I don’t get on with someone I’m managing. What should I do?

May 28, 2020

6 mins

I don’t get on with someone I’m managing. What should I do?
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.

Does your colleague irritate you beyond belief? Are you over their awful jokes, their lies, how exasperatingly slow they are, their visible lack of expertise, infamous arrogance, or constant torturing of the English language? Unfortunately, you’re their manager. So what do you do when someone you have to manage every day drives you crazy? How do you get to know them and focus on their good points (and yes, they do have some!)?

Is it serious, doctor?

Must you like everyone on your team? No, and there’s an important difference between appreciating someone and liking them. Sometimes it’s easier to work with someone who irritates you, but whose values and work you respect, than with someone you care about whose work isn’t up to scratch.

In his book Good Boss, Bad Boss, Robert Sutton explains that working with people you like isn’t necessary for a team to work effectively. According to Sutton, a professor of management science at Stanford University, “There’s a list of things that make you like people and there’s a list of things that make a group effective, and there are very different things on those lists.” That’s because a team is made up of people who have different ways of doing things and different aspirations. They will challenge you and your methods so that you become a better manager.

Why don’t you like them?

There may be many reasons for the lack of love. You need to figure out why to find a solution. Does this person remind you of someone you don’t like? Do they have flaws that you’re afraid of having yourself? Are you a little jealous of their talent? It’s impossible to find a cure without identifying the symptoms, so why exactly don’t you like them?

They think they’re better than everyone else (and it’s kind of true)

Their work is perfect, so it’s hard to blame them for anything. They know that, which makes them unbearable. “I managed an employee who was doing the work of two people, and who was technically much better at the job than me. I was defensive all the time, always thinking about what I was going to say to him before we spoke because I knew he would call out any guesswork. For his annual review, I decided to confront him about his attitude and ask him straight out if he thought it was smart to show off how brilliant he was. That calmed him down for a good few months,” said Frederick.

They lied to you about who they were

Did they lie to you during their interview? Has their destructive behavior affected your entire team? They’ve made it impossible to trust them. This is a situation that Christina, a marketing director, experienced. “I recruited someone who said she had been put on the back burner at her previous company. Her story got to me and I wanted to give her a second chance. Her behavior changed after joining the team. Her work was impeccable, but she was extremely moody and unpleasant to everyone. She tended to give ultimatums during rush periods when she knew you couldn’t say no. I think you can always work well with others, even with colleagues you don’t really like. But with her, the real problem was her values. It was impossible. I had to grit my teeth and ended up changing jobs, but I know my successor is dealing with the same situation with this person today,” said Christina.

They fly solo

They’re a team player when it suits them—during coffee breaks, for example—but not when it’s time to lend a hand. Their individualistic attitude irritates you because they aren’t invested in the team. “She was one of the first people I hired from a sandwich course at a time when we were understaffed. Unfortunately, she had no work ethic. She would just do her own thing and that was that. I talked to her about it one-on-one in an effort to get her to adjust her behavior. I wanted her to understand that even if she wasn’t contractually obliged to help her colleagues, it would still be greatly appreciated. She wasn’t having any of it, she never lifted a finger. I think I managed to hide my irritation because I knew she was only there for a year. Fortunately, my fellow managers were there for me to vent that irritation from time to time,” said Julie.

Their work is sub-standard

Their skills fall short of what you were expecting. Sometimes it’s not even their fault—maybe it’s yours for hiring them? They simply joined your team even though their profile didn’t match what you were looking for. Ultimately, this individual wastes a lot of your time and you’re constantly doing damage limitation. This is the ordeal Richard went through when he recruited someone for the first time. “It was when I went out in the field with him that I realized he clearly lacked the necessary expertise. I was the one who recruited him, so I knew it was my fault. I took it upon myself to improve his skills by spending more time with him, even if it was very time-consuming. It put my patience to the test. But I probably didn’t hide how annoyed I was very well… because after a few months, he decided to leave of his own accord. It was difficult to accept as a manager, but I was relieved.”

How do you manage the situation?

Can you end up respecting, and even appreciating, an employee you don’t get along with? It’s hard to change your mind. The brain naturally seeks to justify the opinion we have formed by ruling out anything that contradicts it. That’s why we are much more likely to notice information that reinforces our opinions than the other way around. Here are a few tips to teach you how to cope better with the situation, and even how to manage the source of your irritation.

Stay objective at all costs

Do you apply the same rules for this person as you do for everyone else? We tend to be more forgiving towards someone we like than towards someone we don’t. If you find it difficult to be objective, there is nothing to keep you from consulting with another manager. Ask them for honest feedback about whether your assessment is fair, or even to play devil’s advocate and objectively highlight points you may have missed.

Be clear with your expectations

It can be cruel to let things go unsaid and it creates a lot of frustration. Remember, nobody can read your mind. Many managers forget to be clear about what’s important to them and the way they operate. Do you like to be challenged? Your employee could be holding back from contradicting you because they’re afraid of offending. Do you find them too academic and overly respectful? Maybe they just want to show how much respect they have for you. Watch out for snap judgments. Don’t make the mistake of holding someone responsible for something without first letting them know your expectations. Maybe this employee is trying really hard and you haven’t noticed.

Look for the positives

It’s easy to see the best in the people you like, and the worst in those you don’t. Even though you and your team member may be very different people, he or she definitely has some qualities or personality traits that you can appreciate if you make an effort to break down the barrier between you. A good leader knows how to find those qualities and make them work to their advantage. What can this person bring to the team? How do you make their qualities shine so brightly that you forget the flaws that annoy you? Maybe their work isn’t perfect, but their positive demeanor contributes to the overall well-being of the team. On the other hand, maybe they are often negative but have a particularly curious, analytical mind that helps projects move forward. Nobody deserves to be labeled or to be loathed forever.

Grab the bull by the horns

Do you feel you’ve tried everything, but despite your best efforts it’s still not working out? Then—and only then—should you opt for a more radical solution. Don’t forget that this is someone’s career at stake. Make sure that it’s really your only option and that the individual is undeniably damaging the team or the company based on how other employees feel, for example. “Sometimes it’s better to discuss someone leaving—on mutually agreed terms, for instance—than to let the situation escalate,” Christina said.

No matter what happens, don’t be openly hostile. Remember, it’s difficult for an employee to feel unappreciated by their manager. They will naturally link this feeling to their performance (sometimes rightly so, sometimes not), especially if they don’t understand where your frustration is coming from. If you gossip with other employees, you’re unprofessional or negative, the situation could, justifiably, be blamed on you. So keep calm and carry on!

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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