Managing the Needy Employee -- and Your Time

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Many managers face it, no matter the industry or management level: the problem of how to make sure that one high-maintenance employee does not take too much time away from other duties and other employees who also need attention.

Maybe you're sick of your problem child and tempted to close your door and send him back to his desk rather than sit and chat -- again -- about his problems. But consider this: Not managing that needy employee, not coddling him a bit when it's needed most means your other employees are paying the price because they have to put up with his unsolved problems -- a definite morale killer.

It's tempting for a manager to try to ignore needy employees because they take up too much time, and they often sound as if they're all (boring) talk. Bad idea: You're there to manage them, to make the workplace run efficiently, to learn whether the blather masks serious problems.

"Bad apples usually require a lot of time for a lot of reasons," said Zia Khan, principal with Katzenbach Partners, a management consulting firm. Most often, that is because they are simply not performing their job well. Or they just need a little (or a lot of) reassurance -- well beyond the support other employees need.

During 23 years at Lockheed Martin, Bob Voldish had his share of employees he had to counsel.

Voldish, who retired from Lockheed in July and now runs the Virginia operations for Data Computer Corporation of America, said every so often he encountered an employee whose neediness threatened to take over his entire day. Many times, the person came to Voldish's attention because he was absorbing too much of his co-workers' time. "They were trying to settle it themselves but just not getting anywhere," he said.

Maybe the problem was tardiness, which pulled the rest of the team down, or the two-hour lunches and lingering smell of alcohol. It was important, Voldish said, to approach the person with an open mind first, even if he had to manage and move on.

"As a manager, you can really quickly decide after the person starts repeating a story and they have nothing new to add, you know you have all the information you need," he said, noting he had employees who begged him to listen to their stories -- again -- about being stuck in traffic on the Beltway. "What you really have to do as a manager is make the decision right there and let that individual know 'I've listened.' "

(Or, in the case of the drinking employee, "I've listened, and here's the number for the Employee Assistance Program.")

Managers need to figure out how to allocate equal amounts of time and heart among the independent employees and the needy ones, said Richard Calo, vice president of workforce relations at International Business Machines. "If you spend too much time in either camp, you're not doing your job," he said. "Spend the requisite amount of time with your good folks helping them get better. When you get to the folks who really have performance issues, take a more disciplined approach. Go to the meetings with objectives that are clearly understood. Take the employee rationale out of the equation and focus only on business objectives and what their results are. Then it becomes an objective discussion rather than an emotional one."

But what about the needy employee? Just sending him back out the door isn't going to help anyone.

"Generally, I think people who seek reassurance and conversation feel insecure about what they are contributing," Khan said. "So a manager could tap them on the shoulder and say, 'What you did last Thursday was really great.' " And that won't kill any manager or even take much time. It will also save time in the long run.

Sometimes those needy people who whine to their bosses every day, come in late or beg supervisors to listen to their side of the story may really want to get out and find jobs elsewhere but can't bring themselves to do it, said Martyn Etherington, vice president of worldwide marketing with Tektronix in Portland, Ore.

"Sometimes they are looking for empowerment either through you giving permission or you giving confidence," he said. He often has employees who he can tell are looking for reassurance. All he says is, "You know exactly what to do." He also sometimes chooses to "give them a kick in the backside" by asking them what their replacement would do. (But, he said, he's careful about whom to use that one on because "it could shatter some people.")

And when those people are taking too much of Etherington's time, he gives it to them straight. He asks if they understand how much of his time they are taking without being clear about what they expect to achieve. Then, after that reality check, he asks what it is they want from him. If that conversation is taken well, they then lay "ground rules" and come up with a plan.

Mostly, it comes down to conversation. The people who need their managers do need their managers. But probably for reasons other than they realize. Etherington has learned to have very structured conversations to try to get at the real issues: "What's the root cause of them demanding more of your time? Maybe they don't have the right training, you haven't been clear to them, they were overpromoted," and therefore, they truly need some serious help, he said. "The only way to assess that is to sit down and speak to them."

"This is stuff you don't learn in books," Etherington said. "It's on the job, real time. And you make mistakes along the way."

But hopefully, you learn along the way, too.

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