How do I manage a resistant employee?
March 31, 2011 4:07 AM   Subscribe

How do I manage a resistant employee? I'm new to this job and I need some advice on people management of a difficult person.

I manage a team of 8 press officers for a charity - 3 of them are senior. One of the senior press officers is resistant to being managed by me. By this I mean she always has a reason ready why something cannot be done - either she is waiting for information from another department (which is valid and happens) or she uses her past experience to say why my suggestions and guidance are not the right way to do things. In a nutshell she's negative and says why things can't be done instead of how they can be done. Also, she spends too much time getting involved in the internal politics of who she's working with rather than focusing on her work, and that has the effect of her working longer hours than necessary and feeling underappreciated.

Overall, however, she gets her job done well.

I am looking for ways to address this with her and build up respect between us so I can actually have influence with her and manage her the way I believe is right. Any pointers?

Background: I am new at this job (10 weeks in) and in this field. Previously I've been a journalist working in global news and this job is at a large international charity. So, I am trying to establish myself in the workplace as a new manager (building relationships etc), get to grips with a new field of work and the practices of a new organization.

Here's an interesting detail - last summer I interviewed for a job here, which I didn't get but led me to be hired for the better position I am now in. That post would have been working under the senior press officer I am now finding difficult. She was on the interview panel then. I'm not sure if this is playing a role in my difficulty with her or not, but I've got a hunch that it is (gut instinct rather than proof).
posted by dawn_chorus to Work & Money (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
so I can... manage her the way I believe is right.

Can you clarify what you mean by this? You say she's getting her job done well. If so, what's the problem? You mentioned that she feels under-appreciated because of the way she chooses to work, but I think that might be in the realm of problems you can't do much about.

I am self-employed with no employees, so I don't have a lot of management experience. My wife, who does manage a few people, says that one of the better bits of advice she's gotten is to 'manage for results, not for process.'
posted by jon1270 at 4:33 AM on March 31, 2011 [12 favorites]

So either she wanted your job and didn't get it, just doesn't like being managed, doesn't see you as qualified, or a combination of any and all of the 3.

When you say 'senior' is that also 'age difference' significant?

It really depends on the situation. If you know what motivates her, then you have a better shot at influencing her (Org Behavior 101).

One tactic may be to bring her in and say; look, I have experience in global news, which has a slightly different makeup than international charity. I've got the x-y-z of doing this, this and this (shows you have the qualifications for the job, but don't try and sell it like an interview. More like, I know more than you think I do, and probably more than you, but not in a cocky way).

then... But, I know I haven't been here for as long as you, and you have some insights to how this animal behaves, and would love your input. You obviously have ideas, and I don't want to seem like I'm discounting or dismissing them out of hand. Let's see how we can work with them. But my mandate is to continue to change and improve, so we do have to work together to get some of that done.

This will not be fixed with one discussion or a single success, and you'll most likely have some altercations ahead of you, but you need to start out with a mutual understanding and put the elephant out on the table.
posted by rich at 4:36 AM on March 31, 2011

There may be many reasons why she is resistant to your leadership, and not all of them will be within your control. Consider first was she like this before you arrived, or is this situation unique to your management?

You have said you are new to management and to this team, so I hope I am not crossing a line to suggest that maybe your own management style has something to do with this. How much time have you spent trying to get to know her? Have you, for example, asked her how she likes to be managed? Or did you just blunder in with an unblinkered view of how things should be run? Are you playing to her strengths? Do you even know what her strengths are? I can say with authority that most people respond better to the carrot than the stick. If you are not getting the best out of your relationship with this person, try a different approach.

If she is one of those people who is simply and inexplicably difficult to work with, your best bet may be to manage her through a formal performance management framework. (I assume you have one of these?) Regular reviews will enable you to consider together how she is meeting her behavioural, as well as professional, objectives — and will help you manage her out of the role if, ultimately, she fails to live up to what is expected of her.
posted by londonmark at 4:55 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

The first rule of middle management is "Know your limits." Can you discipline this person -- up to and including firing her -- if she refuses to go along with your directions? If not, you make with the nice and bury her in sugar, and eventually she'll come around to realizing that you're not so bad.

On the other hand, if you can discipline and even fire her, then you call her into your office, close the door, and present her with an HR-vetted list of responsibilities and work habits/workplace behaviors. Inform her that you will be holding her to it via quarterly reviews, present her with another list of ways in which she has previously failed to live up to those standards, and then shred that list in front of her, saying, "Clean slate." And then do exactly the same thing with the other seven people who work for you.

And then, over a drink at home, muse about whether you yourself are more interested in how she does her job or whether she does it. That is, you say, "Overall... she does her job well." Is that good enough? Then lighten up on the monitoring, but only after you've lain down the basic precept that you can be a hardass if she makes you.
posted by Etrigan at 5:27 AM on March 31, 2011 [6 favorites]

if you interviewed for a position under her, but were then offered a position over her, she may have thought that position was "hers". She is trying in small ways to show that the wrong decision was made.

Resentment is to be expected and trying to be nice can be counterproductive in this case as she will see that as weakness.

As others have said results rather than process. The job is getting done but you seem to want to be equally liked and respected by everyone. It offends your sense of natural justice as well as your ego. You have to deal with that as a manager.

The only thing I would do is to document the times she gets overly involved with another area which causes her to get behind in her own work. Then have a face-to-face to offer to assit her with this in a way she can influence.

I thought your question was a bit naive to be honest and think you might look at yourself and your expectations first.
posted by Wilder at 5:30 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Overall, however, she gets her job done well.

It sounds like this is actually about your ego, then. The more she senses that, the more she will resist. As said above, manage for results, not process.
posted by spaltavian at 5:42 AM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

I disagree that this is about your ego - I think this is about Her ego, and if you can come up with ways to make her feel more secure and appreciated, she will be a better team member and worker - and probably happier.

Is there a way you can use her own negative psychology so that she'll end up thinking she came up with the idea you wanted her to have in the first place? This is often used on bosses, but it might help the two of you have more agreements. If you floated things like a) or b) choices, where a) isn't what you want, perhaps it'll allow her to get her negativity out on a), then do b -- or even come up with a c) option that's better, who knows.

Also, encourage her to ignore the politics because she's above them. Might not work, but it might, again, make her feel more secure.
posted by ldthomps at 5:54 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Approach her before you get too angry to hold a professional conversation. When you have a talk be professional and ignore any attempts to personalize the matter. Do what you can to get her to do her job - if there are problems in other departments it would be your role to facilitate things to get rid of those problems. Use her experience and that of the other press officers to change the way you hand out assignments if it helps to streamline things. With professionals you want to maintain a team atmosphere to keep respect among everyone.
posted by JJ86 at 6:17 AM on March 31, 2011

"she uses her past experience to say why my suggestions and guidance are not the right way to do things."

You actually probably recognize this from journalism: Journalists often have a longer institutional memory than politicians, say, and journalists in the newsroom are saying, "This stupid legislation didn't work 10 years ago, and if State Representative Joe Blow knew anything about our state's history, he'd know that and he'd know it wouldn't work now."

People like this are both difficult and useful, because their long institutional memory makes them useful to discover why things failed or succeeded in the past, but they also can simply become mulish and unwilling to ever move on anything new, different, etc., or unable to recognize when the climate has changed.

One small thing to try would be to say, "I know you have a lot of institutional memory to share; what caused this to fail in the past?" Get her information, use it in formulating your strategy, and then say, "I considered your input on problem X, and I think that regulatory environment Y has changed enough for us to try strategy Z again with greater success" or "Upon using your analysis from 1996 of the failures of this strategy, I think shifts in the media world make it possible for us to try it again" or "In response to your information, I've shifted resources from Q to R and I'd like you to get a handle on R." Or whatever.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:44 AM on March 31, 2011 [10 favorites]

I just recommended this book yesterday :), but I'll do so again. I've been a manager for many years and dealt with a lot of different employee/manager situations. I still find it challenging to handle situations such as you describe. I recently came across Crucial Confrontations, and it seems like it has some excellent advice for confronting problem situations -- either at home or at work -- in a way that results in a positive outcome.
posted by elmay at 7:05 AM on March 31, 2011

Your first priority is to manage your team. To do so, your challenge is to figure out how to motivate this employee to increase her contribution to your team. That's the bottom line, and should be one of your top priorities, which means this is YOUR problem to deal with. With this employee, I think you need a sit-down, just the two of you. Communicate clearly that sharing her experience is vital to the health of the team, but that the two of you need to figure out a better way to communicate, one that is not so negative. Tell her honestly that her negative reactions are limiting her contributions to the team because of the way people react to that mindset. She needs to know that you value her contributions, you just need to tweak your communications. You need to "move forward in a positive manner".

The best way to foster respect between the two of you is to show her that you do respect HER. Deal with her openly, honestly, and sincerely. Establish a trust-based relationship, and show her that it goes both ways.

Believe me when I say that you cannot be successful unless your TEAM is successful. Learning this the hard way is, well, hard.
posted by raisingsand at 9:40 AM on March 31, 2011

My only suggestion on how to improve things is to start threads like this one anonymously. If I were running in your circle, it would be in my nature to try to figure out who you are and who she is. If people who know one or both of you are reading this, that can't help your credibility or your relationship with her.
posted by Ellemeno at 10:08 AM on March 31, 2011

There is definitely resentment from this person: You were interviewed to work under her, but ended up being her boss. Further, you have no experience in this role.

However, I am not sure on the degree of resistance you are seeing. Is this only in private settings or in more public ways like team meetings? Is there any office gossip emanating from her on how you are screwing things up? Your response may be tempered by this.

There are two ways to address this:

1. Have a tough face-to-face meeting, where you tell her that you are sensing her resentment and her subtle undermining of your credibility in the team. Ask her if this is true and find out if there is anything you can do to mitigate it - this could be a promotion or a more glamorous role.

2. Manage her out. Sick as this sounds, not having someone on the train is going to be problem in the long run, even though they may be delivering results now.

Let me offer a personal anecdote, for what its worth:

In one of my previous roles, I was brought in to work with a large team. My role was one of those "lone ranger" ones, and there were quite some problems to be fixed. It took me almost an year to solve them and earn credibility with the team.

Suddenly, a new leadership team was brought in with very less hand-off period with the result that the new leaders didn't know I existed in that role, my competencies etc. They assumed I was a very junior guy in the team and so brought in a very senior person. I was banking on my role so far for a promotion, so you can imagine my resentment!

I tried to be objective, cooperated with the new person to a large extent, but could not shake off my feelings: hurt, resentful and angry! The only thing I could do is ask to move to a different project within the company, but because of my rapport with the team, they did not want to let me go.

It was up to me to make the change, so I made a deal - give me the promotion and I would stay. I also had to establish boundaries of responsibilities and communication paths with the new person, so that we could work as peers. It took me about 3 months to get this sorted out.
posted by theobserver at 10:34 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe she doesn't need your guidance. Just let her do her job. As long as everything is getting done, then let her do it her own way.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:29 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why do you think it is your job to "manage her the way I believe is right"? Your job as a manager is not to be a dictator and order everyone to do things your way. Your job as a manager is to work with the people you have (including all their particular talents and shortcomings) and make sure the job gets done, and to lead them towards that goal. It seems like you're mixing up your personal feelings about her "negativity" with what you actually need to do to be a good manager.

What I suspect is really going on here is that you don't like her communication style; you feel your authority challenged by her (and you feel threatened by her) because she is senior to you; or you just don't like her as a person. But instead of addressing these issues, you place the blame on her for being "resistant."

Everything you wrote in your description screams that you're just having a personality conflict, not that she is being unilaterally "resistant." You've listed the following factors why she challenges you:

- "She is waiting for information from another department." This is valid, as you yourself admit.

- "She uses her past experience to say why my suggestions and guidance are not the right way to do things." Um, this is EXACTLY what good, senior employees are supposed to do! They're supposed to draw on their wealth of experience and institutional knowledge. I'm not sure why you're not seeing her as a resource and engaging with her productively on this.

- "In a nutshell she's negative and says why things can't be done instead of how they can be done." Again, negativity has it's place. This seems more like an issue of communication styles. If what you want is for A to get done, ask her how A can get done.

- "she spends too much time getting involved in the internal politics of who she's working with rather than focusing on her work, and that has the effect of her working longer hours than necessary and feeling underappreciated." She's an adult, and her own sense of underappreciation and working long hours is her own business, unless it's affecting how she gets her job done. You're crossing boundaries if you're trying to make her happy rather than trying to get the job done. You're also making some big assumptions and framing this in a conclusory way -- it's possible that her knowledge of internal politics is in fact an important contributions she has to make to the organization. I think you need to wait this one out for a while longer to see if you can make more useful suggestions to her after you more fully understand the organization.

- "Overall, however, she gets her job done well." Well, ok, what is the heart of this problem them? Why does she need to be further "managed"? I really think it's your combined communication styles, not her "resistance."
posted by yarly at 1:22 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all your colorful contributions, opinions and interpretations.
posted by dawn_chorus at 1:37 PM on March 31, 2011

Former "resistant employee" here.
It never failed to get my back up when Manager hovered, wanting to know when the thing would be finished. I would point out the the conversation was preventing me from working on the thing, and thus, finishing it. This never seemed to sink into Manager's brain.

And I can't agree more with the above...look at my finished work. Does it fill the bill? Don't watch me make the hamburger; in your eyes, I'll be doing everything wrong.

Please know this about your "resistant employee": I'm willing to bet that she comes in to work in the mornings with a knot in her gut. Don't be the cause of that knot.
posted by BostonTerrier at 1:43 PM on March 31, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm not sure what "manage her the way I believe is right" means either. If she wasn't doing tasks or making life hard for other people or turning in things constantly late, "right" would be "to the normal standards of the office," but you seem to mean something else, which others above have hypothesized on. I'm not even going to guess at what you mean, other than to mention when people say "you're not doing that *right,*" it frequently means you're not doing it their way. Right is only meaningful to me if it's quantitatively provable, otherwise, it's just different.

Since she's actually doing her job well, as you say, this question seems more like, "How can I force her to respect and like me? She's not being properly subordinate!" What I would respect the most in that situation is if you actually respected my background at the company and in the field rather than calling it "negativity." She can probably pick up the internal eye-rolling you're doing. Ask for her input, when appropriate. If she feels like she's part of a team, rather than someone passed over for a promotion, she'll probably thaw a little. And if you think of her as on your side, her being the devil's advocate won't bother you so much. Too much positivity and ass-kissing can be harmful, too.

Of course, she could just be a negative person with no redeemable work-place traits, in which case, it does no good to spend time fixing your relationship as long as the work's getting done.
posted by wending my way at 3:20 PM on March 31, 2011

You've only been there for 10 weeks. 10 weeks! That is not enough time to have much of a feel for the culture of the organization. You are still getting to know the people that work for you. I think you need to chill out a bit and realize that, while you might have been hired to be this person's boss, they probably DO have quite a few things to teach you about the organization and you should be receptive to learning them. If you show her you respect her institutional knowledge she is likely to be more receptive to your feedback and suggestions.

I've been that person that has come in to a new organization and tried to force it to my mold without spending time to learn what the existing mold is. It never works well, and has pretty much always slowed the progress of change. Take a while to observe before you start trying to mix things up.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:07 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it is a bit too early to start influencing behavior, especially from people at a senior level. It will take some time to build up the bank of delivered commitments and displays of expertise that are necessary to start becoming an influencer at that level.

In the meantime, I would spend some time consulting with her to start absorbing a lot of the organizational knowledge she does have. This will serve two purposes: 1) You will ramp up your knowledge of the playing field a lot quicker so that you can better maneuver, and 2) You will build the rapport necessary to influence her thinking and / or behavior in the future.
posted by Jason Wilmot at 11:03 AM on April 6, 2011

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