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A quick primer on managing the office pest

You feign yellow fever when he sidles up to your cube. When he walks your way, you tense up and dart to the nearest exit. All the while, you think to yourself: What now?
/ Source: Business Week

He’s back.

Yeah, you know the type. You cringe when his name pops up on your phone or e-mail. You feign yellow fever when he sidles up to your cube. When he walks your way, you tense up and dart to the nearest exit. All the while, you think to yourself: What now?

With this guy, everything is a crisis. And it’s always last minute too. Months ago, you came to his rescue. Now he clings like a lovesick teenager. Every day, he’s back with some new drama. You’re peppered with question after question, sandwiched between monologues that never find their destination. And he is never afraid to interrupt.

Yes, this nuisance is draining your time and energy. He hovers and smothers, pulling you away from more pressing jobs. He steals your focus and trips up your rhythm, and you can’t get back on track afterward. You’re not the type to complain, but you’re tired of being dragged into this. Want to take back your time? Consider the following strategies.

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1. Have him come with solutions. You know the drill. He bounces toward you like a ball of nerves. Chances are, he’s hoping you’ll do the work for him. Don’t make it easy for him. Instead, train him how to make it easy for you to help. Start by requiring him to come prepared when you meet. In particular, require him to gather facts and produce a solution and a plan for implementing it, along with potential obstacles and trade-offs involved. In short, your little leech can think it through before dropping in unannounced. You can correct and coach him once you’ve heard his plan.

2. Break it down. "Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime." There’s a reason clichés, however stale, never die: They illustrate enduring lessons. Your mooch is coming to you for a reason. Maybe you have a talent for simplifying the complex or connecting the disparate. Chances are, your guy dawdles and complicates, unable to conceptualize or discriminate. Regardless, he believes you possess some supernatural gift he couldn’t possibly grasp. Maybe it’s time to take him behind the curtain. Show him how you approach issues. What do you question and evaluate? What steps do you take to determine what’s important and what’s not, and why? What are the warning signs, and when do you seek out others for guidance? Most important, ask him what he thinks. You’ll be surprised how much he actually knows when you nudge him.

3. Keep it about work. You know the routine. He turns up, looking to sponge up your strategies. But he’s not really seeking solutions. He has a different agenda; he’s looking for an opening to unload. Soon enough, it’ll start seeping out — the questioning, complaints, frustrations, and insecurities about everything from management to his midlife crisis. But this is work, not a rerun of "Men of a Certain Age." Don’t get sucked into his world. When he strays and grows needy, reel him back to the issues at hand. You can be his friend outside the office. Inside, the biggest favor you can do is keeping him focused and productive.

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4. Help him on your schedule. He expects you instantly to drop what you’re doing, knocking you further off schedule. Seems reasonable, right? Before you automatically say yes to him, ask yourself about value and priority. In particular, do his problems greatly affect clients and internal staff? Will they drive dollars or stave off a lawsuit? If not, ask him for a timeline for task completion and set an appointment at a time convenient to you. Don’t feel obliged: Direct him elsewhere for answers. If anything, allude to a quid pro quo to set an expectation that your time comes with a price. Regardless, you can always hope he says thanks by getting it right and not coming back.

5. Practice tough love. He appeals for help but only sporadically heeds your advice. He pouts when you can’t deliver a quick and easy solution. And he returns with the same questions, having already lost those directions you shared last week. Somehow, you’re still falling for his doe-eyed, "This will only take a minute" shtick. You’ve become a doormat. It’s time to send a message.

That starts by making him feel a little uncomfortable — unwelcome, even. Set a time limit for your meetings. Crack down by having him take notes, recite key points back to you, and even write up a plan for review when you’re finished. Expose every angle he hasn’t thought through and question whether he’s truly serious. That’ll drive home that he must get things right the first time. Be firm and don’t let him get a word in edgewise. If your words and manner don’t convey the message, reinforce it with body language. Pull back, turn away your torso, and reduce eye contact to suggest you need to leave or get the conversation back on your terms.

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6. Diagnose the real problem. There’s the question … and there’s the real need. Fact is, your co-worker’s faults run deeper than a lousy memory or obliviousness. Your guy feels vulnerable. He fears making mistakes, moving forward, taking responsibility, and looking weak. He is frozen in place, second-guessing everything he does, wondering if he is following the right track. He may be asking questions, but he is really pleading for reassurance.

In too many companies, there is little time to train, let alone coach. Workloads are crushing. Most times, we’re expected just to pick it up. Is it any wonder that sometimes people come around for reinforcement? Take a look at your operation. Before you wean your pest off so much dependence, ask yourself: Are his problems rooted in sloppiness and entitlement—or opaque expectations, convoluted practices, and MIA management?

7. Look at yourself. You have a love-hate relationship with your co-worker. Sure, he annoys you. But he also feeds your ego and leaves you feeling important. You know he’s passing the buck, but you like playing the rescuer, bathing in his attention and gratitude. In reality, you’re fostering dependence and learned helplessness. He believes you’ll swoop in and save him—and you’re just teaching him to come back. Sure, we’ve all been this person at one point. It is normal to sympathize.

Question is, can you put aside your ego and empathy to do what’s best for your co-worker? Ultimately, that means stepping away and letting him stand or fall on his own strength.