how should I deal with an anxious and needy coworker? — Ask a Manager Jobearn

A reader writes:

I have a coworker in her late 20’s, Patricia, who has been a part of my team for about five months now. I have been employed at this company for two years, but have been called back into the office after work from home was revoked. Patricia is supposed to be a social media manager, while I work in a different function of marketing.

Since my time back in the office, I have become more aware of how Patricia’s extreme anxiety is starting to impact our team. Patricia often asks to sit in on meetings she was not invited to, for no other reason than that she likes to work in a room with other people. The one time I let her, she interrupted the meeting with questions completely unrelated to the meeting I was trying to conduct.

Patricia also seems to constantly hit issues that require a group effort to solve. At a recent marketing off-site, she showed up with nothing packed and no plan for how to get any clothes for the excursion. Patricia has complained about missing Zoom messages and asks people to send messages for her. When I pointed out that she should probably put Zoom on her phone, she just didn’t install it.

Most recently, she has taken to showing up at the office at 2 p.m. I wouldn’t care since I’m not her manager, but she has started to message me after working hours expecting me to put together a social media plan for her. Which is not my job in the slightest.

I would be more understanding if Patricia were a new coworker adjusting to an office environment. But she doesn’t show any signs of improving or trying to improve. She still asks to sit in on random meetings, still expects other people to attend to her Zoom messages for her, and doesn’t seem to listen to any gentle suggestions to improve. What should I do?

Since you’re not Patricia’s manager, you can’t control her behavior but you can control how you let it impact you — and it sounds like simply maintaining firm boundaries on your own side might eliminate most of the impact on you.

For example:

  When Patricia asks to sit in on a random meeting you’re holding, you can say no: “No, it wouldn’t make sense for you to join us. It’s just for folks working on the new oatmeal launch.” If she says she wants to work around other people, say, “Sorry, no — it would be a distraction to have more people there.”

  If Patricia ends up sitting in on a random meeting that someone else is running (so you weren’t the one she asked about joining it), if she chimes in with unrelated questions, are you in a position to say, “We’ve got to focus on the barley data, so can you save that for later?” Whether or not you’ll have standing to do this will depend on the seniority of your role and who else is in the meeting. But if you can, you should. It’s very likely that other meeting attendees will be grateful, and seeing you assert that boundary might give some of them the push to speak up themselves in the future too.

  If Patricia tries to pull other people into solving an issue of her own making (like when she showed up without supplies for that off-site meeting), decline to get involved. If other people want to rush in to help, that’s up to them but you don’t need to. Of course, it might end up affecting you anyway if it delays everyone’s ability to move forward with other things — but I’ll get to that in a minute.

  If Patricia complains about missing Zoom messages, ignore her complaints. Stop suggesting that she should install Zoom on her phone; she already knows, and trying to help is just making it your problem to solve.

  In fact, stop making suggestions for improvement to her in general. It’s not your job, she’s not going to take those suggestions, and trying to help is just keeping you enmeshed and aggravated.

  If she asks you to send messages on her behalf, decline. “Sorry, no, I’m busy — you should send that yourself.” (Some people will say that should drop the “sorry” since you have nothing to be sorry for. You certainly can drop it if you want! But using softening language like that can make interactions sound more collegial — including to third parties who might overhear them — and, importantly, it can be the difference between something you’re comfortable saying and something you aren’t. More on that here.)

  If Patricia messages you after-hours to ask you to do her work for you, say no. In fact, don’t respond to the message at all until you’re back at work and then tell her no. For example: “I don’t normally put together social media plans — that’s always been done by the person in your position — and I wouldn’t have room on my plate to take it on.”

All of that is just you declining to participate in whatever weirdness is going on with her. She can be as incompetent and needy as she’s going to be, but you don’t need to step in and solve that.

That still leaves the annoyance factor, of course! It’s annoying to see someone behaving the way Patricia is. And it sounds like sometimes her behavior does affect you, like if her lack of preparedness at the off-site delayed everyone else. But this approach will cut down on a significant amount of it.

However, you also have the option of flagging this stuff for Patricia’s manager. Probably not all of it — asking to sit in on meetings doesn’t rise to that level, for example — but you definitely have standing to mention to her boss that she’s asking you to do core parts of her job, and probably also that she’s missing Zoom messages and asking others to handle them for her. You could frame it as “I didn’t know if you were aware of this and figured I should let you know it’s happening. Here’s how I’ve been handling it.”

But mostly, your strategy should be to just decline to play along.

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