5 Tips for Managing Needy Employees (Because You're Not Their Parent)

If a new friend asked you for guidance every time he made a move—from picking out his outfit, to deciding where to eat lunch, to choosing what TV show to watch—you’d stop answering his texts. That kind of neediness is incredibly hard to deal with and no one would blame you for walking away from the relationship.

But in the workplace, it’s a bit more difficult to dodge these needy individuals—managing people who require more hand-holding than the rest is pretty much inevitable.

Every manager has, or will at some point, oversee an employee who needs constant attending to. Whether it’s making unrealistic salary requests or asking questions before seeking out answers on their own, managers can easily pinpoint needy employees. The tricky part, however, is figuring out how to appropriately manage these people without getting in the way of their career development.

In hopes that high-maintenance employees will become more independent over time, you might be tempted to keep your distance. While this tactic might free up schedules in the short term, putting these employees’ needs on the backburner will only hurt in the long run. Failing to cater to that person can damage morale among your entire team—who are often left to deal with their colleague’s unsolved problems or requests.

So rather than ignoring the issue and just hoping it improves, try these five strategies:

1. Hold Regular Meetings to Help Them Set Goals

Similar to how successful coaches don’t wait until the fourth quarter to address their players’ poor performance, managers should capture issues in real time. Delivering frequent feedback allows you to recognize problems (and achievements!) sooner, which can motivate employees to adjust their approach and change their habits.

This is also an opportunity to discuss how you want direct reports to communicate with you. If you’d prefer they email you questions in one daily round-up, rather than rapid-fire throughout the day, say that!

2. Focus on the Why Not the What of the Request

Needy employees will often make off-the-cuff, unreasonable requests.

For instance, I once had a 23-year-old (rather new) employee request to head up a 10-person sales account management team at my company. While this was a bold demand, I knew I had to take a step back and consider what made him make such a grandiose ask.

Turns out, this employee felt underutilized and uninvolved in decision making. Knowing that, it was easy to help him set a more practical objective. To accommodate his concerns, I created a special project for him to work on and helped him obtain the transferrable skills he’d need to become a manager in the future. Ultimately, this employee ended up being a great executer and added value to the team.

When approached with similar requests, you should stop yourself from rolling your eyes and sighing loudly and instead try to understand where they’re coming from. The key to doing this is to ask the right questions:

  • “Are you looking for more responsibility?”
  • “Can we set up a meeting to discuss a realistic timeline for achieving your goal?”
  • “What do you need from me to reach your goals?”

Once you have the answer, it’ll feel much easier to solve the problem or help them achieve what they want.

3. Coach Them to Become More Independent

One reason why an employee might be so dependent on your guidance is because it’s always been available to them. That means the ball’s 100% in your court here.

To encourage autonomy, consider delegating tasks you’ve traditionally done yourself. Be sure to provide training if needed and assign tasks with clear boundaries, but give the employee freedom to be creative in how they complete the assignment.

At the same time, try to be tolerant of mistakes. Employees aren’t going to want to take on new responsibilities if they fear their jobs are on the line, so be clear that the new tasks are learning experiences—and that mistakes are a normal part of the process.

Continue giving advice and feedback on assignments, but don’t serve as a crutch. Allowing employees to make their own choices—and learn from mistakes—can help build the confidence and experience they need to ditch their high-maintenance ways.

4. Be a More Active Listener

People who require additional support from their managers don’t always ask for it. To better understand your employees’ needs, stop and focus on what they’re really telling you rather than dismissing their requests.

After all, an employee’s consistently confused or demanding behavior could stem from the lack of direction they receive—making it a management issue, not a performance issue.

With this in mind, take some time digging into what your direct report is asking instead of making a quick judgment call. Doing so can help you evaluate your own performance in the process. For example, if you discover that there are a lot of miscommunications, you can work at improving them. A great place to start is this article.

5. Exercise Patience

Once you’ve spotted a needy employee and have begun taking steps to adjust your management style, it’s important to remember that behavior doesn’t change overnight. These people likely require a little bit of hand-holding in their personal lives as well, and adjusting habits takes time and effort from both you and your direct reports.

Any company you work at is full of different personalities, and the best managers are able to tailor their approach for each person. Overseeing needy employees calls for a customized, proactive management style—one that provides more frequent feedback, listens to employee concerns before jumping to conclusions, and cultivates independence.

It takes a little work, but in the end, it almost always pays off when you see this once dependent person take on more and more on their own.

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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