transcript of “My Assistant Keeps Mothering Me” (Ask a Manager podcast episode 20)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “My Assistant Keeps Mothering Me”.

Alison: I get a lot of letters from people about weird dynamics with coworkers. Today’s guest has a coworker who keeps trying to mother her and her colleagues, and there are age and gender dynamics thrown in to boot. Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi!

Alison: So you sent me a letter talking about the situation on your team and I’ll just quickly summarize it for listeners. You work on a team with three other people: two male colleagues and an administrative assistant who’s a woman, and you’re the youngest of everyone on the team. The assistant is quite a bit older than everyone else and she does a lot of mothering of all three of you – in some ways interacting with you more like a parent than like a coworker. Am I getting that right?

Guest: Yes. So the two gentlemen that I work with are very similar in age, just a few years apart, and both of them are roughly 10 to 15 years older than I am. But she calls our main boss – who is the oldest of the three of us – her oldest, and she calls the next in line her middle child, and she calls me her youngest at work, and she refers to us as her work children.

Alison: And I gather there’s more on top of that too – that she does something particularly strange around trying to bring you beverages and snacks. Tell us about that.

Guest: I hesitate to complain because I really do think that everything is coming from a really sweet, loving place from her. I don’t think she means any ill by it, but she is constant and relentless in her mothering request. I mentioned in my letter, one thing that she loves to do is every single time she gets up from her desk, whether it’s to use the restroom or to stretch her legs or to go get herself a refreshment from the break room, she will go make her rounds to her oldest, her middle, and her youngest and see if we need anything. Do we need coffee, do we need to eat, do we need a snack, do we need water? And sometimes the two gentlemen on my team will take her up on those offers, but I never have. I don’t need her to do for me. And in fact, I’ve told her on multiple occasions that I enjoy an excuse to get up myself and go to the break room. It’s monotonous to constantly work behind the desk and on a computer all day and I’ve told her I really enjoy those breaks and so there’s no need for her to do that for me. But she still asks every day, multiple times.

Alison: You had mentioned in your original letter to me that she’ll even knock on the glass wall of your office when your door is shut and sort of mouth her questions while pointing to an empty coffee cup. (Laughs)

Guest: She will, yes. There have been… I can’t even really count them at this. It’s a constant issue. I’ll be on a conference call, or I’ll have my door shut just because I’m deep working on a project or a document and I need focus and attention, and she will knock on the window and just point at things and mouth and say, “Do you need anything? I’m going to the break room.” And if I asked on occasion from her, maybe I could see that, but I never ask. And not only do I not ask – I have never, once in over all this time of working with her, have I ever taken her up on her offer to get me things from the break room. So, I’m just baffled on why she keeps asking.

Alison: And so your question, I think, is how do you get her to cut it out without coming across as horribly unappreciative of this kind offer that she’s making to you?

Guest: I think that that aspect of her mothering is what impacts me on a daily basis. That is what causes me to lose focus and have to recenter my work efforts on a daily basis because she’s constantly asking these requests that I’ve never taken her up on.

Alison: And how are your colleagues reacting to all of this?

Guest: I don’t know if they’re happy with it. I think amused is probably the better term. The day to day requests with coffee and snacks and water, they both do take her up on it. Not every single time by any stretch of the imagination, but they both will occasionally say, “Hey, can you go grab that for me,” or “Yeah, that’d be great – I’m about to get on a call, I’d love to have some hot coffee.” So, they do take her up on that. But I think more than anything, they’re amused by it, because they’ve even joked to her face about her being a mother and how she just can’t help but try to be of service to others and to constantly run their errands. And they joked about her needing to volunteer to pick up their dry cleaning and things like that because she is so mothering, and she just laughs back with it. She thinks it’s funny.

Alison: So before we get into how to deal with this, can we just talk for a minute about how strange this whole dynamic is? Especially the part about her calling you her kids.

Guest: (Laughs) Do other admins not do that? Because I’m very familiar with it at this point.

Alison: You know, it’s funny, I think it’s not an uncommon dynamic. I do think a lot of people have seen this in their offices where an admin puts themselves in a kind of mothering role and in some ways the job is a sort of caretaking one, and so I think it can be easy to slip into that dynamic. And it’s not a dynamic I’m super comfortable with and I don’t think it’s great for people professionally, but it does seem to work for some people and some offices. Although I do think that the part about her referring to you as her oldest, middle, and youngest kids is pretty weird. And it puts a focus on your age in a way that isn’t that helpful in a work environment. If I were talking to her instead of to you, I would urge her to come up with a different model for her role – one that isn’t mom but is competent professional. But I have seen this, I think a lot of people have seen it, and the people doing it I think sometimes get a lot of fulfillment out of it. The problem comes when there are people around them who are not very comfortable with it. And understandably so, which is what I think is happening with you.

Guest: Yeah, I think that’s spot on. I definitely think she gets fulfillment from it. I mentioned in my letter, but I’m not sure if we’ve discussed it yet – she does have her own children who are somewhat comparable to my own age and she’s an empty nester now. And so, I think not having her children at home and nearby, she’s very much at this stage in her career, substituted the people that she works with as a surrogate family. We do have a great office environment and a great work culture, but I personally like to maintain work and family in separate dynamics and I don’t think she does.

Alison: Is she good at her job beyond this stuff?

Guest: Yes, generally. It’s kind of interesting that you brought it up with the way that she uses our ages to set us apart because there have been a couple times over the years of working with her that I have personally felt that something that I requested or something that I said or something that I suggested wasn’t taken as seriously, probably because I was younger than the two gentlemen that I work with.

Alison: That’s one of my big worries about this dynamic, that she is putting such a focus on it. And let’s talk about how to handle that. Let’s tackle the food and beverage stuff. It sounds like you’ve told her pretty directly that you appreciate her offers, but that you prefer to handle it yourself. How has she responded when you said that?

Guest: That’s what’s so baffling to me. She’ll usually respond with something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, get up, stretch your legs. That’s really healthy for you.” But then without fail, a couple hours later: “Hey, do you need anything? I’m going to the break room.” It’s on repeat.

Alison: Yeah, so I think you’d need to talk to her about it again. When you’ve talked to her about it, have you ever framed it as a distraction issue or has it been more just you prefer to do it yourself?

Guest: Yeah, I definitely haven’t brought it up from a distraction perspective because I don’t think I know how to do it without sounding ungrateful and make it not seem like an attack. I feel like if I bring up the fact that it’s a distraction to her and she’s coming from this very well-meaning place, I feel that this is so ingrained in her that she’s going to think I’m attacking her for simply having good manners.

Alison: I do think that there is a way to do it where a reasonable person will not feel attacked. I can’t promise you that she won’t feel attacked, but I do think there’s a way to do it where if she truly does mean well and is a considerate person and a reasonable person, she’ll accept it with good grace. And if she doesn’t accept it with good grace, at that point you can be pretty confident that that’s really about her own weirdness, not about you. You’re at work, you’re trying to focus on work and if she’s regularly distracting you, it’s something you don’t want. It’s okay to say that clearly. Now that said, I know there’s a huge caveat there which is that even if you’re in the right, you still don’t want to cause tension with someone on a very small team. So, let me tell you the wording I think you could use and then tell me if you think this would go over okay.

Guest: Okay.

Alison: I’m thinking you could say something like, “Hey, I really appreciate that you offer to get me food and drinks, but you’ve probably noticed I never take you up on it because I really would rather handle it myself. Because that’s the case, I’m going to ask you to stop checking with me because it’s turning out that it can be pretty distracting when I’m focused on something else.” Would you feel comfortable saying that or does that feel like she’ll take it adversarially?

Guest: I liked the first part of it for sure. I think that the first part of it would go over well with her. I think what she would probably take as very adversarial is the, “I’m going to ask you to stop doing that.” I think she would feel very attacked by that.

Alison: And do you think she would feel attacked by that because you think anyone would feel attacked by that, or have there been things with her where she seemed very sensitive?

Guest: Yes, it’s definitely a her problem (laughs).

Alison: Okay.

Guest: I don’t think that the wording overall is unreasonable. I think that she is a very sensitive mothering hen type personality and she personally would react poorly to that.

Alison: Got it. I asked that because I know sometimes people just get hesitant to say anything that’s even remotely confrontational because they worry the person will react poorly, but it’s more about their own fear around that kind of conversation than anything about the other person. But it sounds like that’s not the case here, that she’s shown evidence in the past of being pretty sensitive. Given that that is the case, I don’t know that there is a way to do it without taking that risk.

There is another idea that comes to mind that I feel kind of icky about because it would be sort of using the characteristics that she’s bringing to the table as a way to influence her, and I don’t know how I feel about it. But the option that I have in my head is that you could potentially use her mothering instinct and say something like, “Hey, I’m finding that I’m really having trouble focusing at work lately. Could you help me out by not stopping by when you’re on your way to get drinks for people?” I don’t know. As I’m saying it, I don’t like it at all.

Guest: Actually, as you’re saying that I love that (laughs). I think she would respond really well to something like that.

Alison: (Laughs) That’s my fear! Okay.

Guest: I’m kind of shocked I haven’t thought of that myself before because she just has such a helper vibe. She wants to help. She doesn’t even let us take our own things to the shredder every day. She really wants to help, and I think if I framed it as she’s helping me if she doesn’t do what she thinks is helping me, I think that would really work well for her.

Alison: It’s playing right into the thing that is the issue itself, which is this compulsion to be very helpful. So yeah, you could weaponize it and use it to solve this.

Guest: I actually love the idea of weaponizing her helpfulness.

Alison: The other piece of this that unsettles me is the gender and age dynamics that you’ve got going on in the broader office – because if you do do this, and you successfully get her to stop doing this with you, then you’ve got this situation where she’s just doing these favors for the men on your team. And I wonder if it’s going to create a weird thing where the assistant in your department is checking with the men about whether she should do them these personal favors, but not with you, the woman and the youngest person there. And you will know that it’s because you’ve asked her to stop, but I do worry that someone who didn’t have that context would draw weird conclusions – either that she’s being sexist in what she’s doing, or that you’re more junior and therefore you’re not eligible for the same level of assistance. And maybe no one will look at it that closely and so it won’t matter, but I do worry about the optics of it. That said, it still might be the best of some non-great options. What do you think about that?

Guest: Well, quite frankly I think the optics are there one way or the other – because even though she’s offering for everyone, the only people that she’s doing things for are the slightly older gentlemen on the team. She is offering to me, but I’ve never taken her up on it. And when she makes these offers, typically just the way that our office is laid out, there’s no one else around that sees her make these offers. The people who would possibly run into what she’s doing or people who see her in the break room with two mugs of coffee and they say, “Who are you taking those to?” And she says the name of the two gentlemen that she’s getting coffee for, that sort of thing. So I think the optics would be kind of an inter-team optics, and really those are kind of the same as of now.

Alison: That’s a great point. It’s happening regardless, so you might as well eliminate the piece that is annoying to you.

Guest: Yes. And I don’t want to make a fuss and kick up and have a big deal about whether she should be making these offerings or whether people should be taking her up on them, because the two gentlemen I work with come from very different backgrounds than I, and there’s definitely a generational component to it. And so I don’t want to seem to pass any judgements on it. It’s just, it causes me problems on a daily basis and it’s annoying and I don’t want to deal with the annoying side of it. I don’t care if they continue to do it, I just don’t want to have to deal with it myself.

Alison: Yeah, that’s fair. And it’s not outrageous for an assistant to be doing some of this. Lots of assistants do do this kind of thing for the people they support. It would be different, I think, if it were something more flagrantly inappropriate, like if she were picking up people’s kids from school on their behalf or something that was clearly a personal errand.

Guest: Don’t think she hasn’t offered. (Laughs)

Alison: Oh my goodness. Has anyone taken her up on it?

Guest: No, I don’t think anyone’s taken her up on it, but she definitely has offered to pick up all of our children and take care of them. (Laughs)

Alison: All of this sounds so strongly to me like someone whose identity is very strongly tied up in feeling helpful, and who isn’t seeing there are lots of appropriate ways to feel helpful within the confines of her role. I mean, an administrative assistant role is all about being helpful, but it sounds like she’s gotten really fuzzy on where the boundaries are.

Guest: Yeah, I definitely think so. And to be fair to her, we do have a very casual laid-back company in general, but our team is probably even more so laid-back and casual and we’re all very open with each other. We all talk freely about our lives, our families, our husbands, our wives, our children. But yes, she definitely thrives off being the helper both inside the office and out.

Alison: Within the type of office environment that you’ve described, where people are very warm and friendly, and it is pretty informal, and your two colleagues are taking her up on a lot of these offers, and she’s getting a lot of fulfillment out of it – I can see how she’s ended up where she’s ended up.

Guest: Yes.

Alison: Well, maybe the strategy of framing it in a way where you are asking for her help as opposed to asking her to stop doing something that she feels good about doing. Maybe we can do it in a way where she actually feels good about helping you with your request because it’s tapping right into her helpful nature.

Guest: Yeah, I actually think that’s a great idea. I’m thinking I can also kind of segue it – not that I often have people just dropping into my office unannounced, but it does occasionally happen – so maybe I can couple it with, ” I’m really working on project A, B, and C right now. It’s very time intensive. It’s requiring a lot of concentration. If you could help me by eliminating some of the distractions that keep popping up and the interruptions that I have, that would really help me keep my focus.” And kind of imply that she’s one of those distractions. (Laughs)

Alison: What I worry about is that if you don’t spell it out, that she’s going to with great zeal help keep other people from distracting you but won’t think about the pieces of it that are coming from her.

Guest: Oh, you’re right. That does sound a lot like something she’d do.

Alison: But I do think you can say it explicitly. I think if you use that framing where you lead into it that way, and maybe you list off a couple of things and this is one of the things on the list. “You’re so good at helping with this kind of thing. Could you help me control some of the interruptions of people coming into my office? Like Dave when he sometimes comes by to do X or even when you pop in to see if I want a beverage.”

Guest: I like that. I think that that might work. I like that.

Alison: That may be the way to do it because if you name one or two other things on that list, then it’s not just singling her out, but you’re still delivering the message.

Guest: Yeah, I think that that’s very possible. I could probably come up with a list of two or three different things and then slide her distractions right in the middle.

Alison: (Laughs) That might work. My hunch is that it will not solve it 100 percent because this sounds like a very deeply ingrained habit, but it might really cut down on it.

Guest: Hey, at this point, cutting down on it just on a daily basis would really help me be more productive at the office.

Alison: Good. I think you should give this a try and see where it gets you.

Guest: I’m excited. Thank you so much.

Alison: Thank you so much for coming on!

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.