How to Find Out What ‘Needy’ Workers Really Need

Employees who take up a lot of your time and attention may be looking for something else

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie May 1, 2019
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​She demands help with tasks you know she can do on her own. He abuses your open-door policy, dropping by constantly to ask for direction or get feedback on his work. And then there's the employee who interrupts you all day long with conversations and problems that have nothing to do with work.

Meet the needy worker, someone who—usually unwittingly—sucks up too much of a manager's time.

"Annoying co-worker behaviors are as old as time," said Stephanie Naznitsky, executive director of OfficeTeam, a division of Menlo Park, Calif.-based staffing company Robert Half, "although what they look like may shift with the generations present in the workplace."

Types of Needy Workers

Employees can come across as needy if they're inexperienced, insecure or struggling with something in their personal lives, said Jessica Greene, a senior writer with San Francisco-based Spoke, which provides an employee help desk powered by artificial intelligence.

"If they're inexperienced, they ask a lot of questions because they don't have the experience or knowledge to complete a task," Greene said. "If they're insecure, they're confused, intimidated or overwhelmed by a task and afraid to admit it. Or, they're not confident in their ability to handle it on their own and so they seek reassurance. And if they're emotionally needy, they have things going on in their personal lives that they want feedback or help with."

Both Naznitsky and Greene noted that a desire for consistent, frequent feedback and face-to-face communication are characteristic of younger generations in today's workforce, although they pointed out that technology has conditioned people of all ages to expect instant feedback.

"Smart devices and better apps have changed our expectations," Greene said. "Today, when you need a ride, you don't call the cab company early to schedule it and you don't wait on the street corner hoping one will pass by. You open an app and tap a button or two. The app knows where and who you are, and even lets you know when the ride's getting close. We want our consumer experiences to be fast, personalized and easy. And now these expectations are seeping into our work lives. Some people blame it on [younger generations], but almost everyone likes things on demand."

Managing the Needy Worker

First, assume that the needy employee doesn't intend to annoy you, Naznitsky said. For instance, it's easy to think that the worker who constantly asks for help is being lazy, or believes the task is below her pay grade, or refuses to respect how much work you have to do.

"Keep in mind that offending staff are not likely intending to come across as needy or disruptive," she said. "Assume the request is out of ignorance, not malice, then teach the person how to do the task and offer step-by-step instructions they can refer back to. The next time they ask for help, point them to the instructions. Most people will feel a little bit embarrassed for asking when you point out that the solution was in the instructions all along."

When it comes to insecure employees—those who seem to need constant feedback—there's usually a reason they need extra hand-holding, Naznitsky said.

"Try to put yourself in the employee's shoes and consider the root of the problem, as well as your own role," she said. "Sometimes, taking a deeper dive into why the employee is asking for validation can help uncover an underlying issue and help provide more open communication."

For instance, Naznitsky recalls learning that an employee who constantly sought reassurance about her work had struggled in the past with a manager who didn't communicate well.

"The worker's need to be validated was due to their former leader not providing constructive feedback," she said. "Often, the employee was unable to gauge [her] personal performance."

To build workers' confidence, Greene said, "force them to think for themselves and show that you have confidence in the conclusions they come to. Coaching employees to think more independently is the most helpful thing you can do for yourself, the employee and overall office productivity."

If a worker continues to come to you frequently with questions or seeking feedback, encourage him or her to set a time to meet with you for a full discussion, Naznitsky said. Host brief meetings with employees at the start of new assignments to discuss goals and provide clarity. For more-complex work, set checkpoint meetings to go over any issues that emerge. Use that time to provide positive feedback and constructive criticism.

It can also be helpful to assign the worker a mentor—someone who isn't the person's manager.


[SHRM members-only Express Request: Preventing Employee Burnout]


As for the employee who interrupts your work with off-topic chitchat and problems, "it's best to end those conversations swiftly and every time," Greene said. "Try transitioning the conversation to something work-related. Take advantage of having the person's attention to follow up on something you're waiting on. Set boundaries for venting; let them know you're swamped with work and ask if you can catch up during a break or after work instead. For many people, these subtle cues can help them understand that you can't devote your work time to listening to their problems."

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