my employee keeps trash-talking herself

A reader writes:

I manage an employee who engages in constant defeatist self-talk, even though her work is stellar. It’s clear that she is a very anxious person and that’s distorting her view of reality. But it’s frustrating and upsetting as a manager. Every interaction, even routine ones, is about her feelings: Instead of “Should I deal with Ticket X or Ticket Y first?” it’s “I’m so sorry to bother you, I know this is a stupid question, sorry, but should I deal with Ticket X or Ticket Y?” Ignoring it hasn’t worked (“Ticket X, thanks!”); reassuring hasn’t worked (“You’re not bothering me and it’s not a stupid question”) and even raising it in her otherwise excellent performance review hasn’t worked. She just ends up apologizing for the fact that she’s apologizing.

Seeing her name in my inbox and imagining the cascade of self-hatred that’s going to preface a perfectly reasonable request gives me a knot in my stomach and is making me dread working with her. Is there anything I can do to make this better?

I answer this question — and three 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:

  • Job candidate wants an update, but I’m not sure of my answer yet
  • Receptionist keeps buying me coffee and won’t let me pay
  • My contact added me to a Facebook group for moms in my field — and it’s horrible

{ 131 comments… read them below }

  1. R W*

    For the first one – I think also helping her work on reframing could be helpful. Instead of saying “I’m sorry for asking so many questions” trying “I appreciate your help with figuring this out”.

    1. Kari*

      Yes! I was taught early in my career (as a young woman, this is definitely a gender and generation thing too) to replace apologies, with appreciation! So instead of “sorry I have another question” it should be “thanks for your patience” or “I appreciate your support” or whatever makes sense. Over time the instinct to apologize has worn off, and even my “thanks for your patience” comments are fewer and only when a situation truly warrants it.

    2. WavyGravy*

      Re 13/accurate media rep:
      Veep. Though maybe they were more moral than the current political landscape

    3. Canadian*

      I think she’s probably just Canadian. I don’t even understand why it’s anything more than slightly annoying. I’m also a Canadian though! Sorry eh?

      1. londonedit*

        British here and yeah, it’s a little more apologetic than most people would be, but starting a question with ‘Sorry to bother you…’ or ‘Sorry, I know I’ve asked this before…’ or ‘Sorry, this is probably a stupid question but…’ is so normal to me! Everyone does it to some extent and there’s no way I’d call it ‘trash-talking’, it’s just one of the ways we show politeness.

  2. ABCYaBye*

    OP3 – I’d suggest picking up a gift card from the coffee shop, putting it in an envelope and just writing “for the next few coffee runs…” on the envelope and then just leave it at their desk.

    1. Eggo*

      I think a gift card is great.

      I’ve always been a fan of “you fly, I’ll buy” coffee runs as the more jr person in the office.

    2. Beth*

      Exactly what I was thinking! Get it for a significant amount, and plan to replace it regularly.

      1. Anon all day*

        In the before times, this is what we used to do with Starbucks all of the time – it made it super simple.

      2. Sales Geek*

        A gift card linked to an account you control can give you the best of both worlds. I know this works for Starbucks. A Starbucks gift card can be reloaded from their app (and I think through a web page). So you can give the receptionist a gift card that you’ve linked to your account and simply add money to it via the app when necessary.

  3. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

    You might also try bringing the question back to her and frame it as brain storming, ask her what she guesses might be the answer to her question. This gives the opportunity to praise and reinforce that she has the skills she needs.

    1. Nethwen*

      I wasn’t as bad as the person in the question, but in my younger years, I did buy into the belief that if someone asked me a question and I got the answer incorrect, then I had done something wrong because if they were asking, then that was an indicator that I should already know the answer. Being asked a question like is suggested here was very anxiety-producing. For the person in the question, if she’s already apologizing for normal things, asking could lead to even more painful and time-consuming questions, “I’m so sorry to bother you, I know I should already know the answer. I’m sorry I couldn’t answer on my own. I thought about it, but wanted to be sure… should I handle X ticket first? Or Y? I’m sorry to bother you; I know I should know this, but I wasn’t sure…I’m sorry.”

      1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

        It definitely can be uncomfortable to have the question posed back to you. I look at this in two ways 1. it is the managers job to teach and help the employee grow (not worry about staying within comfort zones) and 2. we grow the most when we step outside of our comfort zones. There may be times when the employee does not have the correct answer, that is the opportunity for the manager to be strength based and give them props for trying but then explore some other options that can work. Encourage the employee to develop the way they think they want to implement the idea. Them being active in the process is the only way they will learn to overcome the worry about not knowing the answer. If the manager just keeps giving them the answer there is a chance they will never spread their wings professionally and learn to problem solve on their own which will be a disservice to them.

        1. Velomont*

          As someone very similar to the trash-talking employee myself, I completely agree with Nethwen and I’ve gone through the “manager trying to guide my thinking through a Q & A process”. I would basically be wanting to sink through the floor while at the same time thinking “FFS just tell me want you want”.
          And Anastasia, IMHO, people like me and self-trash talker need appropriate levels of therapy, not a manager’s inappropriately executed version thereof.

          1. Esmeralda*

            Or, the manager could say: Let’s brainstorm and talk thru it. I’m sure you can do it and just need some practice! It’s better for us to go through the process, rather than me giving the answer.

            Anastasia is not suggesting therapy. Anastasia is suggesting a completely appropriate action for a manager to take.

            1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

              Esmeralda is correct, I am not suggesting that the manager do therapy. As a therapist myself I can agree with Velmont that therapy may be the best approach for the employee to overcome this level of anxiety. However it is the managers job to coach and guide the employee to develop independent thinking. If they just “give them the answer” for everything that won’t happen.

              1. TeaCoziesRUs*

                Additionally, having someone who can gently catch them in the moment and help them reframe is a great way for a manager to help. I know I’m not even aware when I apologize – it’s such a natural flow.

          2. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

            As a therapist I completely agree that someone who consistently has this mindset could benefit from CBT to help to change their mindset and improve their mental health/stress level. In reality that will be the only thing to improve their anxiety level. The manager’s job is to coach them into improving their work behavior (i.e. problem solving). This is very different than CBT.

          3. Just Your Everyday Crone*

            As a manager, I sometimes need to understand my employees’ thought processes in order to coach them or give them information about where to find answers to questions. I am sympathetic if that makes people anxious, but I don’t think I should be constrained in doing my job properly.

          4. Koalafied*

            Honestly, as a manager, there are situations “what I want” is precisely that the employee learns how to figure some things out without me giving them the answer. If I’m guiding someone through a Q&A it’s not therapy or some fun professional development game that I think will help them in a vague/generalized way – it’s training them on a skill their job requires them to develop.

            1. No name for this*

              Seriously. The Q&A is needed to get the employee to walk through the information needed to make a business decision. Going through a basic list of questions (e.g. Which one is due sooner, which one came in first, how long will it take to finish X vs Y, do X or Y need additional review before completing) can help the employee figure out the best way to prioritize tasks in that role for that department

        2. Lanlan*

          My manager taught me that there’s a significant difference between going to the cutting edge of your comfort zone, where growth happens, and being pushed out of your comfort zone, where all that exists is fear of the unknown. I had little to no self-esteem about myself as an employee when I began here, but every single person above me in the food chain has helped me find that cutting edge instead of forcing me to suck it up and throw myself into situations that terrified me. Now I feel like a competent adult (my work history is full of horror stories, trust me).

          With employees like me, care is warranted — and it WILL pay off.

          1. Irish Teacher*

            Yup, forcing people out of their comfort zone generally tends to prevent any kind of growth because they are so busy just trying to survive being in such an environment.

          2. Allonge*

            I am glad to hear that this was helpful to you. Would you mind elaborating on how your managers found that sweet spot between no-change and over the edge? I cannot imagine doing this without the active participation of the employee, for one.

        3. PersephoneUnderground*

          I think this misses a big point- that questions about priorities are, almost by definition, not questions that the individual employee can or should answer on her own. She has no way of knowing if the Marzipan account has a big event coming up but the Chocolate account can wait, the manager is in charge of that. So reversing that sort of question would just make this all much worse. There was no discussion about her bringing too many questions or asking things she should actually be able to answer herself.

          1. bamcheeks*

            That’s not really true— organising and prioritising work is a skill that the vast majority of white collar (and a far number of blue-collar!) jobs expect you to have to some degree. That doesn’t mean it’s never OK to ask you manager for guidance if something changes, if the priorities aren’t clear, or if the workload is so high that you can’t get it done in the timeframe requested. Those are good reasons to ask for more information. But in most jobs there’s a level where you *are* expected to be able to manage that level of prioritisation yourself.

            1. Koalafied*

              Yes, mid to senior roles it’s usually expected that someone who is fully trained on their role, even if they don’t have the authority to unilaterally decide on priorities without a manager’s input, should approach their manager with their expert recommendation for how to proceed and either get the OK or find another solution if the manager doesn’t OK it. While managers often have broader visibility into work that the IC may not be aware of, but ICs also have in-depth visibility into their work that a manager lacks because they’re not down in the weeds doing the work and seeing how it goes on a regular basis, so they’re often better positioned to decide how to handle something and just need to check with their manager to make sure there’s not any problem they can’t see from their own vantage point.

              When my employees need me to make a decision, I want to hear their thoughts first, even if it’s just, “I’m on the fence about which of these to prioritize – this one will have a more direct impact on our company’s bottom line, but this one is important for maintaining harmonious relationships with the other department.” #1 because it will help *me* make better decisions to have that information.

              #2 because it’s a sign that the employee is *thinking* about their work and truly taking ownership of their goals – I can’t overstate how valuable that is and how necessary it is in certain roles. I need to be able to trust that if I tell an employee to do something, they’re going to get it done, including resolving any problems that come up along the way, and the end product is going to work as expected. With an employee who defers to me on everything even after being in their role a long time, I start to have concerns about whether they would notice if someone gave them bad directions, whether they would push back or raise it with me if that happened, whether they would make mistakes without ever noticing. It makes me more nervous about using sick leave and vacation time, because I worry that everything would grind to a halt if my employee had questions while I was out of pocket. People management is only part of my job, and when I’m not confident that an employee is taking thoughtful ownership of their work, I have to devote more of my time to checking their progress and QAing every interim stage of a process because I can’t trust that they’ll keep things on track without me.

          2. Allonge*

            Of course the manager is in charge but I disagree that employees cannot answer these kinds of questions. Non-managers make calls on priorities every day.

            The overall logic of it is very much learnable (size of order, relationship, deadline etc) and in a normal relationship the decision is something the manager can explain.

            I guess there are two ways this can work out (with a reasonable manager): either the call is always with the manager, in which case employee should not apologise for asking. Or employee is learning to make the call themselves, in which case it needs to be a discussion in the learning period, and I would aim to get the employee to a place where they come with a question and a reasoned proposal for an answer (and the knowledge that if the boss disagrees, they will get an explanation, not a punishment) regularly – unless, like, there are things burning down and there is no time for anything but a call by manager.

      2. This is Artemesia*

        and you are well past being subtle and trying to model behavior. This is a woman who needs to be told her apologetic tic is hurting her professionally and how to behave differently.

    2. Not A Racoon Keeper*

      Yes, my boss did this, and it was helpful – but less “what do you think?”, and more “let’s talk it out together”, which removed the pressure on me while I gained my footing in the organization.

    3. I'm just here for the cats!*

      Please reconsider doing this. She is probably asking these questions because she is insecure and/or anxious. By reversing the question it puts more pressure on the employee who is already anxious about doing something wrong.
      I had a manager do this to me constantly. Or ask me to “find the answer myself.” Well, I wouldn’t be asking you if I could find the answer myself, Deloras! ” I would have to preface my answer with all the steps I took already just to ask something like where is the troubleshooting guide or what should I tell client X.

      Also the employee may not know what to do and that’s why she’s asking in the first place. She may be asking what would you prefer me to do.

      1. This is Artemesia*

        This is a good approach with the employee who doesn’t just go find out what she should or take notes etc. It is kind of ‘let me google that for you.’ And expecting this sort of person to review what they have done first before you answer is appropriate. But that is not the OP’s employee. She has a habit — one she was probably taught at home or in a dysfunctional workplace that she needs to abase herself before asking questions. It is now a tic and needs to be rooted out consciously but pointing it out and giving her alternative ways to address it.

        1. NervousNellie*

          Question, why the hell does this employee need to root this out? It’s not rude, it’s not really bothersome. It’s entirely ignorable by other people. It’s whatever. If we can all manage the other completely bizarro things that crop up in offices, such as the fish-microwaver, the noisy mouth breather, the stinky-footed no shoe guy, etc, etc, we can definitely deal with someone who has self-effacing mannerisms just fine.

          1. bamcheeks*

            It is actually pretty bothersome when someone does it to this degree! OP has literally said she sees her name in an email and anticipating the cascade of self-hatred gives her a knot in her stomach. It does affect working relationships and it’s fair to coach someone on it.

            1. NervousNellie*

              Okay, that sounds like the manager needs to work on their reaction. Just because you don’t like someone’s manners doesn’t mean that they are doing it wrong.

            2. Sorrischian*

              This! I’m not a manager, but I have a coworker who, while excellent at his job and a genuinely nice person, is constantly talking about how he’s “not pulling his own weight ” and “hopes he isn’t holding the team back” – and it’s so incredibly uncomfortable that it does make it harder to work with him.

            3. Wisteria*

              LW didn’t say that other people were complaining to her about it. If I take the letter at face value, where LW describes her own reaction, then telling LW that she has complete control over her own levels of being bothered is the best answer.

          2. Koalafied*

            It is bothersome – it’s asking their manager to perform the emotional labor of reassuring them every single time they have a question.

            1. Blast from the past*

              As the original manager in question (I posted an update further down) I think everyone here is right, lol. My frustration was at least partly because deep down, I really felt like I was responsible for her comfort, confidence and happiness at work, and I was clearly failing. I really needed more emotional distance from the situation — it was an annoying tic, but “overwhelming dread” said at least as much about me as it did about her.

              That said, it really was a very annoying tic and it did hold her back. I heard from others in the company both during and after I managed her that they found it frustrating to interact with her because they felt like they had to walk on eggshells. When someone treats normal discussion and routine interactions like criticism, it makes it difficult to have a productive working relationship.

              The prioritization stuff was an attempt to anonymize my industry, so I’ll just say to clear that up that it was totally appropriate for her to ask me what she should work on next. The issue wasn’t the questions but the fact that normal questions were preceded by a litany of apologies.

          3. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            Actually it is really bothersome and I don’t want to waste my time listening to it. I sure as hell am not going to say, “No reason to be sorry”, “Nothing to be sorry for”, and all the other feelings tending every dang time someone needs to talk to me.

  4. AthenaC*

    #1 – I have a client like this and I’ve told her many times she doesn’t need to apologize, I’m happy to help, I can see she’s clearly done everything she could, etc. If I had to guess, there’s probably some underlying issue magnified by how her previous boss (before my time) used to treat everyone.

    But since she’s my client and not someone I manage, I figure I’ve tried to be supportive but I just have to ignore it now.

  5. Eldritch Office Worker*

    I am not a mom, but I have been told across the board that mom groups are terrible.

    1. Antilles*

      Not sure if that’s specific to mom groups; kind of seems like Facebook Groups across the board can be pretty miserable. Or just the even broader Internet saying about “90% of everything is crap”.

      Fortunately, there’s a very easy out – even simpler than AAM suggests: Just leave!

      She’s unlikely to notice (unless she’s actively checking the group’s membership); if she does ask about it, you just casually say you’re cutting back on social media and that’s all the explanation you need to give.

      1. Lenora Rose*

        I think the idea behind addressing it and not just ducking out is that she doesn’t want this group recommended to other moms, either.

      2. Foley*

        I used to feel *all the guilt* leaving groups I’d never asked to join. Now, I just leave, maybe not immediately – for MLM friends I give it a minute because I *feel* unsupporttive – but leave.

        And the ‘I’m cutting down on SM’ is always a good excuse. It’s true 99% of the time…for most people I know.

      3. Chirpy*

        I’m in some really great Facebook groups, but that’s because I’m really picky about which ones I join (and who I friend in the first place, I have zero current coworkers friended and plan to keep it that way until either I or the one possibility here leave)

    2. Lenora Rose*

      As a Mom: There’s a reason I’m only signed in to very very specialized parent groups and even then take them with a grain of salt. But the idea of a mom group that thinks taking time off to actually be a mom, while on maternity leave, sounds like a new step up in nightmare territory to me.

    3. This is Artemesia*

      Mom groups fueled the anti-vax movement; they seem to attract the charismatic meddlesome sort and then these people drive a lot of mean girl type behavior. Sorry your group didn’t turn out to be helpful.

    4. Policy Wonk*

      Agree. The mommy wars are unfortunately real. I don’t understand it – women need to support each other. I recommend you just “unfollow” the group. You won’t see their posts, but they also won’t see this action – lesser than un-friending, which could lead to questions. If the colleague asks about it, tell her you haven’t had time to look at Facebook.

    5. Insert Clever Name Here*

      Like with any group (whether on social media or not), there is a HUGE range and it depends very strongly on the administrators. I’m in exactly one mom group on FB and it has a strict set of rules that are enforced across the board (no questions related to vaccines, if you criticize how another mom is feeding her kid you are immediately removed, etc). It’s a positive group that is inclusive of different viewpoints and encouraging, and I’ve gotten a lot of value from it…but that’s because a massive amount of work goes in to ensuring it remains that way.

      It’s kinda similar to comment sections on websites — a lot are utter trash, some are decent, and fewer are great.

      1. Lenora Rose*

        And, I am guessing, you can often tell which one it will be by seeing the moderation style. None = Trash.
        Removes active abuse and bullying but lets people get away with anything that isn’t explicitly abuse = probably good.
        Removes active abuse, occasionally makes polite commentary to steer topics, including to keep discussion away from places people will feel piled-on, recognizes the specific quirks of specific regulars and knows how to keep them on the rails, when things get heated is willing to call a topic closed and enforce = always at least good, occasionally great.
        Ironically, more moderation, rather than encouraging an “echo chamber”, often means people who are less likely to make a comment where they can be jumped on by toxic people or forced into a debate they don’t feel like, will actually be willing to air opinions less often heard.

        (Echo chambers can be a risk with extreme heavy-handed moderation, but heavy-handedness is much rarer than people think because it’s so much work, and a site is vastly more likely to be under-moderated than over-moderated.)

    6. Dark Macadamia*

      The only decent parent groups I’ve joined online are local hiking ones, part of a structured organization and pretty well moderated to only allow relevant posts. Everything else – big playdate Meetups, school district info, parenting discussion, etc – has been The Worst.

      1. Alexis Rosay*

        Every successful group I’ve joined online, period, has been moderated. I have never seen an online-only group successfully moderate itself and not turn at least somewhat toxic. (Online groups of people who also have real-life relationships are different).

  6. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

    A Facebook moms group that touts itself as welcoming and supportive, but is actually a cesspool of toxicity? Shocker. It’s almost a cliche at this point. Something about that particular medium can turn even the most well meaning people into a-holes. Just leave the group and don’t mention it to her. If she brings it up, just be honest and say you weren’t feeling it. No justification necessary.

    1. This is Artemesia*

      This. If she is herself not a heavy participants she won’t even notice. If she does ask, you can be bland ‘it wasn’t for me’ or even ‘they were really harsh to women whose mothering choices differed from their own and it made me uncomfortable.’ But I’d treat it like a rec for a tv show that you watch once and don’t feel is worth your time — not an obligation.

    2. Lady_Lessa*

      I stretched my boundaries a bit today. There is a social club with all sorts of activities, but before I join I asked if the one that tries different ethnic restaurants is still active and how welcoming to new comers are they.

      I’ve noticed that the older the group, the harder it is to be the newbie.

  7. BritSouthAfricanAmericanHybrid*

    For the receptionist/tech issue – the tech could always buy gift cards from the coffee shop and give them to the receptionist to use.

  8. Suellen*

    “This is what we were talking about. Do you want to say that a different way?”

    I’d find this extremely patronizing, especially the last sentence. I don’t think I’d make them speak on demand, using the phrasing you would prefer, like they are a toddler.

    1. Esmeralda*

      How about this:

      “This is what we were talking about. Could you take a minute and rephrase it?”

      Because the employee in this case does have to learn how to rephrase and to stop the torrent of self-trashing and apologizing. It’s already harming the employee– it’s making the OP not want to deal with her; OP is conscientious and isn’t avoiding the employee, but very likely that it will make others avoid the employee, if it hasn’t already.

      1. NervousNellie*

        You know, if I can get used to everyone else’s weird manners, which is something women are expected to constantly do from a young age, this manager can get used to this weird mannerism. Just because you don’t like how someone is polite to you doesn’t mean that they aren’t being polite and they need to change.

        1. Allonge*

          Do you like people coming to you with frequent abasement of themselves?

          It’s not a question of manners / style acceptance. And normally on this board we recommend coaching employees on things that hold them back.

          1. Wisteria*

            I don’t have to like. I just have to not be bothered by it. And I can train myself to do that.

            1. No name for this*

              And the person abasing themselves can train themselves not to do it. Honestly, after a while I’d be so tired of hearing the abasement I’d probably cut them off as soon as they started.

              Them: I’m so sorry to bother…
              Me: I’m going to stop you right there. Just ask your question.
              Them: I’m so sorry to…
              Me: Is that a question?

        2. Lenora Rose*

          Constant self-abasement is often not just a weird mannerism, and it’s often not just polite. It often is something the other person does need to change, not for the workplace alone or for their manager’s comfort, but for themselves. Excess negative self talk is often self harm, and if you’re dealing with the (so rare I fear it is nonexistent) case of a person who does this* level of self-deprecation and still has a perfectly healthy level of self-esteem, they probably don’t want people making those assumptions about them.

          * Yes, a Little bit of self-deprecation can be a sign of a healthy balance of esteem and awareness. The poison is in the dose.

        3. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

          Self-abasement isn’t being polite (at least in US society), it’s being self-centered.

          “I’m so sorry to bother you, I know this is a stupid question, sorry,” has the asker making this interaction all about themself. It’s making their feelings the center of an interaction that isn’t supposed to be about emotions. It focusses the question on themselves rather than on the information they need.

          And it wastes other people’s time and requires that they do emotional labor for the asker. OP’s example is great. An exchange that should be about a question and answer (and quick) instead becomes about the asker’s feelings of inadequacy (and much slower).

  9. My Useless 2 Cents*

    #1 is a very hard habit to break but it really isn’t something you can fix for them. It’s one of those things that they have to be willing to work on. Unfortunately for women, it is something that society at large reinforces and expects to some degree so that makes it even harder to change. A frank conversation explaining why employee should work on trying to change the habit would be the best course.

    Although my dad’s way, (asking “Why are you sorry?” every time I would say this as an interruption, social nicety, or anxiety filler) does eventually work, I wouldn’t recommend it. I found that once broken of the habit, it became an *incredibly* annoying habit to see in others. Nails-on-chalkboard kind of thing, so I eventually understood why my dad would do it but I really didn’t appreciate it at the time.

    1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

      Frank conversation for sure. This is a time to be direct and let them know as part of their development and success this is something they need to be actively working on. I’ve never been that bad, but have been coached over the years to project more confidence / less anxiety and be more clear and direct instead of hedging.

    2. Wendy Darling*

      If you ask me why I’m sorry the most likely result is that I will reflexively say “Oh, sorry!” as an apology for being sorry.

      I’m working on it but there’s like a 6 month waitlist for therapy right now (it’s a terrible-self-esteem thing for me, it needs worked on) and socialization is a hell of a drug.

      1. Kari*

        Absolutely! What I found helpful was consciously trying to replace apologies with appreciation- “thanks for your patience!” instead of “sorry I haven’t figured this out yet” or “do you have a second? thanks!” instead of “Sorry, can I interrupt?”

        Having a 1:1 replacement for the social nicety/filler purpose was really helpful for me, and over time I’ve naturally stopped saying “thanks” for minor situations where it’s not really necessary. It’s absolutely a gender and age thing too.

  10. Wisteria*

    Is there anything I can do to make this better?

    If by “this” you mean the knot in your stomach and the accompanying dread, you can absolutely make this better. If you haven’t been able to change her behavior, try changing your reaction to her behavior. Work on managing your own feelings around how she talks.

      1. Grow Up*

        Ah, yes. The overly emotional tyrants who think they are perfect. No one should have to perform this much emotional labour for a colleague. No one should have to absorb this much negativity from someone they have to deal with everyday.

        Stop spewing your mental diarrhea over others in the workplace. It’s disruptive and deeply self-centred. Plus, if you really are as terrible as all those apologies imply… maybe the company should just get rid of you.

  11. Aggretsuko*

    I’ve been so shamed at my work that I do apologize for everything now, including my own existence and asking questions. Clearly this employee has been through the same thing.

    1. Emdash*

      I used to work somewhere really toxic and had an unhinged boss. Long story short, I developed a habit of apologizing for everything.

      It is a habit I am still working on trying to break. It isn’t easy. I have found when people are nice to me and don’t engender fear or put me down that I don’t apologize as much.

    2. Indigo Five Alpha*

      To be fair, it might not be work that’s caused her to be like this. Could be parents, partners, friends, others.

      Sucks, though. Poor thing.

      1. Emdash*

        Most definitely. Being put down repeatedly for expressing a question or need often results in a lot of unnecessary and preemptive apologizing. There are some good articles online about how to deal with this as both the person doing it and hearing it. But for me I found it lessens when I feel safe or comfortable.

        1. LittleMarshmallow*

          For me it’s hard to break this habit because one random feedback of “you’re too direct when you ask questions, you can’t just come in hot with your questions like that” will send me right back to my learned default of apologizing for everything. It definitely feels like a no win sometimes.

    3. works with realtors*

      This is literally how my therapist talks about it – it’s a reaction, not conscious, from shame/fear/etc. She calls it the lizard brain taking over and it’s an actual trauma response for self-preservation.

  12. Uk reader*

    I have this issue and it’s simply down to anxiety and lack of confidence in myself-and anxiety does cause that lack of self belief.

    Instead of dealing with it as a “this is making you hard to work with”, If it was me I’d want to be approached as “You are doing great and you don’t need to apologise. I’ve noticed you do this a lot and you need to believe in yourself more”. Then accompany it with some suggested resources on building confidence, or open questions asking what you can do to support a build in confidence.

    Also I often think a wider conversation about how women often feel the need to apologise for themselves, for being outspoken or assertive opens up skme new thoughts and helps women to consciously reframe their apologies.

    1. This is Artemesia*

      The problem is that she has already been given the subtle complimentary approach and it didn’t affect it. She needs to know that this is a problem that is damaging her professionally, that you see it as a habit not a character flaw and you want her to work on it. Of course you tell her that her work is generally terrific — that this one thing really needs to change.

      It is like feedback when someone is in danger of being fired. They literally don’t hear it unless you spell it out. In her case, she needs to hear not ‘you are doing well, you don’t need to apologize’ but ‘when you constantly apologize and trash yourself, it makes you hard to work with.’

      1. meggus*

        The problem is when you’re dealing with an anxiety issue that affects a person’s greater life, it’s not something that’s going to stop on a dime because we provided a subtle complementary approach. The reality of this type of behavior is that it’s very common and it’s very ingrained in society, and habitual behaviors do take time to change. This is simply reality, and acknowledging it can hep move us closer to inclusion and away from ableism.

        1. NervousNellie*

          > This is simply reality, and acknowledging it can hep move us closer to inclusion and away from ableism.

          Thank you!

        2. Allonge*

          It is ingrained in society and it does take time to change. But a manager is not doing any favors by ignoring it or encouraging it either.

          At an extreme, this approach would lead to bad managers enforcing it because it gets them off and good managers ignoring it in the name of not being ableist. So there are more and more and more women who cannot speak without apologising for their existence. Not the kind of progress I have in mind.

          1. meggus*

            But she’s not ignoring it or encouraging it. She can in fact work to manage her own reaction to this, because being annoyed by it is not helping either.

          2. meggus*

            But if you’d like a more detailed description of how I would handle this, you can read my comment below.

            1. Allonge*


              I read your description and it is very much not just about the manger saying ‘ok, this is annoying but I am wrong to find this annoying because societal issues and will learn to ignore it and leave you be to debase yourself, as you seem to prefer to because otherwise ableism’.

              So I am fairly sure we actually agree on the next steps to follow. Addressing the issue (partially because of annoyance) does not exclude compassion or understanding that it will not be resolved by a single speech – what you wrote below is more or less what Alison recommends and what I would also try to do. Not saying anything is not a good choice. But you don’t seem to be recommending that either.

              1. meggus*

                It is. We’re all responsible for managing our emotions. As I mentioned, focusing not on one’s personal annoyance but instead understanding *why* it’s an issue is imperative. Ableism is rampant in workplaces, and there’s absolutely zero wrong with working to bring awareness to and correct that very common issue. Additionally, the issue *isn’t* her annoyance, but how it can reflect in someone’s professional reputation. Focusing on annoyance isn’t the way to go, and isn’t even the issue. Funny enough, the OP said the same in their own comment below.

  13. Ginger Pet Lady*

    Have you considered that when you show annoyance at her questions, it makes her feel bad about asking questions and so she feels less comfortable about annoying you, apologizes more, and the problem gets worse?

    1. PersephoneUnderground*

      I would say that’s likely, but also an argument for just addressing what’s actually bothering her directly as Alison recommends. That way if she picks up on any annoyance from the OP she’ll be more likely to interpret it correctly as about the apologizing, not the question. OP is likely already trying to not show her reaction and be reassuring, but it’s clearly not working.

  14. I'm just here for the cats!*

    Am I missing something? How are those examples of self trash-talking? I can see it as being annoying and over-apologetic but it’s not trash talking. Wouldnt trash talking be something more like “I’m so stupid for doing X, I should have done Y instead.” or “I’m just being stupid but what do I do when Z happens.”

      1. Blast from the past*

        Inc letters are edited down a bit, but as this was originally my letter, it was a combination of constant apologizing for things that definitely did not need an apology and self-flagellation over even minor corrections or uncertainty — “I’m so dumb,” “I know I’m just bad at this,” plus reacting to anyone reacting to her (by “yes, and…”ing something she said in a meeting, for example) as if they were correcting her. (I’m not sure I mentioned that issue in the original letter because it emerged later.) Also a total conviction that she was failing/bad/going to be fired even though she was very successful at the core functions of her job from day 1.

        Basically, the internal narrative of a socially anxious person, but … external.

    1. Mid*

      The example of “I know this is a stupid question” is trash talking yourself, because it’s not a stupid question.

          1. Plumbum*

            Feels much kinder to me than telling an anxious person that their anxiety is causing the reaction that they were anxious about causing. That could create a positive feedback loop where every interaction becomes an anxiety spiral when before it was merely an anxiety spike, both making the problem worse and harder to actually fix.

  15. Blast from the past*

    #1 was my letter from several years ago, so I have both updates and a new perspective on the whole thing. The good news is that the employee is still with the company and is doing great. Her work, always good, has only gotten better; she’s had several promotions and is seen as one of the most successful individual contributors. She is also generally known (with affection) among managers as an anxious weirdo. The constant apologizing and reassurance-seeking has diminished greatly, even though she still is who she is.

    I sent this letter more than four years ago — so it’s hard to say what exactly was responsible; she’s changed managers twice (we were both reassigned for unrelated, generally positive reasons not long after I sent this letter), relocated to a city where she has a better support network, got promoted multiple times, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she got some professional help as well.

    What jumps out to me now rereading the letter is my own overwhelming anxiety. She was one of my first-ever hires, and I’d been a manager for less than a year. We were a startup that was a few years old at that point, and other employees (of all genders) tended to be very confident, enthused about their work/the company, and not exactly afflicted with imposter syndrome; she was one of the first hires of a different personality type (which is good! I think it’s great that we are a place that no longer employs just one type of person). I was a brand-new manager struggling to figure out how to inhabit my own authority as a boss, be decisive, and give clear feedback. I also was (and am) a people-pleaser and former camp counselor who worried way too much about whether everyone was having a good time. In some ways, we were just way too similar.

    The good news is everyone involved, and the organization as a whole, is better, smarter, and more professional than we were four years ago. I wish I had grown more than I have. I still struggle to remember that I am the authority figure and I don’t always have to be liked. But I also have some more perspective — there is no perfect script that will change everything about a person, and there is no substitute for just doing the hard thing, over and over. The way to get better at giving feedback is to constantly give feedback, to tolerate the momentary discomfort and survive it and sometimes even have the employee tell you later that you were right.

    Happy endings all around.

    1. Blast from the past*

      When the original letter was published, I remember a commentator calling me out for my own extreme reaction — that an overwhelming feeling of dread was not really a proportionate response to an employee, even one with some pretty annoying habits. At the time, I’m pretty sure I brushed it off — easy to say if you’re not the one getting “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” before a totally anodyne question.

      If that person is still reading here, I want you to know that you were completely right.

    2. Heidi*

      Thanks for the update. It’s great to hear that improvement has occurred all around. I guess one of the risks of the self-deprecating approach is that people might believe that you’re as terrible as you say you are. Another is that anxiety becomes your defining characteristic in people’s minds. The employee is fortunate that her managers are recognizing that her work is better than how she presents it.

    3. Irish Teacher*

      Thank you so much for the update. I’m really glad to hear how things worked out and that you are both doing well.

      I reckon I am sort of affectionately known for a few quirks at my workplace too – not anxiety, more obsessing over history, blanking on small talk and getting disoriented in crowds, sort of thing – and it is a relief to have my colleagues get it and simply accept it as who I am. It’s good that your employee has a similar sort of understanding.

      Continued success to you both.

    4. Blast from the past*

      If I were giving my past self advice, here’s what I’d say:

      -This is obviously a long-term, deep-rooted issue and it isn’t going to change overnight, but improvement is possible and it’s worth trying for.

      -There is such a thing as being too compassionate and understanding. It might not have come through in my letter, but one reason I was frustrated was that I really did feel empathetic to this employee, which meant I felt terrible about how she felt all the time, and consciously or not, felt like it was my responsibility as her manager to make her feel better. One of the managers she worked for after me was not unkind, but definitely brusquer. She did not have a lot of truck with tiptoeing around feelings (she once told me “we’re managers, not social workers” and there’s a lot of truth to that), and she made this employee rephrase her request every single time it included excessive negative self-talk. I think I would have been too afraid to make the problem worse to try something like that.

      -Your employee’s feelings are not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to get the work done, give direct and actionable feedback, and to treat people with respect, kindness, and compassion. Everyone is a grown-up, and no one is happy at work all the time.

      -Change is slow.

      -If you dread interacting with someone you are managing, it is time to reset and reframe the situation, and that can be done even if they never change.

  16. meggus*

    For reference, I managed for a long time. I’m neurodivergent and currently disabled from a TBI and PTSD. I think it takes very little effort to understand that while this may look like a surface issue, it can have much deeper roots. I think it’s important to remember that this is a dysfunctional part of our culture and a lot of women do this. Studies show that women on average apologize far more than men, and it has a lot to do with gender roles, but it can also be a response to trauma and abuse. This is not an isolated issue. it’s something that has been studied many, many times and there are tons of scholarly (and other) articles out there on it. Particularly while the world is still reeling from the global trauma of the COVID pandemic (and now monkeypox), I think we owe it to everyone to gain a greater understanding of and sensitivity for mental health issues, how they manifest, and how they can be managed (particularly when it comes to austistic/allistic communication styles, yeesh, but I digress).

    That includes managing our own reactions, OP. While I understand it gets annoying, it’s likely not continuing to happen because she’s not listening to you or not trying. Now I’m not saying that this excuses her behavior or makes it less annoying, but I do think it’s a perspective to keep in mind when approaching her about the situation. These tend to be attempts to get along and to stay in people’s good graces. So, rather than chiding her for her “self-defeatist” talk (a phrase which really rubs me the wrong way when thinking about this in a mental health context) and focusing on your annoyance, acknowledge the larger not obscure issue and be direct with what you want to see from her. If it’s ok for her to ask her questions, tell her that, directly. If you want her to stop apologizing for asking questions, tell her that, directly.

    “I notice when you ask me questions, you have a habit of apologizing for doing so. I want you to know you are able to approach me and ask questions when you need to. Your work is stellar and I trust your judgment, so when you come to me with a question, I know you need help. You’re not bothering me or wasting my time with excessive questioning, and asking questions does not lower my opinion of you. That said, my concern with this behavior is related to your professional development, as unfortunately this can be taken as a lack of confidence, an inability to take ownership, or an inability to work independently. I want you to feel comfortable reaching out to me for feedback or guidance.”

    I love the suggestion here to bring the question back to her to see how she would handle it. Use compassion and empathy. Help her build her confidence. As mentioned this is not an isolated phenomenon, and it’s one that’s often rooted in adverse childhood experiences. Having a manager who understands that this is an issue that can be worked on and improved(BUT NOT OVERNIGHT), and not something that’s simply annoying, can go a long way. If your company has an EAP, you can remind them that’s something to take advantage of.

  17. NervousNellie*

    #1 can be a “politeness” thing in some regions of the US, and is also very common in Asian cultures. For people who didn’t grow up with it, it’s grating, and I understand that, but I think the best way to manage it is to simply ignore it or do the little dance of manners in which you politely say it’s not bother, or it’s a valid question, and you move on with your day. Unfortunately, the way this is enforced when you grow up with it, as anything OTHER than that is actually a signal that you weren’t polite enough and you’ll actually get more of the same, only applied much more heavily. Do you want more submissiveness? Because everything suggested here would be taken as a que to bow lower and be Even More Polite and… that in and of itself is rude. I might do it to yoru face, but I’d think you were dick for expecting that level of submission.

    I’m going to go out on an unpopular limb and say that “coaching” women to not engage in this is as obnoxious and sexist as telling them they’d be prettier if they smiled. Get used to different manners and roll with it.

    1. meggus*

      quite honestly, it’s upsetting that someone’s annoyance was labeled a business issue instead of their own reaction to manage.

  18. Baron*

    I’ve recently inherited an employee who is like this to the extreme, but who also has some disability circumstances and adverse life experiences that kind of explain it. Her previous managers have kind of shrugged and treated this behaviour on her part as the cost of doing business. I really wish I could support her into being more confident in her communications without it having to be a disciplinary thing. For now, I just push back every time she starts with the “sorry to bother you” fusillade, and I feel like I can keep doing that, but I worry that one day she’ll have a less patient manager.

  19. meggus*

    The problem is when you’re dealing with an anxiety issue that affects a person’s greater life, it’s not something that’s going to stop on a dime because we provided a subtle complementary approach. The reality of this type of behavior is that it’s very common and it’s very ingrained in society, and habitual behaviors do take time to change. This is simply reality, and acknowledging it can hep move us closer to inclusion and away from ableism.

  20. anonagaintoday*

    I had a manager that would SNAP at anyone who asked her questions, take people’s heads off, shut people down before they even finished asking a question, acted liked everyone was an idiot for not knowing the answer (even though she was extremely inconsistent on policies so you never knew what the right answer was at any given moment) and was overall extremely rude and belligerent to staff. Ironically, she was very competent at her job in many ways, but she had no patience for questions or gently explaining anything to someone who might be in the dark or confused. I got along with her because I found her very capable in many areas, but even I was scared to pose a question or question something she had said and risk getting attacked. For as capable as she was, she was extremely overworked and NOT always right, and often gave answers that contradicted something she had said earlier. Yet had a way of making it the other person’s fault or problem. Anyways, all of this to say, that if you have ever worked with someone like this, it’s almost like PTSD when now dealing with someone much more calm and approachable. You still feel like your tip toeing around and walking on eggshells just to ask a simple question!

  21. Plumbum*

    I’m probably seen as the over-apologising, anxious, self-critical coworker, but if I had that lecture from my manager I would just start job-hunting.

    I’ve been in therapy for years, work is the only facet of life where I have even a tiny bit of well-earned confidence, so if I were told that actually people think badly of me there’s just no coming back from that, I’d be out.

    1. NervousNellie*

      I’ve had so many of these coworkers over the years and I just….. I’ll take this any day over a real jerk. I mean, it’s not even worth getting upset about. Yes, it takes extra time. They often struggle to “land the plane.” But it costs me what, 5 minutes to be kind and accept that they were raised differently (wherein this is politeness as they learned it) or that this comes from a place of trauma. Seriously, just can’t come up witha reason to be that bothered by it.

  22. kiki*

    For LW 1, One thing I may check on is how other people are treating your employee and speaking to her. I used to apologize for “stupid questions” way too often BUT I also was surrounded by jerkish men who DID make me feel stupid for asking any question (one of just a few women in a software job). Starting off questions with “sorry if this is stupid,” actually was a timesaver for me because men would literally 10 minutes to explain why my question was stupid (rarely were they stupid) unless I headed it off. It became a really ingrained habit and hard to knock off or apply only in certain circumstances

    1. LittleMarshmallow*

      Same! It’s a coping/manipulation mechanism to survive working with jerks (esp female in male dominated field) and it’s a hard habit to turn on and off if you find you need to use it often.

  23. Amber Rose*

    #9: I did this for two weeks after I had Covid because I was so afraid of getting anyone else sick, negative test or not.

    Everyone paused outside my door, then knocked, then waited until I put my mask on and waved them in. There were a couple of “how come?” type questions but absolutely zero drama.

    1. Amber Rose*

      Wait, what the heck? I could’ve sworn I was in the other comment section. My internet maybe bugged out. Ignore this post lol.

  24. Alexis Rosay*

    OP20 – I worked at a small nonprofit, and it CAN get better if one particular person is the main source of the problem and that person leaves. In fact, it is incredibly how quickly it can get better when that happens!

    If the problem is widespread or the toxic person won’t be fired, then it probably won’t get better.

    1. MediumEd*

      Unfortunately it is more than that! Our high turnover means sometimes bad people leave, but a new one pops up in another high-up position. Glad it worked out at your NP though. I have wanted to leave academia for a while and have started my job search, hoping something comes up soon, I work in a niche field and have not had many opportunities to apply for/interview for.

  25. No meetings please*

    #45 I’m thinking your friend was fired and chooses not to tell anyone. She didn’t want you to make drop because it would hurt your chances of being hired if they knew you were friends.

  26. Snoflinga*

    #50 – As someone who has worked in the field for a long, long time, you will absolutely be rejected from a proofreading or editing job for using two spaces after a period. Don’t do that. No one does that. It’s the first thing any editor does when fixing a document, strip out all the weird extra spaces and grumble about people who make more work for us for no reason.

  27. LittleMarshmallow*

    For #1: oof… I feel for your report. I don’t know what causes her to do it but as someone who struggles not to apologize for everything, it’s a hard habit to break. I agree you should be direct but I do hope you’ll be able to be patient, this behavior is so hard to stop once it’s ingrained. I spent 6 years under a manager where the only way to not get yelled at for asking him a question was to start with “I know this is a dumb question…”. It was a coping mechanism to deal with a boss that had anger issues. It’s been more than 5 years and I still struggle not to apologize for existing (granted he wasn’t the only person I worked with where the self-depracation was needed to get along…). My parenthetical has reminded me that you may want to keep an eye on her interactions with others to make sure you don’t have a bad actor or two in your dept that make her feel like she needs to do this. For me it’s not “self-hatred”… it’s how I get what I need from difficult people that I have to work with, because generally no one will deal with their behavior… unfortunately, it becomes a habit and then gets translated to those that don’t also.

  28. Raida*

    32. Dietary Restrictions and Donuts/Bagels

    I find that “no thanks” results in insistence to have a treat, fixed by saying there’s a medical reason – so switching to ‘no thanks’ is going to extend the conversation ending up with ‘coeliac’ and oh sorry anyway.

    I would suggest instead saying “Sorry Luke but I can’t eat gluten. Look, this is the ninth time you’ve offered, and I don’t mind the donuts that I can’t eat, but I am starting to mind repeating myself. Could you make a note or something for this? I’d suggest a great gluten-free option near the office if I knew one!”
    It lays out the issue, offers a solution, probably sticks in their mind more, and lays out a low-effort option for them to use.

    Personally I do not mind foods which don’t cater to intolerances and allergies and preferences *provided they are infrequent*. If it is weekly, monthly, providing lunch then I expect managers to allocate a little time (even their admin to do it) to getting a list of things to consider so they can bring in foods that while not catering to everyone at once do not always exclude specific people.
    I’ll bake a gluten free cake, but not all the cakes are gluten free.
    I’ll make meat-free savoury food, but not all of it is.
    I’ll hold off on buying donuts until the gluten-free donut pop up place is around because they are the best damned donuts in the City!
    I’ll bake biscuits, and sometimes they have peanut butter in them but not always.

    It is exclusionary to ignore dietary restrictions. The treats getting eaten just means that the same group of people are snacking every time – managers should pay attention to who doesn’t eat and why and put in the *little bit of effort* to include those people sometimes

  29. Raida*

    25. Cats vs dogs
    Why are pet-friendly offices usually only for dogs? Could I bring a cat or a hamster to the office if it’s pet-friendly?

    Asked my mate who was office manager for a pet-friendly office: Trained dogs are expected to ‘stay’. Trained cats are still expected to walk *on top of* things.
    Having cats in the office that weren’t leashed or caged resulted in needed the cat owners to get ahold of and keep ahold of their pets at lunch time while the benches and tables were all cleaned to provide a hygienic food prep and eating area for staff.
    It interfered with the cat owners’ days, it cost time and cleaning supplies to do every day, nobody wanted to be told it was their job suddenly to be ‘a cleaner’ – the assumption that the office admins would ‘just do it’ was knocked back immediately as insulting and so the cleaning task was rotated by team every week including management.

    That was just her office, but there ya go

  30. Raida*

    If you’ve got an EAP – send her that way.
    If you can find any training on ‘effective communication’ or ‘avoiding negative communication’ or anything like that – try to set them to doing it.

    Have an honest conversation with them from a management perspective about the issue, define why it is an issue (much as you’d like to say “you are annoying and I can’t tell you that because you’ll just friggin apologise!!!”) from a professional angle.
    IE show them an email they sent, show them your edited version, explain how the tone of each is received, how that can negatively impact their professional reputation and that you’d like them to succeed so you’d like to work on this communication style to move towards one that serves them better.

    If they can accept the concept of doing better for themself and that you’ll obviously notice if they aren’t doing it, in emails at least they can start drafting an email, giving it five minutes, coming back and editing out the parts that are apologetic or emotional unless necessary. You can give her feedback on how it’s going, how you think that the impression better serves her and is a better match to her skill level.
    Then move on to spoken communication and chat client communication.

  31. Mac (I Wish All The Floors Were Lava)*

    For OP3: one option is to give the coworker your money and say, “If you don’t want it, just give it to the barista as a nice tip– I’m not taking it back!”

Comments are closed.