I have a staff member who is driving me up the wall. Please help me to understand what exactly it is that she is doing - and how to deal with it.
May 15, 2012 6:58 PM   Subscribe

I have a staff member who is driving me up the wall. Please help me to understand what exactly it is that she is doing - and how to deal with it. Much more under the cut.

I was hired to lead a department almost a year ago. I came from outside the company, 5/6 of my current staff were there before me (I hired one about six months ago). One of the staff members, "Libby", was an internal candidate for my position.

In the time between when the last department head left and I arrived, Libby ran things. She did a pretty good job, I guess. Nothing burned down, business ran as usual, she made some great improvements to one aspect of our work. When I took over there was a period of my "getting to know the company and clientele". Libby was very helpful as she has been working here for 13 years.

At some point though, her "offering helpful institutional knowledge" started to veer over into "I know what I would do in your position, this is what you should do." I think that she's still smarting that I got the lead and that she did not - but she really does know a lot about the business. But her "suggestions" are becoming unwelcome, and tinged with "you're doing it wrong".

One example:

I found out a few weeks ago that two of my staff members are celebrating anniversaries this month (multiple of five years each). Great! I called a celebration. We are going out to lunch this weekend. I asked the other staff what they might like for gifts, got some good feedback. Today I received an email from Libby, saying "I think that Christie has an anniversary too...she has been here 15 years." I wrote back, saying that "I had checked the city records and that she has been here for 17 years." Libby wrote back, saying "Well, perhaps you should say something about Christie's anniversary too." And I thought, What??? We're celebrating two multiple-of-five year anniversaries, which I thought was pretty cool. Is she suggesting we celebrate everyone's anniversary? I don't understand her reasoning behind sending me this email, other than to tell me that I am Not Doing It Right and that SHE would have done it differently.

Another example:

There was a project that started before I arrived. The last little strings of it are being tied up. She came into my office the other day to ask when the strings would be tied up. I said that, if the last bits weren't finished by Friday, I would be calling Mr. So-and-so to see what his project status was. She nodded and smiled and said "Maybe you should call him today to remind him instead of waiting to see if he remembers." Then she walked out. Again, I'm not Doing It Right, SHE would have done it differently (and thinks that I should).

Mefites, I have been trying. I really have. I cannot figure out what it is that she is doing that drives me up the wall. I can't even decide if it's something she is really doing or if it's all in my head. Since I can't define what it is that she's doing, I'm having a hard time figuring out how to deal with it.

Some of the things I've tried:

1. Re-stating my position: "Thanks for your input, but I am going to call Mr. So-and-so on Friday as planned." This does not seem to work because she keeps on coming back.

2. Nod and smile: "Yes, well...I think that calling him on Friday would be best."

3. Engage her with a question: "Why do you think that calling him today would be better?" This has lead almost exclusively to "Well, it's just a thought!" which makes me think that there isn't any real reason behind the suggestion, she is merely suggesting an alternate plan...for the hell of it? I don't know!

For even MORE background: she is a beloved member of the company, she's clever and personable and generally does a great job. She is a great "front of the house" person. When I glanced at her previous performance reviews, she's gotten outstanding marks. I can't disagree: she's really good at what she does. Communication style with me notwithstanding, she is doing a bang-up job.

I want to talk to her about the anniversary situation, but - like I said - I don't know if there's anything to talk about. Is she just being helpful and the WAY she's doing it is driving me bonkers? Is it ME that has the problem here? Is she trying to make me feel like I'm not doing things right (because she's doing a great job of it)? Is she being vindictive? How do I deal with her?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (49 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, in both of these situations, I think she's right (or could be right).

I LOATHE the type of person that you think she is, but if these are typical examples,...I don't think that's so bad. Someone like this will be your best ally or your worst enemy.

Draw on her knowledge about how things work, because a year isn't that long in most lines of work. Maybe she's trying to gently help you learn that if you don't recognize Christie's anniversary, that Christie will be pissed and let things slip that cause you to look bad. Perhaps she knows that Mr. So-and-So is a heavy procrastinator, and that reminding him two days earlier would be a help to the project.

I just don't see what's so bad about either of these situations.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 7:07 PM on May 15, 2012 [38 favorites]

I would shrug it off. I don't really get a malicious vibe from any of what you've posted, so I would thank her for her suggestions but, unless you think her idea is better, continue doing it your way. Eventually she will either back off or cross a line that you can legitimately address.

My guess is that she is anxious about not having been offered the job permanently and is trying to reassert her usefulness. I would be sure to compliment her on the things she does well--getting positive feedback might reassure her.
posted by elizeh at 7:09 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Compliment sandwich: Bring her into your office, close the door, show her a glowing performance review you've written for her. And then say, "You're a great [her job], Libby. I bet you'd make a great [your job]. But you're not. I am. And you have been... kinda treating me like that's backwards. You're trying to help. I get that, and I appreciate it. But you're being overbearing. I'd really appreciate it if you could dial that back a bit. You're the best [her job] I have, and I really want to keep you around without any issues between us. Do you agree?"
posted by Etrigan at 7:10 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Communication style with me notwithstanding, she is doing a bang-up job.

Then is this something that really needs to be addressed? Other than your feeling slighted, are there any negative consequences? She's not undermining you to the rest of the team, is she? I know it's annoying to think that SHE thinks she can do your job better than you, but this seems like something that will have no adverse effect if you just ignore it, at least the way you've described it.

As to how to respond, I would adopt a single response phrase to any out-of-line suggestion of hers. Maybe a glare and a deadpan, "I'll take it under advisement." Repetition and consistency are key so that she gets the idea that no, you're not going to take it under advisement.
posted by supercres at 7:11 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would just shoot her an email that says, "I'm sure Christie would love to hear a private congrats from you about her anniversary, but we're sticking to the round numbers on this one!"

She wants you to think she's important and knowledgeable and valuable to the organization, and, yeah, she's a little pissed that she didn't get your job. Just keep smiling, compliment her when she does well, and restate your position. Once. After that you let her spin. She'll settle down eventually.

And if she does have a good suggestion for something, just say, "That's a great idea, I think I'll do that." Not that often. Once in a while. Both to keep yourself open to new ideas (because you say yourself she's competent and qualified) and so that if she ever tries to make this A Thing with someone higher up than you, you can say, "Nah, Libby's been right about X, Y and Z. I used my judgment on A, B and C. I'm surprised she feels there's a problem."
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:11 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nothing that you've said here indicates that her behavior is really problematic at all. She's offered some suggestions to you.

I would suggest that you make a pact with yourself to earnestly consider her suggestions with an open mind, and let her know, firmly, what you decide to do when she makes a suggestion.

I am thinking I didn't fully understand your point about the anniversaries. If there are three people in the department with anniversaries coming up, but you are only celebrating two of them because their anniversaries are multiples of five, that does seem a little odd. Perhaps, considering that she's known and worked alongside those people for over a decade, she is trying to point out to you that someone's feelings might be hurt, but doesn't want to come right out and say "so and so is sensitive and you might want to acknowledge her as well or else there will be drama" as it might make that person seem unprofessional.

Additionally, regarding the guy she suggested you call before Friday, perhaps she has worked with that person before and is trying to hint to you that he is the kind of person who needs a little prodding.

If both of those cases are true, it certainly points to a communication style that is not as straightforward as it could be (which can be irritating), but I'm mostly just trying to point out that there can be a lot more at the root of her behavior than jealousy over your position.

If she's as competent and as well liked as you say, I think you should just commit to clearing your head about this. Assume the best of her, and that she is trying to help. When she makes a suggestion, calmly and objectively consider it, and then clearly tell her what you decided. It will make her feel like you value her input -- because you are treating it as though it has value, instead of scrutinizing it for any potential whiff of bad blood or ulterior motive.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:12 PM on May 15, 2012 [21 favorites]

DAMNIT, if I had hit preview instead of post, I wouldn't have said exactly what chrisfromthelc said, I would have just favorited that post.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:13 PM on May 15, 2012

I can understand why you'd be annoyed. I can understand why other people would be confused by what's causing the problem based on what you've written, but I'm sort of filling in some blanks with the sort of difficult-to-pin-down abrasive behavior I've seen from people that I could see prompting someone to ask such a question.

I think you need to avoid feeding into a dynamic where it looks like you're answering to her. Head off conversations before they get to the point where you're discussing something. "Thanks a lot for your feedback" is probably a decent response to keep in your back pocket.

For the first question, "Thanks, it's been taken care of" or "This has been checked and appropriately addressed" might be appropriate.

For the second incident, "Why do you ask?" might do the trick, or "Things will be taken care of by Friday" rather than the details of how you're going to handle it.

I see how you'd have a hard time squaring this with her value as an employee... Maybe you could make an effort to go out of your way to ask her for input on some things and give her a sanctioned place to express her point of view?
posted by alphanerd at 7:14 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

Maybe she's trying to gently help you learn that if you don't recognize Christie's anniversary, that Christie will be pissed and let things slip that cause you to look bad.

I had the *exact* same thought before I even saw that chrisfromthelc said it first. You know how there are people who give "helpful" suggestions when they really want to just be passive aggressive and shove in your face how dumb and wrong you are compared to them? Maybe she is one of those but just judging from the examples you gave, it sounds like she is really and truly trying to be helpful. Also, is it really a bad thing that she feels free to make these sorts of suggestions to you? I think if at your job underlings just had keep quiet and go along without offering suggestions, *that* would be more likely to be a toxic environment.
posted by cairdeas at 7:15 PM on May 15, 2012 [12 favorites]

it seems like she can do your job reasonably well but didn't get it- that makes her potentially your number 1 friend and certainly a good back-up. going off of alphanerd's final comment, give her a 'sanctioned place to express her point of view.' i'd recommend talking to her, and saying something like 'hey you have a lot of good input and i want to know what job responsibilities you think you might want to take on for which you would find rewarding and help you advance yourself professionally' and, with you still providing supervisory nods of approval when she does these tasks, let her do them. basically give her some territory in which she can expand into while still retaining your overall territory. or something like that.
posted by saraindc at 7:21 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

If she were doing it publicly it could undermine your authority, but since she's doing it privately I would just consider her advice, even if it seems annoying to you. Always "engage her with a question." If she responds with "Well, it's just a thought," then you can ignore the suggestion with confidence.
posted by grouse at 7:23 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Unless there are more egregious examples, I think you might be reading a lot into her behavior. Is it possible she's just trying to be helpful?

Regardless, I would suggest avoiding any confrontational approach. If you think her suggestion is valid, say that. If you think it's not, just thank her and do it your way. If you're not sure, ask.

"That's a good point, Libby - thanks!"
"I appreciate your input, Libby. "
"Hm, that's not the approach I was thinking of - can you help me understand what your thoughts are on the matter?"

At the end of the day, you're in charge, she isn't, and if you're secure in your role, you should pick and choose what advice to take/not take.

If you're insecure about your role, and to be frank, it sounds like you are, you might consider if that's influencing your perception.

posted by dotgirl at 7:23 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

Yeah, she actually sounds like a potentially valuable ally. I'd take her seriously and try to cultivate that relationship as much as possible. If you can find some common ground (e.g., over-arching goals of your organization), then that's a good place to start...
posted by plantbot at 7:25 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't see any indication that there's anything going on here but a somewhat tone-deaf, occasionally knowledgable, and well-meaning person hoping to impress her boss (with or without an eye to future advancement within the organization).

Spend as little time with her as possible if she really drive you nuts, but "somewhat tone-deaf, occasionally knowledgable, and well-meaning" is how I perceive 90% of the people I meet in office environments.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:27 PM on May 15, 2012

I think she's actually trying to help you. You haven't been there long, you really don't know the undercurrents that go on with everyone. Christie could have all sorts of personal problems going on. Maybe she knows that guy can't remember anything to save his life. Go with it.
posted by mleigh at 7:40 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just say, "Thanks for the advice," in a genuine nice way, and take her up on it every now and then. Do you think perhaps some of your difficulty with her may be coming from the fact that you might feel a little insecure, or vulnerable in your position, or compared to her and her status in the company?

If you felt super dooper confident, her advice probably wouldn't get under your skin so much. I've often grappled with feelings like this in the past, when I feel that someone isn't respecting my expertise, knowledge or authority - doubly so when I've been in positions where I (secretly) doubted myself, even just a little.

The instinct, naturally, is to double down on the knowledge and authority, buck yourself up - but of course that it a lose-lose proposition. You don't earn someone's respect by disrespecting them, however obliquely. You win someone's respect by making them feel valued, knowledgeable, empowered etc. As a manager, this is extra true.

Given that she's not running you down in meetings or anything (unprofessional), I would try to take some internal steps to address your feelings, and also think if maybe her advice to you is coming from a place of insecurity something, and what you might be able to do to address that insecurity. I would suggest that any kind of smackdown, however gentle, would make her feel less secure, not more.
posted by smoke at 7:58 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

On the Christie issue: With 17 years there, has Christie been there longer than the other two employees you'll be recognizing? If that's the case (and/or if there are other employees who have been there longer than the multiple-of-five-year people), I can see how internally the lunch might rub some in the office the wrong way. The multiple-of-five rule could feel arbitrary. Perhaps this is what Libby is picking up on, but isn't comfortable saying directly.
posted by quivering_fantods at 8:13 PM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

All we're getting here is the verbal content, while the signals the OP might be picking up on are almost entirely non-verbal, conveyed either through tone or what ISN'T being said. I've got to say that grouse's observation that this is being done privately has me rethinking things here, but I also have to say that I'd expect Libby to have couched her actions in a way that made their benevolent nature more apparent if her intentions were really good.

The OP didn't mention Libby saying, "Hey, this guy used to forget things all the time, so it might be worth it to double check with him," or cop to her error about Christie's years of service, instead she doubled down and suggested he change the nature of the celebration. I guess what I'm saying is that a little more humility from Libby, perhaps in the form of context providing the reasons her disagreement would probably make me read this situation differently. All she seems to be communicating to the OP is her disagreement. That's where I think it's possible to pick up on the unpleasant nature of the dynamic in what the OP has written.
posted by alphanerd at 8:14 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wonder if perhaps she meant that Christie's 17 years have NEVER been recognized, and that recognizing two other people when her multiple-of-5 anniversaries passed unnoticed might be hurtful.
posted by tyllwin at 8:14 PM on May 15, 2012 [17 favorites]

I can see how example #1 is a simple misunderstanding and it does seem odd not to mention Christine's anniversary at the lunch because it doesn't happen to be a multiple of five. She's worked at your company for seventeen years but won't get a mention because it's not divisible by five? That doesn't send a very good message about respect/appreciation for one of the longest tenured staffers, in my opinion.

What she's doing in example #2 is totally annoying! She's passive-aggressively implying that your handling of this project is not following a plan of action, but sitting around and waiting for things to happen. Which is the exact opposite of what a manager ought to do, obviously. I definitely read it as a backhanded shot at your managing style. If she turned around and walked out afterward without giving you a chance to say anything that's even more irritating.

After thinking it over, perhaps my response would be "He knows my expectations/he knows the schedule." Because it's not your job to be calling him with reminders, that's going to put you in the position of being responsible for calling other people with reminders and then they might be like "I didn't know about X deadline, you didn't remind me." (Even if you do call him Thursday and the call functions as a reminder, you might actually say you're checking in for a status update.)

In the future I might try to avoid getting into hypotheticals of what you would do if something doesn't go according to plan. Just don't overexplain things to her. So the conversation would be more, "Mr. Such-and-So is handling the last project work and has a deadline of Friday," or "Mr. Such-and-So knows the final project work is due on Friday." And if she comes back with "Did you remind him?" the answer is something like, "He's a professional and knows the schedule and I trust he'll stick to it."
posted by citron at 8:18 PM on May 15, 2012

Maybe you could say: "Thank you, I will take that into consideration. From now on, however, I would prefer to ask for your input, rather than the reverse. Thanks for your hard work today!"

As for the Christie situation, you should invite her anyway. I think it would create bad blood if you didn't -- Libby is at least right on that one, however irritating it is to acknowledge that.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:24 PM on May 15, 2012

OR you could take the total high road and call her into your office and explain that you are interested in hearing all of her suggestions for making the office run more smoothly and hope that she would be willing to take advantage of such an opportunity and share her expertise with you.

Passive aggressive? Yeah... But it might give you insight into whether she's bitter or actually mutinous.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:26 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another thought: I doubt whatever she is doing is all in your head. If a long-time employee with good reviews and an inside track on the job who actually did the job for six months doesn't get it, there's a reason. Maybe she's cut out for "front of the house" work and communications, but not for the kind of role you have. How much of her friendly advice is a suggestion to micromanage somebody? I guess you just have to smile and say something noncommittal and shrug it off.
posted by citron at 8:37 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

What she's doing is giving you unsolicited advice. With a side of passive-aggressive. That kind of thing would drive me crazy, too, regardless of her intentions. I agree with supercres on how to handle it.
posted by JenMarie at 8:51 PM on May 15, 2012

You sound like the one who is a little tone-deaf and defensive. Stay with me...

- Nthing it is weird to honor 2 five year anniversaries and skip over the seventeen year anniversary. What did we miss here?? Or rather, it sounds like you missed something Libby was attempting to clue you in on, but expressly not rub your nose in. You should be curious and open, not defensive. This is not a hill worth dying on, especially if snubbing Christie is ultimately the politically wrong move for you to make!

- She's right that you should choose the professional route and notify guy of expectation, rather than wait until later. Be professional and proactive.


Please understand that from your specific examples it sounds like she has been patient with you, and now she's a little frustrated you are still not getting what it means to be a good leader - someone who communicates before deadlines are missed, someone who chooses morale builders that include everyone, etc..

If she is only doing this in private, count yourself lucky she's a team player and still has your back.

Be gracious. Right now, she sounds more qualified than you for your position.

(I mean if these are your best examples, then so far she's not really putting you down, it just seems like she wants you to get it together already!)

posted by jbenben at 8:53 PM on May 15, 2012 [24 favorites]

Citron, I see things from the opposite perspective. She actually did this job for several months and according to the poster made significant improvements in one area of the job. To me the poster doesn't seem very sympathetic to her rather difficult position now: she's a great employee, but she has effectively been demoted and told by the company that shes not good enough but you (an outsider) are. That must have really hurt. A lot. It would be so easy for her to want you to fall flat on your ass and fuck things up.

The fact that she worked really hard with you when you first came to help get you up to speed and keep you from failing says to me that she is really trying to show you that she is going to be professional and put any hurt feelings aside to help you. I DO think in the examples you give she is trying to help you, and just feels a little awkward about it given the fact that management has effectively told her that you are better at this than her so maybe her opinion isn't supposed to be worth shit, sort of. I think you should show her some empathy.

(Are you really having a lunch with selected employees on the weekend? That sounds odd to me. If you are a guy and the two employees you are honoring are guys, and the person you are excluding because her anniversary is an odd year, that would strike me as super odd, fwiw.)

Anyway, good luck.
posted by onlyconnect at 9:08 PM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

And the person you are excluding because her anniversary is an odd year is a woman, that would strike me as super odd. (Sorry.)
posted by onlyconnect at 9:11 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

My go-to suggestion for leadership questions is the book Small Unit Leadership by Dandridge M. Malone. Yes it focuses on military leadership, but the same techniques apply to any situation where one is called upon to lead.

What "Libby" is doing is called being a sharpshooter. Malone suggests handling it this way.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:28 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

OP, reading up-thread a bit, citron might be onto something in that her skills are viewed as less than ideal for the role you now hold, yet she really seems to be trying to help here, not undermine.

Are these suggestions all private? If so, than it's not what ob1quixote points out as a "sharpshooter" situation.

FWIW, I also picked up an ever so slight whiff of misogyny, which has been common in a few industries I've worked in. Just because it is accepted culturally, doesn't make it right.


If you've considered all this and you think the discrimination via female thing is pure bunk, then go with being gracious but firm, which never ever hurts.


Can you give Libby a raise? Put her on track towards an equally challenging and financially rewarding position in your organization that would have the benefit of getting her out of your department??


She sounds like a team player and a solid ally if you play it smart. Play it smart.
posted by jbenben at 9:42 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is she suggesting we celebrate everyone's anniversary?

Yes. If you aren't going to continue to celebrate every "multiple of 5" anniversary from now on, in the same way, then you shouldn't celebrate these two. Do you know how it used to be done? Because you also risk alienating other long term employees whose long service has never been recognised officially.

If she's as good at interpersonal skills as it sounds, then you should defer to her better judgement in these things. She may not be able to express why, because she's just intuitively good at knowing how the group will react.
posted by kjs4 at 10:18 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

It sounds like she has a long history with the company and that she is trying to be helpful. How difficult is it to recognize someone's 17-year anniversary too? It doesn't seem like it would require a huge amount of extra effort. Same on the phone call.

Of course, you could have put the phone call back in her court -- "that's a great idea, Libby, would you mind calling him and reminding him for me?" That acknowledges her input and gives her ownership of the idea.

I don't see vindictiveness here. Possible frustration, yes, but not vindictiveness.
posted by Ostara at 10:54 PM on May 15, 2012 [8 favorites]

"that's a great idea Libby, can you call to remind him? Also, I think you are right about so and so's 17th anniversary. Can you come up with a few ways we can honor that and share them with me by the end if tomorrow? Thanks!"

On preview:
What ostara says.
posted by roboton666 at 11:27 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Gotta say...it sounds like she's trying to be helpful. She isn't telling you what to do, but she's giving you insight on what you might do. For example: yes, it's "cool" to celebrate two five-year anniversaries, but what you should be celebrating is the people, not the fact that they're both five years. If there was no celebration for the 17-year person at 15 or 16, ignoring them at 17 while two five-ers get a party is going to offend that person, as well it should! Better, then, to say "you know what, this double-five-year thing got me thinking about anniversaries, and doing a better job of celebrating them. From now on, we go out to lunch on everyone's anniversary." And the insight on calling that person, it sounds like she knows that person is behind, or is likely to not hold up his end of the bargain if you don't call and prod them.

Honestly? You should call her into your office, and say "you know, I just wanted to thank you; you've been extremely helpful to me since I've gotten here, and I really appreciate your insight. I just wanted you to know that." And then get over your hangup, because she's helping you.
posted by davejay at 11:46 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

"Landmark anniversaries" or "milestone anniversaries" is the phrase you need, if you don't want to have to celebrate all six hire-date anniversaries every year. I think you should tell Libby that although Christie's certainly been at Company for a long time, you're setting up a system to recognize landmarks, not every year, and ask her how she'd handle it. That'll give you more data.

But on the whole, I think maybe you just need to thank Libby and then go about doing whatever it was you were going to do, without taking it personally. She Would Have Done It Differently? Noted, moving on, doing the job, being the lead.

And fellow answerers - why are you assuming OP is male? And why do you think that lunch on the weekend isn't during business hours?
posted by gingerest at 11:56 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Make her your second in charge. Run things by her first, even if you don't necessarily listen to her ideas. I can that she's really good at her job, but at the back of my head, I can't help but to think that there's a reason that she wasn't hired for your position. Someone else in the company thinks so to.

I guess essentially let her put in as many ideas as possible. If she suggests something, let her run it.

On preview, what roboton666 and Ostara said. Unlike everyone else, I think there's potential for this to go negatively if done incorrectly but maybe I'm just being pessimistic.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 12:08 AM on May 16, 2012

I agree with jbenben, just wanted to add my reading of the anniversary thing: she's actually not saying you should celebrate all anniversaries. She's just saying that since you happen to be celebrating those two right around the same time as the 17-year, it seems really odd and thoughtless to completely ignore the latter--seems needlessly exclusionary. And when Libby wrote, "x has been here 15 years," she didnt mean x is also having her 15-year anniversary; she was implying, "x has put in 15 years, too, but has never been acknowledged in this way (while two coworkers with less seniority are suddenly being fussed over for their many years of service)." I would bet money that Libby has heard directly or through the grapevine that x has caught wind of the plans and feels slighted.

Also, does Libby have any reason to need that other project done? Do the loose ends being tied up or not tied up by Friday have any effect on her or her job? It sounds like she was hinting that there's some kind of time sensitivity either on her end or someone else's? If that's not possible then I don't know what she was doing there. But for some reason, based on the encounters as you're reporting them I'm not getting a passive aggressive vibe at all but more of a hinting/trying to give you direction without stepping on your toes.
posted by désoeuvrée at 12:46 AM on May 16, 2012

Praise what she does well. Whatever she does that you want her to repeat - praise. Give her the human equivalent of a dog treat, whether that's a mini chocolate bar, or an attagirl, or a nice sticky note.

When you feel that she's overstepping, ignore it. If she tells you Chris may be in a snit because their 15 year anniversary wasn't celebrated, that's useful information. Mention that you're looking forward to Chris' 20th, and that it's too bad you didn't think of celebrating prime number anniversaries, because, of course, Chris is a valuable member of the team. Take what's good, ignore the rest. If she tells you the new covers on the TPS reports should be a different color, ignore it. You usually have to indicate that you've heard someone, so "Hmm, interesting" or "I'll keep that in mind" is fine. Regarding the project report, you can say "Got it" or something suitably vague to her suggestion, then ignore it.

Do your best to avoid disagreement; you could be setting up an adversarial situation, which would make things much worse. If you choose to address the issue, you could ask Libby if she's feeling disappointed about not getting the position, and ask about her career goals. If she's as terrific as she sounds, do your best to help her move forward, possible as a 2nd-in-command, or in another department.

Make sure you're not feeling threatened or otherwise too personally in the issue. You're lucky to have an over-competent staffer as your problem, not an one who's incompetent, or has a bad attitude, or ant number of bad employee attributes. Seeing her value may help you cope.
posted by theora55 at 1:10 AM on May 16, 2012

Remind yourself that you're competent and secure enough to handle this, and that it's not terrible to run through logic checks or question yourself. So try to see it as an advantage.

I do get why this is annoying, but as a lot of people seem to be saying, she's a valued employee and makes some good points -- don't look a gift horse in the mouth, etc etc.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:37 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow, there are a lot of really good people on metafilter, people who value other people and have a sense of fairness and justice. I like you people.

Now for the workplace setting: you're the boss. She is not. Tough titties. Thank her for orienting you. Thank her for her outstanding work. Let her know that as someone who is new, and human, you will make missteps. Most if not all will be recoverable. You appreciate her input on ones that could be disastrous.

And Jesus! It's not at all unusual to celebrate the 0 and 5 anniversaries. It's freakin policy a lot of places. And it's REALLY EASY to give an informal shout out to the 17 year person and say you'll hope you're both here for the twenty. Crap, you can go through and ask people to raise their hands if they e been there less than five years, five to ten, blah blah blah until you give a round of applause to the person there the longest.

They did not give her the position. It's common to want to keep people in the job they're really good at. Rarely do people get rewarded professionally for good work. It may be they want an outside person because they plan for that person to fail. You can be as generous as you want in talking to her about it--but at some point you have to take over as boss. Boss Who Didnt Hire A Consultant to advise you on every issue or decision.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:38 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Beloved, clever, personable, does a great job...Offers you advice behind closed doors that can only help you.

There's a reason she's beloved; all the things she's telling you to do? She did them.

You should start buying her flowers. This person is like gold. This is a person who could help you make your next promotion, and in turn you could help her into your former seat once you've left it. She's clearly qualified, after all.

Look, I understand. Being second-guessed can make me feel bad. Even in the best jobs, though, people who are trying to help you or are at least not trying to screw you over are hard to come by. Don't piss this one away.
posted by atchafalaya at 5:40 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sorry, I am with Libby. In fact, I think I try to act like Libby. When I see someone above me taking an action that I believe will lead to harm, I try to inform them, privately, if possible. There are often grumblings in cube-ville that the higher ups know nothing about.

In example 1, if anniversaries have not previously been celebrated, acknowledging a 10 year anniversary and a 15 year anniversary, while ignoring a 17 year anniversary is a recipe for disaster. What were you thinking?

The second example is harder to understand without context, but perhaps Libby has worked with Mr. So-and-so on projects before. Perhaps she was trying to warn you that he has a history of "forgetting" deadlines.

The problem I see in this relationship is not her. I wish the folks that work for me would come to me with this kind of advice.
posted by hworth at 6:09 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been in Libby's position. After a very brief and personal period of feeling hard done by the company, I got on with doing my job as professionally as I have always done it. It had nothing to do with the person who got the job that I didn't and I knew the region better so on the odd time she just might need a bit of corporate history, personal or otherwise that will make it a better work atmosphere I pick up the phone and chat (we work remotely).

It helped that she is secure and mature and sat me down the first time we met saying, "look I know you were considered for this job so clearly you could have done it. You didn't get it but I appreciate your strengths. What can I do to avoid you being bitter and harness you more effectively? " I told her of a project that was really close to my heart that would make my working life a bit more interesting, asked her to back me to management on that project and I would get the kind of Performance review I always had, (which makes her look like a good manager).

I found your examples to be more evidence of an insecurity on your part (which is OK coming from outside this company initially but really should have disappeared by now). Someone like this can make you look good. If because of these communications issues you end up getting a lower performance out of Libby this will be your fault as far as HR goes.

There are different communicative styles, and this one is by no-means the worst you're going to encounter managing people and teams. Why do you sound so insecure?

sure the ball-breaker type of management style mentioned above might have flourished in an at will employment culture but it's a totally ineffective way of handling smaller issues like this.

Like others I'm getting the impression there is either a gender or other difference which would explain some of the heat in this that we're just not seeing.
posted by Wilder at 6:39 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

This has lead almost exclusively to "Well, it's just a thought!" which makes me think that there isn't any real reason behind the suggestion, she is merely suggesting an alternate plan...for the hell of it? I don't know!

I can see why this is frustrating, but I can think of two very good reasons why she could be doing this. First, you seem a bit defensive, and she has probably picked up on it. Sounds like she's trying to walk a fine line between offering you helpful suggestions and being outright critical. If she takes the next step and explains that everyone thinks you're being unforgivably rude for overlooking Christie, then there is a risk that you will get defensive, resent her more than you already do, and/or shoot the messenger in some way. Second, if there is a culture of poor communication between staff and management, then her own colleagues might not want her telling you too much.

The business with Mr. So-and-So seems obvious. She knows something, but she doesn't want to badmouth him to you for political reasons. That could be because he's lateral to her, subordinate to you in the hierarchy, and criticizing him to a boss would screw him, or he's lateral to you, and criticizing him to a peer could come back to haunt her.

Being all, "I'm the boss, tough titties" would shut down communication. I'm assuming you didn't get the chip implant with ALL THE KNOWLEDGE when you were hired, so having staff that feel comfortable coming to you is important for you to be able to do your job. People doing the work know things that people managing the work do not, no matter how much some bosses like to believe otherwise.
posted by Mavri at 6:49 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ignoring what appear to be clearly helpful suggestions from Libby -- I know this is anon, so it's a little harder to come back and explain why you feel these particular suggestions are good examples of her being right and you being wrong -- because you appear to feel defensive about your position is not a good way to keep it, long-term. She's liked. She ran the department for a while and made great improvements. She's trying to help you through the shoals of a department with a long history (you have several people there 15+ years) privately.

Maybe the department has always celebrated hiring anniversaries, and you're ending the practice; maybe Christie has been there longest and you're not celebrating her; maybe Christie is the only [minority] and it looks bad; maybe Christie is whining about it and pissing all her coworkers the fuck off. But there are lots of reasons why you could be wrong about this, and I don't see many ways where you are right in this one.

The second one: sure, maybe she should have explained more. But you're already disinclined to listen, and she probably knows, so perhaps she isn't bothering, or perhaps it's for good political reasons.

I am sure sometimes you are doing things a different way for a good reason. But you sound like you're digging your heels in every time she suggests things, just because. Eventually, Libby will stop advising you, and if you're lucky you will have picked up on most of the politics by then, and if you're unlucky you won't, and if you're really unlucky then your department will start complaining about you because you make offensive mistakes.
posted by jeather at 7:36 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me, the annoying part is tht she won't explain why she thinks X is a better idea. So she ends up sounding like she's trying to manage the department by proxy, like she expects you to be doing things her way merely because she suggested them.

I'd tell her "Libby, I appreciate your advice, but if you make a suggestion to do X I need you to explain why. Otherwise I can't properly take it into consideration".

I imagine it is difficult knowing how to advise the new boss without sounding either too vague or too boss-like, especially when you've become used to seeing the department as your responsibility. If you let her know how in what way you want her to advise you, it might make you less frustrated.
posted by Omnomnom at 7:40 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with kjs4 on the "just a thought" point, too, that she may be intuiting stuff that she can't explain on command. Just because someone is not able to articulate a reason when put on the spot doesn't mean there isn't a real reason under there that is intimately mixed up in the personal relationships involved that might be hard to untangle and put into words. That happens to me a lot. That doesn't really help you figure stuff out because you need to be able to understand the situation to make decisions about it (on preview, as Omnomnom suggests). I'm just saying, maybe don't assume there must not be a reason there. Or maybe as Mavri and others suggest there are reasons there that she can't tell you without disclosing others confidences or making someone look bad.

I did assume that you all don't work on the weekends at the office because you talked about checking city records regarding Christie's employment history, so I assume you have an office job working for the city or state government. Maybe that was wrong. If you normally work on the weekend then the lunch thing isn't weird, but if you are having a celebratory lunch (with gifts!) in your off hours, that seems like an opportunity for misunderstanding or hurt feelings to me, fwiw. Again, good luck.
posted by onlyconnect at 8:07 AM on May 16, 2012

If I'm reading you correctly, you have 2 staff who have been there for multiples of five years, Libby, who has been there for 13, and another staffer who has been there for 17 years. You need to see this woman as a goldmine of information about a small staff that has been operating together for a very long time. She's giving you hints about how interpersonal relationships and workflow have been operating. That is invaluable information- you can't buy that. Sit yourself down and contemplate the fact that you were hired because you were good enough to do the job. Have some confidence in your abilities so you can take the information she is willingly giving you and use it to best get things done. And stop being paranoid that she is undermining you in some way.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:36 AM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

This has lead almost exclusively to "Well, it's just a thought!" which makes me think that there isn't any real reason behind the suggestion, she is merely suggesting an alternate plan...for the hell of it? I don't know!

I'm a bit like Libby, and I have used this very phrase in similar situations.

It's really saying, "I can see you are not understanding what I am trying to tell you. It's sensitive and requires intuition and experience with people, so I don't feel comfortable spelling it out because you are my boss and I don't want to officially overstep. I'm trying to support you, do what you will with it. And by the way, I'm not getting paid to lead, you are. So heed and learn 'cause you "not getting it" will lead to me not explaining it anymore."
posted by thinkpiece at 11:26 AM on May 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

For me, the annoying part is tht she won't explain why she thinks X is a better idea. So she ends up sounding like she's trying to manage the department by proxy, like she expects you to be doing things her way merely because she suggested them.

See to me, explaining would tip things pretty far to the "arguing with your boss" side of the scale if the boss already seems defensive. It's hard to know the exact dynamic, but I see "well it was just a thought!" as backing down and deferring to authority.
posted by geegollygosh at 3:47 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

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