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Needy Team Members Making You Crazy? Try Some Tough Love

Do you have one member of your project team or that one employee that seems to be crying out for attention? While everyone else seems to be working away you're constantly interrupted by one person's urgent demands for information or insistence that you drop everything and help them with their issue? Is it stopping you from getting your work done and making you crazy?

I got an email from a reader who painted this scenario--and we've all been there: I'm looking for a tactful way to tell a PM (who works from home) with a severe lack of understanding of the multitasking required in my environment. I can't deal with his communication needs constantly. What I mean is that he calls, emails and IMs in a period of one minute (he seems to have one task at a time to work on). I work in an environment where I cannot honor all of his interruptions yet, I don't want to set up regular meetings if we have nothing to talk about.
While it's hard to tell from just this example, it does raise a few questions leaders should be asking themselves:

  • Is it just this one person, or is this a problem for the whole project team? When a team member behaves this way, it might be a coaching issue for the individual. It might also be a symptom of a problem with the team and this person is just acting as the canary in your coal mine. Make sure your team discusses (as a team) the communication norms and expectations. Sometimes people are so caught up in their own work they forget there is a whole group out there and they might temper their demands if they stop and think about their place in the big picture.
  • Has this person worked remotely before? Many people who are working from home for the first time struggle with boundaries. They're used to poking their head over a cubicle and getting input from coworkers and suddenly feel isolated. They might just be looking for human contact. Or they might just be narcissistic and insensitive. Either way, the reality of working remotely is that people have to learn the difference between important and urgent.It seems like they're phoning, emailing and IMing all at the same time. Coach them on which tool to use for which questions and what are reasonable response times.
  • What am I doing as the manager that might contribute to the problem? There are several behaviors managers engage in that can make an annoying problem worse. 1) Have you been non-responsive int he past and does this person lack faith that you'll get back to them without nagging? 2) Have you responded to every request like Pavlov's dog and they're used to having you respond automatically? 3) Has being needy worked for them up until now? If so, why wouldn't they keep it up?
  • Do I kind of like being indispensable? As managers, we like being seen as founts of wisdom and a resource for our team, but it can also become a trap. If we refuse to delegate answers, people won't go to their teammates or find answers on their own. If we don't tell people to cool their jets and you'll get to them by the end of the day with an answer, they'll continue to expect instant results. Often we don't set (or at least maintain) reasonable boundaries and expectations.
  • What's wrong with regularly scheduled meetings and connection time? In the interest of saving time, many managers forgo regularly scheduled communication time. This can cause bigger problems in the long run. People don't think they'll get your attention unless they demand it. Since there isn't regular communication they might worry that small things will pile up unless they're handled immediately. Maybe they're just lonely and struggling with working alone. Regularly scheduled communication allows people to feel they're on your radar screen and not completely ignored. They'll often create lists of items to be handled all at once rather than bug you for each thing individually.
As a leader, you have to ask yourself these questions and then respond with tough love. Make sure your remote team members have reasonable expectations, can find the resources they need elsewhere and then realize the universe doesn't revolve around them. The hardest part might be for yourself as the leader: stop enabling their needy behavior by responding to every request and interrupting your own work.

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photo by flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography CC 2.0
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