How to Manage a Needy Employee

By Rebecca Knight Aug 2, 2017
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Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies. In this article, the author discusses ways a supervisor can manage a high-maintenance employee.

As a manager, you probably wish you could give all the people on your team more attention. But sometimes certain employees seem to need more than their fair share of your time. Maybe they repeatedly ask you to review their work, look for constant feedback, or regularly show up at your desk to chat. What do you do about that needy person on your team? How do you balance being a responsive manager with the need to get your own work done? And how should you manage your frustration?

What the Experts Say

Harvard Business Review

"In a 24-7 world, everyone's time has gotten more crunched," says Amy Jen Su, managing partner of Paravis Partners and coauthor of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence. That's why managing someone who demands "more hours and minutes than you can possibly give" is challenging. "You might feel impatient, frustrated, and maybe guilty that you're not giving this person enough." The fact is, "there could be any number of things feeding this needy behavior," says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and the coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great LeaderIt's your job to figure out how to address the root cause. After all, your role as manager "is to create an environment that will be energizing for the people working for you." Here are some strategies for doing that.

Reflect on the source of the neediness

The first step in dealing with a team member who needs extra handholding is to figure out what's driving the person's neediness, says Hill. "You're not expected to be a psychologist, but you should try to diagnose what's going on." Perhaps this person "worked for a micromanager in the past, and she's in the habit of double- and triple-checking with you." The cause might also be "insecurity" or lack of confidence; "some people have a fear of what could go wrong," Hill explains. Consider the organizational circumstances as well. "Are people getting laid off or not getting promoted? Sometimes employees are just looking for reassurance that they are doing okay." Think about your own role in the situation, too. "There could be something in your behavior that's triggering the neediness," Hill says. Jen Su agrees that self-reflection is important: you could be micromanaging "or not giving enough direction or feedback, or maybe your one-on-ones are not set up optimally." Your ultimate aim is to come at the problem from a point of empathy.

Talk to your employee

Next, Jen Su recommends talking directly to your employee about your observations of the behavior. "Your tone should not be shrill, impatient, or dismissive," she says. "Say, 'You've been coming in a lot for XYZ. But all these informal check-ins are not an efficient use of time for either of us. What's going on? How can I better support you?'" You could even make it about you, says Hill, "which allows the employee to save face a little." She suggests saying something like, "It's my perception that I'm in your work too much, and I'm worried I might be a bottleneck.'" Boost your employee's ego, she says. "Say, 'You should have the autonomy you deserve. You are competent. And you don't always need to report to me.'"

…And then listen

Once you've said your piece, listen carefully to how your employee responds. Remember, "your job is to coach your staff and help them grow," says Jen Su. Does your employee require more direction? A deeper relationship with you? More training? Or something else altogether? "Figure out if there are small adjustments you can make" to resolve the neediness. For example,

  • Connect. "Sometimes employees feel neglected and talking to you about an assignment is just an excuse to get more of your time," says Hill. If this is the case, Jen Su recommends carving out time to connect with the person more regularly. "Those five extra minutes can really matter — especially to people who are motivated by feeling involved and having rapport."
  • Praise and reassure. It's also important to think about ways to incorporate positive feedback into your regular one-on-one meetings, says Jen Su. "You forget that sometimes you need to reassure an employee who's doing a good job that he is, in fact, doing a good job." Remember, she adds, "It's human to want to feel appreciated for what we do."
  • Offer support. If your report tells you he's struggling with a particular task, you should marshal tools and resources help, says Hill. "Does he require more training? More education?" She also recommends peer coaching. "Say, 'Jane knows a lot about this topic. She can give you some insight on how to handle the challenge you're facing.'"
  • Set new goals. "Some people's cognitive process manifests itself as neediness; they just need to make the sausage out loud and talk out everything," Jen Su says. With these people, it's important to emphasize the importance of "independent work as part of development plans."

Tackle the confidence problem

When an employee's neediness stems from low self-esteem, it's a trickier problem. Broaching the subject won't be easy, but "you have an obligation as a manager to tell people how they're perceived" especially when it comes to behaviors that "interfere with their ability to grow and thrive in the organization," says Hill. She suggests coming at the conversation from the angle of "professional development" — don't make it personal. "Be sensitive. Say, 'I have, on occasion, observed that you lack confidence. I don't want that to get in the way of your achieving your potential. How can we correct this perception?" Be collaborative. Work with your employee to "brainstorm ways you can help him become more confident." After all, "If he's not confident, other people won't have confidence in him either."

Set boundaries

If your employee continues to take advantage of your open-door policy, begin to "set clearer boundaries," says Jen Su. "You want to be there for your team but your job is more about guiding and shepherding." Be gracious. You can say, "I have 15 minutes before my next meeting, and I can talk to you for that amount of time. Or I am just going into a meeting. Can we table this conversation for your next one-on-one?" Set a good example for your team. "You're not actually helping your team members develop on their own if you're constantly available," she says. "You need to model healthy boundaries. This is particularly true if you're managing a young person who doesn't have a lot of experience in the workplace." In certain cases, you need to be very explicit about your expectations, says Hill. To deal with this, you can say to the employee, "You've been coming in to see me three times per week. Let's try once per week from now on," she says. "You need to help your employee unlearn a pattern of coming to you for every little thing."

Prepare for a different (more difficult) conversation

Of course, you're not going to fire a worker for being too needy, but if you've failed to remedy that situation, it may be a sign that the problem runs deeper than you thought, says Hill. Frankly, this person might not be up to the job. "If your employee is incompetent, it is a different issue. Some people just plain don't get it." Jen Su agrees. "If you're holding your employees' hands for every single aspect of a work product, you need to have a different conversation around poor work performance," she says. "The more you let it fester, the worse it can get."

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Reflect on the cause of the neediness
  • Talk to your employee and brainstorm ways to fix the problem and help them gain confidence in the workplace
  • Model healthy boundaries. You're not helping your team members grow if you're constantly available.

Don't:

  • Lose sight of the fact that your role as manager is to create an environment that's energizing for your team. Be supportive.
  • Neglect to connect on a human level with your needy worker. Just five extra minutes per day can make a big difference.
  • Ignore a situation that doesn't improve. If the neediness impacts the employee's work performance, it may be a sign that this person is not up to the job.

Case Study #1: Adjust your management style and focus on peer coaching

Vip Sandhir, the founder and CEO of HighGround, the Chicago-based HR software company, says he has dealt with two types of needy team members.

"Some are emotionally needy. They thrive on drama and try to suck you into the rat hole with them. Others are operationally needy employees. They are unable to execute on their own, often because they're inexperienced," he says.

Emotionally needy employees are "much harder to deal with" than operationally needy ones, he says. The latter represent a "painful but finite problem."

Earlier in Vip's career, he founded a tech company that experienced intense, "shot-gun growth" over a period of four years. "Because of its rapid growth, we had to bring in about twenty 26-year-old supervisors — most of whom had never led a team before," he says.

One of Vip's direct reports — we'll call her Alice — was hired to run a sales and accounting team. She was a solid worker but had a lot of questions for Vip. "She didn't know how to deal with an employee who showed up late seven times in a row. She didn't know how to motivate a sales rep that was missing his numbers. There was a lot of grooming that needed to take place."

At first, Vip recalls being "frustrated and annoyed" by Alice's constant need for attention. But upon reflection, he was empathetic. "For the people side of management, there's no playbook."

He also came to see Alice's neediness as a positive. "She was always asking for help and suggestions, but that meant she was looking to get better, and she wanted to improve."

Vip learned to adjust his management style. "I had to listen a lot more," he says.

His main goal, though, was to develop Alice's leadership capabilities. "I couldn't do the job for her, but I could help guide her through the challenges she faced," he says. "We'd talk over a problem collectively, then I'd ask her about the outcomes she wanted, then we'd brainstorm concrete actionable behaviors to achieve those outcomes."

These conversations usually began with "a big grandiose objective," he says. For instance, Alice wanted her unit to drive $5 million more in sales per year. "We broke it down and she determined that that meant that her sales representatives need to shoot for 25 more meetings per quarter," he says.

Another way Vip helped Alice develop was to encourage all the younger, unseasoned bosses to share best practices. "It was really important to establish a feedback culture," he says. "Every single week we had these managers go around the room to talk about the problems they were having. There was a lot of learning as they shared wins and losses."

As time wore on and Alice developed more confidence as a leader, she became less needy. She ultimately moved on to a new company.

Case Study #2: Empower your employees and offer positive feedback

Kelly Max, president and CEO of Haufe, the San Francisco–based HR software company, says that whenever he encounters a needy employee, he tries to look at the bigger picture. "I take the perspective of asking, Why is this person so needy? What's going on?"

At a previous job, Kelly supervised John, who seemed to demand more time than Kelly could give. "He was constantly knocking on my door, and it was frustrating," says Kelly. "I had a lot on my plate already."

In the past, he'd dealt with employees who were overwhelmed by their jobs or unable to fulfill their responsibilities. But source of John's neediness was different.

"The company had a strict formula that dictated the number of calls salespeople needed to make and meetings they needed to have over a certain period," Kelly explains. "But John kept coming to me and saying, 'The quotas are not working for me. I feel too much pressure.'"

So Kelly asked John, "What can I do to make you more successful? John replied that he needed to approach the sales process differently. "He said, 'I have another way,'" Kelly recalls.

Kelly reluctantly agreed to let him try it. "It was stressful because I had to talk about John differently to my bosses — I focused on the outcomes rather than on the quotas – [but] I needed to let him break the rules a bit — I needed to let him be more intrapreneurial."

Over time John proved that his way did indeed work: His sales record was just as strong as the rest of the team. Kelly also came to understand that John "had a need for significance" and "wanted to be seen and praised for the things he did."

In their "rigid and top-down" organization, that need was harder to fulfill. "It was not an environment where you'd receive praise unless you did things their way," Kelly explains.

But he did his best by giving John lots of positive feedback and spending time with him. "He felt seen by being close to the boss and from being in contact with me regularly."

Though both men have since left the company, Kelly says he learned a valuable leadership lesson from the experience with John: Empower employees to make their own decisions. "If you don't, it undermines their growth."


Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University.  Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.

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