transcript of “Where Are They Now? Updates from Past Callers”

This is a transcript of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “Where Are They Now? Updates from Past Callers.”

Alison: Since it’s the end of the year, I thought it would be interesting to check back with some of the people who called into the show this year and hear updates from them about how their situations have turned out.

This is something that I do every December at the Ask a Manager website. The whole month there, I publish updates from people who had their letters answered there that year, and it’s always really interesting to hear whether they took the advice and how things worked out.

So a bunch of people who called into the show this year were nice enough to call back in with updates on their situations, and we’re going to hear from them today. Let’s go straight to the first update.

Remember the caller earlier this year who didn’t have enough to do at work? She was getting rave reviews from her boss but she had a ton of extra time on her hands. Moreover, she’d found herself in that situation at every job she’s had, was getting really bored, and was wondering what to do. I advised her to talk to her boss, lay out the situation, and see what comes of that – and that that wouldn’t necessarily fix the problem, but that if nothing else, it would give her a lot more information about whether this is something she could expect to change or not. And then if she realized through that conversation that this is just the nature of the job, then she could decide what to do about that from there. Okay, here’s her update.

Caller 1: Hi Alison! Here’s my update since we talked. When we had first spoken, I was feeling really underworked and like I wanted more challenge in my job, and you’d given me a lot of great advice about that. One of the things that resulted from that was a really frank conversation with my boss, and I think that my boss really understands where I’m coming from, but I don’t know that my role working for a governmental entity is going to be one that’s going to be as intensive as I would maybe like.

Since we spoke, the normal cyclical nature of my job has really picked up around this time of year, and so I have been busier, and I have been happier because of that. But there have been a couple of indications to me that things will get better: 1) is that I know my boss has had more of any eye towards giving me more complicated projects since we had that conversation, and 2) is that he has also indicated that there will be some shifting around of positions in my department in the next year or so, and that might provide some opportunity for me to maybe advance my career, shift it a little bit, or at least for some things to get shaken up on our team that might allow me to take on some more responsibility.

So, I think things are moving in a good direction. I do really like my job, and having this busy period has really allowed me to remember all the things I like about my job, because I’ve been busy enough to feel engaged. I feel like it’s a job that I’ll probably stay at for a while. I think it set a really good baseline for me to have that really frank conversation with my boss, and to lay all out there how much capacity I feel like I still have. I do know that he sees me as a go-to person, and my hope is that as I continue to enthusiastically take on any new projects when he proposes them, and to take them on on a regular basis without having to be asked, that that will position me as more of a go-to person for more interesting side work.

Thank you so much for your advice, and I really appreciated being on the show.

Alison: That’s great! A frank conversation is so often the answer. It sounds like that’s going pretty well, and it sounds like the caller is feeling good about where things are.
Well, this year we also heard from someone with the opposite problem – instead of not having enough work, she had way too much work. Her workload had exploded, she was buried in work all the time, and she was wondering about how to distinguish being burned out and just needing a break, from being in a situation that was unfixable and that she needed to leave. We talked about how to talk to her manager with the goal of figuring that out – to figure out, is this something where she could get some relief, or is this just the way the situation is going to stay? That episode was called “I’m so burned out at work,” and here’s the update.

Caller 2: Hi everyone, here’s my update. I took Alison’s advice and talked to my manager. She was receptive to my feedback and absolutely agreed that my workload is too great for one person. We spread out some of my tasks to other team members and eliminated some of the work that didn’t make sense for me to be doing.

For a few weeks, it was great – I had a much better work/life balance and was feeling a lot more positive towards my job. But then we got additional projects thrown at us, and if anything, I’m working even more than I was when I initially went on the podcast. I am overburdened, overwhelmed, and completely burned out still.

So, despite me being on a fast track to promotion, I’ve decided to leave the company. I’m currently interviewing, and I’m hoping that something turns up soon. I am trying my best to keep a positive attitude at my current job, and I’m continuing to do the same high-quality work that I’ve been, but my motivation is a little lacking.

As far as the people-pleasing, this has been a huge problem for me my entire life, and I’ve been working on it. What I’ve done is I’ve just gotten better at saying “No”. I evaluate tasks and think about if they really make sense for me to do, I try to defer them or delegate them if I can, and if someone pushes back I explain the reasons why. I at least have my supervisor’s support in this, but it’s difficult, and it’s something I continue to struggle with, but it’s gotten a lot better.

I appreciate the advice, and I hope my next update is me telling you about a new job I got. Thanks.

Alison: You know, I get a fair number of updates where the person decided to leave the job. And that’s not failure! If you try resolving a situation and you learn from doing that that things aren’t likely to change, or aren’t likely to change in a significant way, that’s actually a type of success – because now you have the information that you need in order to make good decisions for yourself. And it sounds like that’s what this caller did.

Okay, remember the episode called “I’m bad at taking feedback” from September? The caller found she wasn’t taking criticism very well – she’d take it personally and get defensive, and worried she looked angry or upset when she was getting feedback. We talked about how to overcome that, and take feedback from calmer, non-defensive place. And here’s the update.

Caller 3: Your advice helped me a lot to think about how meetings with my boss are really just a part of the job, and that I take them too personally, and just to be mentally prepared for them as something that’s going to happen regularly. I had a conversation with my boss recently where he asked how he could be a better manager, and I took the opportunity to talk about positive feedback and how important it is, and also how the lack of it has affected me and made me feel like I wasn’t doing as well as maybe other people were. He agreed that he didn’t give enough positive feedback and said that would be a change he would try to make. But then he also went on to talk about all the things that I do really well, which felt really great.

And also, I had a job interview not long after that, and it really helped me to bring up my confidence and also just know the things that I was doing really well to help me get my first real job – I’m about to finish my PhD program. Also, he called in my other coworker who I said had felt pretty similar to me and gave him a bunch of positive feedback, and then also told him he was ready to look for a postdoc.

So it actually really helped both of us by giving him that feedback, and I do truly think he’s going to take that to heart for future students. Thank you so much for your help, it really did have a great impact. I love the podcast, thanks Alison. Bye!

Alison: Hurrah, that’s great! Another frank conversation, and it paid off.

I think so often people feel like well, if my manager isn’t doing X, it must be because she or she doesn’t want to do X – that it’s a deliberate decision they’re making. And so there’s no point in me talking to them about it. But I can tell you from the manager’s side of things, it can be really helpful to hear from people “hey, it would help me if you did X.” You don’t always know! Or maybe you know at some level as a manager that, say, you’re bad at giving positive feedback or whatever, but you kind of convince yourself it’s not a big deal. And so hearing from someone, especially a good employee, that actually this is something they really care about – sometimes that will jog a manager into changing what they’re doing.

So that’s a great update, and kudos to that caller for having the conversation.

Remember the caller way back in March who had a needy coworker who leaned on her way too much for help? The episode was called “the helpless coworker,” and the coworker, Jane, had been there for nine months and just wasn’t retaining any information, and would repeatedly ask the caller for things they’d already covered multiple times and that the caller had sent her instructions for. She also had a habit of, when she had a question, going from person to person in their department, and asking everyone, even though they all gave her the same answer. They’d talked to their manager about the situation, and the manager asked them to keep being patient – but it was starting to take up a lot of time and cause a lot of frustration. Here’s the update.

Caller 4: On the day that we recorded the podcast, what I had not told you at that time was that things had kind of come to a head where I lost my patience. Jane had asked me for help via email for something I had previously assisted her with multiple times. I lost my patience and I responded in a somewhat snarky manner, in an email, including screenshots and instructions, and sort of a condescending tone, like “We’ve been over this before, and you should know this by now – but here, let me tell you how to do this again.”

I made the mistake of copying in my director of our department, thinking that she would see how ridiculous Jane had been and was being. Instead my director took issue with the tone of my email, and I received a lengthy email back from her about my behavior and how she basically thought I needed to be more patient.

After I talked with you, the next day – of course, I’d already received the email from my director – I took Jane aside, just in a private little room. I apologized to her for the tone of my email, and for anything else, tone or behavior previously. I apologized, basically, for not being as patient as I should have been. This led to Jane crying and forgiving me, she was grateful that we talked and brought it out in the open. I had time to reassure her, and I provided her with suggestions I thought about how she could handle when she had questions. I suggested that she think about her question before going to anybody and thinking who would be the best person to answer her question – so not just going to everybody one by one in the department when one person might be the best person to answer the question.

She seemed to take my advice to heart, but she was soon back to her old ways of just going from person to person asking the same question over and over, asking questions that she had asked in previous days or weeks, as if she wasn’t retaining information or whatever. She began aggravating more and more people in our department, and then she sort of branched out to other departments and did the same thing.

It became evident to me that she preferred to have people handle her tasks rather than learn them and take care of them herself, and it seemed evident to me and to others that this method of going from person to person was in hopes that somebody would be worn down enough that they would go, “Never mind, I’ll just handle it for you.” And I actually had done that a few times – I was just fed up with “Oh, here’s the same question again, I’ve already explained it to you. You know what? Just let me take care of it.” I fell into that trap, and others did too. It seemed like she preferred to outsource her responsibilities in that way.

But it ended up that in August of this year I found another job, and so I don’t have to deal with Jane anymore. And I can honestly say when I think back to the reasons why I left that previous job, I would give it at least 10% that getting away from Jane was behind some of the reasons that I wanted to leave. So, that is my update.

Alison: Agggh, well that’s frustrating! I like that this caller had a frank conversation with the coworker, even though it didn’t ultimately solve the problem. If you do end up leaving a job because of frustrations, it’s so helpful to know that you did make some attempts at being straightforward and that you did try to resolve things. And really, in this case the problem was with management – they saw what was happening and were being overly hands-off about it. Which is a super common thing – there are lots of people who are supposed to be managing who just don’t do it. Because they don’t like hard conversations, or dealing with conflict, or giving someone bad news. And so they let problems fester, and eventually good people get frustrated and leave. I know the caller said she had other reasons for leaving too, but I’d bet that some of them are about having management that wouldn’t do their job, not just with this coworker, but more broadly too.

Managers who don’t manage suck.

Let’s see, who’s next … Remember the caller this fall who was struggling with confidence issues? The episode was called “I need more confidence at work,” and the caller was a chef at a fining dining restaurant and she would take things very personally when something went wrong, and would feel like it was all her fault and she must not be very good at her job. She also was having trouble speaking up when a colleague was doing something that impacted her negatively, and she was wondering how to get better at addressing those things. Here’s the update.

Caller 5: Hi Alison! I originally emailed in a few months ago asking for advice on how to be more confident at work, and linked to this, how to address my colleagues more effectively when I needed to raise an issue with them. It’s been something I’ve worked on very consciously over the past few months, and I’m definitely not 100% there yet – but I do think I’ve come on leaps and bounds in certain areas. For instance, I’ve become really good at taking professional feedback, and this has been noticed by my boss who said he saw I was really good at listening to the feedback given, which was a really nice thing to hear. I’ve also moved away from taking lots of things personally and just seeing them more as a work issue, which has also helped me enormously – it’s stopped me overthinking things too much on my time away from the kitchen.

I do still struggle sometimes with addressing members of my team directly when giving them feedback on their work, even though I’m told this is something I should do by my boss, but I do think this has not been helped by a couple of other factors that have been involved recently. We’ve been hiring a lot of temp staff as we’ve been short-staffed, and so 1) I don’t have a solid working relationship with these people, and 2) a few of them have been quite volatile characters, the typical chef, so really not the most approachable people. But I am working on it, and the people that I do give direct feedback to I’ve been very clear to make sure that my tone is good and following your advice in that area as well.

One other thing you advised me to do was to look carefully at how my coworkers raised issues and topics, and this is definitely something I’ve done. I’ve often mirrored my coworkers’ phrasing and tone when they ask about things that seem totally mature and reasonable to me. So that’s really, really helped because it’s reinforced that idea of, “Well if they can do it, I can do it.”

The advice you gave me really, really helped me – you said gaining confidence is not an overnight thing, and I completely agree with that. Internally, if I’m being honest, I do still feel quite uncertain of my skillset at times. But I’m looking forward to the new year. I’m hoping to move on to a different role, and see that as a bit of a fresh start and take with me the skills that I’ve gained over this experience. Thank you so much, and best of luck with the rest of your callers. Bye!

Alison: I love this update too! This stuff doesn’t change overnight, it’s a process, and this caller sounds like she’s making really good progress. I especially love that she took the advice about paying attention to how her coworkers raised the sort of issues that she herself was hesitant to raise. So often if you feel hesitant to speak up about something, it helps to look around and watch how other people do it – because you can get lots of good models of, “oh, THIS is how you approach it and this is the language and the tone, and when they do it that way it doesn’t come across as a big deal, it’s normal and it’s fine.” And really paying attention to that and internalizing that can help you speak up yourself, which it sounds like the direction this caller is moving in, which is great.

Okay, remember the episode from July called The Talkative Intern? That was the caller earlier this year who had a really, really talkative intern. A lot of it sounded like the intern was just over-explaining – like she’s come in to ask a question and she’d ask it four different ways, with lots of commentary on why she didn’t know the answer. And it was to the point where people were avoiding her a little, and the caller was trying to figure out how to give her feedback about it and get her to rein it in, without embarrassing her. Here’s the update.

Caller 6: Hi Alison, I was calling to give you an update on my talkative intern. I took your advice and at our regular update meeting I had a talk with her. I framed it the way we talked about, as being a common issue for people early in their career, and to have faith in herself that she has good questions and her questions are worth asking, and she doesn’t need to justify them.

The conversation seemed to go well, although I could tell that she was kind of taken aback, and she overexplained why she does that. She seemed to be putting in an effort, but honestly there wasn’t a ton of improvement – although it did leave the door open for me to feel more comfortable interrupting her going forward for the rest of her internship to say, “Okay, slow down, give me a chance to answer.”

A couple of months after her internship, I was at an event with some of my colleagues and someone mentioned how much she talked, and I said, “I had tried to have a conversation with her, I know it didn’t take – I think she was just nervous and young.” Someone joined in who’s more junior – she’s only been with us about six months and she and my intern had been fairly close, they walked part of their commute to work together – and apparently my conversation with her did not go the way I thought it did. My intern was completely horrified, she didn’t know what she’d done wrong, she was completely flustered and didn’t know what she should do or what the problem was. I don’t know if I wasn’t clear, or if she just sort of panicked.

In talking to my colleague I found out that she had been talking to her too about how much she goes into detail, and was trying to give her tips about making notes, and being prepared for meetings, and what you want to say. I really think it was just a factor of how young she was and how inexperienced she was in an office. But it was a very good experience for me as a manager to have that difficult conversation. I have to think about how I would follow up better in the future. But I appreciate your help and all the advice that you gave me, so thank you!

Alison: Oh, this is so interesting! I love that this caller had the direct, straightforward conversation. But yeah, this is an example of how stuff doesn’t always land with people they way we’re hoping it would. But that doesn’t mean that you didn’t anything wrong! You could have done this perfectly and she still might have bristled at it. Sometimes that happens. Especially with people early in their career who might not have a lot of experience getting direct feedback on stuff like this. The caller mentioned that she wants to think about how she could follow up differently in the future. I think one way to do it is to give the person some time to process the feedback, a few days or a week or a couple of weeks, depending on the context. And then at some point you can say, “I really appreciate you letting me give you that feedback that other day. Now that you’ve had a chance to digest it, does it make sense to you or would it be helpful for us to talk about it further?” Or in this particular case, you could even have said, “I know it’s tough to get feedback on something like that. I want to make sure you know that I think you’re doing a great job, and this is just about tweaking something relatively minor that will be really easy to get under control.” So sort of reassuring her that there’s nothing to be horrified about, that it’s routine feedback and nothing to panic over.

But yeah, I think this caller is right that this was a function of how inexperienced the employee was. Sometimes this stuff happens! And she might look back on the experience 10 years from now and realize that her manager did her a favor by having that conversation with her.

Our last update is from a caller who I think a lot of people were really worried about. I was. The episode was from June and it was called The Angry Coworker. The caller sat across the hallway from a coworker, Chris, who was angry and disruptive. He’d yell obscenities about work to himself and pound on his desk, and pace around his office. The caller had talked to her manager about it, and they’d gone together to HR. HR talked to him, but it hadn’t solved it. So I talked to the caller about ways to press the issue and insist that it be taken more seriously – because this kind of behavior is genuinely scary and disruptive, and it can escalate. Here’s the update.

Caller 7: Just wanted to let you know that I ended up speaking with my manager further about the situation and really pressing the issue, and she in turn agreed that Chris’ behavior was not acceptable — and it was creating a lot of anxiety and tension for me in the workplace, which was also not acceptable.

She spoke with the HR individual in my office, who ended up moving Chris to almost adjacent to their office. Although I don’t believe that they have addressed Chris’ behavior or how it impacts other people in the workplace, at least now I’ve realized that I wasn’t comfortable dealing with it, and did press my manager further to help me with speaking with HR. He has been moved, and so far, I have had no further issues with Chris. Thanks!

Alison: Well, that’s a relief to hear! And that’s another point in favor of having the direct conversation, and coming back and pushing harder if something is really important and isn’t being addressed in the way you need it to be. You wouldn’t do that with everything, of course, but with something that’s making you feel unsafe, you really should. And it worked! So that’s a great outcome in this case. And hopefully they’ll take it a bit further — now that he’s sitting right across from HR, he’ll either stop or they’ll hear it firsthand and be able to more easily address it.

Well, that’s the show for today! Thank you to everyone who called in with updates on their situations. It’s really interesting to hear how things played out. I’ll be back next week with more questions.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.