We all like to feel needed, but there is such a thing as being needed too much. If you’ve ever managed a needy employee, you know that they can take up a lot of your time which could be spent doing more important things.
It’s true that some people will need your help more than others. However, a needy employee isn’t necessarily a poor performer. A needy employee is often a product of their environment as much as their own personality.
As leaders, we can sometimes unintentionally create an environment that is more likely to lead to situations where our people will rely on us too much.
Why Do You Have a Needy Employee?
I usually find the reasons for needy behaviour can be summed up fairly simply:
You have a needy employee because it’s easier for them to rely on you, or they feel they cannot succeed without you.
If it’s easier for your people to come to you for help than to solve a problem for themselves, they’ll keep using you. If your people feel like they cannot succeed without your assistance, then you’ll be in high demand too.
As usual, we need to narrow down the cause of the problem in each case. Then we can look at how to tackle it. Further in this post, we’ll dive into some ways for you to improve the situation.
Remember that it’s not always the fault of the employee. As leaders we have a big role to play in how our people show up in our teams.
Blaming your needy employee is easy, but it isn’t useful. What’s useful is thinking about what you could do to cause a shift in behaviour.
Strategy 1: Be Less Helpful
Some leaders take pride in being problem solvers. When there is an issue in the team, these leaders jump in and solve it. While this can be a valuable trait, it can also backfire.
I’ve coached leaders who have become too helpful, stepping in to save the day once too often. Depending on your team, this can actually make your people lazy. They know if they don’t fix a problem, you’ll do it for them.
Other times, I’ve seen leaders prevent their people from taking accountability by solving problems for them. Before long, the leader is the most prominent member of the team and team members can sit back and have an easy ride.
It’s always good to ask yourself whether your helpful and supportive behaviour is *really* having the impact you want it to. Or is it causing unintended consequences?
The key is to take a step back and let your people solve their own problems. Later in this post, I’ll look at another way you can reinforce this.
Learn More: Protective Leadership: Is It Holding Your Team Back?
Strategy 2: Make Yourself Less Available
Normally, I’d suggest that leaders make themselves available as often as possible to support their teams. Too often, I see situations where leaders have no capacity to pay attention to their people.
However, if you’re in a situation where you feel a needy employee is relying on you too much, it might be time to try a different approach.
If you are always in close proximity to your people, this can make them more likely to interrupt you for help. It may also mean that you are more likely to offer help because you can hear what’s happening in the team at all times.
One strategy that can be helpful is to work from a different location, or book a meeting room to work privately. Doing this occasionally can help your team become accustomed to your absence.
It’s also good to remember that sometimes, we are our own worst enemy. If you are a helpful type who likes to solve problems, you’ll be more tempted to rush in and save your people when you can constantly see and hear them.
Taking yourself out of the area can enable you to “cut the cord” and help your people step up and handle challenges by themselves.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #40: Traps for Supportive Leaders.
Strategy 3: Set Clear Boundaries
If you find that your people are starting to rely on you too much, a critical strategy is to set clear boundaries. You can think of a boundary like a line that you don’t want people to cross.
Clear boundaries set the rules of engagement with your people. That is, they help to define what you want to see in interactions with your team members. Below you can find some ways to set clear boundaries.
Communicate Clear Expectations to Set the Rules
One of my coaching clients had several managers reporting to her. When these managers made decisions about their team, they would always come to her to check if it was OK first.
While this seemed fine in the beginning, it became clear that this was an issue because her managers weren’t able to act independently without her input. She had become a bottleneck in the decision-making process.
To help her managers become more self-sufficient, she asked them to make their own decisions first, then come to her and inform her of their decision, only if they thought it necessary.
If you’re used to providing input on everything your people do, this approach can take some time to get used to. However, it can pay dividends in the long run as your needy employee becomes more self-sufficient.
Learn More: Team Members Unable to Meet Your Expectations? Check These Things.
Let Your People Know What You’re Trying to Achieve
Sometimes your needy employee might not know what’s in your head. They may even think that you want to be involved in everything they do.
When you start to set boundaries, some team members may become frustrated. They may wonder why you’re choosing not to help, when you could be.
In this case, it can be useful to let them know what your end game is. For example, you may be trying to build their confidence and capability by letting them solve their own problems. You may be trying to develop their independence to the point where they can take the next career step.
Whatever the case, it can be helpful to have an open discussion about the situation and how you’re trying to help. You can also get their side of the story, and understand more about what might be holding them back from being more independent.
Learn More: Setting Boundaries at Work: Why It’s Crucial.
Strategy 4: Build the Confidence of a Needy Employee
Sometimes a needy employee isn’t lazy or relying on you for an easy way out. Instead, it could be that they feel incapable of succeeding without your input.
In this case, it’s usually not a great idea to leave them alone to suffer in silence. They need your support. Without it, they may flounder and damage their confidence even further.
How Can You Help Your Needy Employee Build Confidence?
If your needy employee is low in confidence, you can try:
- Finding a mentor: An experienced mentor can provide guidance to help your people feel more self-assured. They can also act as a sounding board and share their previous experience so your people can avoid some of the struggles they had earlier in their careers.
- Buddying them up with a confident colleague: Sometimes it helps to have your own team members provide dedicated support to one of their colleagues. This might include letting them “shadow” their work and learn from the way somebody else does things.
- Having a coaching conversation: Coaching is an often underused method of building confidence. It involves reflective questioning and encouraging introspection. It also means working together to help your people generate solutions to their problems. You can try some questions like:
“How have you seen this problem approached before?”
“What is holding you back from doing <X>?”
“If there were no consequences, what would you do?”
“What is the first step you could take to make progress on <X>?”
“What does success look / sound / feel like for this problem?”
Obviously, coaching is not appropriate for all situations. If someone doesn’t know where the bathroom is, it’s not useful to ask “Where do you think the bathroom might be?”.
However, coaching is effective in building confidence, because team members learn that the answers to many of their problems lie within their control.
- Offering training: Sometimes confidence suffers because people don’t feel like they have the skills to succeed. In this case, mentoring and coaching may be less effective. Sometimes what people really need is to learn the concrete skills to get the job done. When people know how to do the work properly, you’ll hopefully see a change in behaviour.
Building confidence can take some time, but it can be a great way to have your needy employee turning into a top performer.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #47: Why Building Your Team’s Confidence Should Be a Priority.
A Needy Employee Doesn’t Need to Be This Way
Obviously there will be some people who are more needy than others. They’ll take up more of your time and require a little more handholding.
But as you can see from the strategies above, it’s the way that a leader behaves that can really set the tone for their people.
A leader who fails to set boundaries, is too helpful and fails to build confidence will be at a higher risk of suffering at the hands of a needy employee.
Perhaps the neediness is a product of the work environment. As a leader, the work environment is largely up to you. Try out some of the strategies above and see whether you can turn your needy employees into your biggest assets.
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