Featured image for Community Q&A: Encouraging Others to Cut Back
Crucial Conversations QA

Community Q&A: Encouraging Others to Cut Back

Because we receive so many questions from our readers each week, we unfortunately cannot answer every question in the Crucial Skills Newsletter. To help more of our readers with their crucial conversations, confrontations, and behavior change challenges, we’d like to introduce our new Community Q&A column! Each month, we’ll select a reader’s question, post it here on the blog, and invite you to share your advice and ideas. Please share your answers to this reader’s question in the comments below.

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

One of my colleagues works ten- to thirteen-hour days, even though her job does not require her to put in that many hours. She is a single, middle-aged woman and also volunteers one evening a week at a food pantry. She complains about how long she stays at work, so I have carefully encouraged her to leave on time.

I kindly told her that there are others who can take care of things and that she owes it to herself to get out of work at a reasonable hour. This is always a lose-lose conversation. She says “I know,” but her behavior does not change and she continues to complain that she “stays so late,” she is “so tired,” and “no one ever thanks me for my help.” When other employees ask me why she stays so late, I tell them I don’t know and suggest they ask her.

How can I help my friend stop playing the victim and see that leaving work on time is actually healthy and reasonable?

Full-time Friend


Update: We have received many helpful responses to Full-time Friend’s question. Thank you to everyone who has responded! Here are a few comments that summarize our readers’ advice. If you would like to read or share more advice, please do so in the comments below:

  • “This is a difficult question to answer because we are missing an essential piece of information: What is her motivation for working so late? . . . Could it be that she is not a fast worker and is concerned about meeting a productivity standard? Could she be worried about her position and wants it known that she is going the extra mile? She has a need that must be identified and fulfilled in a healthier manner.” – Julian Fountain
  • “I see this where I work as well, and also find myself falling into the habit now and then of working extra hours. I am a ‘single middle-aged woman’ – my kids are adults and independent. If I don’t have something scheduled with friends or family it’s very easy to stay at work because there is no one waiting for me at home….a rare occurance because I keep myself pretty busy to avoid this situation, and it’s more likely others complain about my ‘being too busy’.

    Your ‘friend’ may need a regular afterwork get together or activity in addition to her volunteering. I’ve taken on the task of getting we ‘single middle-aged ladies’ together once a month or so after work to share conversation and the feeling of togetherness and ‘family’ that others get at home in the evening – others (married/male) are also included. Give it a try, my guess is she needs her ‘friends from work’ more than she needs to ‘be at work’ but doesn’t know how to ask.” – Linda

  • “What exactly is it that’s bothering you? Is it the fact that she complains about working late, or something else? Whatever it is, I think it’s essential at this point that you address what is bothering you, not her . . . Just remind her that this has been going on for a while with no change. Let her know how it makes you feel, and suggest a brainstorming session regarding how you can help change whatever you or she needs to change to improve the situation.” – Dave

22 thoughts on “Community Q&A: Encouraging Others to Cut Back”

  1. You are indeed a Full-time Friend.
    This is a difficult question to answer because we are missing an essential piece of information: What is her motivation for working so late? Judging by her frequent complaints, her efforts are not being praised to her satisfaction. If she is feeling the need to be appreciated, perhaps she could be encouraged to spend more time volunteering. Could it be that she is not a fast worker and is concerned about meeting a productivity standard? Could she be worried about her position and wants it known that she is going the extra mile? She has a need that must be identified and fulfilled in a healthier manner.

  2. It doesn’t appear that your associate has asked you to help her from having to work so much. Could it be that your associate has few friends and family members and that work and volunteering make up her life? If that is the case, she has her reward even though she is complaining. I would just say “Yes Gladys, no one appreciates all that you do” and stop worrying about it.

  3. Perhaps it is time for this Friend to stop “rescuing” another person. This is the strange phenomenon of one human feeling they have to either defend or save another person who is after all a grown adult who is quite capable of making decisions for themselves. She has decided she wants to work late so that is fine. She isn’t harming herself so I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s a non-problem. Just make her a nice strong cup of coffee to keep her awake – problem solved!

  4. My advise would be around gathering more information in a sense “master my stories”. Why is she doing this? Why does she continue to play the victim and stay late. You could come up with your own reasons, but I would go straight to her. Ask her why does she complain that she works late AND why doesn’t she give other people the chance to take on the work. There are a few ideas to why in my mind, but I won’t mention as I would want the actual answer and not an assumption.

    Also, what you want to get out of it, is she just a work friend or a person you wouldn’t mind going out for a drink afterwards? I would suggest stating your path before having any conversation. Is her health being impacted? These are the topics to start the conversations with her to explain why you are doing this. i would then see what she says, try and keep the conversation in the safety zone, and with the concerns may come reasons.

  5. I agree with Julian above. If you want to help you might want to encourage your colleague to look at the why behind her decision to stay so late consistently. From there you can probe to get her to see what she can do to fix it.
    I now have a rule that I apply in many instances of my life. I will listen to anyone on any issue and will even help problem solve the issue where I can. However, if the person with the problem does not take action to address the issue then in most cases I am not interested in hearing it again at a later date. I will often listen the second time and state “Wow, that sounds bad! We talked about that last week didn’t we? It sounds like the plans you made did not work out. What happened?” This is how I hold them accountable. If the person did not do anything, I kindly point out basis physics lessons like an ‘object in motion tends to stay in motion’ meaning change is not typical without an intervention. Clearly there are some instances where that does not hold true such as a friend or family member dealing with the loss of a loved one. But this standard works brilliantly in most work settings. It helps people move from a victim role to a role of power. Sometimes it is hard for people to see the power they have in a situation. This approach helps get them back into a logical space where they can effectively problem solve and regain their power.

  6. What exactly is it that’s bothering you? Is it the fact that she complains about working late, or something else? Whatever it is, I think it’s essential at this point that you address what is bothering you, not her. You crucial conversation techniques, of course. Just remind her that this has been going on for a while with no change. Let her know how it makes you feel, and suggest a brainstorming session regarding how you can help change whatever you or she needs to change to improve the situation.

  7. I see this where I work as well, and also find myself falling into the habit now and then of working extra hours. I am a ‘single middle-aged woman’ – my kids are adults and independent. If I don’t have something scheduled with friends or family it’s very easy to stay at work because there is no one waiting for me at home….a rare occurance because I keep myself pretty busy to avoid this situation, and it’s more likely others complain about my ‘being too busy’. Your ‘friend’ may need a regular afterwork get together or activity in addition to her volunteering. I’ve taken on the task of getting we ‘single middle-aged ladies’ together once a month or so after work to share conversation and the feeling of togetherness and ‘family’ that others get at home in the evening – others (married/male) are also included. Give it a try, my guess is she needs her ‘friends from work’ more than she needs to ‘be at work’ but doesn’t know how to ask.

  8. I’ve also encountered people like this, and generally speaking I feel the problem goes deeper. They may well have domestic issues which they want to avoid, and hence stay at work under the pretext that they’re very busy.

    Alternatively, there are those who identify themselves as their job. Thus to further validate their sense of self they unnecessarily work long hours because they are bored and lonely at home on their own.

    In either case, if you suspect these scenarios may apply to your friend, examine your own intentions first to decide whether you are truly troubled by the situation. If so, then try having a conversation with her by letting her know that the situation is troubling you, and openly ask her if there are underlying issues causing her to work late.

    However in the end, it will be a matter for your friend to want to help herself. As much as you would like to help, the response from Alison is right to an extent. You are not responsible for your friend’s life choices, so if your help is not wanted, leave the matter be but do continue to keep your offer of assistance open in a passive way.

  9. As others have pointed out, this is a tough one since you do not know exactly why she chooses to work such long hours. B

    One thing is certain: her comments indicate that she is not happy. Have you tried asking her “What do you do for fun?” or “How do you relax?” Her answers may give you more clues about the reason for her workaholism. If you are a friend, try to help her think of ways to have fun and relax. Make some suggestions, but don’t be pushy about it. The main thing you want to do is prompt her to think about what she is doing. The rest is up to her. As a friend, be there to listen, but don’t allow her to complain. Let her know that it is her choice to work long hours.

  10. If I cared about this friend and wanted to address why she felt she had to stay late, I would invite her to sit down for a coffee to chat and ask her if she wants to talk about it. If she agreed, then I would explain that I hear her complaining all the time about staying late, and tell her that I care about her and worry about her. I would then ask her why she stays so late at work. I would remind her that she is the only one in control of her decisions, that no one is twisting her arm to stay late, and ask her what is really behind the motivation to stay late. Hopefully she would feel safe and open up to me. But if doesn’t elaborate on why she is staying late, then I would just tell her that I cannot sympathize with her when she is the only one who can rectify her situation. If she chooses to stay late for no reason, then it is just that, her decision. I would remind her that I care about her and would love to help her manage her time better so she can be less tired and unhappy, but if she is willing to change her pattern, I can’t feel sorry for her.

  11. There is a need your coworker satisfies by staying late or helping others that is stronger than her dissatisfaction over the negatives. She needs to identify that motivator. If you can gently guide her to think about and identify what she “gets” from staying, she might be able to address the need in a healthier fashion.

  12. I think there have been a number of excellent points raised and agree that it is difficult to comment thoroughly with the limited information we have. I too would look at the issue from several different perspectives.
    First, what about her actions is concerning to me and why? What is the goal of my intervention and my motivation for taking that step? Do I need to take some action on my own role in the situation?
    Second, what is her motivation or reward for this behavior? What need is it filling in her life? Is it a work related issue or personal issue? How does she fit into the team dynamics – Is this her attempt to feel valued by others or feel value in herself?
    Third, how is this behavior affecting the team? Others may be working as hard but leaving on time and object to her attitude that she is working longer and later and harder than them? She may appear to be inefficient with time management to others? Does she detract and distract from the efforts that others are making?

    I would try to talk to her privately, perhaps staying at the end of the day on one of the evenings she stays late, to address some of these questions. The main focus would be to try to establish the background motivations for her behaviors and the healthy and unhealthy consequences. Then work on helping her to develop her own plan for changing what she can on the unhealthy list first. For example, one aim might be to try to develop a plan with her for her to interact more as a team, including leaving with the rest of the team at the end of the day. Perhaps my role to support that growth might be to organize a monthly team building lunch to encourage each member of the department to learn a little more about each other as people and what they like about their job and what their personal and professional aspirations are? How can they help and support each other with those goals? Just a few thoughts!

  13. Not to belabor the point but several of you have hit on what I believe are the key elements to this situation. Staying late satisfies a need for this person. One piece of information that is needed here is whether or not Full-time’s friend is complaining to others and creating discord with her other working relationships. If so, then a the conversation takes on a different focus. If this is an issue with just Full-time Friend, then there are other options like the ones mentioned previous.

    Depending on Friend’s own commitments after work, she should be careful about inserting her own companionship as this woman’s alternative to her current habit. The concern would be that this woman might latch on to the companionship as she would a flotation device in the ocean and potentially drag Friend down with her.

    So my suggestion would be to first discuss what this woman is getting by staying late despite the lack of positive feedback for her efforts. If it turns out she wants to be needed and appreciated, my suggestion would then be to adopt a pet. Knowing she has someone at home who is waiting and eager to see her might be just the thing to change her outlook on her current situation.

  14. I had this same problem with a colleague, only the problem was a little more involved. This person was an hourly employee and was working extra hours without recording them. This is literally against the law and all company policy and there have been several lawsuits over the issue. Her boss was turning a blind eye to the behavior because he wanted to have the work handled. It was sort of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation.

    I had a serious talk with her and told her my view of the problem. She was doing the extra work to make sure she didn’t get fired, but actually the undocumented hours could have led to both her and the boss being fired, and it could get me into trouble as well for not reporting it since I was a close friend and sat nearby as a witness to the problem behavior. That really opened her eyes and I coached her through a Cruicial Conversation with her boss about the issue and they both agreed to change the pattern. She still works a little extra here and there, but has improved a lot on her time management.

  15. Work efficiency comes to mind. She may be working long hours, but is she productive in all of those work hours, or in her home life for that matter. From the business perspective, having someone burn out over excessive hours isn’t in the organization’s best interest. I read in your comments a couple of scenarios, beyond those addressed so far. I’m left to wonder if she is either challenged by time management, or does not know how to delegate work tasks. It sounds to me like she could give some of her work to others, but chooses not to. Is that because she doesn’t value the quality of work of her co-workers, or doesn’t know how to ask for their support? Whose expectations is she trying to meet? The organization? Her boss? Or herself? As others have noted, coming to understand her motivation for working late would be a good next step.

  16. Dan states it well above. A middle aged single woman has no emotional support going home to a empty and lonely home. Most of her aquaintances have husbands, kids and a busy life so they aren’t available to do things with on the spur of the moment, it takes a lot of planning and it’s easy to let those friends fall by the way side. It’s very easy to allow work to fill or become the emotional center versus getting out and creating a fully rounded life and letting work stay in a professional perspective.

    Once you understand her story, you can suggest alternatives outside of work.

  17. All excellent points. I would attempt to have a heart to heart conversation with her, sharing how others are perceiving her constant late nights at work, and complaining about it. I would hope that it would open her up to an honest conversation about changing. I have in similar situations, and would do so in this instance, advise as stated previously that I am unwilling to listen to complaining if she isn’t willing to do something about the situation.

  18. Dan is right on the money. Complainer has given Friend a clue to her motivation — attention and appreciation for the extra work and, barring that, attention and appreciation for being a hardworking and underappreciated victim. There could be a black hole of need here, possibly explaining why Complainer doesn’t have a more fulfilling life in the first place, if her focus is on her own unmet needs instead of on well-rounded adult engagement in the world around her. We all need appreciation but we don’t all know healthy ways of getting it, and that is not Friend’s problem to solve. Your role is co-worker, plain and simple.

    I’m not hearing that Complainer is actually interested in changing, or suggestions. It sounds like she wants other people to change and start appreciating her. Friend, you should decide what you want from the situation and have a simple, short conversation based on your own clear purpose, for instance, respectfully setting limits and ending the dynamic so you can get some work done. If you want to help Complainer solve the problem, then find out first whether she is interested in making change herself, and if yes, offer to help her figure out her own solutions.

    I like simple observation as a useful tool in this kind of conversation. I’d suggest taking a moment next time she complains, for a focused, eye to eye conversation, being brave, kind and straightforward. “It sounds like you’d like some appreciation for all your hard work, yet you never get any thanks. I completely understand your frustration, and at the same time it’s puzzling that you choose to go on working late and being unhappy that no one recognizes it. It’s wearing me down a bit to have the same conversation again and again. Do you want to take some time at break today to brainstorm ways you can solve the problem?” if yes, at break, have a conversation ID’ing the need, keeping it focused on the narrow issue — you need some recognition for your hard work — how do you think you can get it? Be careful not to be the person doing the recognizing, just the person asking questions to help her solve her own problem. If she can’t come up with ideas, or doesn’t feel hopeful that anything will change, then what else can she do to end her frustration? (Let her name the obvious: stop working late!!) State plainly and kindly that you can’t listen to her complain any more. You can be respectful and genuinely compassionate AND set limits to take care of yourself. You are important too, and if not everyone likes you, you can live with that.

  19. I can understand what you are talking about some what. I work these type of hours also. She may fell like she has to put in those type of hour’s for some reason. If you really listen to her you will find out that she may feel that her boss makes her feel threatened or that what ever she does isn’t good enough for the boss. One of the other reasons that she may be work lated is she does not have anything else to do but sit at home alone. She may do some volunteer work some time but that still leaves a lot of time by her self. One thing you could do is see if she has a pet that will need to depend on her that way she want to and have some one to spend time with.

  20. It sounds like the Full Time Friend is working on the wrong problem. If the coworker is not violating any laws or company policies, why does she need another adult to “fix” that problem?

    It appears to me that the real problem is that the coworker is complaining about her situation that she created. If the coworker was telling a different story like “I get so much done after everyone leaves for the evening and it makes me feel so fulfilled,” there wouldn’t be a problem.

    This is very likely a long term pattern. The Full Time Friend is supplying the validation/appreciation that the coworker needs. As long as that need is met in this manner, it is a stable environment. The Full Time Friend should be asking themselves why do they feel they need to take responsibility for this.

  21. Need achievers get a sense of achievement from working hard and getting things done. They like money rewards but they prefer being recognized.

    Give her recognition publicly. She might be doing more work so people know that she is a good worker, and people probably notice it and don’t say anything, so she feels she must do more.

    Recognize her hard work, put her name in a service excellence nomination, publication or something along those lines. Then she will know that it her work has been appreciated.

    Do that a few times and she may hit the brakes for a little while after that, till she needs more.

    Of course, this is just one theory. Trial and error (not the best) will find your solution.

Leave a Reply