my coworker hijacks our meetings with endless questions

A reader writes:

I have a question about a coworker, Sam, who has LOTS of questions in our weekly team meetings. Because of the busy nature of our job and our small team, we have lots of situations where we have guidelines to follow but are free to make judgment calls as needed since there’s no way to have a rule book that will apply to every situation. Our leadership is very clear that we won’t be punished for a wrong decision made with good intentions in an unusual situation.

Sam has lots and lots of questions in our team meetings where he seems to want a clear cut answer about The One Right Way to do something, where there’s usually not a one-size-fits-all answer for the situation. It ends up dragging out the meeting by quite a bit, which is exacerbated by the fact that our manager, Carolyn, tends to be long-winded, so each clarifying question turns into another whole spiel. The meetings often end up being largely conversations between Sam and Carolyn that seem better suited for individual check-ins (which we have once a week), and I can see other admins becoming visibly frustrated and wanting to get back to work. To make this worse, these conversations often come when the meeting has clearly wrapped up and Carolyn throws out a quick, “Does anyone have any last questions?”

My title is senior admin, and my function is basically that of a team lead or shift supervisor. Carolyn manages all of us, the rest of our team comes to me with questions first and I pass them along only if I can’t answer, and Carolyn asks me to report to her on how staff are doing and to check in with them during their shifts to see if they have questions, but I don’t have any actual management responsibilities. I’m also good friends with Sam outside of work, and I feel both of these things make me well-suited to help resolve this and save the sanity of myself and our fellow admins.

After the last meeting where this happened, Sam texted me afterward to ask if he was being “annoying,” and I told him that he seems to be asking about one way to do things when often the answer is not so clear cut or it’s all case by case. He responded that he often feels like Carolyn was meandering and not really answering his question, which is why he keeps trying to clarify and repeat his questions, and that he asks them during our group meetings because he feels the answers would be important for all of us to know. From my perspective, I feel that a) the questions he usually asks are basic questions about processes that have been in place for months and which we are all familiar with and have followed many times (i.e., not questions anyone else has or an answer anyone else needs to hear) and b) Carolyn is answering his questions but the answers are essentially “it depends,” when he seems to be trying to get her to say yes or no.

Is there something you’d recommend I say in the moment, or to Sam or our boss privately, about this or is this just the reality of meetings and something we’ll have to live with?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 74 comments… read them below }

  1. juliebulie*

    I’ve known some Sams. It’s critical that they learn to use their judgement. It’s one thing if they get their hands slapped if they guess wrong; but when you’ve been clear that that won’t happen and you expect them to make these kinds of decisions on their own, they really need to do that. It’s what they’re being paid for. To put these decisions back on you diminishes their value to you.

    1. MusicWithRocksIn*

      It sounds like part of his brain is telling him doing this is a bad idea and people are annoyed by him, but also like he’s hoping the LW will reassure him he’s fine to keep doing what he’s doing. So… probably looking for excuses not to listen to his better judgement.

    2. GreenDoor*

      I was going to say this, too. It sounds like Sam needs actual permission to trust his judgement. When I got promoted and was unsure of what I had authority to do and what I didn’t, it was super helpful for my boss to tell me “You can go ahead and respond in A, B, and C situations. But If you ever encounter X, or get a request for Y, or have Z roadblock, then I need to hear about it before you proceed.” Maybe he really needs a clear line in the sand about when to escalate something above his head.

    3. Cat Tree*

      I work with a Sam. I don’t manage her, but I’m senior to her and the SME in some things that are relevant to her job, so I get an endless stream of questions that she should mostly be able to figure out at her level. She started out entry level and is now mid level, but I know she had to go through an evaluation to get that promotion because it’s not just a matter of “doing your time” at this company. And that makes me question the judgment of her manager.

      Many times she asks me the meaning of a basic technical term, then asks for a company document defining the term. But these things are too basic to even be defined in a document – think asking for a documented definition of what a vaccine is or what a syringe is. A dictionary definition isn’t good enough for her if it didn’t come directly from the company. I’m at a loss for how to handle these. She also asks roundabout questions where it seems like she’s looking for who to blame for something rather than how to fix it. I think she just has very rigid views on responsibilities and doesn’t really understand collaboration where it’s everyone’s responsibility.

      I don’t want to discourage anyone from asking for help when they need it, but she really should be able to exercise judgment at her career level.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I have heard bosses say privately to the person, “For the level you are working at [being compensated for], you should either already be familiar with this term OR use resources on your own to find out what the term means.”
        Sometimes people like this expect their job to be spoon fed to them.
        Do you just give her the answer or do you make her go look for the answer? I make the chronic question askers go look for the answer. “If you look up X, then you will find the answer to Y.”
        But really, her ability to work on her own is very low. And I think that is what I would target that she has to learn to be more self-sufficient.

        1. Cat Tree*

          So, her boss should have said something like that to her, and she should have said it *before* giving her a promotion. But I’m not her manager. Most of the time I try to explain the reasoning or context behind my answer, and sometimes when it’s a legitimate question that I would expect to get from others I ask her what her initial thoughts are and then guide her form there. But when she asks something like “where does the company define what a syringe is?” it is just so weird that in the moment I don’t know how to respond. I guess I could tell her to google it, but I don’t think she would accept that as authoritative.

          And it’s not that she doesn’t know what these terms mean, it’s more that she doesn’t accept standard industry definitions. It’s sort of like the debate over whether a taco is a sandwich. She knows what a sandwich is and what a taco is. But when I tell her sandwich procedures don’t apply to tacos so you literally can’t spread mustard on the bread because there is no bread, she wants me to give some kind of official document to prove that a taco really isn’t a sandwich and really doesn’t have bread. It’s just so bizarre.

    4. Amaranth*

      It sounds like OP doesn’t have supervisory authority but as team lead does get tagged with some of the responsibilities. It also sounds like Sam should be bringing questions first to OP since that is a team standard, and OP can determine if its something that should be reviewed in the group meeting. Maybe Sam feels like he doesn’t know WHY they pick one process over another, and needs a refresher or better documentation. Or maybe he can’t work without more direct supervision.

  2. I'm A Little Teapot*

    Sam may need some coaching about being comfortable with the fact that it’s NOT black and white. If he’s struggling with how to apply guidelines, that is something that can be worked on. It’s also possible that he’s just in the wrong job for him. Some people really don’t do well with situations where judgement is needed.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m not sure if you realize you’re asking if there’s a way around writers, including me, getting paid for their work. We support paying people for their work here!

    2. Daffy Duck*

      These companies give you a specific number of free views a month. They are paying Alison for her articles, that is how she makes her living. It is generally agreed that we don’t talk about going around the paywalls on her site.

    3. Jennifer Thneed*

      No, and there shouldn’t be. This blog is free because Alison also writes for pay, and New York Magazine is one of the ones that pays. The only real solution is to read very sparingly on that site, so you always have some free articles left for Alison’s columns.

  3. Essess*

    If he is doing this at the end of the meeting, you can claim to have another meeting that you need to attend, or you can point out that this seems to be a discussion just for Sam and Carolyn and say you are leaving. Or if you have the authority, you can step in when it is just Sam asking questions over and over and ask them to ‘take it offline’ which means to have a separate sidebar meeting so that everyone else is not hijacked into sitting and waiting for it to be over.

  4. Mockingjay*

    Sam is not comfortable making decisions. He obviously is seeking more structure and black/white rules. (This doesn’t make Sam a bad employee.)

    OP should find out why Sam is not comfortable, which could better frame her response. Could be any number of things: Sam was chastised by a former boss for showing “initiative” (some bosses and companies really like people staying in their lane), or made a wrong decision and was over-criticized about it, or Sam may only want to do work exactly as assigned (and not deal with stress). These are speculative, of course; the point is to figure out what’s stopping Sam from performing these duties and whether it’s fixable.

      1. BubbleTea*

        Yes, it could be that Sam would thrive in an environment where there IS a correct answer to almost all questions, which is something that some people really struggle with. That isn’t going to be something the OP can address this, I suspect.

      2. Canuck*

        Yeah, I manage someone like a Sam, but with a twist of undeserved superiority complex, complicated by bad judgement. I have poured a HUGE amount of effort trying to get him to stay in his lane and be more efficient with others’ time with limited success.

        I would dearly love to fire him but that’s not an option – he’s decent at what he does but he SUCKS SO MUCH ENERGY from those around him. And his reputation is such that he doesn’t even get courtesy interviews for internal positions.

        He’s got about 4 years ’till retirement. I need a survival strategy.

    1. fposte*

      I think that might be reasonable if he’s her report, but that’s a lot of management labor for a co-worker.

      1. Mockingjay*

        I see your point.

        Team lead titles can be vexing – lots of responsibility and not quite enough authority. You can train/mentor employees, assign and monitor work, but when there’s problems, you have to wait for your manager (who may not have a full picture) to resolve things.

    2. Junior Dev*

      As someone who has been a “Sam” this is exactly it — I had a series of bad jobs where I was punished for making decisions independently, taking initiative to do something (in one case fired because I spent a day and a half writing reusable code rather than taking 2 hours to write the bare minimum, crappy, hard to read code it would take to get a feature working), got “corrected” when I understood a concept the boss didn’t and told to write something less technically correct because my version was “too technical,” got punished for calling a meeting to discuss something multiple people had expressed concerns about because “you don’t have the authority to assign people work”….after all that, having a job with a hands-off boss was a real shock and he had to constantly tell me he wanted me to do stuff independently and it took me a LONG time to believe him.

      A lot of bad bosses (and project managers, lead engineers, anyone whose job it is to delegate work) think “correct” work means “work done exactly the way I would do it myself” and punish people for deviating from that, no matter the reason. It then becomes a guessing game for the employee, where they have to figure out the answer their manager wants to hear and anticipate it so they don’t get yelled at or punished, rather than a problem where they use their creativity and professional expertise to come up with a reasonable solution and learn from their mistakes if something goes wrong. They won’t believe their manager or colleague who tells them “you have the freedom to come up with your own solution to this” — it feels like a trap, like they still have to play a guessing game but the game just got harder.

      Of course this is a huge pain for the person’s new manager or new colleagues when they enter a less-dysfunctional work environment and the person is paralyzed by decision-making that is part of their job responsibilities. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that a lot of people have had that experience. People in software will talk about this as part of a general devaulation of management and interpersonal skills in tech, but I think that explicitly training people to be good managers is the exception rather than the norm in most fields.

      1. Ditto*

        This sounds exactly like my previous position, which I quit during the pandemic with nothing else lined up. It was a constant guessing game of what actions were the least likely for me to get yelled at for (not just me, but my whole team). I’m starting a new position and know I’m going to need to train myself out of this hesitancy going forward.

        1. SomebodyElse*

          Can I suggest having the conversation up front with your new boss. I’ve done this, because I like knowing the structure up front… You can usually do it in a way that indicates you are looking for preferences vs. looking insecure if that is a concern. It’s a great conversation to have in those early meetings.

          I’ve used something like this:
          I wanted to ask your preference on level of communication and decision making. I generally work fairly autonomously, and would pull you in to situations like X, Y, and Z. Does that work or would you prefer something else? Are there specific things you would like to be included on? Is there anything I should know culturally about the organization?

          1. PT*

            Bad managers will just lie if you say this. I’ve had this very conversation.

            Me: Safety compliance is very important to me, so I would only be comfortable taking this job if we’ll be compliant with [example of safety rules.]
            Boss: Oh yes, in [example situation] we would definitely [follow example required legal protocol.]

            First day of work:
            Me: We have [example situation] and will need to shut down for three hours to reset.
            Boss: Under no circumstances can you shut down for three hours to reset. We never do that here. That’s just not possible. *sends me email approving reset for documentation purposes* Calls me to tell me to disregard email.

  5. Jean*

    Sam and Carolyn have a disconnect in their communication styles. If you have a more candid relationship with Carolyn, it might help to suggest to her directly that she ask Sam to follow up off-line/after the team meeting if he needs additional clarification.

    1. Anna Karenina*

      I think perhaps though, that there ISNT additional clarification, which is probably why she meanders with her answer. It depends is something that is said all the time in my industry. The job is to try and get employees to think outside the box, but if they cant do it, they arent a match.

      1. Jean*

        The clarification isn’t the point, the point is that Carolyn should direct Sam to follow up after the meeting one on one so these diversions aren’t eating up the whole team’s time. (If I were Carolyn, I’d use the one on one follow up time to explain to Sam that he needs to rely more on his own judgment for how to approach individual situations. But either way, it needs to not be handled during the team meeting.)

      2. MusicWithRocksIn*

        I have been in meetings with this kind of feedback loop and it’s so awful. The same question lead to the same answer and then the same question with more words and the same answer with more words… ugh. I kinda wanted to yank on my hair when Sam explained that he knows it never goes anywhere but keeps asking. The whole the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting something to change.

      3. allathian*

        Yes, this. Some people are incapable of doing it, and as such, they’re a bad fit for the job. In any case, these things should be dealt with in 1:1 meetings between Carolyn and Sam. Alison’s suggestion about getting a feel for how the rest of the team feels about it when Sam hogs the conversation in the meetings sounds like a good idea.

  6. fposte*

    If Sam doesn’t want to meet privately with Carolyn because he gets stuck on his belief that it’s important for everybody to hear the answers to his questions, you can always suggest he email his notes around.

    1. Formerly Ella Vader*

      If the OP doesn’t also believe it’s important for everyone to hear the answers – and Alison suggested checking in with other group members to confirm – it might help for OP to tell that to Sam. “Actually, no, they aren’t asking questions in the meeting because they are comfortable working from the general guidelines and getting clarification directly as needed. Carolyn’s answers to your questions aren’t really helping them.” or more bluntly “It’s not your job to ask questions on their behalf. They don’t need that.”

      It’s like in yoga class. I might be the only one in the open practice who doesn’t know the Sanskrit words for the poses, or it might be a new-to-yoga beginner class in which a lot of other people don’t know them either. I need to be aware of which it is, and think very hard about whether it’s worth interrupting the class to point out that they haven’t told us what adho mukha svasana is called in English or how to do it. Checking in off-line – like Sam asking the OP whether his questions are annoying, or me asking the yoga studio’s admin person in private – is a way to figure out the etiquette while also offering information to the leader about the question-asker’s individual needs.

    2. MassMatt*

      Both Sam and the Carolyn drive me nuts. But the part where Sam says he wants everyone else to hear his endless blather really pissed me off. He doesn’t get to decide how other people spend their time.

      People who do this sort of thing are always either oblivious to how aggravating everyone finds it (they somehow don’t notice the sighs, the facepalms, the looks of exasperation or hatred) or they like the power it gives them. That he keeps doing it at the end of a meeting makes me think it’s at least partly a power play.

      People are afraid to speak up about this kind of behavior for fear of seeming rude. But the behavior is already rude, Sam is wasting everyone’s time.

      I hope your new manager grows more confident in shutting this down.

      1. Claire*

        100% agree this is a power play. I had a coworker like this recently. Her lack of understanding/confidence was a small part of the problem, but the bigger issue was her inability to take responsibility for her own poor understanding of her job. Instead she liked to blame everyone else, including our manager, and would endlessly ask the same questions over and over as a way to try to make our boss look bad. What she didn’t get was that she just made herself look bad instead by showing everyone she had no critical thinking skills and no ability to comprehend situations that aren’t exactly black and white.

      2. allathian*

        I hope so too. I’d hate to work with a Sam and Carolyn. Especially when it gets to the 3rd or 4th iteration of the same discussion. The LW says that they’re good friends with Sam outside of work. That could open the door for the LW to say something about his disruptive behavior, at least if it’s confirmed that other team members find Sam’s behavior as annoying as the LW does.

  7. Washi*

    OP definitely say something! You would truly be doing everyone a favor:
    – Sam because he realizes he is using meeting time differently but not that he is annoying his colleagues
    -Others because their time won’t be wasted in the meeting/they will feel empowered to duck out early if it’s not relevant
    -Yourself because your time is valuable and your leadership/guidance is needed in this situation and there is power in that, even if you can’t get exactly the outcome you want

    1. WellRed*

      I suspect on some level it has occurred to him that he’s annoying; after all, he asked the question.
      OP you had an opportunity to speak to Sam clearly and concisely. Please follow up with Sam or Carolyn, even if it’s just to say they should be taking things “offline” rather than hold everyone else up.

      1. Washi*

        Ah, I read it as he thought he might be annoying Carolyn. But regardless yes, and OP your opportunity has not passed!

    2. Reba*

      Yes, OP my question is why *didn’t* you feel like you could say this stuff to Sam, when you were asked? Maybe the ambiguity of the team lead role (see Mockingjay and fposte above) — but still, your points would be totally fine for a more experienced coworker to tell a junior peer! Your observations are not mean or overstepping.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, this. There’s the additional fact that LW and Sam are friends outside of work. This might on the one hand give the LW even more authority to say that Sam’s behavior is wasting everyone’s time, but it might also somewhat explain LW’s reluctance to bring it up, if they’re afraid doing so might affect the friendship. Just one more reason why I think that workplace friendships are a bad idea. It’s more important to bring up things that affect others in the workplace than it is to protect a friendship between coworkers at any cost. It’s possible that other team members haven’t told the LW how annoying they think Sam is in meetings because they know that Sam and the LW are friends and don’t know how criticism, even if it’s a factual statement, would be received. Especially when Carolyn is being so hands-off about it.

  8. AthenaC*

    I have a couple thoughts –

    1) In the meeting, when it veers into Sam and Carolyn 1-on-1 territory, stand up, say “I’m sorry to interrupt but I have a hard deadline on X project” or even “I have a hard stop in an hour / this afternoon so I need to get back to it.” Make sure you finish with a cheery, “Thanks everyone!” as you walk out / log off. In a work environment, this sort of interruption won’t / shouldn’t read as rude if you keep your delivery breezy and upbeat.

    2) In talking with Sam, he seems to be falling into the trap of “I find this helpful, and everyone thinks exactly like me, therefore everyone finds this helpful and I’m doing everyone a favor!” So you might have some success telling Sam something along the lines of, “The rest of us are actually fairly comfortable navigating those situations on our own, so it’s not super helpful to have these exchanges as a group. Totally fine that you’re approaching this differently(*) but I think it makes more sense for you to speak to Carolyn individually.”

    (*) It may not be fine, but that’s up to Carolyn and not you.

    Good luck!

  9. Just a Thought*

    I also think that Sam might need to know that the rest of the team does not need to know the answers to his questions since they are experienced in making these judgement calls. He is acting like his level of expertise is the same as everyone but that does not seem to be the case.

    1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      Also, it’s not Sam’s call to decide what the rest of the team need to be exposed to, never mind whether these long winded discussions are the best use of their time. I would make that very clear, OP.

      It feels as though he is trying to subtly alert his colleagues to the fact that they are Doing It Wrong.

      Sam is definitely someone who prefers clarity and rules to uncertainty and nuance. It could be a personality thing (in which case he’s not a great fit), or it could be a lack of experience. I’m curious as to whether Sam is new to this role.

  10. LCH*

    can you just tell Sam this paragraph of your letter? it sounds like maybe you were pretty vague with him before.

    “From my perspective, I feel that a) the questions he usually asks are basic questions about processes that have been in place for months and which we are all familiar with and have followed many times (i.e., not questions anyone else has or an answer anyone else needs to hear) and b) Carolyn is answering his questions but the answers are essentially “it depends,” when he seems to be trying to get her to say yes or no.”

  11. LKW*

    I’d try one other technique directly with Sam. When he has a question, he should clarify what he expects to do and request confirmation. That way he’s showing that he’s thinking through the problem but gets the confirmation he needs. It may also help shorten Carolyn’s response if it’s framed as a yes/no question (although she may still meander as to why she chose yes or no).

    If you frame it as “it’s good to come to the table with a solution to confirm than ask for a solution.” it may help with his overall comfort. Especially if he continues to get “yes, that’s what I’d do.” answers.

    1. Chicken Gumbo Soup*

      Yes. Exactly this. I’ve always subscribed to the motto:”You’re not allowed to complain unless you also propose a solution.” Sam isn’t exactly complaining, but suggesting he come to the meeting with a proposed solution for his clarifications is a better mindset for Sam. Sam may push back against this because it’s more work, and may not agree with the sentiment, but it’s worth a try to reframe his technique from the current meandering one.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, this. It’s more work, because it actually requires him to do the work he’s been hired to do. He wants others to do it for him.

  12. Anon*

    I know I can be Sam. For context: I am autistic so I don’t always pick up context cues and I much prefer rules over discretion.

    However, I’m told I’m also very good at shutting down Sams when I’m the one leading – “we’ll get to that in the next slide” or “let’s take that offline later” or whatever.

    I feel like whoever is leading the meetings ought to be, yunno, leading the meetings more proactively, to reduce Sam-ing. But yes, LW absolutely has standing to say “actually, now you come to mention it” with any of Alison’s excellent scripts.

    1. Cobol*

      I’m not autistic, but have had ADHD. My whole life I’ve had my hands slapped for not doing things the way most people would do them. That can lead to me being a Sam as well.
      I’m not saying this is happening here, but I’ve often seen long-winded answers causing more harm. If Sam has been trying to get yes or no answers (and “I don’t have a yes or no answer, but you will never be punished for doing what you think is right,” counts), they’re not getting resolution.
      And I would note, that people who aren’t originally from the US, or people not from a “traditional” middle/upper income background, also come from a different place as well.
      When I read something on this blog, where I’m not 100 percent in agreement with the letter writer (and this is not necessarily the case on this one) it boils down to wondering if they really did something or indicated it.

  13. Stormy Weather*

    I see a few things here that could be addressed:

    –Sam may have come from a more structured environment and thus feel he isn’t getting clear direction
    –Sam and Carolyn are not getting the most of their 1:1 time. Carolyn should be taking the time to address his issues outside of the meetings.
    –Sam may not have had a good orientation. Does he know what the whole team does and where he fits in?
    –Talking about me for a moment, I tend to forget processes and procedures that don’t make sense to me. Maybe he doesn’t understand something and thus can’t keep it in his head.
    –Sam may not know what he doesn’t know, and not knowing what questions to ask is a handicap.

    Carolyn should be addressing all of this, LW. It would probably be helpful to everyone when you talk to Sam.

  14. Jennifer Thneed*

    OP, Sam asked you if he was being annoying. That was your perfect opportunity to say “xyz, which can be annoying”. Such as, “Most people like for meetings to end on time, and preventing that can be annoying.”

    (Another helpful thing: “When Carolyn asks if anyone has last questions, that’s really your chance to clarify something like dates or times. Anything more than that should wait for your 1-on-1 meetings.” And if he thinks that everyone will benefit from the answers to his questions, “Write up what you learn and send it out in an email, so people can absorb it on their own time.”)

    1. Esmeralda*

      I beg of you, OP, do NOT advise Sam to write up what he learned and send it in an email. If no one needed to hear it, no one needs to read it. No one needs it clogging up their inbox.

      (I’m so tired of reading our Sam’s “what I learned” emails. I can’t just ignore all email from Sam, though I really really want to. )

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        I should clarify that I don’t actually think it’ll be useful for Sam to share those emails, but it is a way to steer him away from the “answer me in public for everyone’s sake!” idea.

        1. allathian*

          It’s still unnecessary. A firm “Actually, Sam, the rest of the team are perfectly comfortable with making these judgment calls on their own, they don’t need to hear this.” might actually get through to him. He’s wasting everyone’s time with his insecurities. Either he feels lost because he’s fairly new to the role and needs more training, and if so, this should be provided, or he’s simply a bad fit for the job. It could be he has workplace PTSD from a previous manager who punished him for making the wrong decision, in which case telling him that making mistakes is fine may get through to him eventually, once he manages to make a few mistakes and realizes that his employment won’t end with a mistake he made in good faith.

  15. OkGo!*

    Oof, I both know and was (hopefully past tense is accurate) a Sam. As an autistic individual, I can say that having cut and dry rules makes me VERY happy and I tend to get caught up a bit if the circumstance is changed a bit. It could be a confidence issue as well as a “preferred mode of operation” problem. My boss has nudged me in the right direction so looping in the boss definitely seems ideal.

  16. Richard Hershberger*

    This is going to come across as snark, but if these are Zoom meetings, Sam time would be when I caught up on reading emails.

  17. Anna Karenina*

    I my industry we have a lot of individual decision making and although we have guidelines and some requirements, employees are expected to be able to use what they know and apply it differently. I’ve had employees though that just CANNOT get that through their head. It’s very hard and often I have to manage them out if they can’t succeed in this. They don’t have the way of thinking to be agile. It’s just not a good fit.

  18. staceyizme*

    In your shoes, I wouldn’t step in here. Dipping your toes into these murky, dysfunctional waters could cause them to be bitten off. Does anyone document the questions and answers? Maybe suggest to Carolyn that she assign that to Sam, and let him run with having the “Book of All Esoteric Knowledge Not Covered by Standard Practice”. That way, at least if he asks the same question (or type of question) more than once, you might be able to refer him to some version of “asked and answered”. Otherwise, ask ahead of time to leave quickly and let any last minute “spiel-ing” be emailed out (if, in fact, an update of some sort resulted from the after-meeting back and forth)..

    1. Emilia Bedelia*

      I don’t think this is a great plan, for the reasons that OP mentioned that this is difficult for their job – “there’s no way to have a rule book that will apply to every situation. Our leadership is very clear that we won’t be punished for a wrong decision made with good intentions in an unusual situation.”
      Encouraging Sam to document and come up with hypothetical situations and edge cases will just push him further into that direction, when it’s clear that leadership is fine with having grey areas. In a job with many unusual situations with no clear cut answers, no amount of rules will substitute for good judgment, and Sam would be better served getting comfortable with making his own decisions, rather than coming up with more rules to follow.

      1. allathian*

        Yes. And if he’s completely unable to do so due to personal trauma or because he’s neurodivergent or whatever, then that’s the time to manage him out. Just because he’s a bad fit for this job doesn’t mean he’s unemployable elsewhere.

  19. Anon Sam-Adjacent*

    I know I can be Sam. For context: I am autistic so I don’t always pick up context cues and I much prefer rules over discretion.

    However, I’m told I’m also very good at shutting down Sams when I’m the one leading – “we’ll get to that in the next slide” or “let’s take that offline later” or whatever.

    I feel like whoever is leading the meetings ought to be, yunno, leading the meetings more proactively, to reduce Sam-ing. But yes, LW absolutely has standing to say “actually, now you come to mention it” with any of Alison’s excellent scripts.

  20. Haha Lala*

    I’ve definitely been a Sam before, so a few thoughts from that point of view.
    If Sam’s questions are better suited for the 1:1 meetings, make sure he knows that you have no problem with him asking questions, but that’s not what the group meetings are for. You don’t want him to squash his drive to ask questions.

    If he and Carolyn have very different communication styles (which it sounds like they might), can you work with Sam to reframe how he asks the questions? Instead of asking open ended hypothetical questions, he could ask much more direct questions, that Carolyn might be able to answer better (in their 1:1 meetings).

    And if Sam’s stuck on everyone else needing to hear this, tell him to keep notes from the 1:1 meetings, and you and Carolyn can discuss after and decide what needs to be brought up at the next group meetings. And if something is worthy of the whole group, then there’s time to prepare it into a concise topic, not a rambling time wasting discussion.

    1. lazuli*

      Your comment made me realize that as someone who often answers staff’s questions, I often answer in a more “It depends” way when I’m answering one person’s questions in front of a group and in a more, “Sounds like you should do it X way” way when I’m answering in a one-on-one conversation with that person. Mainly because I have enough background to know that while Sam may be wanting to apply my answer to Problem X, Sally is going to interpret my answer as applying to situations Y & Z which are actually subtly different, and Mario is going to use my answer to justify doing the exact thing I don’t want him to do on situation Z. One on one, I can better tailor my answer to what I know about Sam’s individual work and how Sam generally interprets me, without worrying about how other people are interpreting me.

      So Sam may also just get better answers if he’s not making it a group conversation.

  21. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    This confused me: “the rest of our team comes to me with questions first and I pass them along only if I can’t answer”.

    Why isn’t Sam doing this?
    Why isn’t the OP telling Sam to do this?
    Why isn’t Carolyn telling Sam to do this?

    Am.i missing something?

    1. The Rural Juror*

      Maybe those questions the OP fields are specific to a situation, but the ones Sam is asking in the meetings are more general.

      I also work in a job that can be unpredictable and there’s never two projects or clients alike. I can understand how some scenarios can’t be predicted and Sam might have a lot of questions. However, as someone else suggested above, maybe this is an indicator that Sam isn’t cut out for the position. I’ve had coworkers who weren’t successful in their role because they. just. didn’t. get. it. Sometimes the answer would be so obvious and their brain somehow told them to handle it the opposite way. It was really tough to train that out of them and they didn’t last, sadly.

  22. hbc*

    I’m heartened by Sam asking for feedback, but he sure didn’t try to learn from it, did he?

    I would ask if he wants to spend 10 minutes (set a timer) after the next meeting discussing the particular questions he asked. Then really dissect one of them and point out factually how unneeded it was. “The clear expectation for ‘sometimes a third paint coat is needed’ is when it doesn’t look good enough. You could probably create an extensive specification for this, but further questions weren’t going to get you anything better. The next time, at least ask if anyone else is confused and then take it offline with Carolyn if they’re not.”

  23. Satisfactory Worker*

    I used to be in the same situation: a team lead with no management responsibilities but I was in charge of training people and answering questions. I had a few coworkers who always derail meetings: asking for things that were grey in black or white or going down a rabbit hole of what-ifs and hypotheticals. What I started doing was putting up a “parking lot” where I would write questions people had that couldn’t be quickly answered during the meeting. I framed this as a way to keep the meeting on track while making sure everyone concerns were addressed (eventually).

    That being said what you need to start doing with Sam is asking him, “What do you think we should do?” This is especially hard because your job is to give people answers, but Sam isn’t going to stop asking about every situation if he doesn’t build up his confidence to make judgments on his on.

  24. Not So NewReader*

    “He responded that he often feels like Carolyn was meandering and not really answering his question, which is why he keeps trying to clarify and repeat his questions, and that he asks them during our group meetings because he feels the answers would be important for all of us to know. ”

    This part here caught my attention.

    I have to wonder if Sam thinks Carolyn is not doing a good job leading/teaching people so he is going to swoop in and save the day by forcing Carolyn to clearly explain something.

    So this brings me to lots of talking points:

    It’s not up to Sam to correct Carolyn on how she does her job.

    It’s a hundred time worse that he is using a group setting to “retrain” her.

    It sounds like the nature of the work flexes so Carolyn is trying to show people how to bend with various differences. Sam may be inaccurately attributing the problem to Carolyn when it’s actually embedded in the nature of your work.

    Sam is not in charge of training everyone in the room. Each person is responsible for their own questions. Sam should ask ONLY questions that pertain to his work and his needs. It is NOT Sam’s job to randomly decide what everyone “should” know. This is called over-stepping.

    Because he asks way too many questions other people cannot ask their questions. He is hogging the meeting and it is unfair to others.

    Barebones, if this is only looked at on the superficial level, Sam is making himself look very needy and unable to do the job.

    I remember people like this back in grammar school and high school. I kid you not, OP, the WHOLE class would groan when this person asked a question. And for whatever reason, the person was never, ever able to hear the entire class groaning. You will have to speak directly. You may have to tell him to sort his questions and limit his questions to one or two per meeting. Any other questions will have to be answered in a 1-on-1. IF I am on the right track here, he will never have questions for his 1-on-1 meeting because the only point of the his questions is to “teach the group”. With no group present there is no point.

    1. Claire*

      Exactly this. Sam is doing this to try to make Carolyn look bad, playing a “gotcha” game to show the staff Carolyn can’t directly answer questions. But he’s too arrogant and unable to understand the job well enough to realize the only person who ends up looking bad is himself.

  25. Gumby*

    One of my volunteer positions has a training session each year for all volunteers – even if you are returning for the 15th year. The most annoying part of the training is the Q&A after the safety presentation. It’s like half of the group is Sam. And particularly morbid Sams. “But what if there is a fire and an earthquake at the same time? Do you ‘stop, drop, and roll’ or ‘drop, cover, and hold’ or evacuate?” (It might not have been that exact question, but one year we did have to reiterate that the stop, drop, and roll was only if you were actually on fire yourself, not just because a fire alarm went off somewhere in the large building.) “If situation B happens, we are supposed find person XYZ. What if XYZ isn’t working that night?” (Talk to the person who was introduced at the start of your shift as filling in for XYZ. That is what filling in means. Also XYZ is there 99% of the time.) “If someone has medical emergency R what do we do?” (Oh, a stroke rather than the heart attack that we already discussed? In *that* case you totally just leave them there and don’t call for help. Because the specific condition was the key part of the slide on contacting emergency services…)

    It’s a combination of “if you thought about this for half a second the answer would be clear” / “that situation is sooooo unlikely to happen” / “that situation is so high stress that *if* it happened you would not remember this specific answer in the moment anyway” / “I have listened to this mess for 15 years, the answers are no different than they were the first time, I have been sitting here for 3 hours today, when is lunch, STOP TALKING for love of everything good in the universe.” Sadly, this game of what if is not just played by newbies.

  26. Marie*

    This is killing me, because I am Carolyn in this situation. I’m a new manager for a terrifically complex role that has a long learning curve, and a bazillion questions are normal and expected in the early phases of the job. So it has taken me an embarrassingly long time to realize that my “Sam” isn’t in the normal question-asking phase of the job, but that they lack critical judgment and initiative.

    I think they’re operating from the presumption that workplaces have a responsibility to do the judgment and initiative work *for* employees by giving them a rigid workflow. their questions seem like they think they’re fighting some underdog Socratic battle to get us to recognize our failures in not providing that. They don’t realize that by asking the same simple questions over and over, they haven’t illustrated that we don’t know the answers, but that they don’t understand them.

    I haven’t wanted to shut Sam down because I *do* want others to ask questions, and I thought shutting them down would be sending the wrong message. I’ve always said, “if you have this question, others probably do, too,” to help people who feel embarrassed, and because it’s generally been true. and I got trapped by that sentiment into thinking everybody must be as confused as Sam. I’m realizing now that others may have the same questions, but others are also realizing there isn’t an answer, which is why they stop asking once they learn the role. It’s also taken me too long to realize that if others DID have trouble asking questions, I’d know it because their work product would be poor… which is true of Sam’s work, but not anybody else.

    These comments are all really helpful! Because of the job I oversee, my role really is one of being very available to answer questions for people, and make them feel okay asking questions. I failed for too long to recognize that Sam needed accountability and boundaries, not more answers. It’s helpful to hear from people who wish Carolyn would step up. I got too focused on helping Sam understand, and not on supporting my staff who are tired of Sam taking up all the space.

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