It finally dawns on you. For the third time in a month, this same employee is seething, looking as if he wants to come across the desk at you. Three different confrontations over three different situations, but to you they seem eerily familiar.
That’s when it hits you. It isn’t the projects he is working on or the other members of his project team. He’s not having problems at home, and his health is fine.
It’s you. He just doesn’t like you.
What do you do now? It’s a tough problem. In this column, I’ll give you suggestions on what you should do—and what you should avoid doing.
Don't kid yourself
Perhaps you’re looking at your monitor now, shaking your head, and thinking to yourself, “Well, at least I don’t have that to deal with!” But maybe you do and simply don’t realize it. Look at it this way. Even if 90 percent of your direct reports think you are a great person, that leaves 10 percent who may think you’re a jerk. The larger your number of direct reports, the bigger the potential problem.
What makes this whole discussion difficult is that as IT managers, we’re conflicted. On one hand, looking at this rationally we understand that our job is not to get everyone to like us. We’re hired to produce results, and we do that by directing and managing performance, not by being everyone’s best friend.
One could even argue that if everyone is too fond of you, you’re not doing your job. As a manager, you have to allocate resources and arbitrate disputes. As a practical matter, that means you’re often the one that says, “We’re going to do A and not B.” This will be music to the ears of A’s advocates but might alienate proponents of B.
Further, since your employees are human, sometimes they screw up, and it’s your job to call them on that. Nobody likes hearing that they made a mistake, and sometimes that feeling rubs off on the messenger.
On the other hand, we’re also human beings and not automatons. Each of us has a natural desire to be liked and appreciated by our peers and our direct reports. Having someone openly antagonistic or disdainful can’t help but bother us.
More seriously, having one of your direct reports hostile to you can be harmful. Such a man or woman could undermine your authority within your team, making it harder for you to get things done.
Some do's and don'ts
If you’re faced with a situation where an employee seems implacably opposed to everything you’re trying to accomplish, you might be asking, "What do I do?" Here are some suggestions. Of course, each situation is different, so you have to devise a strategy on a case-by-case basis.
Don't ignore the situation for too long
While it’s sometimes wise to let a person blow off steam and sulk for a couple of days, don’t let things get out of hand. Once you’ve decided an employee is not just temporarily upset about a decision that didn’t go his or her way, you need to act.
Do confront the employee, politely
Being direct can be very effective. You might start the conversation along these lines: “Judging from your behavior the past couple of weeks, you’re really angry at me. Tell me about it.” Then shut up and listen. You have to maintain your poise—resist the urge to get in a tit-for-tat debate on the person’s grievances.
Overcompensating can take two forms. First, you could spend all your time apologizing for things that weren’t your fault, acting unnaturally chummy and trying to bribe the employee by agreeing to his or her wishes, whether or not they make business sense. The second type of overcompensating comes in when you decide to return hostility with hostility and exclude the employee from project discussions or the best assignments.
Do ask the employee about his or her reaction
A long time ago, I was promoted into a job that four of my new direct reports had also interviewed for. Three of them wished me good luck and worked hard to make me (and the team) successful. One guy, however, just couldn’t get past being passed over. When I asked him about it, he said, “It’s nothing personal, but I’m never going to stop thinking that I should have had your job.” In reply, I said, “Well, I’m not going anywhere, so what are you going to do?” He ended up transferring to another group and getting on with his career.
Remember that at some level, this is the employee’s problem. Don’t let that person off the hook. After all, no one has the right to demand that they only work for people they like.
Don't forget to look at your role in this
Up to this point, we’ve been assuming that the employee has some groundless reason for not liking you: You didn’t approve a funding request, or you turned down a pet project. However, what if you’re the one who’s been acting like a jerk, and the employee is just responding to your behavior? In that case, the employee could be doing you a favor by warning you of the consequences of continuing to act in such a fashion.
Do manage your own expectations
Try not to have any illusions about this kind of situation. In most cases, the best you can hope for is that the person will return to behaving professionally. It probably won’t mean that you end up entertaining at each other’s houses. And that’s okay.
A lonely business
As I alluded to earlier, being a manager can be a tough job, even a lonely one. In a perfect world, you could give your employees all the resources they ask for and all the raises and security they desire.
Unfortunately, being a manager means having to deliver bad news from time to time, often causing the kind of problems we’re discussing here. It can cause you to feel pretty isolated—a subject we’ll talk about in a future column.