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How to handle a needy employee

You have a needy employee. What do you do now?

This (very cute) photo credit goes to Wikipedia Commons.

“I think I’m going to have to let someone go.” I was at lunch the other day with an executive who admitted this to me.

I asked her why.

“She’s in my office every five minutes, asking me for help. I don’t have time to answer her questions — I just can’t get anything done.”

There’s another way to put what she was describing: Her employee was needy. I understood where she was coming from. I’ve managed employees who came across as needy in the past too. The person would ping me incessantly. Every decision required my input. The hand-holding drained me.

I’ve always struggled with what to do about a needy employee. It’s difficult to discern if this person simply wasn’t a good fit for the role and needed to be reassigned (or let go) — or if there was something more (and better) that I could do as a manager.

To help you make this distinction, I’ve shared five things I’ve learned from hundreds of conversations with CEOs and other leaders about managing a needy employee. It’ll help you answer, “What should I do before deciding to let go of a needy employee?”

Ask what their previous manager was like.

When you get burned, you don’t forget it. Often times, a needy employee comes to you all the time because their previous manager punished them for mistakes — and they fear similar repercussions. To figure out if your employee has gotten burned, you can ask, “Who’s the worst manager you ever had, and what did you not like about that person’s leadership style?” Then based on their answer you can share how you currently are or would like to be different than this “worst boss.” Understanding who this “worst boss” was can help you adjust your own behavior, as needed. And, knowing that you’re not this “worst boss” can help this employee become less fearful and overly reliant.

Give permission to fail.

Your employee might be a perfectionist. She’s not used to messing up, and she doesn’t want to mess up. So she’s sacrificing speed for smoothening edges that don’t need to be smoothened. To curtail perfectionist tendencies, you need to give this person permission to fail. One of my favorite ways to do this is to borrow a few phrases from Reid Hoffman, Founder of LinkedIn. He told his Chief of Staff at the time that he wanted him to make judgment calls on a range of issues on his behalf without checking with him. Then he said, “In order to move fast, I expect you’ll make some foot faults. I’m okay with an error rate of 10–20% — times when I would have made a different decision in a given situation — if it means you can move fast.” Tell your employee you expect foot faults and be clear on what error ratio you’d prefer. When you do this for a perfectionist, you give them permission to not check in with you as much.

Instill confidence in their role.

Insecurity drives us. And it often drives a needy employee. They want to impress you. Or they’re worried about you firing them or passing them up for promotion. Now I’m not saying it’s your job as a leader to compensate for people’s insecurity. Rather, I am saying to acknowledge the role insecurity plays in how people perform in their jobs. When you address someone’s insecurity directly, you can minimize its effects. For example, when you directly say to your employee, “I believe in you” or “I trust you on this”, it means a great deal. Keep in mind if you do say that, you must hold up your end of the bargain. You can’t say you trust someone and then yell at her later for making a mistake. One phrase — and one that you mean — can go a long way.

Make clear what “good enough” is.

A needy employee can act needy because you haven’t given them what they need: Context. Your employee isn’t clear on expectations. Have you explained the standard for what is “good” work? Have you shown examples for what that “good” work looks like? Have you talked through how you make decisions, and what criteria you judge? Have you defined the markers of success? Your employee’s neediness may actually be confusion — and it’s your job as a manager to create coherence.

Tell it straight.

If you want this person’s behavior to change, be straight forward about it. Let your employee know that you want to be less dependent on you. As harsh as it might sound initially, you can deliver the news kindly and helpfully. For example, you could say something like, “I think you have the potential to take more ownership over projects. I can envision you coming to me 80% less of the time. What can I do to help make that happen?” When you’re clear about what you want to be different, the person can just then go do it.

You might try one of these suggestions, you might try a few. Either way, I hope you give them a shot before choosing to letting someone go. Sometimes letting the person go is the right answer — but you’ll know it’s the right answer if you’ve tried at least one of these recommendations.

I’ll be sending this article to the executive I saw for lunch.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.