Managing an extremely anxious employee
February 2, 2018 1:38 PM   Subscribe

One of my direct reports is highly anxious. I sympathize but feel like I'm failing to help him succeed at work. I need tips for how to manage him!

The short version here is that his anxiety is hurting his performance in a particularly vicious cycle. He's worried about his performance, so he performs worse, which amps up his anxiety, which worsens his performance more. You get the picture. I've managed nervous types before but nobody quite this intense.

I want him to succeed, but it's obviously not my place to tell him to see a medical professional, so I need tips for how to support him in his role while still maintaining healthy professional boundaries.

Here's where things stand, in no particular order:

* He's been here for several months and this is his first post-college career job. We work in social sciences research and he will likely start applying to PhD programs in Fall 2018. He is smart and good at his job. He has healthy social relationships with his peers at work.

* He has some time management issues. When he misses a deadline, we talk about it so we can both figure out what happened and how to avoid it. These conversations are (to my mind at least) informal and friendly - I'm not trying to "bring down the hammer" or anything like that. Time management takes practice!

* I've noticed the following sorts of activities seem to cause him a lot of anguish:
- Preparing for a scheduled 1:1 meeting. He becomes obsessed with his preparations and spends an inordinate amount of time trying to plan for every possible eventuality.
- Being asked to complete a time-sensitive task, even if it is relatively perfunctory. (Think of paperwork, introductory phone calls, etc.)
- Preparing for an informal presentation. He was actually supposed to give a presentation today - on a project he has been an integral part of - and backed out less than 30 minutes before it was supposed to start, citing lack of preparation (he had over a week of prepare).

* I make a point to enthusiastically praise him for his work, and to pass along praise I hear from others.

* He often seems really distressed about minor mistakes. I make a point to tell him that this is a job where you're constantly learning, mistakes are just a sign that you're learning/growing, etc. He is receptive in that moment but it doesn't seem to stick. I also try to lead by example by being really open about my own mistakes and what I've learned from them.

* When I'm asking him to do something that I predict will cause him stress, I give him some context. For example, "Please set up [Scary-Sounding Meeting]. This is an annoying hoop everyone has to jump through -- not a big deal, despite how it sounds."

* I sympathize out loud when it feels appropriate. For example, after he expresses nervousness about [Thing], I might say, "I get it! I felt the same way before my first [Thing]. The anticipation turned out to be way worse than the actual [Thing]."
posted by schroedingersgirl to Work & Money (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Anxiety is really tough to manage from the outside. Maybe impossible. It might be that any gentling you're doing (e.g, the "This isn't a big deal" stuff and the "I felt the same way and it really wasn't so bad" - maybe even the enthusiastic praise, if it's noticeably different from what you do for other people) is counter-intuitively making things worse by a) tacitly validating the idea that The Thing is such a big deal that his manager needs to comfort him, and b) making him feel like his anxiety is so visible that other people are treating him differently because of it.

Would it be possible to set the reasons for his underperformance aside in your mind, and focus on the impact? When you talk to him about, say, missing the presentation, I'd try starting with how it affected [whatever it affected] and then asking him what strategies he's going to use to make sure he's prepared next time (I know you said that's what you're doing now - are you doing it in the same way you'd do it with any other employee, or are you giving him a 'soft' version?). With things like his angst over completing a time-sensitive task or preparing for a meeting, is there any real impact here or do you just feel bad to see him in anguish? If it's the former, again talk about the impact and what he's going to do to address the issue - but if it's more the latter, I honestly think you need to let him work through that on his own. Your his manager, not his therapist, and I say that not in a "you don't need to care" way but rather a "his anxiety isn't something you can fix" one.

Without actually seeing him or the dynamic in your workplace, I think your best bet is to respond to the things that are causing a business impact, and respond to those in the same way you'd respond to any other employee.
posted by DingoMutt at 2:08 PM on February 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

It sounds like he has a hard time assigning the right priority to certain tasks, so maybe tell him this is something he should work on, and in the meantime, if he's in doubt, ask.
posted by adamrice at 2:09 PM on February 2, 2018

I had a boss who was so good at this. Here’s what I learned from her. It’s absolutely not about his emotions – those are his to manage, not yours. You do not have to praise him or make him feel safer. What you need to do, is clearly defined expectations for each assignment. That means, how much time in general you would expect it to take – for example I just need a quick and dirty report, it should take one to two hours. Or, I’d like you to make a quick presentation on Tuesday, it should include 5 to 7 slides, no graphics required, it might take you and afternoon but no more.

Then check in with him in a reasonable amount of time before the deadline. Letting him fail to give the presentation is an example of a career killing strategy. He needs to learn to manage his time and anxiety and what you can provide is a little bit of understanding and the boundaries within which he’ll do that.

For mistakes, give him a sense when you give him the feedback or when he looks like he needs it of how big a mistake it is on a scale of 1 to 10. Also make it clear how you will communicate things that really are performance issues so for example, you could say this mistake is a two on a scale of 1 to 10. Normally I wouldn’t even bring it up assuming that it didn’t happen again. If there is something that is a serious concern I will let you know in our weekly status meeting.

You sound like a great boss!
posted by warriorqueen at 2:27 PM on February 2, 2018 [79 favorites]

To my unlicensed eye, it looks like a combination of ADHD and not getting help prioritizing, i.e. undermanaged (regardless of how much managing you think should be necessary).

Time management may take practice, but that's a lot to ask of someone already taking on water in preparations for presentations and whatnot. As someone who ostensibly knows what practice is necessary, are you helping him practice? Is your work environment such that nobody can mentor him on this because everybody else is snowed under as well?
posted by rhizome at 2:38 PM on February 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you need to help him to change the meaning of mistakes / failure. At the moment he thinks of these things as akin to death - he'll do ANYTHING to avoid failure, which ironically results in the greatest possible failure: the failure to attempt. Mistakes and failure are not only inevitable, they are essential to success. Here's a great video by Will Smith which sums up a better approach:

Will says, "Seek failure. Failure is where all the lessons are" and "Fail early, fail often, fail forward."

So maybe give your chap a mistake target - say, three mistakes per day, 15 per working week. This is a MINIMUM: it is unacceptable to fail less than 15 times in a week. In your 1:1s, you can discuss these failings and find out what was learnt from them. Celebrate the mistakes: they are like the pain in your muscles after exercise - uncomfortable, yes, but also the only way to get stronger.

Good luck.
posted by matthew.alexander at 2:59 PM on February 2, 2018 [11 favorites]

Yeah - warriorqueen has a point.

He was allowed to back out of a scheduled presentation? Nope. First, day before, there should be a run-through. If he's not ready for that, then he still goes through the run through. Comment on where improvement is needed, if anything, or just that it was fine and will work.

Two stage process helps a lot. Your deadline is x. But, x minus one day, we are going to review.

This can also address minor mistakes. Because you are doing a practice run, mistakes don't matter.

One thing to be careful of is creating a situation where you seem to be treating him favorably or coddling him unfairly compared to others who aren't getting compliments and praise.

Intrinsic motivation definitely a good tool for many people - but you have to watch out if it has a negative effect elsewhere.

You also might want to move away from scheduled 1:1 meetings. Make his life a little more unpredictable and chaotic. But, well, scheduled. Like, you know know his schedule and he has this 1 hour block free, so you walk over and say "Hey, I totally forgot, I have this thing, and need you to help out, so let's go do that 1:1 thing." Or "My schedule got flipped, and I know you have free time now, so let's just do that now."

As for mistakes.. I would similarly stop even mentioning them. Don't engage on it. If he's obsessing, you deflect and redirect. "Oh? that mistake? yeah, whatever.. but more important - there's xyz that needs to be looked at that has absolutely nothing to do with that, so, like, get one that, K? Thanks!"

The re-focusing is tough, and it takes some doing. And you may feel like you're ignoring his feelings. But, well, you are a little because you don't want to be validating those feelings. Which results in him focusing on them and obsessing.
posted by rich at 2:59 PM on February 2, 2018 [13 favorites]

Tricky situation. First of all, do mind how much energy you have to give to the situation. At different points in my career, I have had different bandwidth levels for being able to help support this kind of coworker while still managing the rest of my team. Sometimes I have been able to support someone much farther and much longer and still do everything else well. Sometimes I cannot. Take care of yourself!

What I would do/ have done, in these situations:

Work with the coworker so they understand they are not performing well. I have had the experience with coworkers who had similar profiles that they do not understand what success is-- so, for instance, I had a coworker a few years ago who would have thought they were doing the right thing by pulling out of a presentation if they had not prepared. Or thought they would somehow be "graded" on their preparation for a 1-on-1 and so it was more important than their actual task. They do need to know, very clearly, what the criteria for success in their job actually is and they need to know clearly when they have not reached it.

Ultimately, if they do not recognise the problem, you cannot help them.

If they do and are working on it in a productive way, I have had luck with:

Being open to talking to them about root causes. I often do my 1-on-1 meetings while walking outside. If you can do it, it can allow people to relax and talk about what is really bothering them, and how it can be overcome.

Use coaching techniques instead of mentoring. Mentoring = "I organise my time into ten minute blocks". Coaching = asking powerful questions and supporting them to think through solutions on your own. I like my managers to have at least basic training in Co-Active Coaching. If you aren't comfortable coaching, see if your organisation has coaches available who can help them. Coaching can help a lot with the fear of failure, for instance.

Setting them up to succeed. If I know a coworker is struggling, I try to make sure they get tasks which will be a stretch, but are still within their level of ability. If you've hired a coworker as a Project Leader and they struggle to organise a meeting, no amount of support will resolve the situation. You will need to address that situation differently.

One note-- while telling people things like "I thought it was scary too, and it isn't so bad" is smart, and can work very well, it can sometimes backfire. It could unintentionally create a situation where they use the excuse that they aren't you and therefore can't succeed because they experience it differently.
posted by frumiousb at 4:05 PM on February 2, 2018 [7 favorites]

Thanks for the helpful input so far! I do want to address a couple of things in case it helps future answers:

As someone who ostensibly knows what practice is necessary, are you helping him practice? Is your work environment such that nobody can mentor him on this because everybody else is snowed under as well?

Yes. Whenever I give him a new assignment I explain its relative importance and give an idea of how much time to spend on it (“This is a top priority for this month. You should plan to spend around 20 hours/week on this.” or “This is a back burner project. Don’t spend more than 5 hours/week on this.”). He is actively mentored by multiple people on the team.

He was allowed to back out of a scheduled presentation? Nope.

Sadly I was outvoted (by my bosses) on this one. I really wanted to have him give the presentation regardless. ;)

First, day before, there should be a run-through. If he's not ready for that, then he still goes through the run through. Comment on where improvement is needed, if anything, or just that it was fine and will work.

So, I like this idea a lot. But it contradicts DingoMutt’s advice about not treating him differently. No one else on the team gets this kind of oversight,* and it is highly unusual for our office culture. (These are extremely informal presentations.) Would the benefits of helping him prepare outweigh the risk of making him feel like he’s getting “remedial” attention?

* Or seems to want it. I’ve offered it (as it’s been commonplace at previous places I’ve worked) to no avail. In the next 6 months we’re experiencing some organic staff turnover (staff departing for grad school, fresh staff coming on board) and I’ll have a chance to start adjusting our team culture a bit... I like the idea of making these dry runs a more routine part of our team’s work.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:18 PM on February 2, 2018

When I’ve had staff having trouble with deadlines I ask to see a draft. Not for detailed feedback but to gauge progress. So that might be a good middle ground.

Also with small tasks like phone calls I’ll give deadlines like “I expect everyone to be contacted by the end of the day” to help cut procrastination off at the knees. However all of that is generous on your part.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:12 PM on February 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think that while you may not be able to do anything to ease his anxiety, you can do a lot to introduce him to norms in the workplace that are also norms in grad school, where, if he should get in anywhere, he will be ground into dust unless he finds someone to shepherd him through it all while making endless allowances for him.

I see that it was your bosses' decision to allow it, but this: backed out less than 30 minutes before it was supposed to start, citing lack of preparation (he had over a week of prepare). leaves me just jaw-dropped that you are asking how to support him rather than how to motivate or discipline him or make him understand that fear of failure is a fine reason to avoid activities in one's private life but not a justification for fucking up other people's work day.

Is it that you can tell he was lying about not preparing and the real reason was he's terrified of public speaking? that, I can understand. but if he just said that he won't do this thing because he chose not to do all the work that was required to prepare for it, I think it does him an extreme disservice to A. act as though that's acceptable and B. act as though he needs more support and encouragement rather than more awareness that his behavior affects other people.

because work is hell when you can't meet deadlines or perform in any capacity. it really is. I know it as well as a person can. but people who won't or can't get a medical fix for their impairments have to invent their own fixes. if being treasured and understood and forgiven and praised could ease his anxiety, it would be eased already. the more he and you both focus on his feelings, the more he will behave as though his excruciating feelings are more important than getting his work done. and he already does behave that way.

I am more like this guy (anxiously and obsessively self-focused even when others need me) than I am like you (kind and generous and wanting to help) so that's why I'm so harsh about it. I have been the anxious woman whose anxiety in the workplace was impatiently ignored or outright not noticed, and I have been the manager to an anxious man who was fussed over and nurtured by everybody who could get their pep talks at him. I think that of the two of us, I got somewhat the better deal.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:20 PM on February 2, 2018 [12 favorites]

He needs to build confidence by doing lots of small things successfully. Assign him concrete tasks and expect him to complete them make it 100% clear that completion is the goal, quality is less so. Repetition will make him less nervous about carrying out tasks.

They don't have to be on task either. I find that with a new person assigning them some non work related stuff (source yourself new monitors with these specs and purchase them through IT) allows them to learn our processes without any pressure.
posted by fshgrl at 10:15 PM on February 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Make his life a little more unpredictable and chaotic. But, well, scheduled. Like, you know know his schedule and he has this 1 hour block free, so you walk over and say "Hey, I totally forgot, I have this thing, and need you to help out, so let's go do that 1:1 thing." Or "My schedule got flipped, and I know you have free time now, so let's just do that now."

I am your employee. Under no circumstances should you do any of the above, unless you want him to end up in a psych ward from a nervous breakdown. No joke.
posted by tzikeh at 11:14 PM on February 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

If he doesn’t get a handle on this, PhD studies will be hell for him and his advisor and peers that need to do emotional (or academic) labor for him.

It sounds like anxious perfectionism is a problem here. I’d ask him to try the following for a while: follow the Pareto rule of expending 20% of the effort needed for a perfect result to get 80% of it, ie good enough but not perfect, and stop there. Don’t take 80% of the time and effort to get the last 20% of the work result just so. And then evaluate what that gives in terms of results, time management, stress, and anxiety.

And, I’m sorry you got outvoted. Canceling a presentation is much worse than giving an imperfect one, to me.
posted by meijusa at 7:29 AM on February 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thanks for being a caring boss. Managing his anxiety and his time is a task he must learn to do. Does your company have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program)? He should be getting books and maybe going to training/ therapy for this. Morita Therapy focuses on behaviors and I have found it helpful. I recommend Playing Ball on Running Water: The Japanese Way to Building a Better Life, David K. Reynolds.
posted by theora55 at 11:46 AM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

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