#1391: “Anxious Coworker Is Triggering My Mothering Instinct”

Ahoy, Captain; 

I (she/her) work happily in a customer-service type of position. The job is pretty chill, except on weekends when it can get hectic. Because I’m the most senior employee, I am often called upon to train the new recruits. I’ve been doing this for a long time and my reputation as a trainer is that my trainees usually end up successful in the role. I’ve received feedback that I’m a stern but fair coach, and that I’m a supportive teacher albeit with high standards. For some context, I’m typically more than a decade older than my trainees. 

One of these newbies (she/her) is a delightful and funny person with a good head on her shoulders who I can see doing well here. It’s her very first job ever, so she’s learning a lot very fast and so far she’s grasping everything wonderfully. But I’m encountering a problem that I’ve never dealt with professionally before – she’s got a debilitating Case of the Sorries.She says “sorry” CONSTANTLY, and is visibly panicked much of the time, especially in front of guests. She trembles like a leaf when I give her even the most gentle and innocuous feedback, followed of course by “I’m SO sorry!” She hyperventilates while speaking to customers and says sorry when they ask if she’s alright. When I’m teaching her something, she’s apologizing for not knowing the task already, but why would she expect herself to know when I’m not done teaching it?

I wish it didn’t bother me as much as it does. I could be wrong but I’ve never gotten the sense that I’m a monstrous tyrant who eats newbies for breakfast, so I’m having trouble letting her behavior just roll off my back. Still, the truth is, I’M the problem. It’s not that her sorries annoy me – it just brings up a lot of Feelings when she’s cowering and whimpering at my feet for mercy.I grew up with a highly anxious and tightly-wound parent, who was prone to screaming and crying fits of confusion and anger when stressed or upset. Sometimes this would happen in the car when they were driving while inconsolably freaked out, putting mine and my siblings’ safety at risk. Sometimes this would happen in public, meaning that if I didn’t salvage the situation, we’d never make it out of the store or through the airport or whatever. When my parent would experience meltdowns, I felt forced over and over to step in and calm them down for the sake of stability. Despite being a minor, I was always the one keeping a level head. In an emergency, real or perceived, it became my job to parent my parent. 

When my easily-frazzled newbie starts exhibiting the symptoms of panic that I’m so painfully attuned to, it puts ME in fight-or-flight mode. My brain, having been mis-wired in my formative years, always thinks that if someone around me is in a panic, and I don’t fix them, I’m going to die. I care about my trainees and want their happiness and success. They’re all nice kids that I respect and like. But I become at war within myself when faced with this particular newb. The trainer part of me wants to bring the hammer down and correct this behavior, because the line of customers is still out the door and work still needs doing whether or not you’re upset. But I know that’s not fair and I’m not sure how I could say this to her in a way that would not devastate her. 

The parent-ified part of me wants to gather her up like an injured hatchling in my gently cupped hands and softly say, “Oh sweet little baby bird, please don’t be upset. It’s okay. I won’t let anything happen to you. You don’t have to be so scared. Everything’s alright.”My inner child is frustrated and upset with her for making me feel this way. Nobody asked me to expend all the emotional labor that I’m spending soothing her and being an emotional anchor, not to mention all the overthinking I’m doing about it, but I feel like I cannot help it. Why can’t I go to pieces and cry at the drop of a hat too? Because if I do, everything will fall apart. I’m not allowed to get emotional. I have to be the adult all the time, and I’m resentful that she is so needy of validation and reassurance. 

I welcome any advice or thoughts you may have. How can I make peace with her behavior when it makes me spiral? How do I manage my resentment when she’s done nothing wrong? Can I reframe this some way in my head that would make it easier to deal? And do you have any thoughts on providing professional feedback and criticism to someone who needs to be treated with kid gloves? I’m hesitant to armchair diagnose as we’re not friends and I don’t know her background, but it feels safe to say she seems emotionally fragile and I’m not sure I’m equipped to handle it.

–A Bird In The Hand Is Making Me Sad 

Dear Bird In The Hand,

I had a feeling that Alison over at Ask A Manager would know how to solve this exact scenario, and her approach is solid. Her script for someone in a similar situation is, “Please don’t worry about apologizing. I just want to make sure you understand the corrections I’m giving you and that you know what to do differently next time. Do you feel like you have the information that you need now?”

Because you’re in a busy customer service setting, and the apology spiral is hindering the work in real time, I’m going to adapt this for you slightly. As soon as the apologorrhea starts, hold up your hand in front of your chest in a “stop” gesture, and say “Apologize later. Right now, we need to get Mrs. Brackenlicker the gooseberry fool* she ordered. Can you ring her up, or do you want me to take over the register while you bag it up for her?”

*For example purposes, I’ve decided you work in a fancy dessert shop from a forgotten Preston Sturges movie, thanks for just going with it.

As you adapt this ritual to your actual workplace, the key beats are:

1. “Hold up.” I recommended a palm out “stop” motion, but holding up the index finger of “wait a second” would also get it done. Keep your hand close to your body and keep your tone and voice very calm, pleasant, and matter of fact, since you’re not telling her to “stop in the name of the law.” Why a physical gesture? Since your trainee’s reactions are also activating you, I want to give you a way to ground yourself before you speak. This is quick, it’s quiet, and it anchors the routine in your body, like, ah, yes, we’re doing the steps now, no surprises here.

You can say the words “Hold up” or “Let me interrupt you real quick” or “Whoa, TraineeName” along with the gesture, if that’s more your style. With repetition, the gesture itself might be enough for the trainee to catch herself and change course, but even if it doesn’t, it’s a reminder to you to take a breath and focus.

2. “Apologize later.” She doesn’t need to apologize, you’d prefer she not apologize, but if you tell her to stop apologizing, she’s going to apologize for apologizing, and you’re going to be like “But I told you not to apologize” and she’s going to apologize more, and then maybe she’s going to cry, and so you’ll start apologizing to her, and if that keeps up you’ll create a Ted Lasso-type “semantic satiation” situation where words lose all meaning when you say ’em too much.

To head off what Mr. Awkward calls “A Who’s On First Of Competitive Remorse,” don’t argue with the apology, postpone it so that you can move through it and do what needs doing.

3. “Right now, [customer] needs [business things].” Literally nobody showed up here today because they want to torture you and your trainee, that costs extra, so what is the actual work that needs to happen?

4. “Do you want [Option A, where you continue handling it] or [Option B, where I step in, you take a second to collect yourself, business event events unfold as they should, and nobody suffers]?” Grant agency by prompting her to choose what happens next, preserve momentum by making sure that her choices all contain action verbs.

If she freezes completely, it’s not the end of the world, you can choose for her. In that case, I suggest that you tell what you’re doing first, and tell her what you want her to do second. “I’m going to ring this order up, why don’t you watch while I do it, and then you can box it up while I wait on the next person.” That’s not a correction, it’s a division of labor.

5. Keep it moving! Interrupt her spiral and redirect her, then turn the bulk of your attention back to the customers. Greet the regulars, comment on the weather, compliment any fetching attire, and triage the line while your trainee catches up.

6. Keep it boring! Stay calm, matter-of-fact, and repeat this pattern as many times as you need to.  “Hold up (gesture), apologize later. Right now, Mr. Ditzywicket needs his poached pears in port. Oops, looks like we need to grab some more whipped cream from the back. Want to ring him up while I fetch that, or do you know where it is? Great, thank you.”

And, since training is your forté, here is a bonus recommendation straight out of film school that you might play around with next time you have a slow day:

7. Convert “correction” to “permission.”

This advice is right out of Judith Weston’s book Directing Actors,  written to help directors give useful and constructive feedback to people whose job it is to be vulnerable in front of lots of other people in time-sensitive and high-pressure situations. The feeling of being constantly monitored and publicly corrected frankly sucks, even for people who aren’t sensitive the way your trainee is sensitive, even when everyone agrees that ongoing adjustments are necessary to the work.

Weston suggests that people will feel less like they’re living in a Daft Punk song if you convert commands and corrections into giving permission. “You need to hit your mark sooner” becomes “You can get to your mark sooner.” “Take your sunglasses off first, then give the line.” vs. “You can say the line after you take your sunglasses off.” It’s a teensy distinction, and everybody knows that you’re really saying “Please do the thing now.” But the actor is the vulnerable one who has to actually execute the thing, and something about “Here is what I want, but you’re in charge of how you give it to me” can be liberating, for everyone.

Naturally, this doesn’t apply in matters of safety, sometimes yelling “HEY! STOP! Do NOT combine bleach and ammonia!” is the exact right call, “don’t accidentally invoke each other’s childhood trauma” comes after “don’t accidentally make mustard gas in the break room sink” on the list of priorities. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think permission language would fundamentally change how this specific trainee reacts to direction, but it might make you feel more confident in how *you* distinguish between evaluating what’s wrong and encouraging what’s right.

As for the rest of what you typed out about your family history, probably the less you define and react to what is happening at work now that you’re an adult in terms of what you endured in your family as a child, the better. I applaud you for recognizing the pattern and asking for help before you accidentally make it weirder, I hope it helped you to write it all out, I definitely see and sympathize with the awful burden your parent placed on you, but I’m mostly ignoring it for practical purposes because the advice about how to interrupt the issue and fix it is the same no matter where you’re coming from. If this is bringing up stuff for you that you need to take to your therapist and support system to help you get through your workdays, that’s a great idea. But assuming that you have special insight into your trainee’s vibe or special capability to fix things for her because of your background is going to help nobody. So let’s address where you said Still, the truth is, I’M the problem. It’s not that her sorries annoy me…”  because I’m not convinced about either of these statements.

Someone who “trembles like a leaf,” hyperventilates (!!!!), and compulsively apologizes to coworkers and customers in response to tiny hiccups and routine, normal, constructive feedback at a new job is bringing stuff to the table that has nothing to do with you. If something about her past or how her brain works is making things weird at work, hopefully she can look into stuff like therapy and medication so that she can deal with the feelings and function.Your childhood history may be making you feel extra weird about it,  but that doesn’t mean that that you are creating the problem, and it doesn’t mean bystanders without your same history wouldn’t also find her behavior troubling, odd, and yes, annoying. Annoying in a way that doesn’t just affect her, or you, but in a way that affects the business when customers start complaining or avoiding her register because they don’t want to deal with the floodgates.

If you were your trainee’s direct supervisor, it would be your job to address the behavior pretty directly. That could mean everything from discussing the problem and asking her what she thinks would help, directing her to the company Employee Assistance Program for a counseling referral, documenting the problem as a performance issue if nothing changes within a reasonable time.

That said, I don’t get the impression that you are her direct supervisor. You’re training her because you’re a more experienced peer, but once she’s fully trained you’re hanging out at roughly the same tier on the org chart. Since you’re not paid like a manager, and you’re not assigned to be her manager, my suggestion is that you use the scripts and strategies I suggested to de-escalate and keep things moving.

If you want to have one conversation about the overall dynamic, try pulling her aside for a private chat at the end of a shift or during a lull in the action:

“I’ve noticed you get flustered sometimes when you’re learning something new or when you run into a snare. No, no – :HAND UP IN ‘PLEASE STOP’ GESTURE: – no, apologize later, I need you to just listen now. Over the years I’ve learned that whenever I make a mistake and start feeling overwhelmed, most customers want me to say ‘sorry’ once, and then either fix the problem or find someone who can. From now on, if I notice you getting flustered, you get one “sorry.” Then I’m going to interrupt you so we can get on with solving the problem. If you ever feel yourself getting overwhelmed and need to step away for a minute, that’s totally fine, just tag me or another person on the team in so we can keep the line moving.”

She might get even more upset during or after this conversation, but I think that pretending that it’s not happening or that you don’t notice is going to be even worse. Think of it as replacing the anxiety of “Everyone hates me!” assumptions with clear “Nobody hates you, but yeah, you gotta knock this one thing off, here’s exactly how that’s going to work” feedback, which she will either take or she won’t.

Tell her what you’ve noticed and what you plan to do about it. If things don’t get better by the end of the training period, alert your manager who can take it up with her manager. “Trainee X is very bright and capable, but sometimes gets pretty flustered when she makes a mistake. I’ve spoken to her about it, but if it comes up in the future she and whoever her shift lead is might need a reminder that it’s okay to step away as long as she tags in somebody else to take care of the customer.” That’s not throwing her under the bus in any way, that’s setting her up to succeed within the limitations of a work setting.