A reader asks:
I have a great, well-rounded employee who can do everything asked and be creative when needed to find solutions. The problem is that she sometimes takes over other people's tasks, saying something like, "Oh, it was just easier for me to do it" or joking that she wanted it done right.
Time after time I'll see "Jane" working on a project that I assigned to someone else. I'll also see her staying late to finish work that isn't due for a week or more down the road. I'll ask and get the usual, "Oh, I was on a roll so just did it all." Then she'll indirectly complain that she's juggling too many projects. Plus, if someone comes into our department and asks me a question, since I'm the manager, Jane makes it a point to speak first and get out as quick an answer as possible.
Being careful not to offend such a great employee, I've talked with her about this before and that didn't go very well. She listened, then started crying and said she would change her schedule, wouldn't do anything extra again, etc. However, within 2-3 weeks, it was the same as before.
This past week, this escalated when I was talking with my boss about a project I'd been working on. Jane was constantly interrupting or answering for me. Within a few minutes, she had our boss convinced we should go in a different direction than what I'd been doing, even though she had no involvement in the project. My response was, "I've been working on this for three weeks. We have one day before the client needs the project. Why don't you take this over, since it sounds like you know how it should be done and get the client what they need?" and I walked out of the room. I shouldn't have, but I was just too frustrated at yet another interaction like this, this time with my boss involved.
The rest of the day, Jane kept saying, "I just don't know where to start, this is all due tomorrow." I left early for the day so I couldn't help. I know that's a bad manager move, but I really wanted her to understand and feel the ramifications of her actions. The following day, when the project was due, she called in sick with a migraine. We used the work I had done, and when she came in the day after, she acted like nothing had happened.
What's your advice?
This is a great example of how, when managers put off dealing with performance issues as directly as they need to, the situation often blows up in a way it never would have if they'd have a clear and direct conversation earlier on.
It wasn't OK for you to handle this latest situation the way you did. You set up your employee for failure (knowing that would be the case, I'm guessing), signaled to her that there's no real accountability in play (she's now been allowed to skip out on an assignment and act like it never happened), and probably came off looking weak in front of your boss (walking out of that conversation in obvious annoyance wasn't a great move).
I absolutely understand being frustrated by this. But you are the one with the authority to fix this situation. It doesn't make sense to lose your cool when you have much simpler, calmer, more direct solutions in your tool box. This is exactly what tends to happen when managers don't manage staff problems; they become increasingly frustrated until they lose their cool, when they had the power to fix it earlier on.
So. You've got to fix this, and that means talking to Jane about what is and isn't OK, holding firm, and not getting thrown off track if she gets emotional about it again.
Sit down with her and say this: "We've talked in the past about not interrupting other people's conversations and not jumping in on other people's work without being asked to. You made the changes I requested for a few weeks, but since then I've seen it happening again. It's important to your success here--and frankly, to your relationships with your co-workers--that we find a solution to this. I thought we were on the same page when we last talked. What am I missing?"
If she becomes emotional or cries again, don't let that throw you off. Ask if she needs a minute before you continue, hand her a tissue, get her some water, or whatever feels appropriate--but then continue the conversation.
If she tells you again that she just won't do anything extra anymore, say, "That's not what I'm asking. I'm telling you that I need you to stop doing other people's work for them because it's demoralizing to have one's work taken over by someone else and it can be disruptive to our work flow and I need you focused on your own job. I'd welcome you going above and beyond in your own realm, but I need you to stop inserting yourself into projects that are being handled by other people."
Also, I'd encourage you to re-think your assessment of her as a "great employee." Great employees don't alienate their co-workers by talking over their work after being asked to stop doing it, or respond like she did when given feedback, or call in sick when they can't complete a project and then act like it never existed. Great employees aren't perfect and all have flaws, certainly, but as a general rule, they will hear feedback and work on incorporating it into how they operate.
Right now, she's not being a great employee. And you haven't been doing her any favors by avoiding this conversation (and then later letting your frustration come out as it did). You'd be doing her a service if you had a calm, straightforward, kind but firm conversation with her about what you're seeing and what needs to change--and then holding her to it.
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