helping the employee with no confidence
August 27, 2014 5:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm a first-time supervisor with a very hesitant supervisee. She's recently out of grad school with lots of internship experience but no 9-5 actual job experience. She took my position and I was promoted to the supervisory role...and she seems scared all the time! Many of my requests are met with a look of terror and a quivering lip.

I am very patient, I tell her all the time that she's doing a great job, and I give her mini pep talks about having confidence in her abilities, but she tells me I sound like her mom. (Note: I am only a few years older than her, but I've been working for a while now.) She recently asked me to evaluate her on a regular basis--an idea that is out of the norm in our workplace and makes me uncomfortable--so that she "knows she's doing a good job." Constantly reassuring her is stressing me out a little bit since I am learning the ropes of my new position, too. Our boss is no help at all. I know no one can give you confidence, but how can I help this little bird fly? What can I say, do, or not do?
posted by sandwiches to Work & Money (30 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Be straightforward with her. She's a professional and treating her with kid gloves isn't doing her any favors.

Sit her down, tell her she's doing well, but that she can't expect to have her hand held. You'll let her know if there are things to work on, and she should go forth and do good work.
posted by pseudonick at 5:57 PM on August 27, 2014 [21 favorites]

I've been there. I ended up setting up 10-15 minutes a day to sit down to talk with my manager about what's bothering me, what I'm working on and what steps I'm taking to complete my tasks.
Don't make it an evaluation, make it "lets talk about what you need to do".

My manager was awesome and 9 years later I'm still reaping the benefits that it gave me (confidence, knowing that you just need to take 1,2,3,4,5 steps to get to your end goal.

This may seem like a lot, but the meetings will get alot quicker and eventually she'll have the confidence to go without them.
posted by sandmanwv at 5:58 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

How about weekly one-on-ones? Touch base and discuss ongoing projects, duties and reports. After that she needs to figure it out.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:04 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

recently out of grad school

It is very common in graduate school to receive little or no feedback, which can be a source of stress or anxiety for many people. You spend a lot of time working very hard on a project where many things are unclear: whether you're making progress, what you should do next, etc. Sometimes it's not even clear if you're finished! So she may be hoping for a different experience now that she's no longer in grad school.

I don't know how to resolve the situation, but at least that might help you understand where she's coming from.
posted by number9dream at 6:05 PM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

It sounds like she's competent, just doesn't feel competent?

I'd start out by sitting down with her for 10 minutes twice a day to go over her work-- you can offer feedback and help her prioritize at that point. If she comes to you at other times for reassurance (rather than for specific directions), you can kindly but firmly redirect her to your planned meeting: "I can't talk about that right now, but let's discuss it at 3, OK?"

As she gets more comfortable in her role, you can cut back to once a day meetings, then every few days, etc.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 6:08 PM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I suspect this is a thing that happens to people who spend a long time in school. It can be easy to know that you excel in college and graduate school, since your goals are narrow, clear-cut and short term, and you are regularly evaluated and praised while working toward them--moreso for exceptional students. Normal jobs can be a painful adjustment. (Unless she was getting a PhD, and then who knows)
posted by pullayup at 6:11 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the feedback! We have been meeting very regularly but set a time and day to have a weekly meeting. It is hard to manage someone who seems to want to be micromanaged. I try and direct her to do whatever works best for her (for example, even down to where to store a box of something that she'll use 100x more than I will), but that doesn't seem to work.
posted by sandwiches at 6:12 PM on August 27, 2014

Sign her up for training. I have been this person, at the very beginning of my career, and there are a lot of "soft skills" trainings on how to be an effective employee, leadership, communication with confidence, etc., that can teach her the skills she needs to be more effective. It's her first job, she doesn't know what the expectations are, and hearing it from a neutral third party will help.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:17 PM on August 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

She recently asked me to evaluate her on a regular basis--an idea that is out of the norm in our workplace and makes me uncomfortable--so that she "knows she's doing a good job."

Setting boundaries for this is important. A weekly 5-10 minute "What's the plan for this week?" discussion is totally OK. Having daily check-ins just because she thinks that you might have changed your opinion about her in the past three days is bordering on obsessive-compulsive reassurance seeking. Which, hey, if that's her thing you can deal with it as its own thing, but otherwise it's okay for you as her supervisor to set boundaries on how much "pep talking" is going to be part of your work relationship. If she feels the need to check in more, have it be something that doesn't take your time in the same way. She can send an email with questions at the end of the day for example, but she has to have the space to both do the job her way (not your way) and also get used to being an employee who may be responsible for some decision making.

Training on assertiveness, time management or workplace confidence stuff is not a bad idea as part of an overall growth strategy. I'd also try to focus on some longer-term goals for her so it's not so much "where is the box of stuff?" but "Is what you got done over this last two weeks in line with where you'd like to be going six months from now?" tying things into a bigger picture so that each box of paper clips isn't the thing that makes or breaks her overall feeling about her job. If there's a probationary period for her at this job try to tie that in to setting some longer ranging goals so that each few-hours chunk of time doesn't feel quite so mission critical.
posted by jessamyn at 6:26 PM on August 27, 2014 [10 favorites]

My first job, my boss explicitly told me that I need to learn to manage upward and in dealing with the department head. His clarity really helped.

When she asks unnecessary questions or is seeking reassurance, try turning the responsibility back to her with you there to double check her judgment. Use questions to show her how she can judge for herself if she did a good job. So, "how do you think that project went? Why?" If she doesn'tt know why it is right, ask about whatever it that is the appropriate metric. (on time, no customer mistakes, whatever it is that tells her that she did fine. then you can let her know if next time she needs to consult you in advance or do it herself and just let you know if xyz happens.

You also want to help her learn to handle the inevitable mistakes. be very clear with her - if there is a problem, I will let you know and we will solve it together. Problems will happen, guaranteed. The measure of a good employees is not that they don't have problems but that they admit to them right away and get work on a solution. When she does something wrong, help her focus on how to fix the problem and avoid it next time since i'm guessing she will see any mistake as a sign that she is incompetent.
posted by metahawk at 6:32 PM on August 27, 2014 [9 favorites]

1) How old is she? Wanting lots and lots of frequent feedback is a known Gen Y thing.

2) How long has she worked there? If it's been less than 6 months and/or if there has been a lot of varied tasks, it's reasonable to want frequent feedback.

3) Are you just telling her that she's doing a good job or are you telling her specifically what's she's done well and why it was good? I've found that giving very specific feedback -- e.g., "That was a great presentation, you did a great job summarizing the main points and presenting the decision to be made in the conclusion" -- works best in guiding employees instead of general "attaboys/attagirls."

4) You haven't mentioned whether you've also given her any criticism or negative feedback, but if you have, my advice is to stop that unless it's something really bad like "never do that again or we might get sued."

Basically, everyone's performance has some random variance from day to day so if you emphasize what they (perhaps randomly) did right today instead of what they (perhaps randomly) did wrong, they'll focus on what they did right and make an effort to continue to do that so they can continue to get praised (or just feel the intrinsic satisfaction of having done a good job). Whereas if you focus on what they randomly did wrong, you might undermine their confidence (and then they screw up from nervousness) or they might think "well that was just a one-time mistake" (perhaps correctly or perhaps due to actor-observer bias) and discount the feedback instead of learning from it.

If you absolutely must give negative feedback, I would do it in the context of relating it to something they did right. For example, I once had an employee who was fucking shitty at packaging orders. Like there's no way that 80% of his first attempts would make it to the customer with the contents intact. So while I was checking his work, I'd find the one good package (or at least the least-bad package) and tell him, "You did a really great job on this package. I really like the way you picked the right size box for the parts, and that nothing rattles when I shake it, and that you used adequate tape on all the seams. Could you please fix up the other packages to be more like this one?" He did eventually learn to be a good packager, one reinforced good trait at a time.

This method of managing employees goes counter to many managers instincts because regression to the mean has tricked them into believing that criticizing poor performance will improve performance whereas praising good performance results in employees slacking off and doing worse next time. But over the long term, average performance goes up if you stick to praise and avoid criticism. I originally learned this technique in my MBA Organizational Behavior class so this advice is not just something I pulled out of my ass based on my own anecdotal experience, but an actual thing that's been studied and proven. I just can't remember the official name of the theory/technique.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:44 PM on August 27, 2014 [12 favorites]

I think you're reading this the wrong way. She more than likely doesn't need you to give her confidence (hence the mom comment), but needs to you ensure she's on the right track work-wise - and that requires you to know what she's doing and not just give her a pat on the head and tell her she's doing a good job in the hope that she'll leave you alone (because *your* boss isn't exactly helping you out, right?).

Having worked under a few first-time supervisers who didn't know what *they* were doing, and expected me to magically read their mind (whilst giving conflicting advice/having poorly defined expectations), I recommend treating your involvement with her more as a collaboration with a colleague (and that you're both learning as you go) rather than as a burdensome, hand-holding exercise.
posted by heyjude at 7:05 PM on August 27, 2014

Jacqueline, 1. she's 24, 2. has only worked here a few months, 3. I am mostly non-specific in my praise, and 4. I have not said anything negative to her since her mistakes have mostly been Amelia Bedelia-esque and not worth mentioning.

I will work more on praising something specific. It's been hard for me to handle all of these changes at once, worrying about her and myself simultaneously. I do feel the need to add that I am not her only supervisor and I KNOW that this is making things much, much worse.
posted by sandwiches at 7:05 PM on August 27, 2014

I think her wanting such frequent feedback is both perfectly understandable and also completely annoying. I think the fact that she feels comfortable telling you directly is a sign that she trusts you but I recognize setting boundaries is best. (I've been the greenhorn -- although I didn't want to come across as unsure at all -- and I've been the person in charge wishing I had set my foot down earlier.) I think the plan for a set check-in each week is perfect, and you could even encourage her to bring the questions to you and also create her OWN self-evaluation that you can proof during that quick talk. Or she could draft a list of her expectations of her and you, etc.

Does your workplace have a mentor program? Something like that would be super beneficial because there's training both for mentors and mentees. Could you also help connect her with other people to ask to help alleviate some of the stress on you? I'm sure she has colleagues who'd LOVE to take on a small leadership role and are just waiting to be asked! Of course, as that person's supervisor, you can then help them by including their efforts in their annual review, etc. Might either option be possible?
posted by smorgasbord at 7:05 PM on August 27, 2014

Here's an article on the hows and whys of setting up a mentoring program as well as some short testimonials from some big names in business. Perhaps it won't apply to your work but maybe it will. Good luck!
posted by smorgasbord at 7:15 PM on August 27, 2014

Another thing that might help is changing the way you task her with things and receive work back. If you state at the outset how you will judge the finished product as "good" or "not good", then she should be able to objectively say whether she's done a good job. If, when you receive the completed task, you ask her to show you / talk you through what she did, and also ask her how she thought she performed against the way you tasked her, she will be providing her own feedback. When she's unsure aboutwhether she did the right thing, you might need to coach her to unpick the problem herself, with questions like "what are some options" or "who else might know the answer" or "what are the benefits of doing it this way and not that

For example, if you were tasking her with making changes in a document, you would need to make clear where you expect her to use judgement, and that she will have to be able to defend that judgement to you. When you got the document back, you would ask her first about how she felt she went with the task, and then to explain the changes that she made, including flagging anything where she feels unsure.
posted by girlgenius at 7:46 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do feel the need to add that I am not her only supervisor and I KNOW that this is making things much, much worse.

Yeah, that's part of the problem, and to me suggests bigger problems with your organization as a whole.

Speaking from the experience of providing editing and administrative support to multiple principal investigators on one research project, I'm guessing that it's possible that one of the reasons she's being so timid is that she's being given contradictory instructions and feedback. Fortunately, I was bossypants enough to drag them all into my office and force them to either resolve the conflicts or agree to defer to me, but not everyone is as good at "managing up" or general assertiveness.

So, if you're the one ultimately responsible for her performance reviews, raising, disciplinary/firing decisions, etc., then maybe you should ask the other supervisors to route any feedback about her performance (other than immediate in-the-moment "do this, not that" stuff) through you.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:06 PM on August 27, 2014

I recently took a management class with an section on manager coaching, and it sounds like those skills would be really helpful in this situation. Searching the terms "management coaching" brings up a million things that all sound like what I heard in that class; a lot of it just involves giving the person space to come up with their own approaches with a bit of guidance. So giving her a task would sound like "Hey, I think it's time we put together a new brochure for X. What do you think we should emphasize? *get response* That sounds about right for that audience, plus we've gotten feedback before that the current brochure doesn't have enough Y.*further response* Agreed. Go ahead and write a first draft of the copy using your ideas." vs. "Please write some copy for the new brochure, include X, Y, and Z." The teacher also talked about the fact that vague positive platitudes often ring false; if you say "good job" to everything there's no way to accurately measure your skills. So tell her what specific things she's done best with respect to a particular task (I'd particularly emphasize anything she does independently since that is the behavior you're trying to cultivate. You say she's not doing anything wrong, but if giving her a task is leaving her near tears, that's a pretty serious workplace error on her part.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:08 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I try and direct her to do whatever works best for her (for example, even down to where to store a box of something that she'll use 100x more than I will), but that doesn't seem to work.

I wonder if it would be helpful to explicitly say, "That's a decision you need to make for yourself." That is, start delineating which tasks should be run by you and which should not.

It is sometimes also helpful to ease someone's anxiety by demonstrating that you will let them know if there's a problem. Even just pointing out that you noticed her meaningless screw-ups and approve of the way she recovered ("Hey, I know that you had trouble with X, but you handled it well. Good job.") can be helpful -- it lets her know that you're not just saying "Good job" but thinking, "Ugh, she's such a disaster, it's not even worth correcting her" behind her back.
posted by jaguar at 8:54 PM on August 27, 2014

If she's telling you that you remind her of her mom, there's a chance that she's using a baggage-laden template to understand the dynamics here.

I would make sure that she understands what the protocol is for feedback and reassure her that if something needs improvement on her end, she's not going to be blindsided by it, and give her a sense of her margin of error.

Does she understand that you're a stakeholder in her success, and that if something goes wrong you'll have a look at your own role in the process? Can you show her examples of other people's projects to give her a feel for what you look for?

The other thing I'd check on is whether she understands that professionalism is about making judgement calls so that your boss doesn't have to and not so much about getting a list of things your boss wants, and that there are a lot of different ways to approach problems.
posted by alphanerd at 9:49 PM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Non specific praise is what's screwing you up here. Praise and feedback should always be specific so boundaries and expectations are as clear as possible.

Additionally, it may be worth your time to address this head on in a, "I notice that you ask for constant feedback about your abilities and performance. I also notice that you take things pretty seriously and that you sometimes seem to get worked up over the projects you're taking on. Can you help me understand what's going on for you and why these things appear to be going on?"

Eventually you can/should tell her that her overconcern about her performance is a form of self sabotage and that if she doesn't learn to relax and be more self sufficient the thing she may fear most is most definitely going to happen and she will be let go for being unprofessional. I thank the universe daily for the mentor I had who was that frank with me when I was 24 and just starting out at my first job. It was a tremendous kindness on their part to be so honest with me. Maybe you can do the same for this young woman.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:13 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe take the opposite view and point out something that she's done wrong, so she knows that you'll actually say if she's done something wrong. I used to be a little like her, and my problem wasn't wanting praise, it was constantly waiting for the hammer to drop. Once it did, and I know I could survive it, I felt much better. You could even make this about her behaviour, something that she can control, rather than something work related that she can't undo.

Or, maybe try to open up a dialogue about what it is that she wants from these frequent meetings. If she can verbalise to you what it is that she wants, it might force her to think a little about how she's getting her needs met. I would also halve whatever it is she asks for, such as meeting every other day instead of every day. Give the reason that you don't have time to meet daily and that you have time to sort out any problems she might create within that timespan. Make it about work, not about you or her.

Also, maybe challenge her to come up with her own solutions. When she asks you where to put her pen, ask her where SHE thinks the pen should be put. Leaving her to come up with her own solution forces her to own the decision making process and actually perform it, thereby proving to her that she can in fact do it.

Some people just need a lot of reassurance, and if you start going down that path with them, they'll drag you along it as far as they possibly can with them. Maybe start setting some boundaries and acting a little annoyed/brusque with her at her next session. It's a little harsh, but it will help set the tone that she's expected to do her job and let you get yours done, too.
posted by Solomon at 3:03 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can't this monitoring be done over email? She could send herself a daily email with her to-do list for the day in the morning and then a marked-up version of the same email with her progress or the outcome of each task listed next to the task in the late afternoon/evening. She could cc you on both or on just the afternoon email, and, if nothing's notable but everything's fine with her to-do list and/or her completion of it, you can reply with an acknowledgement of your receipt of the email (ie, a reply like "received"). Of course, if you want to change anything on her to-do list or how she completes anything on the list, or if she's doing an exceptional job at any of the tasks, you can reply mentioning that, too. Would that be enough feedback for her to feel comfortable but for you to feel like you aren't hand-holding?

Of course, you could have an in-person meeting instead of the morning or evening email or even both (I've had to do this at various jobs and it's frankly been very helpful with keeping my manager and I on the same page). Email is probably faster and puts more of the burden for reassuring her that she's doing the right things and doing them adequately on her rather than on you, though.

By the way, are you and her other supervisor being fairly clear about what her duties are, and giving her resources or models to follow in order to train her in how you want them done for your company/department? If that stuff isn't possible, then it's not - but it sounds to me like she feels like she's flying a little blind, and to be fair to her, if she's new and hasn't worked before it would be perfectly normal for her to need some extra training and more explicit directions for how your company does things compared to an employee who's already worked similar jobs before and who has come up with or been trained into certain ways of doing things already. She also might not be able to just pick as much up by osmosis as you're assuming she can (the Amelia Bedelia mistakes also make me think this). Is there any way she can get more training at your company or any more models to work off of?
posted by rue72 at 4:43 AM on August 28, 2014

Thanks again, everyone. I'm going to be thinking about some bigger-picture things we can talk about at our next meeting rather than just the immediate stuff that needs to be accomplished. We're a small staff (5), so I did train her extensively and I am available really at any moment to talk with her. I do think she needs a level of explicitness in directions that I never thought possible, so I shall work on that. Phew. Thanks.
posted by sandwiches at 5:14 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

First off, I suggest you try to take a management training course if possible. Even a one day one week give you some insight and useful tips. Secondly, how about you have a talk with her identifying independence and decision making as two areas in which you'd like to see her progress- these are important job skills that will help her in her career and help you keep your sanity.
posted by emd3737 at 6:08 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

You mentioned that you are not her only supervisor. That might be where some of her concerns are coming from.

Maybe she is getting bad vibes from another supervisor, but you are more approachable so she is coming to you for coaching. Or maybe she is overwhelmed by having to address priorities from multiple people, but she doesn't know that it's okay to bring up that she is overwhelmed.

You might need to give some thought to re-structuring who she reports to.
posted by vignettist at 8:40 AM on August 28, 2014

You might need to give some thought to re-structuring who she reports to.

I'm not convinced you need to go that far - most new graduates in my organisation work with a range of teams and face this problem and the vast majority learn to manage this successfully.

But you may need to have a chat and explain to her that everybody has slightly different preferences and she will get contradictory guidance at times, that nobody else will have full visibility over her workload and therefore she will sometimes be given too much work and will face conflicting deadlines and demands. That's normal in this kind of set up.

The way to manage it is to
- politely confirm instructions/expectations to make sure she meets the specific individuals' requirements and to
- politely highlight to the various supervisors that she's been given too much work/conflicting deadlines and to ask them to agree priorities (possibly among each other).

You also will need to explain that people will hold it against her if she fails to complete work she agreed to do or completes it to a poor standard, because she's overcommitted. On the other hand most people will welcome a graduate clarifying requirements and priorities and highlighting bottlenecks because that gives them a chance to come up with a plan B that doesn't involve them having to (re)do it themselves at the nth hr....
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:01 AM on August 28, 2014

I have someone similar on my team, as well. A young 21 year old who never had a full time, 9-5 job before. She's nervous, and what has helped her is me making an effort to get to know her on a daily basis.

I'll walk to her desk and say, "Hey, how are you? How was your weekend?" and engaging her with a little personal conversation. I think at this point, she knows I care about her genuinely.

Have that serious convo with her as well, though. Tell her that she's doing a great job, ask if she needs anything, and tell her you'll let he know if any issues arise.

I feel like a lot of younger people (I'm only 28 myself, but have 21/22 year olds below me) need a little reassurance at first. She will gain confidence with experience and back off some.
posted by Sara_NOT_Sarah at 10:55 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Something that would have been helpful to me when I was in that position would have been if somebody sat me down and said "Hey look, you're not going to get fired unless you do something like (insert appropriately catastrophic example from your industry)." For some reason I was incredibly nervous that I could be fired for any little thing. I didn't have a great sense of scale or permanence in full-time office-type jobs. Not being constantly on the verge of being fired would have helped me relax a lot. I don't know if you have a sense that this is her perception or not.
posted by bleep at 5:06 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I got very stressed in one of my first post-college jobs when I got a new boss. My boss did everything by email and didn't tell me what I was doing right. She kept piling expectations on me, which I would meet or exceed, and there was just more and more. I was so stressed and I thought I was going to get fired at any minute, because my boss never told me how I was doing and there was no way to tell. I had been raised with the idea that corporations were evil and then I'd gone to a very left-leaning school in an extremely left-learning department, so I thought the company was out to get me. Never having worked in a non-union environment before and having absolutely no family or family friends who could tell me what a positive non-union job was like, I seriously thought the company was going to turn on me at any moment. I was a little bit anxious, sure, but a big part of it was the huge social, cultural and economic leap I'd made by leaving my small town, going to university and then not working in a union shop. I had absolutely no one to check in with and all the advice I got from friends/family was union-related. Stuff like, "You will be given a sheet that says the salary scale" and "You don't ask for vacation. There will be a sign up sheet based on seniority", but then stuff like, "Well, if you aren't in a union, they might fire you for anything." You cannot imagine how stressed I was -- it was culture shock. I don't know if this might at all relate to your staffer, but I hope maybe someone reading this gets it.

(I am much different all these years later!)
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 7:55 PM on August 28, 2014

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