Entrepreneurs

My Employee Barely Speaks To Me

Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

I manage two wonderful employees who share an office next to mine. One of my employees (we’ll call him Neal) is very outgoing and friendly. We have some similar views on life (politics, child-rearing, etc) and talk easily and often.

My other employee (we’ll call her Beth) is wonderful at her job but rarely says a complete sentence to me. She’s introverted and quiet, doesn’t participate in company events, and eats lunch an hour later than the rest of the office to be alone. I try not to take her introversion personally, but can’t help but be aware that she is on friendly terms with Neal and other people in the office. She doesn’t talk often, but she does talk – and even laugh – with them. I’ve been her manager now for almost two years, and I think I could fit everything she’s said to me on one typed sheet.

She actively seems uncomfortable if I walk into the office to talk to her if it’s anything more than “hey, did you get that invoice?” She emails me even though we work next door to each other. I’m not confident I’d know if she were encountering a problem in her work.

I’m not aware that we’ve had any encounters that might have led to her not wishing to talk to me. I’ve wracked my brain trying to find a reason. When she and I went over her last employee evaluation, I suggested that we add a goal of her updating me once a month on her work so that I’d be in the loop, but  that has not happened and I haven’t pushed the issue. I had no concerns with the quality of her work then nor now, and I made sure she knew that. It might simply be the boss-employee relationship itself that’s putting up a barrier between us.

Technically we can continue like this indefinitely, but when I have one employee poking his head in to say good night and chat for a second at the end of the day and one rushing out before I can say so much as good night, it’s hard not to be a little hurt and concerned by the contrast. We are about to go through some big changes this summer as we are replacing the software we use with a new product. We are going to have to communicate about this as both Neal and Beth will need extensive training.

Do you have any advice? I want to be a good manager to her, but I feel like I can’t connect with this employee on any level and I’m stumped. I’ve been in many management positions and never run into a problem like this.

There’s a good chance that it’s just because you’re her boss, and so she puts you in a different category than Neal and others. The stakes are higher with you, and she may just not be comfortable talking to you in a more social way.

And that part of it is okay. It’s not a big deal if Beth doesn’t chat with you or say good night before she leaves, and as a manager you can’t take those things personally. As her boss you want to keep your focus on her work and her effectiveness.

But while she doesn’t need to connect with you personally, she does need to connect with you about the work, and right now it sounds like the level of work-related contact is way off where it should be. If you’re going a month without hearing anything about how her work is going, in most jobs that’s a problem — and it’s a problem that you’ve asked her to update you periodically and it’s not happening. It’s also a problem that you don’t think you’d know if she were running into problems in her work.

Right now, you’re letting Beth set the terms of the relationship; you’re deferring to her entirely on what her preferences are. As a manager, you can’t do that (or at least you can’t if it results in a situation like this). You need to decide what kind of communication you want with her and how often, and then make that happen.

For example, you might tell her you’re going to start having regular check-in meetings (weekly, every two weeks, or whatever makes sense for your work). Let her know ahead of time what to expect at these meetings — that you’ll go over current projects, debrief recent work, give input, talk through challenges, etc.

For at least the first few of these meetings, I suspect you’ll need to come prepared to draw information out of her. Do some thinking ahead of time about what you want to know, and how you might be able to be helpful to her. If you don’t take control of the agenda, it sounds like it’ll just be the two of you staring at each other, which will reinforce for her the idea that conversations with you aren’t necessary. But you also don’t want to just go through the motions because it feels like you should — so really think through what kinds of things you want to discuss.

Questions to get you started: What kind of feedback do you have about her recent work, and about how things are going overall? What feels like the biggest challenge in her realm right now, and can you both talk through how to approach it? How are things going with tricky project X? Are there lessons to be captured from project Y last month, where she didn’t get the results you were hoping for? Are there things you feel out of the loop on and want to know more about? What’s coming down the pike? Are there things on the back burner that at some point should move off of it?

Also, make sure that you explain why you’re making this change. You don’t want Beth to think  it’s a punishment or a response to problems in her work. Explain that you’ve realized that you’re out of the loop on her work and you’re not able to be a resource to her in the way you want to be. Say  that’s been a failing on your side, not hers, and you’ve realized  you need to correct it.

It might also be worth addressing the stark difference in your relationship with her versus Neal … because there’s a chance that she feels slighted by the closer relationship you have with him and doesn’t realize that it’s because she’s thwarted your attempts to create that with her. You could say something like, “I want to make sure you know that I’d welcome talking with you more often on an informal basis too, similar to what I do with Neal. My sense is that that you prefer to focus on work when you’re at work and not chit-chat, but do I have that right? If I’ve misread it, I want you to know how welcome you are to join in those conversations or have separate ones with me.”

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to [email protected].

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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