My Employee Wants Constant Praise and Support

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’m struggling with how much of a cheerleader I need to be for my team. I am not a person who needs a lot of cheerleading myself. Give me my tasks, the tools I need to accomplish those tasks, and a “good job” when warranted – that’s all I need. However, one of my part-time assistants, “Margaret,” is quite a bit older than me and seems to require much more.

For the first year we worked together, she would let me know each month that it was her one-month, two-month, three-month, etc. anniversary. My response was always a sincere smile and compliment: “Yes, and look how much you’ve already picked up in such a short time!” or “Already? My goodness, time is flying by. It seems like you’ve always been part of the team.” At her one-year anniversary, she didn’t come right out and say it, but she hinted that she was disappointed that she hadn’t received flowers or that I hadn’t taken her to lunch.

When I review her proposals and give them back to her with my comments, she’s asked that I not use red pen, because it has such a negative connotation. Even though that was something that wouldn’t bother me, it was easy to switch to purple/blue. But each time she has a big project success, she wants to play music and have me join her in a “happy dance.” This is not my style; my style is to thank her warmly for her work and publicly acknowledge her success at our next staff meeting. Additionally, she’s given me several gifts out of the blue (small things), as a “thank you” for help I’ve given her. (After thanking her for the gifts, I’ve emphasized that gifts are really not necessary – it’s part of my job to help her grow into her position, and it’s something I enjoy doing.) It seems clear that she wishes that I’d do these things for her, too.

How much should a manager change their personal style to suit the emotional needs of the people they manage? Should I be making more an effort to respond to Margaret in kind, and if so, do I continue treating my other assistant as I normally would (she seems content)? Or do I continue as I have been, knowing that Margaret’s probably unhappy or dissatisfied with the environment here? I feel like part of this may be due to our age differences and the fact that I’m the only female director at our organization; I would be surprised if Margaret would have these expectations of our male managers, though I could be mistaken.

Margaret sounds a little exhausting.

In general, it’s smart for managers to pay attention to what keeps any individual good employee happy and engaged. Some people like public praise; some people hate it. Some people want good work recognized with increased autonomy or flexibility, or to feel a sense of progress in their work, or to be rewarded with professional development opportunities. Some people don’t care about any of that as long as they’re paid well and allowed to leave work at the office when they go home. People are all different, and good managers will pay attention to what keeps individual people happy.

If Margaret wants to announce her anniversary every single month, it’s a little weird but whatever. It’s no hardship for you to just smile and say something nice. The red pen thing is eye-rolly, but switching to a different color ink isn’t a big deal … although it would me worry about whether she has an issue with corrective feedback in general. If it were something like “I need a week after finishing a project before I can handle getting feedback on it,” that wouldn’t be something you should accommodate; in that case, it would be reasonable to say, “Unfortunately, we need to keep this stuff moving and I need to give you edits sooner than that.”

But you definitely don’t need to join her in a “happy dance” if that’s not your style. (It’s certainly not everyone’s. I physically cringed reading that.) It’s fine to say, “Congratulations — that’s great work. I’m not a dancer, so I’ll leave you to it. Enjoy!”

Nor do you need to become a big gift person even though she seems to be. It’s true that you should recognize people in the ways that are meaningful to them, but gifts aren’t a typical enough currency in the workplace that you need to start showering her with flowers and trinkets. And indeed, doing it for her and not for your other assistant would be weird and potentially problematic.

Instead, I’d interpret all of this as “Margaret really likes visible appreciation,” and make a point of giving her (sincere) positive feedback about her work verbally, in person or in occasional notes — especially since that’s something you can do for both of your assistants. Be careful not to go overboard to the point that it becomes meaningless, of course — but if you’re like a lot of managers, there’s probably room for talking more often to both your assistants about what they’re doing well. You could also probably take them each out to lunch on their anniversaries; that’s a thing that some managers do, so it’s not crazy to do it when you can tell someone would really like it.

You can also ask Margaret directly what she’d like from you. You could ask how she feels things are going generally, and if there’s anything you could be doing differently to make her job easier. You’re not obligated to agree to whatever she suggests, but it could be an interesting conversation to have, and it could create a natural opening for you to say, “You know, I’m a little more reserved than some of what you’re describing, but I’m thrilled to have you on my team and I’ll continue to try to make sure you know that. Those ways probably won’t be dancing or flowers, but it’s important to me that you feel valued here.”

Overall, though, you don’t need to bend yourself into unnatural shapes in order to meet Margaret’s specific emotional needs, as long as you’re doing the core stuff well (like sincere praise and recognition for work well done). At some point, as long as you’re being a decent person and a thoughtful manager, it’s up to her to decide if she can work happily with you or not. Not everyone will fit perfectly with every manager, even the good ones, and that’s okay.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

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

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