employee keeps trash-talking her own work

A reader writes:

I’m working a large project with Hank, another manager who is my peer. We have divided our workload, and I am primarily supervising three of our staff, while Hank is supervising the remaining two.

I have a friendly relationship with Samantha, one of the staff members who Hank supervises. She regularly complains that she is not well-trained, has no idea what she is doing, is frustrated at work, etc. Our job is highly specialized and technical, and because of its nature, it’s hard to do any formal training other than on-the-job training. Samantha doesn’t think she is good at her job, but for her level, she’s actually doing quite well. She has worked with several managers and we have all given her the same feedback in various ways. I don’t really know what else we can do to encourage her. It is true that learning this job can be challenging because it is so hard to train for all the various issues that can arise once and never reappear for many years, but she does well.

However, we all work in one large room. Very often, while Hank is giving Samantha instructions, she emails me and texts me while he is talking to her, saying things like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about” … or “I don’t know what I’m doing” … or “He might as well do this himself because I have no idea what he wants.” When this is happening, Hank is speaking in a normal and reasonable tone … and I’m not sure why she doesn’t ask him for clarification if she is so confused. I don’t think Hank is being particularly cryptic or is a bad communicator or anything like that.

What it comes down to is that Samantha suffers from imposter syndrome. Several people have tried to talk to her and encourage her. But it’s at a point where she needs to accept that this is a job that has a huge learning curve, and decide if she is up to it or not. Complaining to everyone all the time is not going to help. Besides, I think it’s very rude and unprofessional to be emailing and texting someone else while your manager is speaking to you. What should I do in this situation?

I answer this question 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.

{ 87 comments… read them below }

  1. Goldenrod*

    Samantha sounds like a whiner! I wonder about an update?

    There are tons of jobs where there isn’t much in the way of training (for the reasons OP stated) and you just figure it out. She needed to be more proactive and ask for clarification when needed, not just immediately complain about it.

    1. Heidi*

      There was an update – January 2, 2016. It ended in Samantha having kind of a meltdown.

  2. name of the day*

    sometimes when someone is even a little insecure about something, they kind of make it a bigger deal just to get the positive feedback. i have someone in my life who has done this with me and it got to a point where i said a “final” you’re-doing-fine and then moved to a kind of lukewarm response like “i’m not sure why you think that”. it’s tiring and i didn’t want to do it anymore.

    1. Roscoe da Cat*

      I think that is where the discussion about ‘this is the nature of this job and you might want to consider if this is the best place for you’

      Although, does she have any idea what a standard learning curve is? It might help if you can say “It generally takes xx years to become an expert with on-the-job training and you are right on track with that.”

  3. PotsPansTeapots*

    This is less of an “employee needs more self-confidence” problem and more of a “employee might not be right for the job” problem. Being able to handle new situations and work through problems semi-independently seem to be key job requirements for this role.

  4. Jiminy Cricket*

    I had an employee like this. I was constantly talking her down from the ledge. “You’ve got this! You’re doing well! I know you can handle this!” Then one day she gave notice, and I accepted it. It became clear she was surprised I didn’t try to talk her off that one final ledge. She tried to rescind her notice. I wished her well in her next endeavors.

    1. Goldenrod*

      “She tried to rescind her notice. I wished her well in her next endeavors.”

      Well done! Who needs that drama? We all have insecurities, but we all have to learn how to handle them, without making it someone else’s problem to manage.

    2. nonprofit worker*

      That sounds exhausting! She probably didn’t know how relieved you were when she gave notice.

      1. Caliente Papillon*

        Well she f*ed around and found out lol.
        But yeah some people do not seem to realize how TAXING they are.

  5. Artemesia*

    People who constantly beg for praise and reassurance are such a pain to work with. The texting while she is being supervised is a huge signal that this is about her personality and issues rather than her skills. That is unusually rude/outrageous. The problem is her whining not her competence.

    1. Cake or Death*

      “People who constantly beg for praise and reassurance are such a pain to” deal with in any way, shape, or form in life in general.

    2. TooMuchOfAManager*

      Yes! The drama is the problem here. And that problem usually isn’t fixable.

    3. Freya*

      Yep – I need praise, or my brain subs in imaginary negative feelings from other people that those other people just don’t feel. But the way I deal with that is to ensure that my boss has at least one thing every week that she doesn’t feel weird praising me for in small ways – I’ve finished tasks A, B and C, and progress to finishing task D is ahead of schedule. It’s basically keeping my boss apprised of my workload, normal communication stuff, just making sure that there’s stuff in the list that she can easily pick out as something she can say Good Job Freya for. She’s made sure to give me (small) praise for coming to her with a request for help or an extension on a deadline, and that has given my brain a positive feedback loop that shortcircuits my impulse to hide any struggling. I make it easy for my boss to reinforce that positive feedback loop by looping her in, and she makes sure to do it, and she sees the resulting positive response from me.

      What I don’t do is beg, or neg myself.

  6. Llellayena*

    Maybe something like: You are advancing and leaning at the pace we expect you to, possibly even a little faster than we had anticipated. However, your insistence that you are terrible at the job is holding you back from focusing on LEARNING the job. I need you to focus on listening and absorbing information when it’s being presented to you and stop disparaging yourself. If you have a question on clarity, ask it of the person who’s talking to you instead of complaining to someone across the room. Can you do this?

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Yeah, if I was getting text about not understanding what was being asked while the explanation was going on, I would be very tempted to say — perhaps if you listened instead of texting me you might have a better grasp of the task.

      But that would be unprofessional. So a more professional version of that would need to be said.

      1. Mad Harry Crewe*

        TBH, I don’t think it is unprofessional. That’s probably not where I’d go first, but if we talked about it and it kept happening?

    2. Caramel & Cheddar*

      I think there’s a lot going on with this particular employee that it sounds like the LW nor Hank will ever solve, but in general I think you’re right that being clear with people about your own expectations about their learning progression is super helpful.

      I do a lot of training at work and I train people on a piece of software. A *lot* of people are really hard on themselves for making mistakes! But that’s the nature of learning how to use a new piece of software. I tell them that I don’t expect them to become proficient users until they’ve been using it regularly for at least a year and they’re always surprised by this. I don’t know if they’re surprised by my honesty or that it could take that long, but I do think it helps take the pressure off that they need to be good at it immediately.

      Related to this, I think it’s important to be clear what kinds of mistakes are permissible. For me, almost any mistake is fine to make as long as you correct it and learn from it. Nothing we do is life and death and so I don’t act like it is. I genuinely don’t care if people make mistakes — and I’m clear that I’m not immune to mistakes either — I just care that they’re fixed and that I’m not coaching you over and over on how to prevent the mistake in the future.

  7. Cake or Death*

    Great advice from Allison and good luck to you, OP. People like this are very hard to deal with; personally, I find it intolerable after awhile.

  8. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    We just hired our own Samantha in a department under the same grandboss. It’s been a year of, “I’m so dumb. I don’t know how to do this thing I learned yesterday.”
    Nobody does! Listen and try it.
    I think she just can’t being wrong or handle making a mistake.
    At my place they installed an entirely new system. Like new contract with new company to provide new software.
    Yes, she’s only been here a year, but the system kicked off 7 weeks ago. Nobody is more experienced than anyone else. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to level the playing field with her experienced coworkers, she took a step back…
    It’s already, “I’m an idiot. I don’t understand anything. You need to ask Mary about that. She’s the expert.”
    So people outside our group are asking Mary, who has her own part of the work to do, not Samantha’s.
    So I don’t think it’s imposter syndrome. It’s some pathological fear of being wrong.
    And she can’t be wrong if she doesn’t try. And she told you she didn’t know. And yes, it is tiresome. Please talk to her.

    1. Workerbee*

      Sounds like my older brother – though in his case it’s a mixture of laziness and weaponized incompetence.

    2. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Or its learned helplessness. Oh darn, can’t be bothered with my job if I don’t understand it. Meanwhile Mary is swamped. Which a good manager would address head on — unless you want Mary to walk and be stuck with Samantha.

    3. EllenD*

      I occasionally wonder if there is a problem with the education system, in that teachers expect everyone to get it right all the time and in the UK pass SATs , or GCSEs, or A Levels and those who don’t are failures. However, pupils aren’t taught how to cope with mistakes and learning not to make them, or to ask if they genuinely don’t understand. As a result, there are a large number of people in their teens or 20s, who don’t know how to cope with not understanding something and don’t have the soft skills to learn or work something out for themselves.

      1. Jojo*

        I worked with a guy that was like this. I watched him stand up in front of our customer and start off his presentation by apologizing for being stupid. I almost died of vicarious embarrassment. He wasn’t stupid, but he did have some executive function/listening deficiencies. He would sometimes talk about how he was treated by his teachers in school. They told him to his face that he was stupid, and finally kicked him out of the parish school. I don’t think public school was any better to him…or his family. It was really sad to watch. He was so anxious about possibly being wrong, that he couldn’t pay attention to the things he needed to know to not be wrong.

      2. Goldenrod*

        “However, pupils aren’t taught how to cope with mistakes and learning not to make them, or to ask if they genuinely don’t understand.”

        YES, I extremely agree with this! It took me years to learn how to make mistakes and be honest when I didn’t understand something. Education is so fixated on achievement, but actual learning involves a more open mind-set…I believe you have to honestly admit what you don’t know in order to learn. But how can you be open in this way when you are always trying to impress the teacher?

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

        I’m in higher education in US and there is one particular person who comes to mind this past fall that was like this. He had a big ol hissy fit because he failed his first attempt, at something that a lot of people fail at the first round.

      4. Cicely*

        Coping has to be taught at home. Teachers aren’t trained for it. Guidance counselors perhaps, but not classroom teachers. They’re too busy teaching subject matter and managing classroom behavior, which is what they’re trained for.

    4. Gin & Soda*

      It’s some pathological fear of being wrong.

      This is quite common. For those of us who were terrified to bring home a 98% on a test in school only to get yelled at for not getting 100%, hearing that over and over will build up some major anxiety. I’m not condoning Samantha’s behavior, mind.

      I hope someone referred Samantha to the organization’s EAP or recommended counseling. From the LW’s description she clearly needs help with general coping skills and to see where she is, in fact, competent.

      1. Properlike*

        Yes, it’s bringing a high school mentality into the work world. Mind you, it’s not something any high school student should be doing, either. It’s “you are not going to learn this if you keep telling yourself you can’t, and I will not listen to you say this out loud any more.”

        I think that professional at work. Not the “getting mad because someone told on you.”

      2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        “I’m not condoning Samantha’s behavior, mind.”
        and I’m not criticizing. I think there is something very wrong that can be helped with therapy. She did make a mistake…she sent the wrong spreadsheet to another fellow under our grandboss.
        He emailed her he needed someone else. She started apologizing, self criticizing at her desk, then walked five feet to his…four more times between 3 and 5 and then at the end of day, popped over his wall to apologize again and thank him for understanding.
        It was not normal.

    5. Aww, coffee, no*

      Oh lord, I’ve spent the last year training someone like this, and she’s just the same. “Oh, it’s all so hard”, “Oh I’ll never be as good as you” despite me pointing out repeatedly that actually she’s doing fine and is (knowledge-wise) pretty much where she should be for this point in time.
      And like you, we’ve just started a whole new system for one part of the work, so it’s a level playing field, and she’s still not pulling up her grown-up pants and getting on with it.

  9. HonorBox*

    I think a very clear conversation with her, in which you point out that she’s doing well, has been evaluated by several people who agree that she’s doing well, and that by constantly undervaluing her work/contributions, others may start to do the same.

    And I agree with the advice that the emailing and texting needs to stop. Point out that if there’s clarity needed, she should be asking directly. And by emailing and texting during those conversations, she’s not giving her full attention to what is being said.

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      I’d start responding an hour later. “Gee, did you get clarification by the end of your meeting?”
      (1. no participating in a sidebar of despair, 2. “of course you did” modeling of appropriate behavior, 3. Putting the entire slab of despair back on her plate with little or no emotion)

  10. Audogs*

    The update and its commentary were interesting, esp. the comment about Samantha being an “emotional vampire”. I wish there was an update to the update.

  11. Princess Peach*

    Oof. As someone who has both imposter syndrome (I think?) and terribly low self-confidence, I relate to Samantha. My natural inclination is to criticize myself before anyone else can point out my flaws. It’s a defense mechanism, but a very unhelpful one.

    I’ve learned to reign in that impulse, but it took some time to get to that level of self-awareness. In my case, I suspect I learned the self-critical behavior pattern from a parent. The more I’ve noticed this in myself, the more I see it in them. That made it a very normal-feeling action for a long time.

    If a boss or coworker I respected called out the unnecessary and dramatic *pattern* of the self-criticism as Alison suggests, would have been a rough blow in the moment, but probably helpful in the long run. Instead, I got stuck for a few years with a boss who exploited my low confidence, but that’s another story…

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        The writers here all thank you for even knowing the difference! :-)

      2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Interesting slip. I feel that people with this need to demand attention/sympathy/assistance may just be reigning their rule of neediness over those of us who want to be kind, want to get along, want to get what we need.
        So there’s that…

    1. gmg22*

      “My natural inclination is to criticize myself before anyone else can point out my flaws. It’s a defense mechanism, but a very unhelpful one.”

      Right there with you. In my case the imposter syndrome is an ADHD thing — I’m forever fearful that because I’m not 100% laser-focused on a linear list of tasks, one at a time in the “correct” order, every minute of every work day, someone is going to eventually “catch me out.” (Yes, I know this is not actually how neurotypical people’s work brains function, but I don’t exactly know how they do function compared with mine, so my brain fills in the blanks with an unreasonable stereotype.)

  12. Just Thinkin' Here*

    This is not imposter syndrome. Something else is going on, but let’s not mix this up with a confidence issue. I read it more as someone who is not happy with their job but won’t do anything about it.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      This was my take as well. Samantha is desperately unhappy at work, but I doubt very much that it has anything to do with imposter syndrome. The update kind of proved that.

      1. amoeba*

        Yeah, I am a little bit surprised at the comments, as to me it honestly mostly seems like she’s not so much primarily critical of herself, but mostly actually critical of Hank? As in, his training is horrible, he’s not enabling her to do her job, his expectations are unreasonable?
        As a manager, that would annoy me much more than “oh, I’m so slow at understanding!” (although I’m sure that’s annoying as well).

  13. Brain the Brian*

    I definitely see echos of myself in Samantha — although I don’t generally text people and complain that I don’t know what my boss is telling me. This is, at least in my case, a result of parents who would scream at me if I got anything less than a 95 on any single assignment from kindergarten on up (my mother still brings up how I failed the “coat-zipping test” kindergarten 20-some-odd years later). In adulthood, that’s become an instinct to think I’m terrible at anything I cannot immediately do perfectly.

    1. Mermaid of the Lunacy*

      Oh dear! I hope you have found good therapy or a good way to move past it as best you can. It’s amazing how we are impacted by our upbringings.

      1. Brain the Brian*

        Several years of therapy have finally gotten me to the point where I can identify the source of the problem. I still can’t seem to shake the gut instinct to think I’m awful at things that I can’t do perfectly the first time. It goes beyond work into my hobbies, too — I used to love music, for example, but the thought of auditioning for a community band or practicing an instrument where people can hear me sends ice through my veins. *shudder*

        1. Goldenrod*

          ” (my mother still brings up how I failed the “coat-zipping test” kindergarten 20-some-odd years later)”

          OMG, that is awful! I’m glad you got some good therapy.

          I can also relate. My family definitely trained us kids into believing that “if you are smart, you should do it perfectly the first time.” Pretty much the opposite of what it takes to succeed! Only much, much later did I realize that failure is just a normal part of learning. Mistakes are good! They are how we actually learn and succeed.

          1. Dinwar*

            “Mistakes are good! They are how we actually learn and succeed.”

            I suppose it depends on the role. I grew up around engineers, some of whom designed bridges and chemical plants and high-rise buildings–stuff that absolutely needs to work perfectly the first time. Errors were considered a moral failure, because in the type of engineering they were doing failure was manslaughter at best, murder at worst (and has been for literally as long as we have had written laws).

            I’ve also got a few relatives in medicine, and the attitude is the same. You don’t really get a second chance at a surgery or with some medications–you’re either right or you killed someone.

            It’s not like that in every career, of course! But the idea that mistakes are bad isn’t unreasonable all the time, nor is it something that came from nowhere. In some fields (and this is not an exhaustive list), mistakes kill.

            And for what it’s worth, I don’t have the mentality that mistakes are moral failures. It’s one of many things that makes me a geologist and not an engineer! A scientist who’s never wrong isn’t a scientist; it’s part of the game, because you’re literally working beyond the current reach of human knowledge. How you deal with errors is the important bit–and in my case it’s to research those lines of reasoning showing that I’ve screwed up, and if I did, find better data to support that conclusion than what my critics provided (which really confuses people the first time you do it).

            1. Brain the Brian*

              Interesting points. My parents were software engineers, at various points writing safety-critical programming for vehicles (land, air, and sea-based). I wonder if that had anything to do with it.

            2. Goldenrod*

              “I’ve also got a few relatives in medicine, and the attitude is the same. You don’t really get a second chance at a surgery or with some medications–you’re either right or you killed someone.”

              True! But it’s also true that good hospitals recognize the importance of work cultures in which it is safe to admit to making a mistake or a near miss- otherwise, you have doctors and nurses covering up mistakes for fear of being blamed. The fact is everyone does make mistakes, even in high-stakes jobs. But if people are too fearful and cover up mistakes, that just compounds it and makes it way worse!

            3. Frank Doyle*

              I grew up around engineers, some of whom designed bridges and chemical plants and high-rise buildings–stuff that absolutely needs to work perfectly the first time. Errors were considered a moral failure, because in the type of engineering they were doing failure was manslaughter at best, murder at worst (and has been for literally as long as we have had written laws).

              “Errors were considered a moral failure” — I don’t agree with this. People aren’t designing high rises their first year out of college. And even experienced engineers have their work QA’ed by other engineers — they’re not just sending out plans for important structures without it being reviewed by other engineers within their firm, and then by review engineers. Mistakes can still be made (and probably are!), as long as they’re caught before the structure is built.

              Or before there’s a high wind event! There was that high rise built in New York and it took a question from an engineering student for the designer to realize that he hadn’t accounted for wind stress from every angle, and the entire building (which had already been built and filled with occupants) needed to be reinforced at tremendous cost. He admitted to his mistake, it was determined how to fix it, and it was fixed. And he was lauded for his honesty, rather than having his career ruined as he had feared. If he had thought “well I can’t admit to making a mistake” it would truly have been a disaster. (Link in following comment)

              1. amoeba*

                Yeah, I actually don’t agree at all! I also work in a safety-critical industry and we have it absolutely drilled into us that a good error culture is critical to what we do. If people are afraid to admit errors, that actually will result in catastrophic results!
                And yes, the reactor or plant or bridge or whatever does need to be error-free – but that doesn’t mean that not a single error was made in the process of designing it. It means that there are double and tripe safety checks to make sure all errors are *caught and corrected*.

    2. Princess Peach*

      Yes, I relate too. My comment got eaten, but I did something similar as an unhelpful defense against insecurity. If I talk up how stupid and incompetent I am, then no one else can criticize me for failing!
      I know *now* that’s a self-destructive and irritating impulse, but it took me a while to get there.

      1. Brain the Brian*

        Yep. Pre-empting negative comments from others by making them yourself is The Only Way™, right?

    3. Drowning in Spreadsheets*

      Someone mentioned that scenario in a comment above. I got frequent doses of it myself and remember crying in school at a 3rd grade spelling test where I got a word wrong because I knew I was in for it when I got home.

      Fortunately, I’ve had some good therapists.

        1. Brain the Brian*

          Because for some of them, kids are a psychological extension of their own selves, and they also don’t like failure. Or so I think.

        2. ZugTheMegasaurus*

          My therapist has told me this is especially prevalent with kids raised in the mid-80s through mid 90s. Huge importance was placed on raw intelligence; a smart child was a good child who would be successful and easy to manage. (Just look at the way Gifted and Talented programs exploded in that time period.)

          I also got screwed up from being a high performer who was punished for any mistake. I was a very precocious and intelligent kid and that got me held up as the example for other kids as to what they should be doing. It sounds like it should be a good thing. But it meant I was supposed to be perfect. I was not supposed to struggle or fail at things. I was not supposed to need help or support. Any time I did, it was seen as a behavior issue, like I was attention-seeking or acting out by doing poorly on a single 3rd grade math assignment (which I maintain to this day was a stupid assignment that didn’t make any damn sense) or having inconvenient emotions.

          And it’s not like my parents were horrible monsters. They were very misguided and made very big mistakes, sure, but they loved me and thought they were doing the right thing. They have deep regrets that I don’t think they’ll ever stop beating themselves up for, and I hate that for them.

          I’m lucky in that my self-loathing and self-sabotage effect pretty much everything in my life EXCEPT work, thanks in large part to an amazing manager who saw everything good about me and refused to let it go until I finally saw it too. I feel awful for everyone else who went through the same thing, especially because it is so, so, so hard to untangle and overcome this stuff.

    4. amoeba*

      Well, but the difference is that you blame yourself and not the person managing/instructing you though, isn’t it?
      (Also, sorry that happened to young you!)

  14. AthenaC*

    This is tough to read, especially having read the update and seeing that things got worse.

    I’m in one of those professions that is overwhelming by design, and we hire only high-achieving perfectionists, so of course there’s an adjustment period where I often have to tell new people “You’re better at this than you think you are. I know how it feels, but please trust what the more experienced people are telling you: you’re doing great.” I’ve had situations where I got busy (or whatever) and didn’t say that enough, and then next thing I know I have someone resigning because “I’m just not very good at this.” So lesson learned on my part.

    That being said, usually what happens is the newer person takes that feedback and feels better / more confident as they continue to get better. So it would be frustrating if a Samantha-type continued to insist that they are terrible at the job (the term “learned helplessness” comes to mind). I sympathize with what Samantha’s feeling but it’s up to her to take responsibility and just do it anyway. Or leave and find another job if she really can’t handle it / doesn’t want to do this job.

  15. Caramel & Cheddar*

    From this letter and the follow up linked above, it doesn’t sound like there was much that could be done to help Samantha. But I do wonder if there was an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by addressing the lack of training by getting her to create some documentation / training materials herself so that she could demonstrate what she knows and maybe even surprise herself with how knowledgeable she is.

    A colleague attended a conference about adult learning (vis-a-vis training, specifically) awhile back and mentioned to me that people are much more likely to remember things they’ve done themselves vs just reading/watching about them, but even more than that they’re more likely to remember things that they themselves have then taught to someone else because it’s then that you recognize the gaps in your knowledge. I can see getting Samantha to create some much needed training materials being a good way to help her figure out what she knows vs what she doesn’t.

  16. kiki*

    Our job is highly specialized and technical, and because of its nature, it’s hard to do any formal training other than on-the-job training. Samantha doesn’t think she is good at her job, but for her level, she’s actually doing quite well. She has worked with several managers and we have all given her the same feedback in various ways.

    I do want to ask if Samantha is getting regular, specific, and actionable feedback and goals from her manager? I used to work at a job that sounds similar to what was described in the letter and my managers would always say, “You’re doing great!” It was hard for me not to constantly spin my wheels and wonder if I could/ should be doing more, especially because I would see people at higher levels doing more than I could. My workplace was one where people just didn’t give regular feedback like that. I switched jobs (for pay reasons, not because of the lack of feedback) to one where they do frequent reviews and set more concrete goals and I am a LOT happier.

    Sometimes a person like Samantha doesn’t want reassurance that she’s doing well, she wants feedback on how she’s doing, concrete goals, and feedback on how to improve going forward.

  17. Dinwar*

    Does Samantha have clearly-defined responsibilities and criteria for success or failure in those?

    I get that not all aspects of the job are amenable to that–believe me, I get it! But having at least a core set of responsibilities that have clearly defined criteria for success or failure can help. That way it’s not just in her head. She can look at the criteria and go “Oh, no, I did what I was supposed to, I’m good.” Spreadsheets, checklists, and the like are your friends.

    It may also be helpful to train her on how to draft such documents for individual projects. It’s something I’m learning now, and it’s a useful skill. It helps translate verbal “I need you to do X” into action items and individual steps. Once you do that, typically what constitutes good is pretty clear. And if she still doesn’t understand what’s being said, this exercise will take it from “I don’t have any idea what he wants” to “I have a few questions; can you clarify what you need on these three points?” I’ve also had more than one manager take such a document and run with it–turns out such documents are useful not just for you, but for other coworkers, turning a potential liability into an asset.

  18. SMH*

    I think this is less about imposter syndrome and more attention seeking. If she received additional training or people stopped responding to her with concern and reassurance she’d find something else to gain attention. Her messaging you while receiving instructions is the key. She should be taking notes and engaging with whomever is working with her. Point this out and I’m sure you’ll see a different side of her.

  19. ErgoBun*

    I have a lot of empathy for people like Samantha because I’m recovering from a similar mindset.

    I know that, for me, when I put down myself and my work, I’m trying to tell the other person that I am struggling, I am not confident, and I want them to acknowledge that I’m not going to be perfect. Never once has anyone said to me anything other than “Stop saying that, you’re doing fine!”

    It’s really frustrating to be struggling, unable to find the right words to express it, and just have your speech policed instead of the issue addressed. While I don’t expect anyone to read my mind, I sure wish they would at least listen to what I’m saying instead of instinctively trying to shut me up.

    1. Allonge*

      Do you get the sense that they expect you to be perfect, or is that your expectation toward yourself? Most reasonable people are not going to think you should be / are going to be perfect at, well, anything reasonably complex really, certainly not to start with.

      As a manager, it would also be helpful to me to hear what exactly you are struggling with. Similarly, ‘I am not confident’ is a bit too vague to offer any kind of solution: why would you be confident when you are learning something still? I don’t need confidence independent of a level of knowledge in someone reporting to me.

      I think this also might feel like language policing to you, but I would suggest you try to be really very clear, at least to yourself, of what you are looking for in a case like this. Just acknowledgement that it’s hard to learn some things? Regular reminders on what good performance looks like and that it’s not 110% delivery always ahead of shedule? More detailed feedback? A good venting session once in a while? What tends to help?

      1. Superduperanonforthis*

        I’m not the original commenter here, but I have struggled with this A LOT, and for me it wasn’t about looking for reassurance or any particular reaction from the other person.

        Backstory: I was never a super-confident person, but I hit a low point after I failed spectacularly in one career, then made a total shift to a lower-paying and lower-status job where I immediately ran into an abusive boss who hammered into me that I was worthless. I also happen to be in a profession where success/failure is determined mostly by outside parties, and detailed feedback from them is rare, so I don’t know if a rejection is my fault or if it’s related to external factors.

        When I got away from the abusive boss, I started getting better feedback, but I was still caught up in self-hatred and I did say things like I’m terrible at this, I should leave for the sake of our clients, etc. I’m sure I was exhausting, intolerable, a drama llama, etc. But, I wasn’t doing it for attention. I was simmering in so much self-hatred and self-rage that sometimes it bubbled out, and saying terrible things about myself was better than punching the wall. (I was never violent or dangerous to others, but I thought about self-harming a lot, even just hurting my hand by hitting a wall.)

        I’m still not very confident, but I’ve learned to mask it at work, and I work off a lot of the anger at myself through exercise (added bonus, got in shape). I’m actually glad to see this post and the reactions, because it reminds me I need to be careful not to become Samantha (again). I hope this perspective is helpful from someone who has been in these trenches.

        1. Oh, yeah, me again*

          Did you go into sales? That could be really demoralizing for someone who was previously in a profession where you could define if the work was well done, and now it’s just “results” which have so many external factors involved!

          1. Superduperanonforthis*

            Not exactly, but somewhat similar. I’ve always struggled with lack of confidence, but epic fail in “prestigious” career + moving into “non-prestigious” job (big deal in my family) + abusive gaslighty boss (“people are LINED UP AT MY DOOR to complain about you and I’m the ONLY ONE who defends you”) + opaque third-party decision making = meltdown. I am not proud to have been “Samantha” in more than one job.

  20. juliebulie*

    When I was in grade school, the girls that I hung around with were constantly insisting that they were dumb, that the test was hard, that they’re going to get held back. They weren’t A students, but I was never sure whether or not they were serious; none of them ever flunked out as predicted.

    I kinda thought this “I’m gonna flunk” attitude must have come from somebody’s home and then was contagious among my friends. Seriously, at one point I started worrying about flunking too. Samantha sounds like maybe she grew up in an “I’m gonna flunk” milieu as well.

    1. Caramel & Cheddar*

      Being seen as smart, especially for girls, is frequently not something to aspire to in grade school. Hopefully that’s changed since I was in school 30+ years ago, but I don’t remember anyone wanting to be seen as smart.

      Hopefully that’s not what Samantha is doing here, but I wouldn’t discount it now that you’ve brought it up.

    2. juliebulie*

      I had other classmates who bragged about or even exaggerated their grades.

      Annnnd now I’ve read the update. I wish there’d been an even later update too, but it’s clear that Samantha was having Samantha problems. I still feel like this could be the result of growing up in a situation where, for some reason, it’s more easy/virtuous/helpful to brag about being incompetent. Or like she wants to be underestimated. Or feels compelled to manage expectations.

    3. Oh, yeah, me again*

      Contagious, yes! That’s what makes a culture. Guessing one or two popular girls started this, and then it came to be thought of as appropriate “feminine modesty.” (Even in an overall culture that values feminine modesty, not bragging would probably satisfy the adults. This would be the girls themselves creating a microculture in the school, which if spread to the girls in other grades, could endure long after the originators are gone.)

  21. Turtlewings*

    Ouch. I can see myself being the person sending a friend those “I don’t know what he’s talking about” messages, because that was often all that was playing in my head in such situations. Even though I was, yes, actually performing the work well once I calmed the heck down! In my case, it was wildly rampaging anxiety making me feel (and probably look) like a deer in the headlights any time there was something I didn’t instantly, perfectly understand. Asking the boss for clarification would have been much more useful than stewing in silent terror, but I was generally too panicked and tongue-tied to even figure out HOW to do that.

    I’m doing much better these days, with two different anxiety medications and a couple decades of experience. But my heart goes out to Samantha… and everyone trying to work with her.

  22. megaboo*

    I used to do this all the time. When I accepted my role, there was no documentation, training, and I had no experience with the software. I was terrified I was doing the wrong thing. I also was a new supervisor that was struggling with an employee who had a big disconnect about his role. I was always denigrating myself.

    Then, a new employee came and she constantly does this. Now I realize how annoying that behavior is. I encourage her and tell her she’s at the correct level of training. It can be so hard for people to embrace positive feedback.

    1. Oh, yeah, me again*

      Doesn’t sound like this is that type of job. Using software is something with yes or no answers, so someone COULD teach you, if they were willing, or you could look it up, or find a resource, or learn via trial and error. But Samatha’s job sounds like trial and error is really the only option, both for learning the job and PERFORMING the job. Not expected to go in completely blind, but to think a few steps ahead, and anticipate obvious pitfalls. Trial and error nevertheless.

  23. Oh, yeah, me again*

    I think this is just a case of wrong job for her.

    Some people like a job where new stuff comes up all the time, and YOU have to come up with a solution – sometimes helped by asking co-workers/supervisors how they have dealt with similar, or getting advice from an expert. But if it’s truly a brand new situation you just have FIGURE IT OUT. If your solution doesn’t work, then you know not to do that another time. These jobs take a kind of creativity, “lateral thinking” and a willingness to accept failures – especially little ones – in the service of professional growth and learning. (Real estate is a good example: you learn something new on every transaction, some of which can be applied later, but in a different context; never QUITE the same because each piece of property is distinct, and group of people involved are unique individuals. Similarly event planning, certain types of law practice, etc.) You need – not a big ego – but a flexible one!

    But other people need a job where you do the same things over and over, with slight variations. Some of these still take plenty of intelligence (Accounting, manufacturing production, some types of sales, other types of law) and you still grow professionally with experience, but you do it by getting faster, more efficient, or widening your range of defined skills .

    Sounds like she falls in this second category. Ultimately, she really needs to need to find a better fit, since she does not seem to be getting comfortable in this job with time.

  24. Rusty Shackelford*

    Very often, while Hank is giving Samantha instructions, she emails me and texts me while he is talking to her, saying things like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about” … or “I don’t know what I’m doing” … or “He might as well do this himself because I have no idea what he wants.”

    Okay, this is extremely rude, and my response would be “Then you should put down the phone and ask him to explain it again.”

  25. melissa*

    The advice here is spot-on AND also, it’s going to take masterful communication skills to pull off. Because the intro of “I’ve noticed you denigrate yourself and you shouldn’t” sounds a lot like a compliment. My guess is she is going to respond with “(Blush) thanks! I know I should be nicer to myself!”

    The follow up is the critical part though— this is negatively impacting her work and it needs to stop. It’s not “be kind to yourself because you’re a beautiful person.” It’s “This is unprofessional and it needs to stop.”

  26. Tiger Snake*

    If Samatha is constantly sending texts to LW while her boss is giving her instructions, that sounds a lot less than “just” shoving a lot of emotional load onto LW and a lot more make LW do the thinking and analysis for Samatha.

    Which actually doesn’t help.

    I might be projecting. But I feel like I’ve been Samantha and I’ve been Hank. It’s hard to just watch people flounder when you know what needs to get done. But with these lateral thinking jobs, its necessary. There comes a point where the only way to get confidence and to get the hang of it is to try and just keep at it; and having the seniors come when you call isn’t helping, its debilitating. At the end of the day, LW can’t do two jobs at once, and the only way to really help Samantha is drop the rope.

  27. Luna*

    I’d love an update to the update because this situation could’ve played out a few different ways. Many people who constantly seek reassurance simply lack good coping strategies, and colleagues/supervisors who recognize this pattern can help them learn to self-regulate by calling them out a bit and establishing norms.

    Considering the update to this letter, however, it does seem like there was an underlying element of habitual victim playing.

    I’ve certainly had colleagues who need additional training/attention/reassurance due to low confidence and they’re shocked when they find out that I’ve spoken to colleagues/supervisors about the situation. There isn’t much else you can do when someone constantly tells you that they cannot do their job due to a lack of training despite the contrary.

  28. Nan*

    Is it possible that the way you train employees does not work with Samantha’s learning/working style? Are you sure there isn’t also an issue in how you train people? Because this sounds like a nightmare situation from the POV of someone learning — the only way to learn is to sit down and do it with someone, implying there’s no documentation to refer to? And there are things that only happen once every few years, but not a written guide of what those things are and how to do them? What happens if, the next time one of those things happens, you’ve had enough staff turnover that nobody knows what to do? I’m in a similar situation right now (no documentation, lots of staff turnover), and it’s a freaking nightmare, where nobody knows where to set their expectations for job performance because nobody even knows the full scope of what the job is. It’s a constant series of fails and near misses because sometimes it just doesn’t work to rely on teaching someone about complex, infrequent events in a hands-on way.

    Also, has the person who is training her trained other people? Is it possible that the way he’s training her isn’t good, or that his communication style just isn’t work for her? Does she have a clear list of tasks, responsibilities, etc., that she can refer to for some objective data on what she knows how to do compared to the expectations for her role? I mean, it’s possible that as many other folks have commented Samantha is just an insufferable whiner or something. But as someone who has found herself thrown into an informational black hole after inadequate on the job “training”, and who literally doesn’t know what she doesn’t know (which is scary as anything), I have an immense amount of sympathy for Samantha. If I were giving her advice, it would just be to find an outside friend who she can vent with instead of someone in the company.

  29. Apricot*

    I’m DEFINITELY a Samantha, but only in my own head! Positive feedback from my boss and peers was helpful, but I still worried privately that they weren’t seeing the full picture, or – trauma from a past job – lying to my face while building a case against me. What has helped is writing down at least one thing I learn every day. Having a tangible record of my progress, by me and for me, that I can look back on when I’m doubting myself gives me the confidence I need to keep going and not be too Samantha-esque.

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