Dealing with needy people at work: The office manager’s guide

As an office manager, it may feel like some important tasks were omitted from your job description. You’re expected to onboard employees, but you didn’t know you’d become the office therapist. You expected to manage the supplies and equipment budget, but you didn’t anticipate becoming the go-to person for problems with the printer.

You expected to be the office manager, but needy employees, colleagues, and bosses often leave you feeling more like the office mother.

To do less mothering than managing, learn how to coach needy people at work to become more self-reliant. Consider the advice below—suggestions from both experts in the field and other office managers—to find ways to inspire change in your most problematic office personalities.

What to do when people need help with things they can do on their own

There’s a saying known as Hanlon’s razor that’s good to keep in mind when someone asks you to do something you know they’re capable of doing themselves:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.

When someone asks for help with a task that you know she can do on her own, it’s easy to think she’s being lazy, she believes the task is below her pay grade, or she has no respect for the amount of work you have to do. But the reality is most people want to be able to do things on their own; they just don’t know how.

When someone asks you for help with something they should be able to do:

  1. Assume the request is out of ignorance, not malice
  2. Teach the person how to do the task
  3. Create step-by-step instructions and distribute them
  4. Point people to the instructions when they ask for help

To better understand this approach, apply it to every office manager’s worst enemy—the printer.

  1. Solve ongoing printer questions and requests by posting laminated instructions and troubleshooting guides at each printer. Note locations where paper and toner refills are located, and markup a diagram of the printer showing places where paper jams happen most often.
  2. Then, when someone comes by and asks you to replace the toner or claims to have an irresolvable issue, ask if he followed the instructions. If he claims he has, ask him to tell you what specific steps he took to resolve the issue.

Most people will feel a little bit ashamed for asking when you point out that the solution was in the instructions all along. This will encourage them to try their best the next time before asking for help.

Once you’ve shown everyone how to do the task at least once, firmly—but politely—point them  to the instructions for future requests. This may go against your instinct to be helpful and responsive, but it’s the only way to prevent constant interruptions. You’ve helped by creating detailed instructions. Now you have to balance being helpful with getting your own work done.

Stay focused on the instructions and you’ll teach others to do the same.

But this tip isn’t exclusive to the printer. Take time to document instructions for all of the tasks you’re routinely asked to perform, and provide them to people when asked so they can do the work themselves. You can even use a support bot to automatically distribute instructions and answer FAQs.

Provide people with the information they need—and enforce the use of that information—to train needy employees that your job isn’t to solve their problems.

Of course, in some cases, providing instructions won’t solve the problem:

I have tried detailed, step-by-step instructions (complete with screenshots), email updates… one-on-one training, even asking them who they think tracks MY stuff. Nothing works. – Lynn A, The Admin Pro Forum

In this scenario, other office managers and admins recommend reviewing the process itself. If people are consistently struggling to follow the instructions and do things for themselves, ask what specifically is preventing them from completing the task. If it’s a problem with the process, work with your colleagues and boss to come up with other approaches.

What to do when people need too much of your time and attention

Documented instructions work well for uninformed employees, but they may not satisfy the needs of insecure employees. Insecure employees are those who abuse your open door policy by stopping by multiple times a day to ask questions or request reviews of their work.

While constantly seeking approval may seem like a form of extremely annoying narcissism, Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill says there’s usually a very specific reason why needy employees need extra handholding.

In all likelihood, the employee feels confused, intimidated, or overwhelmed by the process of using one of the office tools or systems but doesn’t want to admit it outright. Hill’s recommendation is to try to get to the root cause of the issue by bringing it up, asking the right questions, and listening to the answers.

Make them comfortable

Approach the topic by saying, “It’s my perception that I’m in your work too much, and I’m worried I might be a bottleneck.” This places the blame on you—not the employee—and may make the employee feel more comfortable being honest in his answers.

Set boundaries

Hill also suggests setting boundaries to establish an appropriate time for employees to come to you with feedback. If your work is suffering because of constant interruptions, consider establishing “office hours”: set aside a specific time each day for employees to drop by and chat.

If employees come to you outside of that time, ask them to come back during your office hours. This helps establish boundaries, and it forces needy employees to make decisions on their own.

Help them help themselves

It also helps to refuse to provide needy employees with direct answers. Instead of giving them the solution, ask how they will solve the problem. Ask employees not to come to you with a problem until they have several possible solutions to propose.

Again, this may feel like an unhelpful response, so you may feel uncomfortable with the approach initially. But it trains employees to think for themselves and shows that you approve of the conclusions they come to.

In the end, coaching employees to think more independently is the most helpful thing you can do for yourself, the employee, and overall office productivity.

What to do when people think you’re the office therapist

Office managers tend to be friendly, caring, and effective problem-solvers. While these traits make you great at your job, they also tend to attract emotionally needy and clingy colleagues.

That’s exactly what Cassidy was struggling with recently when she asked for advice on The Admin Pro Forum:

“I’ve slowly realized that I’m the person everyone comes to when they want to talk about life outside the office, their personal problems, their traffic woes, their relationship headaches … I don’t mind, but I think I’d like to very slowly give up that role. Does anyone have any tips on how I might do that without shutting anyone down directly?”

The office managers and other administrative pros who responded to Cassidy’s question provided several excellent ideas for handling this type of situation:

For many people, these subtle cues are effective in helping them understand you can’t devote your work time to listening to their problems, but there is always someone who doesn’t understand subtle hints.

If people continue to interrupt you with non-work related conversations even after you try these ideas, you may have to tell them that you’re swamped with work and can’t give them your full attention. Explain that you want to listen to their issues even though you don’t have time at the moment, and ask if you can catch up during a break or after work.

If you want to make it less uncomfortable, blame it on your boss. Say your boss is giving you too much work or noticed that you were having too many personal conversations at your desk. Have a conversation with your boss to let her know you plan to use her as a scapegoat if you’re uncomfortable making up an excuse.

What to do when it’s your boss who’s needy

When it’s coworkers and employees who are needy, there are simple ways to guide and coach them to change their behaviors. When it’s your boss who’s needy, the resolution becomes more complicated.

There are different types of needy bosses, and different ways to deal with each:

Often, even the neediest bosses will calm down after time passes and you’ve earned their trust. Even so, the more you can show your boss the implications of his neediness, the more likely he will be to work on changing his behaviors.

And if it never changes, it becomes a simple matter of deciding whether or not you can live with your boss’ behaviors long-term.

Dealing with needy people at work requires perseverance

When someone is needy, it’s unlikely that you will be able to fix the root cause of their issues. The best you can do is coach the person on what behaviors are and aren’t acceptable with you, and that coaching requires commitment.

If you don’t want someone interrupting your work with stories of their personal problems, end those conversations swiftly every time. If someone constantly asks for help with tasks that you’ve created instructions for, point that person to the instructions every time. Making exceptions simply encourages the behavior.

Use these tips to coach your needy employees, coworkers, and bosses, encourage them to adopt less distracting behaviors, and enjoy a little more productivity and sanity at work.

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