Most leaders love their team members to feel confident and capable. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, we’ll need to lead a nervous employee who may withdraw from the team, lack confidence and remain quiet much of the time.
This can be daunting for leaders, as they may feel that they are contributing to this behaviour.
A nervous employee can actually be an excellent opportunity for you to build trust and to show that not all leaders are created equal!
You can help them realise their potential and be a more confident version of themselves, developing a high-performing team member in the process.
Why Do You Have a Nervous Employee?
There are lots of potential reasons for nervous employees in the workplace. Some leaders may feel unsettled, wondering if they are contributing to their nervous behaviour.
It *could* be your leadership that makes them nervous, but there are other factors potentially at play too.
Here are some potential reasons why your team member might be feeling a little unsettled:
- Previous bad bosses. Unfortunately, there are managers out there who treat their people badly. This can have team members come into every role with the perception that “bosses are bad”.
- New to the role. If your nervous employee has never worked in a similar role before, they may feel anxious about how they’ll perform.
- Respect for authority. Some team members have the utmost respect for leadership and authority (even if it isn’t deserved!). This can have them holding back their opinions and feeling nervous when dealing with people in senior positions.
- Personality. It may simply be that your team member is risk averse, introverted, or prone to anxiety and uncomfortable with new situations.
- Team dynamics. Overbearing, direct, outspoken team members can have the quiet achievers running for cover and feeling unsettled.
Whatever the reason for your nervous employee, it’s not the end of the world. You are well placed to take action to help your team member come out of their shell.
Learn More: 5 Questions to Ask An Unmotivated Team Member.
Potential Problems of the Nervous Employee
It’s not pleasant leading somebody who is nervous around you. But if you feel uncomfortable, imagine what it must feel like for them!
While it may simply seem like a nervous employee is an inconvenience or a bother, there can be real problems if we don’t take steps to improve the situation.
Firstly, nervous employees are likely to be tentative when taking action or making decisions. This can put other people at risk, especially if you’re dealing with tasks that may endanger others.
As an example, if your team member needs to warn others about a potential problem, it’s better if they can do so in a strong, confident manner that others are likely to hear.
A nervous employee may show poor performance. Not because they aren’t capable, but because they are worried they will make a mistake. This second-guessing can mean they hesitate and fail to deliver.
A nervous employee may fail to build constructive relationships. Relationships make the working world go around, and nervous, hesitant people may find it harder to engage with others. This can have them feeling isolated, which may contribute further to the problem.
You may have to spend more time with a nervous employee. If they aren’t confident that they’re doing the right thing, it could be that you’ll need to be on hand to help them more often.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #101: Is Your Team Feeling Safe or Scared?
How to Help a Nervous Employee
If you have someone like this in your team, don’t fret.
It can be a challenge leading a nervous employee, but you may have an excellent opportunity to build their confidence and help them see that leaders can help them, rather than just cause them stress.
1. Focus on Building Trust
Building trust is an important factor in leading a team, no matter the situation. Without trust, people may fail to commit to you and other team members, believing that they will be betrayed by those around them.
Even if you aren’t the direct source of your team member’s nervousness, trust is important because it demonstrates that you’re there to provide support to help them overcome their challenges.
You can build trust by taking small, positive actions over time. Many people believe that you need take huge steps, like saving someone from a burning building to foster trust.
In most situations, trust builds from demonstrating a consistent track record of being trustworthy, through small actions.
For me, being trustworthy is mostly about minimising self-interested behaviour. If you consistently take actions to further your own interests or achieve your own goals at the expense of others, you’ll look like you only care about yourself.
If you want people to relax around you and open up, they’ll need to trust you first. Showing interest and supporting your nervous employee consistently will help you to gain that trust.
Learn More: Why Building Trust Is Better Than Authority.
2. Spend Time
Where you spend your time as a leader sends an important message. You’re probably busy, so when you decide to spend time with your nervous employee, it tells them that they are a priority for you.
It’s easy to use busyness as an excuse for failing to spend time with team members. Many people will accept this as a natural part of leadership and let you get away with it.
But if you want to help your nervous employee build confidence, you need to invest the time.
Spend time listening, providing feedback, understanding their goals and issues, coaching them in their work and simply chatting about life outside of work.
Initial feelings of fear or skepticism can quickly turn into positive emotions when your team member feels like you’re actually interested in their development.
Learn More: Too Busy at Work? Try These 5 Things.
3. Be Persistent and Consistent
Team members become uneasy when their manager often changes their tune. For example, leaders who are moody and backtrack on decisions or commitments can have people feeling uncomfortable.
They might even be thinking “Which boss will show up today?”
This can have even the most self-assured team members feeling on edge and skittish.
Consistent behaviour, honesty, setting clear expectations and honouring commitments are your best tools to help nervous employees start to feel more comfortable.
When you have to change your mind or change your strategy, try to explain the reason behind it. People may not like it, but they’re more likely to accept a change when they understand your intentions.
Learn More: Are You a Consistent Leader, Or Keeping Your Team Guessing?
4. Listen and Ask for Input
Some nervous employees have never had any interest shown to them by a manager. They’ve never had somebody spend time to get to know them or hear what they have to say.
Taking time to listen can make a world of difference.
“What would you like to do in the future?”
“Which parts of your role do you like the most / least?”
“What do you think we could do better?”
“When do you feel the most / least confident in your role?”
All of these questions can be useful, and there are many more to try. The important part is to listen to the response you get back, and to take action to make change based on the responses you hear.
You might not be able to cater for everything your nervous employee needs, but starting a conversation is an important step.
5. Hold Your Nervous Employee Accountable
It might seem that we need to treat our nervous employee delicately, with “kid gloves”, but I’ve found that this might actually do more harm than good.
If we withhold feedback or discipline from a nervous team member, we may actually damage their confidence and ability to improve.
We need to hold our team members accountable, even the nervous ones! Here’s why:
- Nervous employees can feel isolated when they are treated differently from others.
- Performance still matters. Holding people accountable helps them to learn and grow. Without this, they can simply stop trying and they’ll also stop learning; and
- Helping your nervous employee hit their targets can be a great confidence booster for them.
Holding people accountable doesn’t mean you can’t provide support. But it’s important that you don’t take an overly cautious approach with your nervous employees.
People become good at what they practice. Help your people practice hitting their targets, and they’ll become better at it over time.
Learn More: 4 Ways Leaders Damage Accountability in the Workplace.
6. Provide the Right Resources
People tend to feel a lot more comfortable when they have the right skills, tools and resources to be able to accomplish their work.
I’d be nervous if someone told me to fly a plane, because I’ve never done it before.
Training, equipment, support and guidance from yourself or other team members are all important in ensuring they have what they need to succeed.
What we need is for our nervous employee to build self-efficacy. This means when they put their mind to completing a task, they believe they will be successful.
Nervous Employees Are Valuable for Our Leadership
At first, a nervous employee may feel like a burden. Somebody we need to “hand hold” along the way.
However, a nervous employee can be a fantastic gauge of our leadership, to see whether we’re engaging in behaviour that may unsettle them.
If you’ve ever led a team of confident go-getters, you might not have needed to think too hard about how to lead them, because they’re self-sufficient.
Nervous employees can provide us with a great opportunity to help them become more comfortable in their own skin, and gain back the trust that may have been lost from working for a bad boss in the past.
They might also help us to become better leaders as we learn to cater for all types of team members.
Have you ever had to lead a nervous employee? What were the challenges, and what did you do to help them feel more comfortable? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!
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