and stress about it. She can check it once a day or whatever is appropriate.

    6. Threeve*

      I try to be sympathetic when someone’s frustrating behavior is because of anxiety or unhappiness, but sometimes I just have to focus on “man, I’m glad I’m not you.”

    7. Washi*

      I had a coworker with behaviors sort of like these, and it came to a head when I was training everyone on a new system and she wanted SO MUCH handholding, way more than anyone else, and would be visibly piqued by being encouraged to try it herself/read the manual/etc. I would tense up even just seeing that she was getting up to come talk to me.

      What helped was:
      1. Taking a break – I had been under more stress around my workload than I acknowledged, and taking a few days off from work and therefore from her was a great refresher.
      2. Mentally cutting myself off from ruminating about how much she annoyed me. I had developed this little running internal monologue of “ahh, seriously? why does she do this? this is so annoying” and also I would save up anecdotes of her ridiculous questions to tell my husband when I got home.

      But all of that wasn’t really helping me! I had to make a huge effort to just…not think about her as much. I was kind of riling myself up and it was making things worse. I know you’re her manager, but maybe you would be able to compartmentalize and deal with her during check ins and when giving assignments, but try not to spend time just…stewing.

      1. H2*

        I think this is good advice—she’s under your skin and that’s making every interaction fraught. She can probably tell you’re annoyed with her, which makes her more needy…

        Getting out of the cycle is probably easier said than done, but I agree that thinking of her with some sympathy and that letting her emails sit for a while would be helpful. Maybe she can have a task that really plays to her strengths to help both of you reset? Maybe separating and prioritizing the behavior that is really harmful from the behavior that’s just annoying, and handling bit by bit?

      2. OP Needy's Boss*


        Yes, I’m doing #2, you’re right. She’s taking up so much of my headspace.

        I will try to do as you suggest and not give her that space. Thank you

        1. Not So NewReader*

          You are probably a person who wants everyone to succeed. But not everyone does. Or they succeed somewhere else not with us.

          Don’t carry her emotions for her. If you worry or get frustrated these emotions are probably an extension of the emotions she is having. Tell yourself, “I will not carry/wear her emotions for her.” I found this to be a great way to detach and just non-emotionally, explain to the person “We need X behavior, not Y behavior.”
          I tend to do a similar thing with crying people. I have seen in here where people don’t want to deal with crying people. I’ll deal with tears but I will not deal with anger or slamming things. That’s my boundary. But same with crying people, I use a very flat voice and refuse to carry/wear their emotions for them. If they need me to explain something I will, but that does not mean I am going to change my mind or get emotionally hung up on their setting. I knew what I was saying was the best for them to remain as employees in our company.

    8. LinesInTheSand*

      These situations are like injuries: you have to leave it alone and let yourself heal for a bit. Then you rehab.

      First and foremost: take a break. If there’s a way for you to stop all interactions with this employee for a few days, do it. If that means you take a long weekend, maybe that’s what it means. I know this isn’t realistic in all jobs and all roles, but take a good hard look at your situation and figure out if it’s at all possible for you to not look at emails, not answer the phone when it’s her, etc. If you can’t take time off and you can’t avoid email on weekends, that’s something else to think about. This is time for you to heal the injury without irritating it or making it worse. It’s important that you *know* you won’t be bothered.

      Then: You’ve given yourself some healing time, and it’s time to plan the rehab. List the most problematic interactions you have, clearly define your own boundaries, and decide in advance how you’re going to enforce them. Maybe her updates always come last at the status meeting, and maybe those meetings have a hard stop. Maybe her email goes into a special folder that only gets checked once per day. Maybe her phone calls go straight to voicemail so they can be triaged. She’s employing these behaviors because they’re working for her, so it’s time to make them ineffective. High stress interactions are less stressful when you’ve decided in advance how you want them to play out. You’re the boss, so you’ve got all the power here.

      Relatedly, now is a great time to play the “I’m a busy manager” card. You’ve got tons of stuff on your plate, and it’s not lying or rude to cut interactions short when they’re getting in the way of you getting stuff done.

      After that: This is the actual reframing part. Check in with yourself regularly to evaluate the interactions you’re having with her. Look for evidence that they’re getting better. Take time to concentrate on any conversations that *do* go well, and look for opportunities to add some dimension to the relationship that isn’t pure work. If you’re having regular 1:1s with her, maybe you spend 5 minutes chit chatting. This is on purpose, and it’s to remind you both that you can have *pleasant* interactions with her.

      I had to do something similar with a family member who only ever called to either ask for money or tell me she was in the ER. I wish you all the best.

    9. Ally McBeal*

      I posted this upthread, but it occurs to me that the off-the-cuff nature of the three-nuggets agenda item could use tweaking. You might try circulating a collaborative agenda (e.g. in a Google Doc) a few days before the meeting and make it your team’s practice to list their nuggets as brief bullet points. They can expand on the nuggets verbally at the meeting, but writing down her to-do items might help her frame her contributions better and cut down on anxious rambling.

      As far as reframing… I think you have to have that serious and direct conversation that Alison recommends, then mentally wipe the emotional slate clean and think of this as a fresh start. Give her a chance to prove you wrong about bad habits dying hard. If you’re not naturally empathetic, practice that (if she had issues with anxiety before the pandemic, good lord she must be struggling now). But also make sure you’re being compassionate to yourself, not just in the workplace but all areas of life; maybe your frustration is bubbling up because the pandemic is impacting you more than you think and (as Captain Awkward would say) you’re low on spoons.

      1. OP Needy's Boss*

        We use Teams and the agenda is there. I think I will ask everyone to pre-fill in the roundtable update.

        And, you’re right, I’m super low on spoons these days.

    10. NotAnotherManager!*

      Okay, decent worker in a hard to fill role with interpersonal challenges, I’ve got that t-shirt. I work in field that is rife with them, and, yeah, some days I take a deep breath before I pick up the phone or click on the email. I love them for the work they do, but they stress me out royally waiting for the next mop-and-bucket exercise. Here are a few things that have worked for me:

      Can either of you take a vacation, even if it’s just a long weekend, to give a few days for you to refresh?

      Can you rule/filter her emails into a folder that you look through a few times a day to deal with it all at once and when you’ve had a chance to mentally prepare for it, possibly with chocolate? (This may not work – would not in my deadline-driven world – but other people might be able to.)

      Do you think that meeting with her on a regular, scheduled basis and having her save small things for that meeting would help her feel less anxious/needy and you to compartmentalize the time with her? Praising for progress on issues you’ve discussed may also help bring her anxiety down a little.

      Can you assign her to work on things where a coworker would be the primary point of contact, assuming she would not drive them batty (or that they’d have an escape hatch)?

      Could you do any sort of mindfulness, meditation, or even CBT exercises to manage the reaction in the moment? If not, what about picking something she did that make your life easier or that she did a good job on and try to think about that for a few minutes?

      1. OP Needy's Boss*

        All good strategies. Thank you

        Like you, deadline driven world, so the email filter won’t really work. But upping our 1:1 meetings back to weekly instead of monthly may help. And the mindfulness, yes, I think I need to work on that.

    11. Marni*

      #5 sounds like you’re still framing this as collaborative problem-solving, as opposed to a directive. You don’t need her to understand or internalize *why* her constant questions aren’t appreciated. In fact that sounds a little like expecting her to manage *your* feelings. Don’t try so hard to get consensus from her that her behavior is a problem — just instruct her on what you need her to do/not do.

  18. planetmort*

    I had employee somewhat like this years ago. She also asked the same question over and over and OVER, and when I would cut her off, she’d go over my head, one memorable time to my great-grandboss. In her particular case it was not trusting me to know what I was doing, as well as a deep conviction that whatever she thought was correct if if multiple people told her otherwise, even on objective items like “which box do I check on this form?”. She thankfully no longer works at my workplace.

    I don’t think that’s what is going on here, however. Given the additional information provided by OP, I’d say this is an employee prone to anxiety who is experiencing a pronounced uptick in same, which is totally understandable, given the circumstances of the world. That’s not an excuse, but I think it means this isn’t a PIP-worthy (!) offense. I think Alison’s advice is spot on – nip this in the bud, clearly and immediately, and accept she might be hurt or unhappy, at least initially.

  19. redwinemom*

    Have you asked her to tell YOU what she needs to do when assigned a project (using the emails you sent to her with your instructions)?
    I’ve had an employee somewhat similar to yours. When she came to me for more clarification, I had HER re-phrase the assignment in her own words. And then I praised her for understanding that she knew what needed to be done.
    After a few times of this, I think it helped her realized that she did know and understood the assignments. Eventually she almost stopped asking those questions completely.
    Good luck!

    1. I edit everything*

      This is a great idea. It’s widely acknowledged that teaching other people is a great way to learn something, so if she can tell you, OP, what she needs to do, it will reinforce your instructions and build her self confidence, since she’s exhibiting to herself that she does know her stuff.

      I wonder how much of her wandering around and talking is anxiety-fueled procrastination. “I’m not sure how to get started on this task, so I’m going to take a walk. I think I need coffee…Oh, I’d better take a bathroom break, and then I’ll be able to concentrate better.” And talking with other people gives positive affirmation, because people are polite, and it gives her the warm fuzzies and allows her to further put off getting started on the task that’s making her feel twitchy. “Oh, look, I finished my coffee. I think I’ll go get a glass of water.”

      1. nonegiven*

        Could she be more anxious because she isn’t able to wander around talking to people when she is WFH because that’s how she is used to dealing with anxiety?

        1. theletter*

          If that’s the case, adopting a dog/cat/goldfish/rubber duck might help her, just to have someone in the house to engage with – but this is probably a lot for a manager to suggest.

    2. Jillith*

      Yeah this is sound advice I’d say! I’d just speak to her and say “I always try and be as clear as possible in emails so that you have all the info you need to get on with a given task without any further input from me, but I’ve noticed you always come back with questions so I’m wondering if I’m not being as clear as I intend to be. Next time do you mind just pointing out which items seem ambiguous to you and I’ll try and give a bit more detail in that area going forward so that there’s no confusion”. It does sound like she is the issue not OP, but people’s brains work in different ways and she may not read what is obviously between the lines for most people familiar with the role… You definitely don’t want to tell her not to ask for clarification as that will end up in the nightmare of having tons of work to correct/redo because she wasn’t sure and didn’t want to ask so just ploughed ahead and did it incorrectly (we’ve all had co-worker like this!)

  20. Kevin Sours*

    A common refrain here is for the need for direct feedback. Usually that’s in the context of problematic behaviors — which is appropriate — but it can also be helpful to reinforce good behaviors. For instance you say “She does good work”. Have you told her that straight out? If some of these behaviors are driven by anxiety only harping on the negative could make things worse.

    For instance with the repeated follow emails something like “I trust your judgement. If you a make a mistake we’ll catch it when we do the review. Honestly its easier to fix the minor stuff on review than to keep talking about.” Of course that would have to be true and you’d have to follow through and not make a big deal over minor mistakes.

    Or something like “I know you are fully tasked and getting your tasks done — I’m really just looking for a summary of the three most important things you are dealing with.”

    At some level if she’s performing well, “you’ve got this” may be what she really needs to hear.

    1. Sunflower*

      I really agree with this. What I’m seeing here is an employee who doesn’t have confidence in her skills or may not feel empowered to make decisions. I’m not sure if that’s it but my guess is since OP says she’s a good employee, it’s this rather than someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing or is incapable.

      I’ve been this employee before- I work somewhere where we often have to read between the lines and guess at what clients are looking for. It can be really tough to know when to go back for more information or make the call on your own. Or to feel like your workload isn’t being recognized. I’m constantly being hammered in by my boss that I need to showcase the work I’m doing – it could be that your employee thinks that’s what’s being asked with the 3 nuggets of information.

      It seems like this could be a relatively easy fix and I’d suggest starting here or trying to get to the root of the problem before telling her to stop again. Some of the suggested script would upset me if my boss hadn’t tried to speak to me first about why I was doing what I was doing.

      1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        Good point. If the employee has been in this role for four years, I wonder if there’s an expectation of cruising-altitude autonomy that she’s unable or unwilling to take on. Getting to the bottom of this is tricky, because there are some individual contributors who see deference as being an important feature of their jobs and where they sit in their organization’s hierarchy. It doesn’t matter how much decision-making authority their manager wants to delegate to this, they won’t colour outside the lines and won’t function if you don’t draw the lines for them. If she’s one of them, then more reassurance isn’t going to change things.

    2. WFH with Cat*

      Very good points, Kevin Sours!

      To the OP: You may find that taking the time to think more deeply about what she does well, and to point those things out to her, could also help you. It’s a lot easier to relax and deal with someone who is doing many things right than someone who is doing everything wrong … and I do believe you’ve fallen into the habit of thinking only of the things she does wrong. Perhaps it’s time to recast your view a bit. Instead of thinking of her behavior as needy, what if you thought of her as being very, very detail-oriented and conscientious? Yes, she’s going overboard, and some things (like talking too much and not reading conversational cues) are problematic, but re-focusing your conversations to include some positive comments might help you both.

  21. JSPA*

    Why not redirect her need to re-ask, by explicitly changing the format and the process?

    “I appreciate that you like to confirm that you’ve understood instructions. Please do so in the form of a single set of summary statements, not a series of questions. In the unlikely event that your summary is off-base in any substantive way, I will correct only that issue or aspect; you may then assume that the remainder of your summary is correct and approved.”

    Rationale: whether the behavior is rooted in some comprehension or language problem, generalized anxiety problem, bad training, social awkwardness, past abuse or dang near anything else, you can take what’s currently an irksome, time-sucking negative and turn it into a tool for mutual clarity and self empowerment. So, why not do it?

    1. juliebulie*

      I like this a lot. Better than having her speak it back to OP, have her write it. Then she’ll have something to refer to when OP replies “yes”.

      (I reply to these kinds of lengthy “clarification” emails as briefly as possible, hoping that the sender will be inspired by my brevity and someday try to be more concise. Hasn’t worked yet. But it does take a lot less time for me to type.)

    2. Sedna*

      Seconding this- I have trouble with anxiety at work sometimes, and responding with a summary of what I’m planning to do for a new or complicated task has been a very helpful tool. It lets me make sure my boss and I are on the same page, while minimizing the time she needs to be involved (and thus maximizing the chance I get a response from her, since she’s so busy!)

  22. Kevin Sours*

    In terms of what you can do.
    1) Become less available. You have stuff to do. Structure meetings so you can prep. Send her emails to a folder and check them when you are less stressed.
    2) Explicitly delegate things. Instead of digging into the third repetition of the question, tell her to run with it and check back with you at the scheduled meeting time.
    3) Only respond immediately to things that need an immediate response.
    4) If she bugs you about something that didn’t need your attention, tell her so explicitly. “You had this, next time just go with it”.

    Generally budget the energy you are spending on this one employee.
    Obviously if she needs constant supervision to get things done satisfactorily, this won’t work. But at that point you need to reconsider the “does good work” angle.

  23. Green Mug*

    Question that I’m embarrassed to ask except that I feel pretty safe that this community won’t judge me. When addressing the employee’s behavior that occurs in a meeting, do you use Alison’s language on the spot as the employee is rambling (in front of the team), or do you talk with the employee privately later?

    1. Kevin Sours*

      Privately later. In the moment all that is necessary is to shut down the rambling and get the meeting on track. As gently as possible (but no more gently). Just move things along to the next person, ignore it if they act hurt, and follow up later to smooth things out.

    2. Sparkles McFadden*

      I’d speak to the person privately and lay it out with Alison’s language. If I had to cut her off during the meeting, I’d do that as quickly as possible saying “Thanks, let’s move along to the next person” and then follow up with her afterwards.

    3. OP Needy's Boss*

      I have actually done both.

      First off, I work with the whole team to explain

      Round table is to let the team know (we all work pretty silo’d)
      1. what you did last week (that you’re impressed with, that made an impact or was significant – just to keep the team updated on what each is working on).
      2. What will you be focused on this week (just one thing, we all have a million things we’re working on, but what is the one thing you think will be impactful, move the needle, take a lot of time?)
      3. do you need help with anything. While the team works primarily independently, we’re all here to help each other. Do you need some additional support this week on a project(s)

      So, when I realized this was an issue (just listing and listing and listing EVERYTHING she was working on) I asked her in our 1:1 to just stick to the 3 things. When she went back to listing and listing, I would cut her off in the meeting (thanks! That’s way more than 3, do you need help with anything this week)

      But there are a few others who were listing too, so I went over the point of the round table, just to keep people updated on some of the work you’re doing. And if anyone else starts to list and list and list, I’ll cut them off, as well (Thanks! Lots going on, do you need help with anything this week?)

      So for me, it’s been a combination of private and public conversations.

      1. Kevin Sours*

        One of the important rules of running meetings, especially status meetings, is that you are everybody’s manager and not their friend. Keep the meeting on track, deal with bent feelings later. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be diplomatic, but if people get upset because you cut off a ramble then that’s more of “them” problem.

      2. theletter*

        I had to lead a regular meeting like this, and I found some things to be useful:

        If the team’s work is interconnected, you might actually want to switch to a daily scrum format with a project board. The benefit here is that people focus on what they are working on ~Today~ and what’s blocking them ~Today~. With daily repetition, people pick up on how concise they need to be.

        If the team’s work is NOT interconnected, and you need this meeting to get weekly updates on similar but distinct projects, organizing an agenda by project can be extremely effective. It forces the participant to speak to Project Llama specifically instead of giving them the floor to talk about whatever comes to mind. I’ve found this to be extremely effective in meetings where the round robin style only reinforced low engagement and stale development.

        If what you really need is some sort of mood board to gauge people’s moral and engagement, some sort of late week training sesh/brain storm/happy hour might be more effective – let people speak casually and collaborate socially, and then move everything that would have been a ‘three things’ topic to 1×1’s.

        1. theletter*

          so I re-read your comment and realized that the meeting you’re trying to run is a retrospective. There’s a million ways to run a retrospective, but a key piece of it is having people write down their thoughts on a board anonymously. If you have everyone do this, she’ll figure out how the pattern works.

  24. Joanne*

    One thing I did when I had a BEC coworker at a previous job was to make an effort to chat with her about non-work stuff when I saw her in the kitchen or wherever (obviously pre-COVID). This helped me to reset my mental associations with her (she was a lovely person) so I wasn’t only thinking about how much she annoyed me. It also helped to balance out my interactions with her, so that she didn’t only ever encounter me being curt about work things.

    1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      Is that necessarily going to work, if one of her issues is that she can’t read social cues, refuses to exit conversations, and bothers people with casual conversation when they are trying to work?

      1. Joanne*

        It won’t stop the behaviour, but that’s a separate issue her manager needs to address through the strategies Alison suggested. And as OP posted above, it sounds like she has cut back on some of that behaviour recently. This is about trying to reset OP’s relationship with her employee, so she isn’t constantly irritated by her.

  25. Another Anxious Employee*

    You mentioned she does have anxiety and as another anxious person sometimes I just need to hear my worst thoughts negated by someone else. I don’t know if this would be appropriate to your work but for me hearing something like, “You are not in danger of being fired even if you make a mistake on this or other projects” would go a long way to cutting down on my repetitive questions. To the three things I would want to hear “We just need to hear about three. I know you are working hard and working on more than three things, but for the meeting’s sake lets stick to that number.”

    Since she’s a good employee make sure you tell her she’s a good employee. Without the compliment sandwich even.

    1. Allonge*

      I think this is veering into mind reading territory though? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to hear these things, but it’s probably not reasonable to expect your manager to intuit you need them.

      1. Kevin Sours*

        Not really. Imposter Syndrome is a thing and managers need to be aware of it. And telling people periodically that they’re doing okay and meeting expectations is as important a part of management as correcting problematic behavior. You can’t necessarily know which employees really need that feedback, but it’s almost certain that some of them do.

        1. Allonge*

          Telling people that they are meeting expectations is essential. Telling people (out of the blue) that they are not in danger of being fired is going to cause a lot of anxiety for people who were not thinking of this at all, but now they are.

          Like, if my boss told me I was in no danger of being fired, I would ask where this came from, and are there people in danger of being fired, or was I in danger of being fired but not any more, or what level of mistakes warrant being fired then etc. You can cause just as much anxiety as you could potentially resolve.

          People can _ask_ for this kind of reassurance. Don’t assume that your boss will know when you need it, especially if it’s all hypothetical.

  26. DapperDev*

    Geez, what happened to giving direct feedback and holding people accountable to those standards? Goodness, some employers just don’t value their staff. That exactly why some managers respond this way to having to do their jobs..

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I actually think that OP has shown strong professional maturity in wanting to examine her own thoughts/feelings, and her further comments in this thread elaborate on the fact the employee has, in fact, been given direct feedback on multiple occasions and referred to the company’s EAP. I’m not sure what else you’d ask her to do.

      OP’s comments also further clarify that she’s looking for strategies to manage her own feelings productively so they *don’t* affect how she interacts with the source of the those feelings, which is exactly what I’d want from someone in that situation. If you’re someone who doesn’t struggle with being frustrated by irritating people, you’re a rare case. Having an emotional reaction is fine; dumping that on your staff is not.

      And, as to the “don’t value their staff” – someone who didn’t value their staff would be asking “how do I get rid of this person?” not asking “how can I manage my own negative feelings about them?”.

      1. BRR*

        Yes all of this. The LW has given a lot of direct feedback and is concerned that her personal irritation is going to affect her management. But a lot of her frustration is in fact professional issues and between the letter and follow up comments I would love to have this LW as a manager. Sometimes an employee is good at most of their job but just needs a little more of their manager’s attention.

      2. DapperDev*

        Yes, I agree! I meant to respond to the first comment in the thread. Sorry, I submitted this comment without a username, and when I hit back it loaded my comment outside of the thread. Should have double-checked. Very embarrassing!

    2. DapperDev*

      Oh oops! I’m really embarrassed by this, but I meant to respond to the first comment in the thread.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Oh, gosh, I’ve done that several times since the last upgrade myself! Your comment makes perfect sense in response to the first one re PIPs as a veiled hint to move on.

  27. Seal*

    I had a similarly needy staff member at my previous job. While everyone agreed that she did not have a mean bone in her body, she was also a bit manipulative and socially awkward in addition to being needy, which drove everyone nuts. Compounding the problem was that she had previously reported to a bullying micromanager who made her – and only her – account for every minute of every day for YEARS in the hopes of improving her performance. So this poor woman was getting nothing but negative feedback no matter how hard she tried to do well and fit in.

    From a managerial perspective, she was actually very smart and detail oriented and did certain things very well. After some trial and error, I landed on the right combination of duties and responsibilities that played to her strengths and was mindful of that when making work assignments. She also had a bad habit of asking questions and raising concerns about minor issues that didn’t need my input, but trying to resolve major issues that she knew nothing about without consulting with me that always ended in disaster. As it turned out, setting hard boundaries with her and being direct were very effective in curbing those behaviors and actually reduced her anxiety level. She still needed reminders on a semi-regular basis about what she could and couldn’t do in the office, but she ultimately became a fairly productive member of my staff. Managers in other departments who had known her for years were amazed and impressed by her progress.

    Don’t get me wrong – the woman still drove me nuts on many occasions! But I saw my role as trying to direct her rather than control her and think I got good results. Her wild and unintentionally hilarious tangents in conversation and in staff meetings still make me laugh and shake my head. And she regularly told people how happy and proud she was to be working in my department, which made me feel good. I’m glad I didn’t give up on her, although I certainly wouldn’t want more than one of her on my staff at any given time!

  28. yala*

    This isn’t exactly me trying to diagnose worker, so much as noticing that: not reading body language/cues, talking too long, asking questions about things that seem clear are things that I often struggle with being Autistic.

    Whether or not she is, things that have helped me with the first two are clear boundaries. I like Allison’s script regarding the “three things from this week” (does it really need to be three? I’m amazed anyone can come up with Three Things right now, since all my things mostly “watched a show.”). It might be helpful to give her a general timeframe, eg: “generally, we’re trying to just give each person a minute or so to talk before moving on.”

    Getting her to understand body language is a little more difficult. You could encourage folks to be more direct? “I need to leave now.” “I need to get back to work now.”

    As for the questions…I don’t know. That’s something I’ve run into, where my supervisor and I seem to communicate sideways. She’ll say something and think she’s being perfectly clear, but to me there’s two or three ways said instructions could be taken. Or I’ll say something, or ask a question, and think I’m being perfectly clear, but get a response completely unrelated to the actual thing I was asking.

    Anxiety is definitely something that heightens my odds of misunderstanding–it usually comes from overthinking things.

    I like the suggestion someone had upthread of having her reiterate, written, what she needs to do, in her own words. Hopefully just going over it once like that for herself will help her rubber ducky some of the simpler issues, and get her thoughts in order so she asks the questions she needs and understands the answers she gets.

    1. Yes, This.*

      Being also autistic, I found this to match a bunch of my experiences too, at least loosely. Reading the appropriate timing for workplace conversation, communication mismatches and repetition to ensure instruction is understood, having too many details ready and trouble sorting them, it actually took me a moment to realize that the reason Alison didn’t *immediately* think “Oh, this is probably an autistic employee.” is because I’m way more immersed in this than Alison probably is.

      For the chatting and body language thing, while I agree that direct language could be some help, I wonder (assuming anyone wants to acknowledge the high plausibility that these are autistic traits) if anyone’s open to just giving the other workers any training on neurodiverse socialization? So frequently when dealing with groups, even having *one* person that recognizes autistic socialization makes such a ludicrous difference in how well the conversation goes.

      That “sideways” communication is also very familiar. I remember one boss I had who I *swear* would convey something as a loose suggestion for things I can do if I run out of regular work… and I’d learn months later that this was actually a project with a rough due date (never a set one, just an approximate timeline) so if I had other tasks and never got to it, that was taken as my disinterest in completing that task (a group of us shared work, so it was always just reallocated to a colleague, but still).

      So many folks seem to read this as a serious problem. I’m better at masking these days, but (exhaustion of that aside) I do *remember* a time when I was read as a serious problem for just not being “normal” enough too. The world of difference when neurotypical folks try to do even just 10% of the understanding where the communication is different is so night and day that I have a hard time conveying it. Every *good* job I’ve had involved either reporting to someone familiar with autism, or working directly alongside people familiar with autism.

      Short of figuring out that familiarity though, I’d generally urge the manager to at least try some new approaches to troubleshooting direct communication. The manager being so sure that everything is being conveyed clearly just sounds like so many experiences where I’d learn someone hated being around me, and by the time I’d learn about it the list of reasons was dozens of things long and I’d been oblivious to all of it. Continuing with folks’ advice about treating this as misbehavior just feels so incredibly likely to be a shock to the employee. I hope *someone* in the workplace figures out a better approach to communication before it gets to that.

      (Also, the employee is “she”? If she *is* autistic, she might not even *know* about it. The medical community generally sucks at neurodiversity, but the combination of autistic and feminine is one of the ones it’s extra bonus bad at. Part of me kind of wonders what her take on this situation is?)

  29. Conspiracy-Industrial Complex*

    “Oh, I just want to make sure I’m fully understanding….”

    Response: “Okay, then. Which specific part is confusing?”

  30. Sedna*

    I recognize some of my anxious behaviors in this employee! In my case, it stemmed both from general anxiety and specific bad experiences at old jobs (i.e. being told that I needed to leave a job because I was doing poorly, without being told there was a problem in the first place). I have gotten a lot better about my work anxiety in the past few years. Ymmv, but here are some of the things that helped me and might help her:

    – Regular, but brief, check-ins. I meet my current boss every week for 15 minutes so I can update her on what I’m doing and she can tell me what I should prioritize. (This may also help address the oversharing at the main meeting.)

    – Clear and regular feedback on what I am doing correctly and what I need to improve on. OP may have already done this, but if you’re clear that her other work is good but her neediness/initiative needs to improve, she may be more willing to focus on that.

    – Handling mistakes calmly. I was much more willing to take initiative on progress once I knew that making an error was not the end of the world – i.e. that while my boss might be frustrated, her focus would be on having me fix the problem and prevent it from recurring, not on berating me. (Again, OP may already be doing this, but going over how you handle errors may help her feel more confident.)

    Other than that OP, it sounds like you’re doing everything right. You can be polite and still very direct with this person about the behaviors they need to improve to reach their full potential. At that point, it’s up to them to figure out what they need to do to meet those goals.

  31. Autumnheart*

    I guess I’d be interested in knowing how much of this behavior is new (sounds like asking the same question multiple times is new), and how much has been around since she was hired (talking to coworkers without being able to tell when they want to get back to work? Needing to be cut off in meetings? Being told directly to stop doing something but still does it? Needing to make a performance out of how busy she is?).

    If these behaviors are all new, then that would be easier to chalk up to the pandemic and overall anxiety-inducing environment, since OP mentioned that their business is growing and everyone is experiencing stress. Maybe this is how it manifests for the staff member, and if she’s been a good employee otherwise and now she’s showing cracks, she might not be the only one, and maybe others on the team are better at hiding it.

    If, however, the staff member has been around for 4 years, and been the “office chatterbox who is SO BUSY and can’t follow directions” all 4 years…then chances are the staff member has been getting on everyone’s last nerve for a while. She might perform her particular job well, but does that really make up for making everyone else’s job more difficult and unpleasant, including yours? If OP were a job-seeker, we’d say, “Maybe it’s time to look around to see who else is hiring”, but since OP is a manager, maybe it’s time to look around and see who else is looking?

  32. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

    I don’t have the energy to engage very much with this now as I’m dealing with a unexpected draining situation of my own, but just wanted to add that I think both of these things (and, by extension, other ‘annoying’ behavior of hers) could be explained by previous overly influential experiences. Even if not, it seems driven by anxious motives of some sort.

    For whatever reason, she doesn’t trust that instructions received once, even if it is in writing, are enough to be sure of what to do. Needs everything to be made explicit? why?

    For whatever reason, she perceives the “what I did last week, what I’m working on this week and any blockers” as a trap of some kind. Like it doesn’t capture what she is doing, so it needs a fuller explanation. It does seem to minimise the nuances of the job, actually.

    I feel like walking around talking to everyone is an anxious sort of response in its own right, (drawing from my own experience though) rather than intending to distract people, it may be a way to cope with an uncertain situation.

    If someone’s behaviour changes, look to what has changed externally (or even internally); behaviour doesn’t generally change unprompted.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      For whatever reason, she doesn’t trust that instructions received once, even if it is in writing, are enough to be sure of what to do. Needs everything to be made explicit? why?

      With lingual meaning-drift and personal dialects, this is the one part of OP’s needy employee’s behavior that I totally get. Lest anyone think it’s a new phenomenon, that depends on what your definition of “is” is.

  33. Ashely*

    Since you are thinking about how to be less annoyed with this person while you are working through managerial issues maybe try the deep cleansing breath think of three good things about her type philosophy. Maybe if you think about how you would reset a relationship with an acquaintance who become annoying for whatever reason and try work versions of those tricks for this employee. If you can do a Monday morning refresh that might help too … assuming you get a few hours from when you start your day and have to interact with them.

  34. Autistic Social Worker*

    I’m going to write this hoping the OP will read it, but speaking as an Autistic social worker who has worked with hundreds of Autistic folks, it sounds very likely that this employee is possibly Autistic and may or may not recognise it. Not being able to detect non-verbal signals is super common, as well as the tendency to info dump details without knowing how much to say in any given context. The fact she also needs to ask for clarification to instructions three can also be a sign of Autism, espetially if the instruction isn’t framed in a way she understands. Finally, it is extremly common for Autistic women to not realize they are Autistic until their early 30s+.

    1. OP Needy's Boss*

      I mean, it’s always a possibility. She is, however, 60. If she is on the spectrum, she’s high functioning enough to have held down jobs and worked as an independent contractor throughout her career.

      1. theletter*

        Anthony Hopkins was diagnosed with Asperger’s in his 70’s.

        But I fully endorse NOT armchair diagnosing, and most of the anxiety described could be attributed to pandemic/sudden WFH.

    2. LGC*

      (Disclaimer: I’m 1) on the spectrum and 2) a guy, so I guess I’m half-qualified to answer this?)

      I actually thought the same thing, but…to be honest, that’s not LW’s place to address that! You’re right that being on the autistic spectrum is underdiagnosed in women and a lot of her behaviors are pretty classic for autism. But it sounds a bit like you’re suggesting LW should help the employee “discover” her autism or even be gentle with her because of her autism, which I strongly disagree with.

      Plus, even “neurotypical” people (or at least people who are neurodiverse but not on the autistic spectrum) can behave like this.

      That said – in that case, I’d just be clear and direct so there’s no room for confusion. (Ex., “Tangerina, I’m interrupting you because you consistently give more than three items, and I’d interrupt anyone else that gives more than three.” Or, “Tangerina, I’m only going to reply to your first email asking for clarifications.)

      Finally, one thing I’ve had to say a lot of is, “Going forward, in any situation where you see X do Y. You do not need to ask me anymore, and please don’t ask me going forward.”

      1. OP Needy's Boss*

        Thanks! Yes, even if she is on the spectrum, it’s not for me to diagnose, but setting those boundaries and the clear language is.

        1. Autistic Social Worker*

          Sure, all of that is true. The reason I’m bringing this up is that a different management style is needed when working with Autistic employees, espetially when setting boundaries in a clear way or detailing expectations, whether or not she might realize she’s Autistic if she is. Just trying to help out everyone involved in this situation.

            1. Happily Self Employed*

              I am Autistic, and I honestly don’t see why clear communication and clear boundaries can’t be considered “Universal Design” for management. I don’t see the advantage of expecting people to take hints and pick up on the culture and read between the lines.

              Depending on implicit rather than explicit standards also has the potential to exclude people who have a different cultural background than the founders. Not necessarily that people from outgroups (race, class, regional, nationality, disability) can’t learn to code-switch and assimilate, but that if they don’t guess the exact nuances of the workplace culture at the interview, they won’t get hired. (When I was last interviewing, “cultural fit” was the big thing everyone focused on after “has used the exact same model of llama shears before so we will have zero training time.”) And any energy your employees are putting into code-switching and assimilation is wasted–it’s not going to productivity or to personal recuperation or growth.

              1. PlainJane*

                I am Autistic, and I honestly don’t see why clear communication and clear boundaries can’t be considered “Universal Design” for management. I don’t see the advantage of expecting people to take hints and pick up on the culture and read between the lines.

                God, yes. I’m not even autistic (that I know of), and man, do I hate the “pick up on hints” culture. Hints vary so much from person to person, and, as you mention, from culture to culture, that it’s absurd to not just be clear. Implicit assumptions vary so widely–even when it doesn’t seem obvious, little things like moving from one city to another can be huge because what’s normal and expected in, say, Buffalo, is not what’s normal and expected in LA. Cultural and class differences, even gender differences, can make mincemeat of the social guessing game.

  35. LGC*

    …I REALLY needed this letter today! Mostly because I’m feeling the same way about one of my own employees (although she’s more of the “chaotic and constantly makes a big deal out of things” type rather than the “constantly whiny” type).

    1. OP Needy's Boss*

      I hope you find some help in the response and comments. Lots to think about and hopefully help change for me.

    2. Free Meerkats*

      When I read the headline, my first thought was, “Have I been sleep emailing Alison?”

      While the particulars are different, I’ve gleaned some useful things.

      1. OP Needy's Boss*

        Honestly, it’s kinda nice to know that I’m not the only one out there. I know a lot of people get frustrated with their bosses and staff, but there’s so much good info here today. And, also, OMG, I hope I don’t start sleep emailing.

    3. theletter*

      I also had a mentee who was very similar, and I’ve always worried that I let her down with my reactions too.

  36. Anonymous at a University*

    I find that when I get e-mails from students that say, “Everything about this is confusing, I’m so confused,” or questioning perfectly clear instructions that I gave them (like, “These are the kinds of sources you can use for the assignment,” and someone e-mails me asking, “But what kinds of sources can we use for the assignment?”), it helps for me to realize that a) I can’t answer all generalized confusion anyway, since that was what the assignment or original e-mail already did and b) an amazing amount of people never read all the way to the bottom of an e-mail. I respond to the first by saying, “Tell me specifically what you’re confused on” and if I get a follow-up that says something like, “Everything,” I tell them to reread the original e-mail or assignment, and to the second by just copy-and-pasting. This reduces my workload and my investment in getting it exactly right so that the student will understand.

    If the employee is still doing this on a regular basis, maybe you can use these same techniques? At the very least, it means that you’re not retyping everything for someone who’s only going to ignore it anyway.

  37. I heart Paul Buchman*

    I’m not a manager but I do work with children so I’ve perfected working well with people who frustrate me (because some kids, oh boy). I find the following helpful: deliberately look for commonality or any positives you see about them no matter how small, during frustrating interactions picture someone else listening to your conversation (someone you want to impress with your management skills), pretend you are writing a book about how to manage a difficult employee and this is your case study – actively test best practice methods and record the results.
    Be aware that when someone annoys you and you are aware of that you can over compensate in their favour including by letting them get away with things you wouldn’t accept from others. This actually happens in the classroom a lot even though it is counter intuitive. Good luck!

    1. I heart Paul Buchman*

      Also Google antecedent behaviour consequence model for behaviour modification, it isn’t only for children but can be applied very well in employment contexts. It helps you to be aware of what is reinforcing the behaviour you don’t want to see in the meetings, what positive reinforcement is there or what negative reinforcement is being avoided by giving such detailed updates?

      1. OP Needy's Boss*

        Thank you! ALl helpful. I will look into that behavior consequence model.

        Appreciate it.

  38. staceyizme*

    I really wouldn’t get into the whole “how I feel”/ “how you feel” or “how I SHOULD feel”/ “how you SHOULD feel” analysis. She’s out of line and she’s doubling down even after you’ve been specific in what you need from her. NOBODY needs this much coaching to do their job. (If they do, that’s another matter, but in general terms, you’re working with someone who is gaslighting you. Nicely. But still.) I wouldn’t answer emails that ask the same question over and over. I wouldn’t care if she’s “hurt” or “SO hurt” that you have delineated reasonable professional and personal limits. Go gray- like the rock. Answer a reasonable number of check-in questions. But as SOON as you’ve hit the limit that you’d use with any reasonable adult- STOP. Use your check-ins to reinforce the independent behaviors you need. Don’t hand hold. Don’t soften any language. Don’t assume ANY responsibility for her feelings or her seeming ineptitude. As it stands, you’re working harder to manage her than she is working at her job. It could be a personality disorder. It could be a family systems thing. It could be a coping mechanism for boredom, bad job fit or residual trauma from something unknown. But you’ve got to give her existential burden back to her and let her deal. It sounds like you’re a champion “helper” and with someone like this- who takes undue advantage- that’s not sustainable. You should take notice of your own feelings because they are really trying to tell you something about what is NOT working here. And the next round of adjustments need to be on her end, entirely. You might find it easier to bear with her quirks if you don’t force yourself to tolerate them beyond the norm and don’t assume that it’s your job to “fix” her. That’s her job. You just give a little feedback, ask some good questions and supply needed resources. Hand holding and personalized coaching around how to read a room shouldn’t be part of the package, in her case. She’s had two helpings of your kindness and forbearance and pouts when you try to cut off the “gravy train” of support for her dysfunction. Stop that.

  39. Tiffy*

    I was that employee. I was that perso who was so isecure that I’ve reread answers to Email x-hundred times abd still be afraid to do something wrong so I asked again. And again. And again.
    I was the coworker who couldn’t connect with people at work. Sometimes I was so deep in concentration I forgot to greet people and then I was so upset I tried everything to make it up by harrassing people with endless ‘friendly’ blabbering.
    I thought everyone was just perfect and never made mistakes but I saw all of my mistakes, picking them apart, constantly frightened I could loose my job again and unable to priorise information because to me every single minuscule detail seemed so important.
    And then came, let’s call him Oscar. Like a certain green dweller of a garbage can his personality wasn’t exactly on the sunny side. He was short fused, brutally blunt and always straight to business.
    For me he was the best boss ever because for the first time, he told me exactly what he wanted from me.
    When he got obnoxious long mails he rewrote them in bulletpoints commenting: that’s what I neet from you, that’s what I want to see, send me that or I’ll delete your mail. And so I did.
    If I asked for clarification too much after already getting an answer he called me and said. Just figure it out. I’ll tell you if it’s wrong, you won’t get another answer than you’ve already got and next time I will just delete this kind of spam.
    If I rambled in meetings he took me aside afterwards, gave me a tiny sheet of paper and told me to look at the agenda, prepare what I wanted to tell and if it didn’t fit on the paper it was too long and if I’d get about my alotted time slot for report he’d shush me in front of everyone.
    It was harsh and I cried a lot.
    I finally learned to get to the point in work mails, work meetings and day to day smalltalk.
    Then when I finally started to change he showered me with positive feedback. He’d tell me, in his own gruff way, when he was satisfied whith what I’d done. He gave fair and constructive criticism when needed but always ended it with telling me what he’d liked.
    Today I realize looking back that my boss Oskar was a jerk. He’d never hold back his feelings and showed me in no uncertain terms how annoyed he was when he had to deal with me AGAIN. He didn’t care for me, he only did what he did to get my useless spam out of his mailbox, my chatty self away from him and shut me up in meetings to keep them short.
    But I simply didn’t get the criticism when it was veiled with curtesy. I was unable to read between the lines and people trying to soften the blow just confused me and I couldn’t get the message. I needed a jerk who’d just hit me with my flaws and drill new procedures into me and past my wall of insecurity. I needed someone to tell me: you do that! And you do it this way! And if you don’t I’ll make you do it that way or I make YOU go away!
    I am so grateful for the time he was my boss. I have moved on now. We’re no longer working together but without his bluntness I’d never gotten where I am now. Well liked, respected and in a good position that fits me.
    Please OP, do your employee a favour and be honest! She’s in hell right now, constantly trying to connect, constantly doubting herself, always on defense-mode explaining everything out of fear to be misunderstood. Just tell her, in no uncertain terms, exactly what she needs to do and how to do it. She obviously isn’t able to see by herself so someone needs to point it out for her. And if she changes her behaviour positively show her that you see that too.
    Maybe people do wonder why such people can’t see that they do things differently than everyone else. Well I for my part was so occupied to monitor my own behaviour and modeling it to riddiculous standards I’d snapped up at horrible jobs I had no capacity left to truly look and recognize the behaviour and procedures showed around me.
    I won’t lie. At the beginning I didn’t see the pressure Oscar gave me as positive in any way. Sometimes I was on the edge to just quit. I tried my usual tactics: bargaining why I wasn’t in the wrong, explaining myself, accusing, even crying but Oscar always cut me short and told me exactly what he wanted me to do and wouldn’t let me of the hook so in the end I gave in and did what I was told and saw how much better that was.
    Maybe this employee won’t be able to make the jump. Maybe you’ll have to fire her if this goes on and is too disrupting or maybe she’ll just give up and quit but that’s on her as long as you’re fair and honest.

    1. DapperDev*

      I had a boss like that once and it was amazing. Sometimes ya just need directness. For me, it felt good to get a clear sense of what was acceptable. It actually empowered me and helped me realize I could take the reins more than I initially was. :)

  40. ShortT*

    OP, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that your instructions were impeccably clear. IMO, providing them in writing is doing her a huge favor because she can A) save them and B) refer to them as often as she needs.

    “If I give her instructions via email, she has to write back a minimum of three times asking the same thing.” This…boggles my mind. English is neither my first nor my primary language and I truly don’t understand. “I’ve addressed this by asking her what she needs in the original instructions to make things more clear and she basically says,”Oh, I just want to make sure I’m fully understanding” so not answering the question.” Repeatedly not answering your question and taking up your time doing so is inconsiderately rude. For things like this, she should make an appointment.

    “In our team meetings, we each provide three nuggets of something that you did last week, something you’re working on this week, and if you need assistance on something. She will drone on and on to make sure EVERYONE KNOWS how busy she is.” Take the average time everyone else takes during their turns, add ten seconds, and place a hard limit, as in three things in three rounds of thirty seconds each, max. “I’ve addressed this individually several times (give three, no more) and as a team, I’m asking for three, no more and finally stopping her — “that was three, let’s move on.” Good. You gave her specific feedback, that she reached the same limit that was imposed on everyone else and that y’all needed to talk about other things, not just hers. “But then she’s extremely hurt that I interrupt her and I don’t do that to others (because they’re giving three things).” So? Let her feel hurt. She’s the one who’s not abiding by guidelines that seem to have been clearly laid out for everyone. If she comments about your not interrupting others, just tell her the truth, that they’re abiding by the guidelines, so there’s no need to interrupt them. “These are little things, but I’m over her and that’s not a place that a manager should be.” No…they’re not little things. She’s treating her time as more valuable than everyone else’s. Do you have advice for me to get over myself and adjust my attitude? I know my exasperation is showing, and that’s not who I want to be and it’s not helping her any, either.

    From my POV, I don’t blame you for being exasperated. You’re not responsible for her feelings, so, the only attitude adjustment I’d advise you to make is to keep the rules for your team clear and explicit. If she chooses not to follow them, calmly note that and have it affect her employment record accordingly.

    The most you should do is acknowledge that she’s having a challenging time and point her toward the EAP. Her mental and emotional health is her responsibility. She’s free to not seek professional assistance, but she’s not free from the consequences of not actively participating in a healing process and, instead, foisting the necessary work onto others without their consent.

    I’m speaking as someone with moderate-to-severe social anxiety, depression, perfect-score combined ADHD, and will finally be assessed for ASD within the next four months. I understand not reading the room. I understand poor time management. I understand longing to form connections with other people. I understand nervousness about possibly making a mistake. I also understand that none of that is an excuse to behave as if one were automatically entitled to having everyone else massage her/his/their lambic system.

  41. Amethystmoon*

    Is it possible needy employee has some sort of learning disability? I ask only because I worked with someone who was similar, and I would write his frequently asked questions down but he never seemed to read my FAQs, and just ask the same things repeatedly. He was asking newbie questions 3 years into the job. Yes, I told the manager but manager had his head in the sand. Coworker was one of the multiple reasons I left that job (actually, a huge reason). But he did seem like he had issues with comprehending things sometimes.

    Try writing a FAQ document and maybe it will help your needy employee, maybe it won’t. At least it would be a good resource for their possible eventual replacement, and documentation that you tried to help.

  42. KC*

    Three of the things you’ve identified – can’t read body language, long detailed responses and repeatedly seeking clarification of instructions – make me suspect your employee is neuro-divergent and trying very hard to fit in an environment that is not designed to help her shine. Many adult ADHDers can relate.

    This may be her technique for managing a neuro-divergent condition when everyone around her is neuro-typical.

    The amount of mental effort it takes to *approximate* socially acceptable behaviours in an office environment is huge when you aren’t NT and the anxiety of knowing you never quite get it right is high. This mental effort is on top of a normal workload. Your employee is probably picking up on the disapproval signs and it could be compounding her responses – it’s a viscous circle.

    Maybe worth a non-judgemental coaching one on one to see if there are some strategies you can BOTH use to make it work better for everyone. A circuit breaker.

    Not trying to diagnose remotely, but this employee’s situation could easily be my child’s or people I love and work with – offering a different perspective.

  43. Tech author Liz*

    With the emails, I know that writing unambiguous technical instruction is a skill. If she is saying things like “just to check, you want me to do all of but not the bits that involve , maybe she is wanting to clear up an ambiguity? Can you look back at the original email and see any other possible interpretation? Did you phrase things generally, making the assumption that she’d know not to include certain things?

    If so, can you use the information to be VERY clear in instruction emails. Remove all ambiguity, spell out all details.

    Use her questions to inform your next email to her. Add more detail in the areas she tends to query.

    To you it sounds like a repetition because she has guessed your intent correctly, but I’m guessing there was a time in the past, in the current role or a previous one where she made a guess in an ambiguous situation and was wrong.

    Of course, it might just be her way of having a conversation because you have stopped her chatting with others – if she is not actually gaining any answer at all from you – in that case you can offer to chat socially at lunchtime occasionally or set up an opportunity for her to chat with others (social zoom call?)

  44. T*

    Some of the things you’ve mentioned here sound really similar to struggles that people with ADHD sometimes have in workplaces. I’d recommend taking a look at ‘how to manage people with ADHD well’ resources, as whether or not your employee has a diagnosed condition, if they are struggling with similar-to-adhd-things they may benefit from how-to-manage-things-similar-to-adhd solutions.

    This could be a useful start point video:

    In general, things like giving precise broken down instructions with deadlines, and being clear and direct about behavioural expectations and the reasons for them, can really help, and doing so in a way that makes it clear that it’s the behaviour that they’re exhibiting that is causing problems, not just them being a problem for inherently existing – there’s something called ‘rejection sensitivity dysphoria’ that can kick in as an emotional response to criticism from an authority figure that occurs whether the individual wants to or not.

    None of the above would excuse the behaviour/mean that you need to ‘just put up with it’ – just, sometimes if the normal manuals for helping people fit in well with expectations aren’t working, there may sometimes be other manuals you could try that would maybe work better on brains that work differently.

    Basically – just suggesting that ‘managing people with adhd’ tips might provide resources or tools that you could try that wouldnt necessarily be the ones you’d usually come across.

  45. INTP Manager*

    Oh boy, I could have written this letter about one of my employees – it’s a 100% match with what I’m struggling with. My employee is warm, enthusiastic, hard-working while simultaneously being literally the most needy person I’ve ever met and what a struggle it’s been.

    We took the Myers-Briggs test as a team and it was extremely helpful to learn that her result was ENFP and what that means (especially because my being an all logic, no details necessary INTP is a huge style/preference mismatch).

    We’ve figured out that this works best:
    1) She makes a list of non-urgent ideas, questions, training, brainstorming needs to discuss at her 1:1 instead of whenever a thought occurs to her (because her impulse is to enthusiastically *talk* about it *in person* immediately!). This has been extremely challenging for her to adhere to, but even at her 80%? success rate, it’s a huge improvement. Now it’s a stream of IMs and she’ll cut herself off and before I’ve even replied (or even read them!) she’ll write something about forgetting and to disregard and she’ll bring it to the 1:1. Not ideal (and maybe means she isn’t a fit?), but she’s really making an effort.

    2) When she has something that she needs to talk about “now” she working on pausing to consider the scope of the situation and make notes about all of the questions she has instead of asking one and then following up with a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth over the course of 10 minutes. She’s still working on this one because she gets going in a flow of ideas and enthusiasm and it’s difficult for her to bring it in enough to focus on the actual operational questions except one at a time as they occur to her. We’ve joked about she being 90% enthusiasm and 10% logic and I’m the opposite – both extremes are problematic, but it’s a particularly tough pairing!

    3) The other thing we’ve adopted to prevent the repeated follow up questions and verifications that OP describes is to strive to always have her provide a quick verbal summary (often referring to her notes) of what we’ve said / what the action items are / defining organizational priorities, deliverables or timelines. It probably sounds time consuming, but it’s actually pretty quick and it OFTEN reveals gaps that would have been questions later or misunderstanding/miscommunications, so it feels silly and time consuming, but compared to interruptions later, it’s a no-brainer!

    Verbose post, but we’ve done A LOT of work on this and I’d be thrilled if anything here might help someone else!

  46. PlainJane*

    This seems like a time that you need to have a talk with the employee–not of the “Fix this or else” variety, but of the “What’s going on here?” variety. The repeated clarification requests sound a lot like anxiety caused by prior bad management. I’m also not sure that the “give three things you’re working on” is a great practice–if you want everyone in the loop, maybe ask the team leaders to give a report on their specific tasks, and to come to you outside of meetings if they need help. I think that it’s kind of anxiety-inducing to be asked (as it would seem to me) to justify my hours in company. So maybe switch to, “So, Carrie’s been working on new llama saddle project. Is that ready for Sue and Tommy to start looking at in marketing?” or “Carrie, I just found out that Chris has experience in stirrups… are you at a point where you need that on the saddle team?” Better yet, during the week, check in with employees to see if there’s anything they feel should be addressed in a meeting with other departments. (Eg, where I work, if there’s an issue that’s repeatedly come up with a customer we all deal with, or a new policy that’s causing an unexpected glitch in the work flow to see if anyone has a suggestion.)

    The inability read body language and disengage is a bigger problem, if one that makes me wince, because I’m terrible at it as well, and would definitely cause social anxiety attacks (generally replaying the scene over and over until I couldn’t sleep at night). Have the other employees actually said, “Carrie, thanks for dropping by my cubicle, but I really need to finish ___? Maybe we can chat at lunch.” (Or not.) This just screams “Lonely person who has no one to talk to outside of work.”

  47. Formerly GradStudent*

    Ehhh. I think this could be handled/coached. Sometimes an employee has confidence issues (question asker stated that the employee is generally good at their job, but is this ever stated?). Stating something like, “You seem to be producing good results, since you’ve been with us for x amount of time and know the business, follow the directions on the assignment and just contact me when you have a question. No need to repeatedly confirm directions” could help the employee just take a deep breath and back off.
    Address the lengthy “status updates” directly. “Please keep your status update to under two minutes. Prioritize the most important information.” Note that you’ll also have to enforce this with other employees, but it can help get meetings back on track. It also prevents you from having to address anything like “you complain about being too busy too much!” which can get all weird and personal.
    Additionally, setting up an alternative feedback scenario, like “office hours” once a week (or at whatever interval is convenient for you) for questions and feedback could be useful as well. It could be presented as, “unless you can no longer do ANY work or something is ON FIRE, save the questions and requests for feedback for office hours.” If puts you back in control, as well as makes the employee feel like they can still reach out if they need to. You may need to respond to a few emails at first with “I think this is something you should bring up in office hours!” before the employee gets the point, but, hopefully they pick up on it quickly. I’ve found this to be pretty useful anyway, especially with scenarios where there are multiple projects in the air: collect all the questions, have a rapid-fire, efficient Q&A on the calendar at a regular interval, take care of them all, carry on. It’s a form of standardized communication.

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