how to manage an employee with anxiety

A reader writes:

I have a talented employee who gets paralyzed trying to do new things. When there is a roadmap and it’s something he’s comfortable with, he does a great job. He’s smart and his ideas are usually great. To move into the next step in his career, he needs to start driving new projects where there isn’t a roadmap, and he’s starting to struggle.

From watching him, I suspect he is dealing with anxiety. The tipping point to me is the degree of paralysis I’m seeing. If something is in the “new project” box, he has a hard time recognizing the pieces he has done before or is familiar with. When we talked about this, I told him it’s fine to not know how to do things, he just has to communicate that with his teams appropriately and make a plan, and he told me that he has a really hard time admitting when he doesn’t know something and asking for help (which, as a somewhat anxiety-prone person myself, felt familiar). Is there a good way to be sensitive and supportive while giving feedback?

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

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Declining an interview because of ethical issues with the company
  • My boss redoes my projects after I turn them in
  • Living so close to work that coworkers could see in my window
  • Should I give my interviewer a pre-written thank-you note at the end of our interview?

{ 128 comments… read them below }

  1. Salamander*

    For the LW who is thinking about working next door…there is a whole world of window treatments that don’t block light but grant privacy. Sheer curtains, window film, and many types of cellular blinds come to mind. I use privacy film with a leaded glass pattern on a couple of windows on the side of our house with nosy neighbors, and it works very well.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      Same. One of my upstairs windows happens to look into one of the neighbors’ house’s bedrooms. AWKWARD — I have zero wish to be a nosy neighbor! So I put patterned privacy film up. No more awkward, plenty of light.

    2. Just @ me next time*

      We’re in a first floor condo facing the street, and we’ve put peel-and-stick privacy film over the windows in our bedroom and living room. It’s so nice to get the sunshine without worrying about people seeing inside (and we live along the shortest path between a major bus stop and a high school, so there’s a lot of foot traffic).

    3. Littorally*

      Yep. I have prismatic window clings up that let in the light while fully distorting images and doing a lot to even block out color.

      It’s not a perfect solution, since Alison points out the comings-and-goings issue, but they help in a lot of circumstances.

    4. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Going back to the original post was pandemic-surreal…that commenting thread talking about getting mental distance between your home and office? We’re all in that boat now.

  2. AlwaysAnon*

    As a manager with a somewhat similar employee situation, how do you work through determining the fine line between continued coaching and managing out? (And note I’m not talking about someone with an ADA/disclosed disability.) At a certain point, I need the person to be able to work more independently/proactively. As sympathetic as I might be, at the end of the day I need everyone on the team to be able to perform their roles.

    1. Kathlynn (Canada)*

      The Ada also covers people who you precieve as have a disability, not just people who have disclosed it and asked for accommodation.

      1. EmbracesTrees*

        Agreed, but I believe ADA requires “reasonable accommodations., which it sounds like AlwaysAnon is striving to implement! If this person’s disability prevents them from being able to do the work, and the only way to accommodate that is to change the job description, that may not be “reasonable,” yes?

        I especially wonder how this “perceived disability” part works in practice. For instance, in OP’s letter, they suspect that it may be anxiety but if employee doesn’t have a diagnosis, or doesn’t share one, how much can/should a manager try to do? There is the danger of making unwarranted assumptions about someone’s medical status, which is problematic in itself.

        1. Sheldon Cooper Doesn't Represent Me*

          “For instance, in OP’s letter, they suspect that it may be anxiety but if employee doesn’t have a diagnosis, or doesn’t share one, how much can/should a manager try to do?”

          Nothing. Or rather, they should do the same thing they would do for any employee. The ADA does not require that you make an accommodation when none has been asked for. In fact, making presumptions about somebody’s abilities based on real or perceived disability status can leave you open to a lawsuit, which is how this “perceived disability” part works in practice. If somebody asks for an accommodation and it meets the legal definition of “reasonable,” you give it to them. Otherwise, you butt out.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You’ve got to figure out the bottom line — what must the employee be able to do and with what outcomes? You can then do some short-term, intensive coaching but if you’re not seeing a clear upward trajectory in their work from that (one that reasonably makes you think they will get to where you need in the amount of time you can give it) then it’s not the right fit. (Assuming no ADA issues in play, which would change the way you approach it.)

      1. AlwaysAnon*

        That kind of confirms what I suspect. I sympathize with my employee in question but at this point, I’m not confident they’ll get to where I need them to be.

        As a tangent, I’m now trying to determine how to better screen/interview candidates because I hired this person. There weren’t any red flags during the interview or their first few months of work and it’s not for lack of trying on their part. However, they just don’t seem to ‘get it’ in terms of what we do. Some previous feedback I’ve given is that they seem to be treating work like school (this person was a new grad/college hire) in the sense of memorize enough to pass the test without actually understanding what you’re trying to do.

        As a (metaphorical) example. We do teapot assembly and painting. As with all new employees, they were partnered with a senior teapot assembler. They shadowed the person through a teapot project in order to see, learn, be coached. Now they’re moving to the next phase which is taking on an extremely simple teapot on their own. They can always ask for help at anytime but it’s their teapot to assemble. They’ve just done nothing. When asked they’re waiting on the senior person to spell it out to them. I would expect them to have at least gathered materials and start some assembly on their own vs waiting for someone to explicitly say the first step is teapot assembly is gathering the materials than need to be assembled…

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Two things — thorough reference checking where you ask nuanced questions about the skills/traits it takes to succeed in the role, and exercises/simulations for your finalists, where you see them in action. You still won’t hire perfectly because no one does, but those will both help.

          (I am assuming you have also given very clear, explicit feedback on what you need from them that they’re not currently doing.)

          1. AlwaysAnon*

            Thanks for the speedy response. I’ll search for some exercises or simulations. The skills/traits needed to succeed are what I would call critical thinking combined with the ability to learn/digest technical concepts. Perhaps it’s a bad assumption on my part but the fact that STEM education or experience is a requirement for the role, my belief was that teaching them the technology would be the long pole, not teaching them how to think. As in, I don’t expect new grads or entry level people to know anything about teapots coming in the door. But I need them to be able to understand the concept of assembly and over time, apply that to teapots.

            1. SomebodyElse*

              Can you integrate a question like this into your interviewing?

              “Can you tell me about a time where you had to apply concept that you were familiar with to a totally different application? What did you learn from that? ” Or “Do you have any examples where you used a skill in a non traditional or non intended way”

              For new grads/entry level, you may have to tease out examples, but I would think that they should be able to come up with something that would give you an indication…

            2. Lindsay*

              As a tech person, teaching technology is easy. Teaching critical thinking is not. Understanding the business requirements enough to know what’s important is tough.

            3. RC Rascal*

              It sounds like some of the issue is your employee is not self- directed. You need someone who can self direct their activities.

              I suggest adding that term to your job description & asking related questions. “ Tell me about a time you had to perform a task without clear directions “.

            4. Not So NewReader*

              I know I am one who has trouble remembering how to start something. I will remember most of the other steps on the way, but for some reason, just starting something takes a moment. Worse, I used to feel that if I asked where to start people would think I did not understand how to do the whole process. nooooo. It’s just about where to start.

              I think asking the interviewee directly is the route to go. “Let’s say you have worked through one or maybe two examples of a task. Then you are told that you can do the task on your own, which you feel fine with. But you are having trouble remembering where exactly to start the task. You don’t remember how to access the program or page or perhaps you don’t remember where to get the raw information/materials you need. How do you handle that situation?”

              My answer would be, “I know that I can have this problem. So preemptively what I do is ask the person who trained me, the boss or other closely involved person, if I can come back with questions about launching the task. And I let them know, I prefer to think it through myself, but sometimes I just need to get pointed in the right direction. Then, everything falls together for me.” If there are written instructions, I’d work with that first.

              Personal experience: Something I have observed is that this happens to a good number of people that I have trained. Once underway, they are fine. But they just need to be pointed in the right direction to launch the whole task. I was surprised by the number of people who do one example and think they have thoroughly trained someone and then are shocked with the trainee has questions. There’s a lot of that out there.

        2. not owen wilson*

          So, I don’t want to diagnose anyone, but this also sounds like it could be a sign of ADHD. I have a very hard time starting new tasks when I don’t know what I’m doing, and I tend to put them off because of it and so they take longer to get done. Obviously you can’t manage your employee’s mental health for them, and I think it would be really inappropriate to even try! But something that really helps me is to get past that first initial dread of starting it — would you be able to give your employee the first step (ex. I need you to paint a teapot, you know where the paint is, please start with the spout)? I don’t know if this would necessarily be sustainable or get your employee to where they need to be, but it could be a good stepping stone while they’re moving from “you’re being trained with someone” to “do everything yourself.”

          1. AlwaysAnon*

            That’s part of what I struggle with. If I say I need you to paint a teapot, my assumption, desire(?) is that you will realize you at least need paint and a teapot… I’m okay with them saying can you refresh my memory on where to get the paint or who has the teapot materials or how do I know which brush to use or *something*. But just not doing anything because you’re waiting to be spoonfed is a little beyond my comprehension.

            And a teapot of your own to assemble/paint doesn’t mean do everything yourself. It means you’re the one responsible for getting it done (ownership/accountability) and it’s perfectly fine to request/need assistance to get it done.

            1. Rachel in NYC*

              This is beginning to remind me depressingly of a coworker I had for a short period years ago when I worked retail. It just didn’t seem to click with her. You’d let her know that what the customer needed was the green teapot with the blue flower and that it was one a shelf in this spot. 5 minutes later she wouldn’t have come back. You’d look for her- and find her standing a shelf or two over from where you told her to look.

              We worked in the teapots sales department but could pick up shifts in the teacup dept, saucer dept, etc… It got to the point that she wasn’t allowed to pick up shifts- no matter how desperate they were. She just created more work for everyone else.

          2. Nesprin*

            In all fairness, I also have ADHD and having a shiny new problem is one of my favorite parts of my job. That being said, I’m a huge fan of the Socratic method for teaching problem solving- it typically goes something like this:
            “Ok, you need to herd the Llamas today. What are the things you need to do”
            “What’s the first step?”
            “What could go wrong/what equipment might you need”
            “What does it look like when you’re done”

            1. not owen wilson*

              It depends on the problem for me! I absolutely love getting to problem solve when I get to work with my hands, but filling out new paperwork can be like pulling teeth for me. Agreed that the Socratic method would be a very good way to handle this, along with making it clear that you can always ask for advice.

          3. Lecturer*

            Allison has repeatedly stated in threads to not name illnesses. Once you go down that route it could be anything but people always pick a mental health illness. You’re not in medicine so just cut it out.

            1. not owen wilson*

              I mean, the fact that it’s a mental health illness is directly related to why I struggle with it. This is a symptom of my ADHD and I wanted to propose an alternative to anxiety, which I see other people and Alison discussing (but I also see you don’t have a problem with people naming that?). I suppose that it isn’t directly related to the problem, since (as I stated!) it is inappropriate for an employee’s manager to handle their mental health. There’s no need to be sanctimonious.

            2. Sylvan*

              She’s said not to suggest mental illness unless it informs your advice, and not owen wilson seems to be drawing from their experience with a condition to offer advice. I have pretty similar experiences with anxiety and ADH and fairly similar things have been helpful to me, by the way. While it might not be doable in all roles or desirable to the OP for whatever reason, it’s a possibility.

          4. Grapey*

            Asking trainers (or even the employee) to implement a checklist would be great for both training and overall process documentation.

            I’ve been at my role a long time but I still refer to the wiki page I wrote that has line by line of what commands to run and folders to open. I know in my head “open terminal, open this website, copy this input” are the first things I need to do for a certain task and are laughably obvious, but seeing it laid out always eliminates that “dread of starting it”.

        3. Qwerty*

          For interviewing, try giving them a problem to work through and see what kind of questions they ask. Encourage them to think out loud so you know how they get to the answer. This will help you understand their thought process and see what kind of questions they ask and where they get stuck. Ideally you’d give the problem in sections so something like (1) simple teapot design followed by (2) “so if we wanted to add X feature, what would we need to change to incorporate that?”, and so on. So it isn’t always about coming up with the best or cleanest answer for part 1, but seeing if they can be coached to refine or improve it and to recognize if they need to fix something from step 1 in order to do step 2.

          When hiring new grads, I’m usually looking for how teachable they are rather than what they currently know. Check how many of your interview questions seem like a school test. If you ask a question to define X, follow it up with asking for an example of how it used or how it is different from Y. Some of my questions have a back-up version – for instance, if I need them to define the three components of a teapot and they can’t produce A, B, and C, I’ll change it to asking if they know about A. Sometimes this will jog their memory and the rest comes out, sometimes they’ll only know about A&B and I teach them C. But it gives me insight into how they communicate and if they can admit when they don’t know something.

        4. Lecturer*

          This sounds like laziness and like you said a school mentality. As you’ve pointed out he could have done tons of things like gathering material without someone holding his hand.

          To be honest it does not sound at all unusual to me. This is how most degree level students behave (and Master’s and PhD students)! He sounds like one of them, waiting around for someone to hold their hand and tell them everything when all the material has been provided it (a chunk simply ignore it then contact us to say they don’t know what they are doing). When I ask them to point specifically to something they realise this time they are not going to get away with it.

          1. fposte*

            Wow, that’s very unlike my experience with such students, and it’s a pretty jaundiced take on an employee you don’t know.

            “Lazy” is a complicated concept anyway, which often masks other kinds of struggles. In general, it’s most effective to be neither punitive nor overforgiving; be clear on directions and expectations, and if you find that none of the people receiving those directions can follow them, the problem is likely to be with the directions.

            1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

              I agree. Often ” lazy ” isn’t a very helpful lenses. You gotta see what the barriers are. I may seem lazy but I really am anxious about talking to people I don’t know for things they need to do for me that are…asymmetrical? Important to me doesn’t matter for them. So I procrasnate. I have to write down a little script to make sure I’m clear about my request.

          2. This is She*

            Based on this comment and one further up, I’m going to suggest you review the commenting rules. May be time for a refresher.

        5. Anax*

          This sounds like it might be an executive function issue. From ADDitude magazine,
          “Executive functions allow people to do the following:

          Analyze a task
          Plan how to address the task
          Organize the steps needed to carry out the task
          Develop timelines for completing the task
          Adjust or shift the steps, if needed, to complete the task
          Complete the task in a timely way”

          … so basically, all the issues you’re having with this employee. Executive function issues are common in a lot of neurocognitive disorders – ADHD, autism, depression, traumatic brain injuries, etc. – or even just sleep deprivation and stress, as we all feel in this craziness.

          Good news is, there are strategies to address this from a business perspective, rather than a mental health perspective. Are you familiar with agile, which is traditionally a software development methodology? It involves breaking projects down into very small tasks (often on post-its), having individuals assign themselves X tasks per (day? week? two weeks?), and checking in frequently to see what’s gotten done.

          If executive function is the issue, agile is a great way to break down overwhelming projects into bite-sized, manageable chunks, and to train your employees on “how much they can expect to get done in X amount of time” and “how to break projects down into bite-sized tasks”.

          Obviously, that won’t work for all fields – you might need to be more hands-off with your employees – but if it seems doable, I’ve found borrowing agile principles really useful for managing executive dysfunction, and there are a ton of approachable tutorials online.

          (Heck, it’s what got me through high school – breaking down all those giant projects into 30 minute chunks and assigning myself 5-7 chunks per night, rather than writing all my essays at the last minute.)

          1. not owen wilson*

            Yep, thank you. This breaks it down better than I did. I really struggle with this when I need to start a brand new task, and as a recent college grad there really is a learning curve to getting it done. It isn’t laziness as much as it is needing to learn new skills.

            1. Anax*

              No worries; I totally agree with you, it’s a tough skillset to pick up, especially because people often don’t understand what the problem is. I’m eight years out of college now, and I’m still browsing AAM this morning while I try to carve this month’s project into bite-sized pieces. Sometimes it just feels like an overwhelming wall, and then you blink and it’s three days later and you’ve gotten nothing done. At least my bullet journal helps.

          2. AlwaysAnon*

            I’m familiar with agile as we use it for our teapot test software (my team doesn’t do the software though). Accordingly, most of the team (including this person) has had top level agile training.

            While I can’t say whether the person has execution function issues, they seem to be stalled out on the analyze task part. It seems like they don’t recognize that all we do is assemble teapots. Some are simple stock teapots, some are slightly modified teapots, some are super-complex custom teapots. But at the end of the day, all we do is assemble teapots. The overall steps (review customer order, gather materials, assemble, test/quality review, ship to customer) are the same for every teapot. The individual implementation can vary (you need more/different materials for a small ceramic pot vs jumbo XL copper pot) but the steps are the same.

            1. Anax*

              Makes sense, and that does seem like it might be a different issue! I hope you’re able to resolve the situation soon, then.

            2. Foxgloves*

              In that case, could it literally be as simple as making sure they have a very simple checklist which states “FOR ALL TEAPOTS” very clearly at the top, which says “review customer order, gather materials, assemble, test/quality review, ship to customer” on it? Then whenever they’re at the point of “I don’t know where to start”, you can say “have you looked at the checklist? Which of the elements don’t you know where to start with?”- which pushes it right back onto them to look at it sensibly. Encouraging them to create their own checklist is really good too, as it forces people to think logically and to put the steps into their own words. I’ve had to do this for some finance tasks which don’t come naturally to me, and I’ve found even just the process of writing it down really useful.

              Apologies if you’ve already tried something along these lines!

        6. Sheldon Cooper Doesn't Represent Me*

          “Some previous feedback I’ve given is that they seem to be treating work like school (this person was a new grad/college hire) in the sense of memorize enough to pass the test without actually understanding what you’re trying to do.”

          That is not at all helpful feedback. Feedback should be specific and actionable. What you said is neither. Helpful feedback would be something like, “I’ve noticed that you don’t gather your materials until a senior teapot assembler instructs you to gather your materials. For this job, gathering your materials is the first step every time. There might be slight differences in which materials you gather, and you can find that in the build sheet. Do you have a good handle on how to gather materials?” etc.

          1. AlwaysAnon*

            Obviously that wasn’t the whole of the feedback. It was part of a larger conversation.

            Continuing with the metaphorical example – as a part of shadowing and working with the senior assembler, they were at the test\quality review step. The senior assembler said I’m going to let you complete the test request to the quality team (which they have worked on before). They sent me the test request sheet for approval but it wasn’t a test request, it was a material gathering list. That indicated to me they don’t understand the overall process so I asked them to explain the process (review customer order, gather materials, assemble, test/quality review, ship to customer) to me in their own words. They couldn’t and seemed like they were just parroting bits and pieces vs actually understanding what we do.

            If you don’t understand that the point of the test request sheet is to tell people what to test, telling you what exactly to put on that one specific test request sheet isn’t useful. Memorizing test five handles, two bodies and three spouts is useless because the next order might be seven handles, five bodies and one spout.

        7. I'm Not a Cat*

          When training, I handle this by having someone watch me paint a teapot. Then I guide them through painting a teapot. Then I explain upfront that they are going to paint a teapot while I sit and silently watch, making it clear that they are free to ask me any questions at any time and that I will intervene if they are about to do something that would actually ruin the teapot. I warn them that it will feel awkward, and that I do the same thing with everyone. Then we repeat until they’re a little more comfortable using written training materials to follow the basic teapot painting process.

          It IS really awkward. But when your boss is silently, expectantly looking at you, it really helps make the jump to “I need to be doing SOMETHING. I’m going to look at these written instructions to avoid eye contact. Oh, hey, it says here I should gather my materials! Let’s do that!”

          Plus, so many people are hesitant to “interrupt” me with “stupid” questions. If I’m sitting right there, doing nothing but observing, they’re clearly not interrupting me with their questions. Depending on the question and whether it’s in the written training materials, I either answer directly or use the Socratic method and ask how they would determine where the supplies are stored. But the majority of questions are simply “Is this right?” And once they’ve survived the weird silent “training,” painting their own teapot feels comparatively easy!

    3. Sheldon Cooper Doesn't Represent Me*

      Those are not the only two options. Managing someone out is not even management. It’s just assholery. What you need to do is start having straightforward, direct conversations about what your expectations are and where their weaknesses are. Have you asked them where they see the trouble happening and what they think they can do to get better at starting? Engaging someone in the problem solving process tends to lead to better outcomes than assuming what the problem and bringing the hammer down.

      It sounds like you’ve been focusing the coaching on the act of teapot assembly and not of the process that guides teapot assembly. Some people do better with written processes. Have you tried writing one that actually says, “review customer order, gather materials, assemble, test/quality review, ship to customer”? How did that work? Have you tried asking your employee to write their own process? Have you tried sitting with them and writing it together so you can see where their thought process stalls and trouble shooting the stall together?

      Yes, this will be a lot of work. That’s your job. You’re a manager.

      And for the love of god, stop managing people out. Really.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I don’t think you’re using “managing out” in the way it’s normally used. Managing out means giving clear feedback about what needs to change, being clear about the consequences if improvement aren’t made and what the timeline is (as in “if I don’t see XYZ changes by the end of the month, I would need to let you go”), giving whatever support is reasonable, and then indeed letting the person go if they can’t make those improvements. That is the job of a manager.

        1. AlwaysAnon*

          I’m doing what AAM described as managing out, not being an asshole. I take no joy in managing people out but if you can’t do the job, you can’t do the job. And to be clear, the issue is this specific person, not the overall training or processes. There are multiple other new team members who have are progressing well and far surpassing this person even though they have less experience than him. And while I can appreciate that different people have different learning styles, at the end of the day my job is ensure the work gets done, on time and on budget. And that means having one person take up a disproportionate amount of multiple people’s time for additional training/coaching with very little tangible product is NOT getting my job done.

          I have absolutely made my expectations clear over and over again. They have been provided tons of training, process documents, process videos, one on one coaching and on and on. I’m vastly oversimplifying what we do but there simply isn’t one process document that says this is how teapot making works. You have to be able to synthesize concepts which seems to be the issue for them. You have to be able to relate the gathering material job guide you read to the teapot assembly overview course you took.

  3. Forrest Gumption*

    To the LW who’s considering working next door to your office – can’t you just not disclose where you live? I use a PO box for work correspondence, and none of my co-workers have the faintest idea where I live. I just say “it’s in the north part of the city.” Obviously you may worry about co-workers seeing you come and go, but perhaps there’s a back door or side entrance you can use to be discreet?

    1. I'm just here for the cats*

      That’s a lot of trouble. You always have to be on the lookout to see if one of your coworkers are near. They would be bound to see their car in the driveway or something. And it would come out sooner or later that she lived next door. Then it looks really odd.that it wasn’t said before. Also, they may have already seen her comming and going before working there.

    2. Free Meerkats*

      Yeah, do this. Go out the back and walk around the block. If someone asks, you “get off the bus/park a couple of blocks away so you can walk to clear your head.”

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Or you could just set boundaries: “I can’t be available for calls from work on sick days.” OR, “If I am on vacation I am not available to ‘just quickly’ sign a document.”

      You could also say, “I know it’s not often that an employee lives right next door. But I think the same rules of thumb apply to that employee as they do to employees who live further away.”

      The problem really comes in when a person caves in and “okay just this once”. There’s really no such thing as just this once. It balloons out into dozens of times and people can’t stop their newly formed habit.

      If you start out with a firm boundary and decide to relax it later for whatever reason you can. But it is so much harder to stop the behavior once the behaviors have started.

  4. Theory of Eeveelution*

    The rest of the advice for LW1 is good, but:

    “You know, sometimes when people struggle with this, it’s tied up with anxiety issues, and if that resonates with you, it’s something you could talk to a doctor about.”

    Pleeeaaasseee don’t say this to an employee. What people talk about with their doctor is truly not an employer’s call, and if my boss said this to me I’d probably die of embarrassment and shame. Whether or not this employee is struggling with anxiety is none of LW’s business and it should stay out of the conversation completely. The rest of the conversation is more than good enough to address the problem. I know this line was suggested as a way for LW to be sympathetic to the employee’s situation, but there’s really no situation where an employer should be bringing up medical issues (especially one that the employer is merely speculating about) that their employee hasn’t disclosed.

    1. Michael Valentine*

      Yeah, if my boss said something like that to me, I’d wonder what else she’s arm chair diagnosing me with. I would feel even more anxious!

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I had a person jump all over my case once.
        They expressed worry over a situation.
        All I said, was “It will be okay. We will get this.”

        And rockets went off. “You are so condescending… you think I am a jerk… ”

        There was nothing I was going to do there to help. That one was a first on me though, never saw anyone react like that.

    2. Roquefort*

      I’d honestly feel worse if my boss suggested I see a doctor for the anxiety disorder they suspect I have, because it’s such an overstepping of generally-accepted boundaries that I’d think I must be performing really badly for them to even think of saying that.

    3. Mimmy*

      Completely agree with this. I do know that some companies offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) as a benefit so if LW1’s employer has this, that might be a better way to frame it, although I’m not sure what the appropriate wording would be.

      1. KHB*

        This may be one of those cases where an all-staff memo is better than just reaching out to one person: “Don’t forget that we have an EAP, they cover issues such as X, Y, Z, and anxiety, and here’s how to access them.” Chances are that other employees could benefit from the reminder too.

      2. SomebodyElse*

        It’s almost the same wording;
        “You know, sometimes when people struggle with this, it’s tied up with anxiety issues, and if that resonates with you, it’s something you could talk to a doctor about.”

        “You know, sometimes when people struggle with this, there are other factors at play, if this resonates with you, it’s something that our EAP might be able to assist with”

    4. Grand Mouse*

      Right, I would worry my boss is expecting me to take certain steps wrt my treatment and will hold it against me if I don’t! Usually a general doctor isn’t useful for treating anxiety anyway. And it’s not something that would go away with just one visit.

      Also fwiw, I had a panic attack a couple months into my job, and my boss said he was worried about my fit for the job! After that I didn’t say a peep about any anxiety issues since I felt like he was scrutinizing me and could fire me for it

    5. cat lady*

      What about “when I’ve experienced similar issues, I realized it was because of some underlying anxiety– I don’t know if that applies to you, but it may be worth considering” and quickly moving on?

      1. Ryn*

        Honestly this still feels like a no-go, at least for me. There’s a decent change that they employee does struggle with anxiety and is currently seeking treatment — the problem is that treatment for mental illnesses isn’t a straight line. I can’t even express how filled with shame I would be if a manager was like “go see a doctor” for a thing that I’m already working with a doctor on.

      2. Roquefort*

        I find this wording much better. It comes off as less judgemental if the suggestion is phrased as “this is a similar problem I had, do whatever you want with that information” rather than “you might have this problem, and if so you need to seek medical attention.”

      3. SomebodyElse*

        I’m not a fan of this either. I think I fall on the side of not caring if there is an underlying problem (that sounds worse than how I mean it), but more on what work tools do you need to manage through it.

        I use the same approach with any coaching I do, mostly because I know all employees (including myself) come into work with varied issues, baggage, challenges, and experiences. So I just assume something is going on, and trust the employee to work on that part while I help with tools and knowledge for doing the job.

      4. BRR*

        I’m not a fan. I think it’s better to just focus on the issue. “I’ve noticed X and I need Y.” You can of course ask if there’s anything the employee might need in terms of support or training but a manager shouldn’t go down this road. Plus if an employee does have anxiety issues and gets some indirect language about anxiety from their manager, it’s likely just going to exacerbate the anxiety.

        1. BRR*

          And I want to say that I understand all of this is coming from a place of kindness. But it’s just no a manager’s place to do this.

        2. fposte*

          Yes, I’m inclined to agree. There may be exceptions when you know the employee really, really well, but otherwise it has a high chance of positioning the manager in a diagnostic and even therapeutic role that’s a problem at work. I also think all of us nowadays have been around enough on the internet and in life to be wary when somebody says “I have X and I think this about you!”, even if it turns out they’re right.

      5. Not So NewReader*

        Eh, I think stay situation specific as often as possible.

        I worked with a person who had to speak to groups. Person had a terrible time with stuttering only in front of groups, but to me they sounded out of breath more than anything.

        I think I understood a little bit why this was happening [insert several stories here]. But it was really more to the point to find an action plan to get out of it. I suggested taking a deep breath before starting to speak. Then I hear, “Oh, Bob told me the same thing!” I said, “Well, I agree with Bob.”
        This person ran with the suggestion and had major improvements almost immediately. They never went back to their former level of problems.

        To me, we could have spent hours going over why the stuttering was happening. In the end, Person would still need to build a plan to get out of it. Why prolong the agony when you can cut to creating a plan.

    6. Lecturer*

      If you don’t declare a disability you will be fired for incompetence. It’s not like the person can say ‘you should be psychic’. You shouldn’t say ‘do you have anxiety’?. You should say ‘do you have any issues which can affect your ability to do the job’?. If the person says no then crack on with usual workplace policy. If they say yes you make accommodations.

    7. Mynona*

      I agree that the OP shouldn’t mention medical treatment (unless the employee has already brought it up). What person with disabling anxiety levels doesn’t already know they have high anxiety, even if they don’t think it reaches the level of a disorder?

  5. Sean*

    To the LW thinking about working next door, Alison’s advice is spot-on if you rent. If you don’t, or wouldn’t want to move, then my advice is don’t do it. I lived next door to my boss for many years and it was virtually the same dynamic – if I called in sick and had to leave the house, for example, I always felt like I couldn’t because she was watching me. (She was a horrible boss, FYI, so although your new bosses may not do this, it will be virtually impossible for people not to notice your comings and goings when you’re so physically close.)

    1. I'm just here for the cats*

      OMG with that type of boss I could just see the gossip. Like could you imagine if LW had someone over for the night and they didn’t leave until people started comming into the office!!

    2. Lucy P*

      I wouldn’t be comfortable living next store based on the current management. The boss gets mad at people too easily for personal choices (i.e., employees not wanting to give your children homeopathic medicines for their chronic illnesses, even though the boss swears there’s no harm involved; or insisting that the employee needs to get mental health treatment for a family member.)
      For a while, the path the boss took to get home in the evenings took them right past my house. It felt invasive, even if it was not meant to be.
      I have another coworker who lives near a main road in the area. It’s easy to see, even if not intentionally, whether or not they are home, because traffic tends to back up in that area at certain times.
      Some people think they are helpful, but it comes across as nosy. Unless you know the specific personalities of the people you are working for/with, it’s a risk to move right next door.

  6. Half-Caf Latte*

    As a former gifted kid who is still unlearning all the ways being smart/“special” didn’t prepare me for the working world…

    When I’m overwhelmed and don’t know where to start with a new project, it’s often because I feel like I have to do it myself, and I’m trying to train myself to start with consulting peers, brainstorming, and pick off some piece of the puzzle. My MO is to try to develop the most perfect most logical plan by myself, but that leads to paralysis.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      When I first started working it was shocking to me to see how most work is not perfect. Long story but I thought employees had to be perfect. The concept of “wiggle room” or “tolerances” blew me away.
      It was super helpful to find out what guidelines were, at what point do I redo something and when can I let something go? I worked sewing for a short bit. My mind was blown that there was a quarter inch tolerance. To me that seemed like saying, “Being off by a mile on this hem is okay. Don’t worry about it.”

      1. TardyTardis*

        Yes, my husband ran into that when he helped on a high school play and saw the choreography (it was a production of LIL’ ABNER)–and then saw the movie, and realized that not all the dancers on the movie had the Chicken Shake down that well, either.

  7. Mockingdragon*

    This sticks out to me in the anxiety letter: “To move into the next step in his career, he needs to start driving new projects where there isn’t a roadmap, and he’s starting to struggle.”

    I’m really curious whether the employee WANTS to move into the next step, or wants to stay where he is. My career goals have always been to find something I’m good at, and keep doing it for the foreseeable future. As a freelancer I can finally have that without pressure to move up or forward. In an office, it was a struggle to communicate sometimes that I did. not. want. to be promoted out of the work I was doing. This is and was tied into my own anxiety disorder. I would so much prefer to know that I’m good at what I’m doing, rather than constantly feel like I’m doing new and unfamiliar things that I may suck at.

    So, is the problem that the employee wants to move upward and doesn’t have the skills he needs, and that coaching him is becoming frustrating? Is the problem that the manager expects the employee to move in a direction he doesn’t want to go? Obviously this is an old letter so we probably won’t get those answers.

    1. Just a Thought*

      We had a very productive effective employee who would give conflicting signals about promotions – and expressed a lot of anxiety about new tasks. They felt that they had to take the next step up (and certainly wanted the money with that) but their anxiety was indication that the role we were pushing them toward was too big — even though they were excellent at the lower level job. Resulted in losing an excellent employee and putting them (and us) through a lot.

      So I think investigating what the person wants – not just want they think is required – is important.

    2. Can Can Cannot*

      I agree completely. If the employee isn’t interested in taking “the next step,” then the OP is creating more anxiety and adding stress to the situation. The OP needs to talk to the employee about their goals before pushing them into a role that is not a fit.

    3. Momma Bear*

      Agreed. A few jobs ago we had a great engineer who had been with the company forever and had made it reallly clear that he was happy being a great engineer. Didn’t want to manage anybody or be the PE for anything. The company wisely let him continue doing engineering unencumbered by managing people.

      I would also look at how things are set up. Some people are very visual. If the LW’s company doesn’t currently use collaborative tools like a Kanban board or scrums (where everyone gets their couple of minutes with a moderator) then consider if that kind of “chunking” and brain storming would suit this employee and the projects LW works on. Or give the employee more framework when assigning a project to manage. Sure it would be great if he’d see for himself what goes where, but is this something where LW could say “This can probably be done in 3 sprints by four full time painters. It’s similar to the Teapot Repainting Project we did last March so you can reference that schedule for ideas” and then let the employee loose on managing the bits in the middle?

    4. Budgie Buddy*

      This is a really good question to ask. The employee may have tried the new role, only to find out it’s just not a good match. Or the manager could be thinking that he really wants to move up when he doesn’t.

    5. Roquefort*

      This is a good point. My last employer had a habit of forcibly “promoting” people when they didn’t want to be, and it created an incredibly dysfunctional workplace where everyone was slightly incompetent at their roles (Peter principle at work) and bitter toward their managers for promoting them.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, as an aside, I think it’s awesome that the book is more than 50 years old. It’s actually one that I read for fun when I was in business school.

    6. Marple*

      This is exactly what struck me also. The employee might be perfectly happy in their current role. If he isn’t required to “move into the next step in his career,” don’t force him. If he WANTS to move up, explain the changes you need to see first.

    7. LGC*

      That’s actually a really good way to look at it, and it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn (albeit in a lesser form)!

      I work with people with varying support needs, including neurodiversity, physical support, and mental health support. (Heck, I’m one of them.) Generally, we try to have people know how to do all production parts of a project, but there are some people that…just don’t have any interest in doing so. Either they’re afraid they’ll mess up, or they’re happy doing what they’re doing. At first, I did push people to try new things – I like learning new things! I feel good when I get trusted to do something new! Everyone else should, right?


      As I’ve matured, I’ve become more comfortable with people being…comfortable. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. I’d like to see people develop and spread their wings, but to be frank my primary job is to get stuff done, not to force people to develop their work skills. And obviously – sometimes someone might need to cover for someone and learn something new, even if they don’t particularly want to. You can’t always Bartleby your way through life. But…like, sometimes people don’t want to advance, and that is FINE – some people just aren’t interested in optimizing the heck out of themselves.

      1. Kathlynn (Canada)*

        Yeah, un my previous field they wanted me to clean an expensive food making machine without proper training to do so (I’d been shown once where it didn’t work properly after putting it together). There’s machine lube and washers and other things that have to be done exactly right to work. My anxiety was like nope, we broke less expensive thing and got into trouble from multiple people for the accident. Not cleaning this without proper training. (also by the time I switched jobs, and had my manager from both jobs saying that I knew how to clean it it had been like 4-6 years since I had been shown)

      2. allathian*

        I hear you. I like learning new things, at least in theory. At the same time, I really enjoy work now that I feel I’m reasonably competent at it. I’m not constantly driven into learning new things just because personal development is a big thing these days. Sure, if we switch to new software, I’ll do the training and do my best to become proficient in it as soon as I can. The same thing applies to new processes at work, etc. Training in these is just a part of the job. But I’m not going to volunteer to do stuff that’s completely out of my current wheelhouse, necessarily. I’m pretty darn good at grooming llamas, if I say so myself. This doesn’t mean that I’d jump for joy if my boss told me that I have to start washing alpacas tomorrow. I might be happy to groom alpacas, though, if there are enough transferable skills and I’m not starting from scratch.

  8. KHB*

    As a roadmap lover myself, I feel for this employee. Would it be feasible for you to work with him (or give him time to work on himself) to draw up more specific roadmaps and contingency plans for how to approach new projects? Without knowing what these projects are, it’s hard to know exactly how much you can do, but from your mention of “pieces he has done before or is familiar with,” it sounds like there’s at least some. Very often, these kind of procedures and if-thens get framed as something you just need to approach intuitively based on experience, but when you really dig down into them, they turn out to be more formulaic than you realized.

  9. azvlr*

    LW1, I’m this employee. I do my best every day, but still make mistakes that inconvenience others, and worry constantly that my boss harbors resentment against me for every snafu, even those that are outside of my control. My performance reviews have been great and my boss seems otherwise cordial to me.
    I will say that I’m a sucker for compliments. The more genuine and specific the better, but I’ve found that when I’m praised for the skills I’m working to develop, it really goes a long ways.

    I’m actively working on my feelings of impostor syndrome, and I know I shouldn’t rely on outside validation, but it’s nice to hear.

    1. Ra ra rasputin*

      No real advice, but I feel exactly the same as you, friend. It’s hard to stop worrying about how you might be annoying to doing this wrong. But I hope it gets better for you *internet hug*

  10. Zach*

    For “Living so close to work that coworkers could see in my window”:

    I cannot recommend against this enough. Granted, they could end up being fine, but I once worked at a bar/restaurant and one of the bartenders lived in the apartment two floors above it. Any time he’d have off work or anything and they spotted him going anywhere they’d almost always ask him what he was doing when he came to work the next time. He kept living there, but that would drive me nuts. That situation made me realize I would never ever want to live within 3-4 blocks of where I worked.

    Granted, there’s a chance that the people in this office aren’t as nosey, so it could be fine- but proceed with extreme caution.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      And in that particular case (or any job that requires coverage), you really don’t want to be known as “the person who lives the closest.” Or “the person that we can see if his car is in his driveway from our front door.”

    2. allathian*

      When I met my husband, he was working in another city and lived in company-provided housing for a ridiculously cheap rent, something like 200 bucks a month for an apartment with a bedroom, living room, and separate kitchen rather than kitchenette. Granted, it was a low COL area, but on the free market the rent for an equivalent apartment would have been at least four times that. It was on the seashore as well, although to be fair, the lovely view was somewhat marred by a power station. He worked for the utility company that ran the power station but his office was next door to the apartment building. He couldn’t see the office building from his windows, but he did have to go past it whenever he went to the store or just downtown on his days off…

  11. Anon for This*

    I find it interesting that some people would select out of working for a weapons company. Though perhaps neutrality on that question comes from the fact that my role is one involving making sure that the wrong people don’t get into wherever/whatever I’m working on, which adds a layer of “I don’t approve of profiting off war, but also please don’t make the password for the missile system password123…. you don’t see a problem with that? Ugh. This is a terrible idea, I must fix this” to my opinion on weapons work.

    1. Roquefort*

      I think it’s largely a question of whether you feel that helping with the development of these weapons is tantamount to helping the company profit off war (and indirectly profiting yourself, since the company pays you), or that the company already profits off war anyway and you may as well get paid to make sure they don’t completely screw it up and kill off half the human population.

    2. Taco Cat*

      I don’t think it’s so weird. I have no desire to work for a weapons company just like I would never work for a cigarette / tobacco company. If I am working there, I am directly contributing to their success even if I am not manufacturing or selling and I don’t want to be a part of encouraging or causing weapon proliferation or lung cancer etc. I’m sure there are lots of people who wouldn’t equate a cigarette company with a weapons manufacturer so it’s not black and white but those two industries I would not partake in.

    3. I'm A Little Teapot*

      Well, I’ve personally self selected out of working for banks. I’ve decided I don’t really need to be part of an industry that has crashed the economy more than once and will keep doing it over and over until there’s a massive overhaul of the industry as a whole.

      Or tobacco companies. They did lie, for decades, that the product was killing people. Plus the product is still killing people. How about working somewhere that does experiments involving animals? Lots of people find that objectionable. Then there’s sex work, religious entities, and then let’s just talk about jobs that aren’t objectionable but you personally couldn’t do them.

      My point is that there’s lots of things that may lead someone to object to a company or industry. If you yourself don’t have those types of strong convictions, or are willing/able to disregard them, that’s fine for you, but not everyone operates the same as you.

      1. Hazel*

        And you’re allowed to have preferences. When I was job hunting years ago, I specified “no law firms” because I haven’t had good experiences working in them.

    4. Rusty Shackelford*

      I can see your point. I read an interview with a defense attorney once who said “When I think my client is guilty, my job is to make sure he gets an absolutely fair trial, so if he’s found guilty it won’t be overturned because of something that went wrong.” Same vibe, I think. But I can also see the point of people who say “this is still helping an industry that I don’t want to help.”

    5. pancakes*

      For some of us it’s a pretty big leap from “someone competent should be tasked with this” to “it should be me.”

    6. Not So NewReader*

      As I am reading down through, it reminds me of socially responsible investing. A person uses their investment money strategically to support activities they think are of value to society.
      It dawned on me that I view job hunting almost in a similar manner because there are places I won’t work for because of what their product or service is.

      1. allathian*

        For me it’s the private sector as a whole. If there’s any way at all to avoid it, I’d rather not work to make someone who’s already rich even richer. I find wealth beyond a few million in the hands of one person morally objectionable. So I’m happy working in a country with high progressive taxation where it’s almost impossible to get rich by working.

  12. Former call centre worker*

    I would be worried about not being able to switch off properly if I lived so near to my workplace that I could see it from my house. But that might be better than a long commute, so it probably depends what the local job market is like and whether there are many local-but-not-that-local jobs going

  13. JelloStapler*

    LW1: I agree not to para-diagnose or mention the possibility of anxiety and considering a doctor to this employee- if he does have anxiety, that may make him freeze even more as Theory said above. Or, he is already seeing a doctor and working on this issue as is. You can, if you feel comfortable, say “That is a familiar feeling with more people than you may realize, this is what I have found has helped them”, etc. (I am not the awesome wordsmith that Alison is!).

    I think you have done a great job of normalizing the stigma of asking for help and encouraging him to approach the challenge in a different way. Continue to prove to him that asking for help is not bad and you are happy to provide both positive and constructive insight. Model what this looks like. If this issue continues to happen, you can then refer to previous discussions a (for lack of better phrasing) “You’re doing that thing again”. :)

    Are there professional development opportunities available through your company or externally that he could tap into as well? Is there anything about the atmosphere with the company or colleagues that could be contributing to his feeling?

  14. AnonAnon*

    I lived 2 blocks (if that) from a job one time. I couldn’t see my office from my apartment. I had no issue with it and I wasn’t taken advantage of while I lived there (1.5 years). One benefit was I could go home if I wanted at lunch time. And if it was a rough day, I could pop on the TV and maybe take a quick nap before going back to work :)

  15. egallison*

    For LW 1, I really feel like in your letter you hit on something important that Alison didn’t touch on. You said you feel like the employee isn’t able to recognize the pieces of something new that are actually familiar to him. That feels like a very coachable and concrete skill!
    In some ways I relate to your employee, and I think I would find it helpful if the next few times I was given a project that would usually leave me paralyzed my supervisor sat down with me and helped me identify those areas I was familiar with. After a couple of times doing this it would help me develop this skill to have in my toolbox. So instead of having anxiety-induced paralysis I could say, “OK, this looks new and hard, but let me take a breath and see if I can identify things that I already know how to do, maybe even check a few things off the to-do list, etc.”.

    This gives him an automatic first step in the face of something new, and starting is usually the hardest part!

  16. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    Re: LW1 & Anxiety; is there any way to lower the stakes for him?

    I know when I get a project that’s terra nulla incognita, there’s a lot of pressure to get it perfect lest I contribute to the dysfunction I’ve inherited (by introducing a new bad process). Can you present the challenge to your employee to just make it happen the first time and worry about polish and style points in phase 2 (if it even needs a phase 2)?

  17. Jennifer Strange*

    When I was in college I worked at a Starbucks for a while that was right across the street from my apartment building. It was VERY convenient for early morning shifts that had me in at 4:45 am. That said, I was also on the 4th floor of the apartment (and this was in a major city where my leaving my apartment wouldn’t be noticed as there was always a crowd on the sidewalks), so my privacy was a bit more intact.

    1. allathian*

      My first job in high school was at a smallish grocery store (3 checkouts) about half a mile from our house. I could walk it and it was a safe neighborhood, so I felt comfortable walking alone even after dark. But you can be sure that even after I hit 18, our legal drinking age, I never went to the bars in the immediate neighborhood, because I definitely didn’t want to get hit on by the middle aged men in the neighborhood who used to come and buy beer at the store I worked. Some of the toughest things I ever did as an older teen was to refuse to sell beer to intoxicated customers. At the time, I was allowed to sell beer even though I was too young to buy it. These days you have to be 18 to work the cash register, I started at 17.

  18. I'm just here for the cats*

    LW 1 is it part of his job description to do these projects or is it just the next step in development? Could he be fine with being a project tasker but not want to actually lead a project.
    For example at one place I worked we all started out as customer service rep 1 (CSR) where we answered calls and emails, placed orders, basic troubleshooting. The next logical step was CSR 2 which were senior members of the team that would not take as many calls but would help with higher functions, such as approving discounts, supporting agents with questions, and taking a call when a client escalated. There were other departments that you could move to like regulations, production, marketing etc. The company had systems set up for people to move up. However there was one person who just wanted to be CSR 1. Would take projects and such like mentoring new people, training. Things like that. But she liked being CSR 1 and didn’t want to change.
    My point is, if this is just something for him to climb the ladder, ask him if he really wants this.

  19. MsFieryWorth*

    We had a candidate hand us pre-written thank you notes at the end of their interview. It wasn’t the only reason that they were rejected for the role (executive assistant role), but it was in the list of reasons. If you *must* prewrite a thank you letter, save it as a draft or write a draft with room to add in something about why the position would be a great fit after the interview. Then drop it in the mail on your way home or send a time delayed email.

  20. pretzelgirl*

    For the LW that lives close to work. Unless people are watching you as you leave and come to work, they may not even notice. I would probably only disclose to HR your address for obvious reasons, like pay, benefits etc. But I don’t have the slightest clue where some of my co-workers live.

  21. Deborah*

    For LW#1, I think there’s another type of intervention you can add as well. I had a boss for years that I worked on new projects with the whole time. Now I didn’t have the anxiety issue you’re describing, but often I didn’t have the whole picture that he did, so I didn’t know where to start. There would be a decision that ultimately he needed to make (for example, approving a spend in a certain tech project as well as which vendor to go with), but he needed a variety of information in order to make that decision. And so he would talk through the questions and the pros and cons with me. He was methodical and I learned how to think through the problem in a logical way. I don’t know whether he thought of what he was doing as mentoring, or if he just found it the most expedient way to delegate (he was very busy and he would spend a few minutes talking through a direction and leave me with research or other tasks).

    Anyway, my suggestion would be, if you have time and wish to invest the energy in it, perhaps you could take some of these situations with new projects and tease out the issues with the employee by asking questions. That was what worked so well for me; my boss didn’t tell me a bunch of facts, he asked me lots of questions about how things worked and had me think. I think it might help if your employee is struggling to know where to begin with a new project to ask targeted questions. You might have to give this some thought, to figure out what’s the best way to approach it. Maybe you would need to take a look at the project and think about what “questions” you ask yourself when you look at this project – that might be a bit hard because some of them will be instinctive at this point. Or maybe you can think about a roadmap and the high level overview and see if you can ask him to outline that (what is the purpose of this project? Who will we need to involve? Who will it affect?)

  22. Amy*

    ‘To move into the next step of his career he has to….’

    But is this next step compulsory? Does he want it? Plenty of people don’t want to get promoted. If it is necessary work it is up to him to seek help for his condition. Meds, therapy, whatever it takes (I’m in England, would your workplace cover this)? Irrespective of the medical condition someone may or may not have (I’m Bipolar) it is up to the person to seek treatment like any condition. So if the work is a must I would sit him down, explain that he is not meeting work standards and ask him if anything health related is impacting it so you can help him. If that is not an option time for a PIP.

  23. JM in England*

    Re LW#3

    This boss seems to be playing a variant of the “Bring me a rock” game, where they tell the LW to do one thing when they really mean another…..

  24. NotAnotherManager!*

    Re LW#3, I sometimes have a hard time conceptualizing what I want sometimes, and I’m very upfront with people who do work for me about that and also go out of my way to review why I made a change, especially if it was stylistic and outside the original request. I also try to not have someone do a full work product if I’m only in figuring-it-out stage, and I think feedback is really important (even if it’s just, “I changed X because BigBoss asked for it to be that way.” or “You did a great job on this, but we decided to go in X direction instead for Y reason.”).

    Honestly, without follow-up, I’d feel exactly like LW#3 does – if someone’s redoing my work with no feedback, I would really be concerned. The lack of feedback/follow-up is the big problem.

  25. Mel_05*

    I often panick a little when I have to figure out a brand new type of project. I don’t have adhd or anxiety bad enough to need a diagnosis. I just freeze a little.

    I’m probably not as bad about it as the OP’s employee, but, I think it could easily just be a discomfort with type of work. I don’t know to improve that, I just make myself start after a little bit.

  26. yala*

    In regards to the anxiety, I would like to add–please tell him when he’s done things right. I have anxiety, and “no news is good news” does not apply. It’s harder for me to really set This Was Done The Right Way in my mind, when the only feedback I get for doing something correctly is…no feedback.

    You don’t have to applaud every little thing, or even anything. But at least say, “You did this correctly” or something like that when relevant, especially if it’s a new type of project.

  27. Not So NewReader*

    It appears to me that OP’s question is actually about this:
    “he told me that he has a really hard time admitting when he doesn’t know something and asking for help…”

    There’s a softer approach: “Do you want to conquer this problem? If yes, let’s pick out some practical steps toward breaking down the barrier.’
    One step could be picking out the person who he would be the most comfortable in asking. Since he has confided in the OP, I suspect he would say that it’s OP. This could also lead to a conversation of talking about people who I enjoy talking to. “Well you could talk to Bob. Ya know, Bob always has a smile and a joke or story. He’s got an easy way about him. You might like talking to Bob.”

    Another step is to make sure he is aware of and using all resources available to him. (In my personal life, there are things that I would rather google than let particular people know I didn’t understand. Or I dive into a specific book to get myself more oriented.) Not every knowledge gap has to be filled in by an in-person conversation.

    If I could extract from him that he actually did want to progress in his career, then I might consider doing some one-on-ones where we sit and map together. So I could see where the recurring pitfalls for him were, at least, and hopefully we’d find an action plan he would use.

    So that’s the softer approach. My harder approach would be to point out that this is not a hurdle to carry through life. If he tears down this hurdle he will add quality to his life in the long run. I’d also say that I have seen plenty of people use their jobs as an applied form of re-training. They take what causes them to stumble and use tasks of the job to help themselves over the problem area. I might or might not say this. It would depend on what the employee said.

  28. Frannie*

    I’d be honest and say, “If you want to progress you need to work on your approach to painting teapots. If you need resources to help you, refer to documents X, Y and Z. Otherwise you may end up missing opportunities you are good for. Let me know if you have any questions.”

    If staff block themselves for whatever reason and won’t attempt to change, you’re wasting your time. I’d find someone else to support in career progression.

    1. EchoGirl*

      I think it’s pretty uncharitable to say that he “won’t attempt to change”. I made a longer comment to this effect below, but it may just be that trying to do projects without a “roadmap” is harder for him than OP expected. I wouldn’t assume he’s being stubborn on purpose.

  29. EchoGirl*

    Re:LW1, I’m not sure that anxiety is all that’s going on here. Not wanting to ask for help may be a symptom of anxiety, but while I’m not ruling out that the core issue is caused by anxiety, the way it’s described here seems very similar to something I (ADHD/autism dual diagnosis, but not trying to diagnose OP’s employee, just talking about one particular experience) have had to battle with. Basically, a lot of people when they’re handed a big project will look at it and see see the series of small tasks that add up to fulfill the larger objective, but some of us have brains that just don’t work that way. Instead of breaking it down, my brain tends to process things like that as one big “super-task”, which just makes the whole thing feel overwhelming and “how the heck do I even do this”. It would be kind of like trying to assemble a piece of furniture without instructions; you have all the pieces there and you know what the end result is supposed to look like, but you don’t really know how each piece fits in or what order you’re supposed to do things in.

    If this is what’s going on with OP’s employee, then his inability to start the projects may be not that he’s too anxious, but that when he gets the projects, what he sees is not a series of manageable tasks, but one huge thing that’s so overwhelming it feels virtually impossible. This could also explain why he has difficulty “recognizing the pieces he has done before or is familiar with”; he may not be able to immediately separate the pieces out well enough to make those connections. I can also see how it can contribute to a reluctance to ask for help, because his problem may be not “I don’t know how to do this particular thing” but “I have to do so many things and I don’t know where to start”, which is much harder to explain, especially if anxiety is also a factor. It would also mean that going from projects with clear roadmaps to projects without clear roadmaps isn’t the moderate progression OP thinks it is — for someone who doesn’t easily break things down, the two are worlds apart. It is a skill that can be learned for some people, but because most people just do it almost automatically, there’s often a lack of understanding that it’s something that some people will actually need to be taught how to do.

  30. Petunia*

    I had a similar struggle to LW1’s employee. I excelled early on because I was given specific tasks relating to clients but I am now I am also managing clients and I really struggled initially. It is a completely different skill set. I actually think a lot of my difficulties relate to the fact I am a details person, not a big picture person. I have found it helps to do a plan, breaking the what needs to be done into manageable chunks and a timeline. Experience has also made a big difference. It might be helpful to have a meeting with your employee and take them through how you approach/plan a new project. Oddly enough, I also have anxiety but I still think it sounds more like growing pains (which anxiety makes so much worse). I would also make it clear that you expect him to talk to you if he needs guidence.

  31. Winter Wonderland*

    Two short tales about living close to work.

    1) The only job where I had a consistent tardiness problem was the one where it was literally down the block. The “just down the block” syndrome meant I didn’t allow enough time to get ready and get there.

    2) During a NYC blizzard, before work from home became a thing, my boss called me and asked me to call my employee to tell her she had to go into the office to answer phones. She lived about 4 long blocks from work. He lived about 2 short blocks from the subway with 1 short block on the office end, and the trains were running. I refused and also refused to give him her number, told him to change the outgoing voicemail message to say the office was closed. If he wasn’t willing to walk a couple of blocks in the snow, he couldn’t require her to, just because she geographically lived closer. For those unfamiliar with NYC’s long/short blocks, her walk-in-a-blizzard time would have been more than twice his, and with street snow plowed up onto the sidewalks, making them impassable.

    I wouldn’t NOT take the job for that reason alone, but take it into consideration and be prepared to set and enforce boundaries. Lots to consider in Alison’s and commentariat’s responses.

  32. K. Viv*

    In response to the one about a prewritten thank you note:
    I had someone do that in an interview 4 years ago. They gave a printed letter at the end talking about how our discussion made them want the position more and realize they would be a great fit.

    We literally didn’t talk about the position at all. He just complained about the current job he was in.

    The letter was so incredibly awkward that I STILL talk about it as a huge no and even pulled it in to an interview/resume presentation I give to newbies in my field.

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