update: my employee vents to me about her job and personal life and wants constant reassurance

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose employee kept venting to her about her job and personal life and wanted constant reassurance? Here’s the update.

I scheduled a sit-down talk and asked Anxious Employee how things were going and let her talk. Then I raised the issues.

I wasn’t hopeful (neither were Alison or the commentariat) but I felt she deserved the opportunity to know what needed fixing and give her a set time frame to change before letting her go. Some other performance issues had come to light (she is a receptionist and I discovered she was letting every. single. phone call roll to voicemail!) and I combined all of that into a list of (measurable wherever possible) of goals and targets she needed to hit, with a follow-up conversation about five weeks later.

Immediately after that first difficult conversation, I was just proud that I didn’t make her cry! And lo and behold, she did take all my feedback to heart and changed what needed to be changed. She’s making good progress on the performance issues and the behavioral stuff more or less immediately disappeared. She still has a ways to go but especially since I was able to provide some positive feedback and encouragement at the follow-up meeting, her confidence has improved and the quality of her work along with it.

I’ve also been trying to remember to provide positive feedback on the parts she *is* doing well whenever I can, so that not every communication from me is a correction.

I also needed to take a step back and remind myself she wasn’t doing all of this in order to make my life hard; she truly struggles with some anxiety issues and just needs some structure and to have every expectation spelled out explicitly. This was a new type of person for me to manage so we’re learning together.

Finally, some of the commenters expressed concern I may be texting and driving (I don’t). I spend 3-4 hours of most working days in the car and I place a high value on safety (mine and other drivers), which is part of the reason the barrage of text messages was stressing me out. I can’t just ignore them because sometimes there are truly urgent/emergent things that come up and need an immediate response from me. I sat down with the entire team and set some new expectations for communication during the working day (please text me for time sensitive issues only and email everything else). It’s inconvenient for everyone but less disruptive to me and safer.

Bottom line, it’s hard to believe this is the same employee. I’m glad I gave her the chance to show what she can do!

{ 45 comments… read them below }

    1. redflagday701*

      I love them too, because I suspect at least 90 percent of the world’s problems would be solved if people focused on doing a better job at management. It’s really not that human beings are lazy or don’t want to do good, useful work. This truly was an awesome update.

      1. Unicorn Parade*

        I’ve been in the workforce for over two decades but it wasn’t until I started reading AAM that I identified some problematic work behaviors I engage in. It’s fairly easy to believe that certain behaviors is okay if you do it repeatedly and nothing is ever said – people are not psychic, after all! – so the earlier you can establish boundaries, the better.

  1. Gingerbread Gnome*

    What a fantastic update!
    OP congratulations for communicating with your employee in such a compassionate and constructive manner. Congratulations to your employee also for stepping up to deal with her anxiety around her job and changing her behavior.

  2. We Love an Update*

    This update is warming my cold dead heart this season, what a great experience for both parties!

  3. The Prettiest Curse*

    I always love to read updates where someone that you think might not be able to turn it around manages to do exactly that! Well done to you and your employee, it sounds like you are working well together now, and that’s always good to hear.

  4. CatCat*

    Beautiful. OP, you sound like a conscientious manager. You handled this so well. Communicating clearly and setting measurable goals led the the employee rising to the occasion. I am so happy about that!

    (Even if she had not risen to the occasion, it sounds like she had a clear and appropriate opportunity to correct.)

  5. KWu*

    I really like this attitude of, “This was a new type of person for me to manage so we’re learning together.”

    1. Wisteria*

      Yes. Good management does not mean managing in a particular way. It means managing in the way that makes the employee most effective, and that will look different for different people.

    2. Anti anti-tattoo Carol*

      +1 to this! Learning to manage different types of people is always a new journey. My own anecdote is that I’ve consistently always had more self-guided, “less is more” people on my team. They flourish under autonomy. Then a new person was reassigned to me a few years back and they were really stressed out. During every check in, they always acted like it was the apocalypse, that the weight of the world was on their shoulders, etc. I was confused, because I had never, not once, gave them that impression. Everyone was scared to approach them because “Cecil just seems so stressed!” Even though their job was very much an client-facing role and they NEEDED to be approachable. After a couple of months, I finally asked what was up, since I’d actively lightened their workload and made sure they had time to focus. Turns out that they needed a more high-touch manager. We ended up learning together. I became better at managing a broader range of needs, and they grew in confidence… and they were eventually promoted to a more prominent role, in a new department- and with their own team and initiatives. I am very proud of them!

      1. WoodswomanWrites*

        Thanks for sharing the story of your growth as a manager. It’s great to see how this helped both you and your employee to succeed.

    1. JessaB*

      Exactly. I once had a temp job with a credit card company. The regular employees had statistics and things they could be shown about the work. Now when you have a programme that gives stats it doesn’t normally only collate the data for some people. The whole system is wired in. But for some reason nobody ever showed that info to the temps. None of us had any idea if we were doing an acceptable job at all.

      I finally went to the liaison and said “look, I’m sure we’re all doing okay, but as far as I’m concerned an absence of communication is not indicative of an absence of concerns.” She agreed and they started sharing with the temps so we knew if we were in line with how much and what they wanted us to do. We didn’t get feedback as often as the permanent people but at least we didn’t go months wondering if today was the last day because we weren’t doing what they wanted.

  6. Candi*

    Having an adult kid who suffers from mild anxiety (they have a doctor) and who still lives with me while we both go to college, I’ve found that their anxiety is often mitigated by precise boundaries, and exacerbated by being vague or “what you want to do”. (They’re studying to eventually be a chef, which so far has meant very clear expectations.)

    Your talk and setting of goals for your receptionist may well have been exactly what they needed to help mitigate their anxiety and cope with it.

    Best of luck.

  7. OP*

    Thanks all. I’ve never been trained in management (common in my profession) and was thrust into it when I became an entrepreneur. Or when my business grew enough that I needed to hire support, anyway. It’s nice to be encouraged and validated (I myself do not have a manager to do that LOL).

    What flummoxed me most was that she really needs everything, including what I may think of as common sense, spelled out for her. Like, receptionists know they have to answer the phone, right? Or that you can’t take shared equipment home without permission when you’re going out of town for ten days. But, her saving grace is she does follow the directions once they’re given. This is her first real office job and I think it’s been a culture shock fo rher. Hopefully I don’t come off as too exasperated!

    1. WoodswomanWrites*

      Your response is all the more impressive given that you’ve had no management training. Good for you for recognizing that your employee being in her first real office job needs more guidance on the basics than a seasoned worker would. Your thoughtfulness comes through even in this post and I can’t imagine you come off as exasperated. Well done!

    2. Tali*

      Understandable that there would be issues then! I think it’s counterintuitive with anxiety but I’ve found that anxiety responds really well to direct and clear communication. Can’t guess and intuit and fret over very specific orders. It kind of lets the brain outsource the decision making process to someone else, and once that relationship is established, knowing that you will be told clearly and specifically what is wrong can be a source of reassurance. Good luck!

    3. Vee*

      I never see the harm in telling people things, including what might seem like common sense to me, because everyone thinks differently, and has their own unique background and context. And, although this is her first office job, many people come from previous workplaces where policies could be wildly different for a wide variety of reasons.

      People are not mind-readers; tell them, especially in writing, or they won’t know.

      And there are round-about ways of putting policies or procedures in place so they don’t read oddly. Something like, “do not remove any company property or equipment (including computers) from the office without first requesting permission, in writing, from X or Y”.

    4. River Otter*

      A lot of “common sense” is actually a skill set known as adaptive skills. Some people pick them up, and a minority need them explicitly taught. Try to shift your thinking from “how does one not know this stuff?” to “Here is a skills or knowledge gap that needs to be filled,” and you might find yourself less exasperated.
      After all, you needed to learn certain management principles that another person might have picked up on more quickly. Is knowing that a receptionist answers phones really that different from knowing that a manager can ask her employee to save non-essential questions for a time that she is not busy?

      1. learnedthehardway*

        Epiphany here – you’ve just explained something to me, that will make it much easier to deal with them and to not be frustrated by them! Thank you!!!!

    5. learnedthehardway*

      Some people really do need things to be spelled out like that. Doesn’t always correlate with intelligence, either – some people simply don’t have the ability to extrapolate from one situation to the next, and really need clear directions that apply to every situation.

  8. turquoisecow*

    This is wonderful! I admit I’m really surprised by this update, but it really sounds like the employee needed some structure, feedback, and guidance that they weren’t getting. Now that they have a clear set of goals and get regular positive feedback, I’m guessing that’s doing a lot to ease their anxiety. I know I’ve definitely gone down an anxiety spiral of “am I doing my job right? Does my boss hate me?” though I usually internalize them, and it sounds like giving the employee feedback of “this is good, that is not, here’s how to improve,” helped with that.

  9. LGC*

    I love this update so much, LW. And bravo on having a tough conversation that worked out well!

    Also, I have to applaud you for setting some reasonable boundaries. I think a lot of people really like to text (hi, I’m in my late thirties and I still like texting/emailing because it gives me less anxiety than picking up the phone also it’s better if I’m in the quiet car), so I can definitely see everyone just defaulting to it. (I had to text everyone for Ida and I’m still recovering from that mistake.)

  10. Vee*

    This is a lovely update! Thank you for being one of the far too few decent managers out there who actually communicate with employees, and then give them reasonable feedback and time to improve.

    If you’d like unsolicited feedback (haha), I would have given her five or six weeks to improve before putting her on a PIP, not five weeks to improve or letting her go, as it tends to make people less anxious, stressed and likely to make further mistakes, but I’m just thrilled for both you and the employee that everything is now going so well.

    Bravo! :)

  11. Zelda*

    “I’ve also been trying to remember to provide positive feedback on the parts she *is* doing well whenever I can, so that not every communication from me is a correction.”

    This is so important. Thank you, LW, for being a good teacher and a continuing learner!

    1. Eva*

      This is such a critically important point. Awesome work, OP! I’ll never understand why so many managers (including supposedly experienced ones who have done management training) totally fail to realise this point.

  12. The Rafters*

    Good for you OP for communicating with your employee in a way that was constructive. Double for telling employee what she was an is doing right. Sometimes people need to hear something positive in order to work on the negative, otherwise they may focus only on the negative. And congrats to your employee for trying to step up, and it sounds like largely succeeding. I do love a happy update! Both of you, keep up the good work.

  13. Funbud*

    “she is a receptionist and I discovered she was letting every. single. phone call roll to voicemail!
    Hey, I resemble that remark! Well, not every single call but there were some…straight to voicemail, baby! I’m not paid enough to deal with you.
    Good times.

  14. Kella*

    I’m so glad this conversation worked! As someone who has always dealt with debilitating levels of anxiety, I can testify to the powerful impact of explicit, clear expectations. Sometimes even that isn’t enough and it wasn’t clear if that was the case from the original letter. But I’m very glad it turned out this way.

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