My Supervisor Says I Ask Too Many Questions

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being shy in a new job:

I am currently an intern at a Department of Social Services office. I just graduated from college with a Social Work degree. I do my job well, I know I do. But, I am having trouble relating to people at work. I am one of those people who are very smart, but have trouble interacting with people on a personal level. I am not rude or arrogant, just quiet and shy. When interacting with other workers, I stick mostly to asking questions, like a good intern should. I am worried that no matter how well I do my job, I am in the wrong field because I don’t really relate well to the other workers. It is like High School in that place!

My boss recently, in a weekly review, said that some workers had reported concerns to her, not telling me if it was one or all of them, telling me that she understood that I was quiet, and different than the other intern (who reminds me of the high school IT girl), and that, although she understood that I was very intelligent, I was coming across as to clinical in my dealings with the other workers, that I was asking them questions that made them think to hard, that made them question their methods and think about how they handled things (although this was unintentional on my part, is this such a bad thing?). She made it sound like being quiet and intelligent was a bad thing in that job.

What should I do? It’s making me think that I am in the wrong job. Can something like this hold me back? Am I in the wrong career path? Is it so wrong that I just want to go to work and do my job, and don’t feel comfortable gossiping about the clients and other workers?

Signed, Quietly Asking

Dear Quietly Asking:

Your question involves two linking issues: Your suitability for social work as a career and what should you do about communications problems your supervisor perceives you are having with coworkers. 1. Are you suited for a career in social work? That is one reason the intern program was developed in many professions. It’s one way to find out how you feel about the work and how well you do it. Some intern programs are not very useful for that, but it sounds as though yours is. Keep in mind that there are many types of social work, from direct client contact to more administrative work. So, it could be you are suited for one aspect of it but not another. It’s certainly true that dedicated and committed people are needed for the increasing number of social services programs and clients. So, your goal is a worthy one as long as you find the right place for your set of traits, characteristics and skills.You are correct to ask if the issues presented by your supervisor could hold you back. Yes, they could. Right now, if your supervisor had to make a decision about hiring you or someone who she felt communicated more effectively, who would she hire? Success in almost any career requires both paperwork and people work. As you have observed, social workers who work directly with clients often talk with people of all ages who are not confident about themselves or who need someone to represent them to various resources. Clients may be difficult to deal with, angry, resentful, demanding, depressed, addicted, sad or out of control emotionally. For all of those reasons, excellent communication skills are required for optimal effectiveness. A good test of your potential for effectiveness in communicating with clients in the future is to ask how well you are communicating with the varying styles that are present in your office–including the problematic people.

2. Some thoughts about your current situation:You seem certain that you are a lone, quiet, questioning kind of person. The approach of “I am the way I am” can sometimes lead to excessive behavior for both extroverts and introverts. After awhile having a unique personality becomes a defining aspect of the persons life and can get in the way of relationships.An intelligent, introverted person can be caring, dedicated, insightful, thoughtful, calming, healing and friendly. They can also be cold, unapproachable, off-putting and awkward to be around. I always remind people that their employer doesn’t own their personality, style or attitude, but the employer does rent the employee’s behavior and performance! You may find that you will need to get out of your comfort zone and purposefully change your behavior in order to work within the setting of each of your work places.

3.Your supervisor did a commendable thing by discussing this with you during your weekly review. It doesn’t sound as though she was harsh about it.She said she understood that you are very intelligent (compliment ahead of the critique!) but you were coming across as too clinical in your dealings with the other workers. You say that she said your questions made coworkers think too hard, question their methods and think about how they handled things.I wonder if that was your mental spin on what she said, because I doubt those were her thoughts! It makes it sound as though you are actually much smarter than the others because you are able to put them on the spot. That’s not likely what she intended. Being quiet and intelligent is effective in almost all workplaces. It’s extreme behavior that isn’t appropriate for the setting that creates problems.It may be a matter of how you ask questions rather than that you asked. There’s a big difference between asking as though you want to know how to learn more about someone’s skills and asking as though you don’t think they did things the right way.There is also a different feel and sound to an open, warm and engaging question, compared to a probing, almost testing demeanor.

4. If you have a friend in the workplace, talk to her about this and ask if she has ideas about it. It could be that some of the complainers complain about everyone. It could also be that only one or two have complained and your supervisor jumped to the conclusion you were having a problem with everyone.However, I think you knew that your coworkers had at least some of these feelings; it was perhaps just the first time someone had said anything to you so directly. I can imagine it was hurtful and even embarrassing. Your question indicates you are also concerned, which is a positive thing. The key is to try to be open to making some adjustments even though you might feel that the accusations are not entirely justified.

5. You don’t say how long you have been an intern. Perhaps as time goes on you will feel more comfortable with the others. Even if you don’t, you can at least treat them as you would treat a client with whom you don’t have a great relationship. Be courteous, smile, reach out mentally and engage people.Things won’t change overnight, but you’ll be seen to be making an effort and that usually goes a long way to improve things. Consider talking to your supervisor again and asking for some specific advice. Here are good questions if they are modified to fit your situation: *What should I do more of in my work and communications? *What should I do less of? *What would you like to see me keep doing exactly the same?

6. I don’t think you are the type to let this depress you or make you feel so badly you can’t move forward and keep; or start; smiling. So, I feel confident you can do what it takes if you care enough to do it.If you are concerned enough about people to want to be a social worker you must have empathy and compassion. If you are insightful you must have interesting thoughts and feelings about many topics. If you’re doing well in other aspects of your work you probably are a great resource for a variety of things.Let those good qualities come out and share them. See if you can be a bit more sociable and personable, within your own style. A smile and hello doesn’t require a lot of conversation, but it’s appreciated by almost everyone. Reduce your questions and just have conversations. You don’t have to act like it’s High School in order to lighten up a bit. You’ll find that some of your coworkers are not people you would like away from work; and you might not care for them at work either. But, the practice of at least learning to work well with them will be useful in your profession.This has been a long response, but I hope you will find ideas in it that can assist you as you work toward a successful internship and later a successful career. Best wishes to you!

ADDITIONAL Advice from one who has had a long time career in Social Work: I would like to know more about the questioner. Is he/she a BA or MSW level social worker; what has been her/his previous work experience; has he/she experienced similar receptions in a work setting; does this internship lead to a position with the State Department of Social Services; has he/she taken the licensing test yet…(more questions) My experience of 40+ years is that a social work job is a contact sport. Dealing with the dysfunctional office settings can be more challenging than working with people and their problems. Becoming effective with clients does not necessarily prepare one to become effective in a challenging work setting.

As social work is not a science but an art (some could disagree with this but hold on to it for a bit), organizational goals are not well defined or measured; job positions can be rather general—all of which leads to a fluid work environment. Additionally, many human service programs funding is thin and in jeopardy and this can result in caustic work environments. This questioner could benefit from some brief counseling and/or mentoring. About.com has a quiz for prospective social workers. I took it and passed http://careerplanning.about.com/od/occupations/a/socialwork_quiz_intro.htmAnother resource could include the Ohio NASW http://www.naswoh.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=6 They have several on line options to be found on their web page “on line CE” and click on that to go to “catalog”. I reviewed some that looked promising including “Supervision” “Diversity” etc. I spoke with them and they suggested our questioner email for a possible phone call the regional director in Young’s Town Brad Smith bssmith78@sbcglobal.net If a one-on-one email exchange would be helpful give this questioner my address at simbaruns@gmail.com Jack M. White Jr. MSW

Tina Lewis Rowe