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:

I supervise a very talented younger employee. She has tremendous work skills and strong potential for growth. But she seems to lack a level of maturity in a way that I feel is impacting her career. She often talks about her parents and even credits them for helping with her work.

I want her to be respected for her contributions to our company, but her talents are overshadowed by her constant need to include her parents in conversation or discussions about "adulting" -- like paying her bills (using a budget that her parents helped her set).

I try to give her positive reinforcement to build her confidence in her own abilities, but how do I help her take ownership of her own work? And how do I tell her to stop talking about her parents so often? Or the year she was born? Or to stop using the term "adulting" because you're an adult!

She's lacking in emotional intelligence and doesn't seem to realize the impression she's making. I know she's young, and this is where she is in life. How do I address this in a way that's sensitive and respectful, but also clear?

Green responds:

For young people new to the work world, this can be such a weird transition time. You've thought of yourself as a kid your whole life, and in so many ways you don't feel like an adult yet. One day you have almost no responsibilities with real-world consequences, and the next day you're signing contracts and have a 401(k) and people are talking to you like you're 40, but clearly you are not 40 and you're not even sure you're that different from when you were 17.

When they're dealing with the scary amount of changes that adjusting to adulthood entails, sometimes young people do find comfort in playing up their youth. I remember in my 20s wanting to be treated not as a kid, and not as a full-fledged adult, but as an "adult lite." It felt like I got a certain amount of support as "a young person figuring this stuff out as she goes" that fully fledged adults weren't expected to need. There's reassurance in that when you're still new to adulthood.

That said, your employee is indeed undermining herself by what she's doing, and it's worth saying something to her about it.

I'd say it this way: "Jane, you're extremely talented and you do great work. I'm thrilled to have you on my team. I want to mention something to you that I'm worried could impact the way others perceive you: You tend to talk about yourself as if you're still a kid. You talk about your parents and your age a lot, and you've even referenced your parents helping you with your work. I want people to see you as the competent professional you are, and I'm concerned that you're inadvertently undermining yourself when you do this."

You could add: "Can I tell you how I see you? I see someone who's done an amazing job at X and Y and demonstrated a great deal of wisdom and insight on Z. I want other people to see you this way too. It's not that it's inappropriate for you to be close to your parents or to look to them for advice -- that's a great thing, and lots of people do it at all ages. It's about making sure that you're not talking about that so much that you give the impression that you're not a competent, self-sufficient adult."

This might be eye-opening for her. She may not even realize that "competent, self-sufficient adult" is the right self-image for her to have. But if nothing else, it should help her be more aware of how these types of comments are coming across.

It's a kind conversation to have with her, and good for you for being willing to do it.

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