Dealing with needy people at work: A guide for managers

As a manager, it may feel like some important tasks were omitted from your job description. You expected to be a manager, but needy employees, colleagues, and bosses can leave you feeling more like the office mother.

To do less mothering than managing, learn how to coach needy people at work to become more self-reliant. Consider the advice below to find ways to inspire change in your most problematic office personalities.

What to do when people need help with things they can do on their own

When someone asks for help with a task that you know they can do on her own, it’s easy to think they’re being lazy, they believe the task is below their pay grade, or they have no respect for the amount of work you have to do. But the reality is most people want to be able to do things on their own; they just don’t know how.

When someone asks you for help with something they should be able to do:

  • Assume the request is out of ignorance, not malice
  • Teach the person how to do the task
  • Create step-by-step instructions and distribute them
  • Point people to the instructions when they ask for help

Once you’ve shown everyone how to do the task at least once, firmly — but politely — point them to the instructions for future requests. This may go against your instinct to be helpful and responsive, but it’s the only way to prevent constant interruptions. You’ve helped by creating detailed instructions. Now you have to balance being helpful with getting your own work done.

Take time to document instructions for all of the tasks you’re routinely asked to perform and provide them to people when asked so they can do the work themselves. You can even use a support bot to automatically distribute instructions and answer FAQs.

Provide people with the information they need — and enforce the use of that information — to train needy employees that your job isn’t to solve their problems.

Most people will feel a little bit ashamed for asking when you point out that the solution was in the instructions all along. This will encourage them to try their best the next time before asking for help.

What to do when people need too much of your time and attention

Documented instructions work well for uninformed employees, but they may not satisfy the needs of insecure employees. Insecure employees are those who abuse your open door policy by stopping by multiple times a day to ask questions or request reviews of their work.

While constantly seeking approval may seem like a form of extremely annoying narcissism, Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill says there’s usually a very specific reason why needy employees need extra handholding.

In all likelihood, the employee feels confused, intimidated, or overwhelmed by the process of using one of the office tools or systems but doesn’t want to admit it outright. Hill’s recommendation is to try to get to the root cause of the issue by bringing it up, asking the right questions, and listening to the answers.

Make them comfortable

Approach the topic by saying, “It’s my perception that I’m in your work too much, and I’m worried I might be a bottleneck.” This places the blame on you — not the employee — and may make the employee feel more comfortable being honest in his answers.

Set boundaries

Hill also suggests setting boundaries to establish an appropriate time for employees to come to you with feedback. If your work is suffering because of constant interruptions, consider establishing “office hours” – set aside a specific time each day for employees to drop by and chat.

If employees come to you outside of that time, ask them to come back during your office hours. This helps establish boundaries, and it forces needy employees to make decisions on their own.

Help them help themselves

It also helps to refuse to provide needy employees with direct answers. Instead of giving them the solution, ask how they will solve the problem. Ask employees not to come to you with a problem until they have several possible solutions to propose.

Again, this may feel like an unhelpful response, so you may feel uncomfortable with the approach initially. But it trains employees to think for themselves and shows that you approve of the conclusions they come to.

In the end, coaching employees to think more independently is the most helpful thing you can do for yourself, the employee, and overall office productivity.

What to do when people think you’re the office therapist

Managers tend to be friendly, caring, and effective problem-solvers. While these traits make you great at your job, they also tend to attract emotionally needy and clingy colleagues. Here are some strategies for dealing with this.

  • Delay the conversation. If you have a lot of work to do, ask the person if you can talk about their issue at some specific time later in the day. This teaches people that you’re not always available just because you’re at your desk. And unless the issue was very important, the person may not even bother bringing it back up later.
  • Schedule time for venting. If you’re friends with the people you work with or manage, it can be even more difficult to separate work and personal relationships. Consider proposing a rule that personal issues have to be discussed outside of the office — during lunch, on a coffee break, or after work at happy hour.
  • Change the subject. Try to transition the conversation to something work-related. Take advantage of having the person’s attention to follow up on something you’re waiting on, get an opinion, or ask for help. Once the person’s mind is back on work, she may be less likely to loop back to a personal conversation.

For many people, these subtle cues are effective in helping them understand you can’t devote your work time to listening to their problems, but there is always someone who doesn’t understand subtle hints.

If people continue to interrupt you with non-work-related conversations even after you try these strategies, you may have to tell them that you’re swamped with work and can’t give them your full attention. Explain that you want to listen to their issues even though you don’t have time at the moment, and ask if you can catch up during a break or after work.

If you want to make it less uncomfortable, blame it on your boss. Say your boss is giving you too much work or noticed that you were having too many personal conversations at your desk. Have a conversation with your boss to let her know you plan to use her as a scapegoat if you’re uncomfortable making up an excuse.

What to do when it’s your boss who’s needy

When it’s coworkers and employees who are needy, there are simple ways to guide and coach them to change their behaviors. When it’s your boss who’s needy, the resolution becomes more complicated.

There are different types of needy bosses, and different ways to deal with each:

  • Demanding – Demanding bosses are needy because they think everything is urgent. They set unrealistic deadlines and overwhelm you with tasks. The best way to deal with a demanding boss is to keep a prioritized to-do list and ask your boss to help you re-prioritize when adding new tasks. This will help your boss see the impact of his or her requests.
  • Indecisive – Indecisive bosses are needy because they require lots of information before making a decision. Coach indecisive bosses by encouraging them to take a small first step. For example, if you want to save on office costs by letting people work from home, don’t ask to transition everyone at once. Ask if people can work from home once per month so you can monitor their productivity before making a bigger decision.
  • Insecure – Insecure bosses need constant approval. They may seek praise from you, or they may take credit for your work to earn the approval of company leaders. To help lessen your boss’ insecurities, look for opportunities where you can collaborate on projects. This should allow you both to share the credit for accomplishments.
  • Insane – Insane bosses take neediness to an extreme that suggests they need a psychologist more than an office manager. Maybe they call you at home on the weekend to discuss both work and personal matters, or they demand that you help with things like babysitting when that was definitely not in your job description. To avoid feeling miserable at work, your best bet is to get help from someone in HR.

Often, even the neediest bosses will calm down after time passes and you’ve earned their trust. Even so, the more you can show your boss the implications of his neediness, the more likely he will be to work on changing his behaviors.

And if it never changes, it becomes a simple matter of deciding whether or not you can live with your boss’ behaviors long-term.

Dealing with needy people at work requires perseverance

When someone is needy, it’s unlikely that you will be able to fix the root cause of their issues. The best you can do is coach the person on what behaviors are and aren’t acceptable with you, and that coaching requires commitment.

If you don’t want someone interrupting your work with stories of their personal problems, end those conversations swiftly every time. If someone constantly asks for help with tasks that you’ve created instructions for, point that person to the instructions every time. Making exceptions simply encourages the behavior.

Use these tips to coach your needy employees, coworkers, and bosses. Encourage them to adopt less distracting behaviors, and enjoy a little more productivity and sanity at work.

Jessica Greene is a staff writer at Spoke. Built from the ground up to power the on-demand workplace and deliver immediate access to knowledge and support, Spoke’s AI answers the repetitive questions (more than half of all requests in some cases) — so support teams can focus on people.