360 Answers: How Can I Coach an Annoying Employee?

May 28, 2013
11 Min Read

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view.  For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

How can I talk to my employee about her tendency to annoy people? She likes to work collaboratively to develop ideas, but it has begun to be burdensome for her colleagues. She seems to be high maintenance, mulling over minor little details and dragging things out unnecessarily. Is there a tactful way to tell her she needs to build a better rapport with her colleagues? They'll all need to continue to work together.

Alison Green says:

The need here seems less about building rapport with her coworkers and more about eliminating annoying habits. (Of course, ending the annoying habits is likely to help build rapport, but it’s modifying the habits that should be the goal.)

I’d have a straightforward conversation with her: “Jane, I’d like to give you feedback on some things I’ve noticed when you’re talking over ideas with people. I love that you are so collaborative, but I’ve noticed that you often have a higher tolerance for mulling over the details. Details are important, but when you’re using your colleagues’ time, these meetings will go better – and people will be more willing to join them – when you keep them focused on higher-level decisions. I’d like you to try tightening them up, so that people feel like their time is being respected. For instance, your planning meeting last week took more than an hour. I’d like to see you get meetings like that down to 30 minutes, tops. How about before the next one, we review your agenda together and I can help you find places to tighten it up?”

From there, monitor this like you would any other performance issue – checking in on how she’s doing with it, praising any improvement, and addressing it if the problem continues.

It might also be worth coaching her colleagues – if you manage them as well – about how they can respond to this situation too. For instance, you might help them find language to use when they want to cut long winded brainstorming short and refocus her on action items.

Alexandra Levit says:

I would use this situation as an opportunity to have (or initiate if you don't have them already) a monthly sit-down with every member of your team. You can deliver constructive performance feedback and also broach interpersonal issues. If the employee in question understands that you are speaking to everyone as part of the team's professional development, she will feel less threatened at the get-go. Hopefully, this will make it easier to be honest with her.

The caveat, however, is that you will still need to be tactful.  Do not use the words "annoying" or "high-maintenance" - this will come across mean and accusatory and she'll be right to be turned off.  Focus less on her personality and more on things that can actually be improved, such as her communication techniques.  Suggest ways she might be more effective in gaining cooperation from and building rapport with her colleagues (understanding people style, proposing a win/win, etc.), and include some strategies that have worked for you in the past.

You might also wish to pre-empt future altercations by thinking through a process for completing projects that the entire team can adhere to, complete with milestones and deadlines. In explaining this process to her, emphasize the importance of sticking to the schedule and getting work product out the door. If she knows she will be evaluated on how efficiently a project is completed, perhaps she'll think twice about dragging it out.

Anita Bruzzese says:

Start by talking to the employee privately and telling her that you perceive there to be a problem that you want to discuss with her. While you don't want to hammer her by telling her, "You're bugging the crap out of people," you also want to be straightforward so that she clearly gets the message.

Try to cite specific instances of where her behavior has been a problem, such as her dillydallying to the point that a project was late or she put undue stress on her co-workers with her "dragging things out unnecessarily." Make sure she understands that her behavior is not only hurting her own career, but impacting the productivity and bottom line of the company.

Once you outline some specific areas, let her talk and explain her side of things. Reach an agreement on some specific steps she will take, such as responding in a more timely way to colleagues or customers. Encourage her to come to you later with more questions if she has them.

Then, try to tune into how she reacts in certain situations. If you find her being "high maintenance" in an interaction with a colleague, for example, pull her aside later and offer her specific and immediate feedback. Or, if you see her making strides and being more in step with her teammates, offer her positive feedback.

Also, be sure you continue coaching and meeting with her as time goes on. (You may be able to meet with her less often as she improves.) Your investment in improving her performance will not only help her, but lead to a better team performance - and that will pay off for you, as well.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

As you prepare for the coaching conversation with your employee, first take a minute to empathize. Put yourself in her position and consider how you would like someone else to offer you feedback in this situation. Then ask yourself how she differs from you and if she might prefer a similar or different approach.

Feedback works best when it is specific and it usually doesn't go well when you talk in abstract generalities (e.g., “you tend to…”). Prepare one example of a problematic situation that occurred recently. Also prepare one situation as backup in case you need to discuss two examples. Sometimes I like to wait for another occurrence before having the coaching conversation, so the conversation can be relevant and timely.

Additional tips for your conversation:

• Phrase your feedback in terms of behaviors, not personality characteristics. “This is what you did,” as opposed to, “this is how you are.”

• Praise the intention but give evidence of negative impact. “I know you strive to be thorough in your analysis and I appreciate your collaborative approach, but when you did X, it slowed down our productivity and caused me to have to work late to meet a deadline.”

• Make it a two-way conversation and focus on the future rather than the past. Ask her for ideas on what she can do differently next time. Usually people will come up with their own ideas but you can also offer to give your suggestions on what you would do in that situation.

• If this behavior is a routine occurrence, follow-up on progress made in a month. Schedule time to do so on your calendars in your initial meeting.

Since behavioral change takes time and effort, be realistic in your expectations for improvement. If complaints continue to come to you from her colleagues, let that person know (confidentially) that you have already had a good conversation about it and she is working on changing the behavior. Coach them on what they can do to help resolve the issue and how they can provide feedback in a way that will maintain and build the relationship.

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