columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

A woman I manage, "Lucinda," appears to thrive on manufactured stress. It is common for her to come off as exasperated or overwhelmed to me, her teammates, and even industry partners, especially in the face of changes or busier times of the year. Several of her colleagues have mentioned their annoyance at Lucinda's being snippy, playing up her workload as much heavier than others', or being dramatic to the point of deception.

I can say unequivocally that Lucinda does not have an unmanageable workload and actually has quite a bit more flexibility than others.

At her annual review last year, we discussed that I was concerned that she was "wearing stress on her sleeve," but I also said I found it understandable given that her department was understaffed. In a one-on-one a month later, I asked if everything was alright as colleagues said she was a bit short. She was about to go out on vacation, so I said I hoped she could relax and come back refreshed. 

The month after that, we had two discussions on the topic. The first was her relaying a dramatic incident between another department manager and a vendor. After further investigation, the incident was not nearly the disaster she relayed. I told her everyone does their best and to trust other managers' decisions even when it's not exactly what she would have done. Our second discussion was regarding her being disruptive during a staff training. I said that her behavior was unacceptable and she needs to be more flexible and handle changes with leadership and professionalism. She agreed that she did not act professionally and apologized.

We have not had attitude-related talks since, but we are halfway through our busiest two months of the year and her colleagues are irritated. I'm not sure how to effectively communicate, "It's not impressive for you to seem at the end of your rope so often, and you need to be less abrasive."

Green responds:

I've learned to always ask managers, "How clear were you about exactly what she (or he) is doing that needs to stop?" because at least 75 percent of the time when I ask that, it turns out that the manager has not been super explicit, either about the problem or the fact that it's a serious issue.

So let's take a closer look at the discussions you've had so far. In the first, you said her behavior was understandable (and I get the impulse to do that -- you were hoping that you could keep it kind and supportive and she could save face, and she would hear the message and solve the problem). In the second, it sounds like you mainly encouraged her to relax on vacation, and in the third you gave her feedback that didn't really get at this problem (you just told her to trust other people's decisions). It wasn't until the fourth one that you really got serious about it -- but even then, it sounds possible that she thought it was specific to that incident and didn't realize you were speaking more broadly.

To be clear, it's not crazy that you expected that she would still get the message from these conversations! Many employees would have. But when you've had these softer conversations and the behavior is continuing, the next step always needs to be to get really, really clear about exactly what needs to change. Ideally, you would have done that in the second conversation, but it's not too late to do it now.

Sit down with her and say this: "We've talked a few times recently about your being short with people or overly negative, but the behavior I've been concerned about has continued. For example, recently (insert a couple of recent examples here). This is impacting your work and other people's work, and I need you to get this under control."

You could also ask, "Do you feel like you understand the sort of thing I'm talking about?" If she doesn't quite get it, you want to find that out now, so that you can give her more examples and makes sure she's clear on what needs to change.

The part about her coming across as overwhelmed is a different issue. Do you have a good sense of whether she truly feels overwhelmed or whether this is just part of her being dramatic? If she truly feels overwhelmed and you know that she shouldn't be, she might actually be in the wrong job; in that case, you'd want to be very honest with her that the workload isn't going to change, that your assessment is that it's quite reasonable for the position, and that you both need to figure out if she can handle it or not.

If it's more about her being dramatic and complain-y, then say something like this: "If you have concerns about your workload, I need you to bring those to me, not complain to your co-workers and definitely not to industry partners, which is really inappropriate. I've looked at your workload and I believe it's reasonable, on the basis of my knowledge of how long this works takes. But if things don't feel manageable to you, that's something you and I need to talk about, and I need you to raise it with me, not with other people who aren't in a position to do anything about it. Can we agree that going forward, you'll bring any concerns about feeling overworked directly to me so we can resolve them together, rather than complaining to others?"

After you have this conversation, you should be looking for immediate and sustained improvement. Hopefully, you'll see it. But if the problems continue, then you need to deal with this as a serious performance problem (which it is), including contemplating whether she's the right person for the job.

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