How to talk to an oblivious colleague about improving?
January 12, 2018 7:39 AM   Subscribe

How do I talk to someone who I hired (but have no direct authority over) about how things aren’t going well? This is complicated by the fact that this person appears fairly unaware of the fact that things aren’t going well. I want to find a way to help this person without alienating them.

"Alan" was hired approximately 6 months ago for a faculty position at a small college. I was the head of the hiring committee that hired him. He’s a more senior person in the field and we were excited for the experience that he would bring. We were slightly put off by some excessive self-promotion, but mostly chalked it up to the interview and figured it would go away once he settled here.

Overall, the first semester has not gone well. Alan has clashed with "Bob," who is the person who is (by far) closest to Alan’s subfield and, therefore, who he has to work with most closely. On paper, Alan is more qualified than Bob; he has loads more experience and has been successful in the field (although has bounced around a bit). Bob, however, is one of the strongest faculty members we have and really "gets" how to be successful here.

Alan, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to completely get the type of place he’s come into. He can be braggy (overly so for the world of academia) and is very proud of work that is not as important as the core things he should be thinking about. He has also taken to bossing Bob around ("bullying" may be too strong of a word, but also maybe not) and throwing his weight around trying to make things go his way. This is very much not how things work here; we all work together on things, but we also all trust each other to do our jobs in the way that we think makes sense to us. At the same time, Alan is not very self-reflective about whether what he is doing is going well.

Alan also tends to jump to wildly wrong conclusions about things; he had trouble with a student and came to me in a panicked fury suggesting that Bob had somehow created an environment where such a thing could happen. I cannot emphasize enough how far from the truth this is; Bob is very thoughtful and careful about not allowing things like that to happen.

I suppose my question is: what do I do? The management structure here is very "flat." Alan, Bob, and I are all effectively at the same "level" and none of us have any authority over any other. However, because I was a key part of the committee that hired him, Alan often comes to me for advice on day-to-day things. I think it is very likely that Alan will not survive his first performance review if things continue how they are going. I would like to communicate to Alan that he needs to find a way to work with Bob; if Alan makes us choose between him and Bob, there is no question that Bob would be our choice. I am also trying to separate out some of my personal feelings from my professional ones; Bob is a good friend. Alan is significantly more socially awkward and does not pick up on social cues, which makes socializing with him more difficult. I want to help Alan succeed here without feeling like I have to be his "friend."
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Alan also tends to jump to wildly wrong conclusions about things; he had trouble with a student and came to me in a panicked fury suggesting that Bob had somehow created an environment where such a thing could happen. I cannot emphasize enough how far from the truth this is; Bob is very thoughtful and careful about not allowing things like that to happen.

First of all, are you sure you want to help this guy temper his outward reactions in order to be an acceptable colleague in what sounds like an environment where you will be in close proximity for the rest of your careers?

Your review process sounds a little unusual to me. Is he on a year by year basis, where his contract may just not be renewed? If so, a word to him about fitting in might be only fair before he gets the rug pulled out from under him in a single meeting. This is assuming his problem is all, or mostly, to do with fit on a personal level. Even then-- well, I did a lot of time in academia, including small colleges, and watched quite a few people be let go for poor fit. It's probably not always fair and a lot of departments are probably never going to find a really good fit, at least not with the right research interests. But I would really consider whether you think this guy can change enough.
posted by BibiRose at 8:12 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Couple of thoughts - its unclear from your question who does the performance reviews and whether they are currently aware of the issues. If so, can you talk to that person, whether they are a formal manager of Alan or not, and have them give the feedback to Alan to steer him in the right direction?
The other point to consider is whether you actually want to keep Alan now you've seen him in action. Is he just cluesless and could improve, or is he actively harmful to the group? If the latter probably better to keep quiet and let him blow himself up. Not every hire works out and it's better to get rid of toxic people early.
posted by crocomancer at 8:16 AM on January 12 [15 favorites]


This is very much not how things work here; we all work together on things, but we also all trust each other to do our jobs in the way that we think makes sense to us. At the same time, Alan is not very self-reflective about whether what he is doing is going well.

I think it's still early enough to communicate to Alan that things have gotten off to a rocky start, and to set up a meeting with the three of you. Let him know that this isn't at all personal, but that the three of you are peers and work by consensus. If it's still relatively early, you could claim that you'd intended to have semi-regular check-in meetings since he's new but have been bogged down with work and hadn't gotten around to scheduling it. Anything you can do to communicate to him that it's completely normal to have disagreements over how you do the job. it sounds like he has strong opinions on how things should be, and you don't want to tell him to fall in line so much as give him a forum to propose ideas, not set up a dynamic where he has personal conversations that are airings of grievances.

If he botches the first performance review, is he going to get immediately let go, or will that trigger a more formal feedback and improvement process? A bad review might be bad, and I understand you not wanting to wait for it, but it might be the wake-up call he's not getting.
posted by mikeh at 8:17 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]


Did "Alan" come from a corporate setting? He sounds a lot like many managers and VPs I've worked under. If he did come from the private sector, perhaps an informal lesson on the differences between the two worlds are in order?
posted by Thorzdad at 8:18 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]


This is probably not what you want to hear but "what do I do" is "let Alan go," unless you (and Bob, and others) want to spend years working really hard to get someone who is not fitting in on multiple axes to fit in a little better.

Don't make this hard on everybody. This is exactly what people mean (or, at least, should mean) when they say it's not a great "culture fit." Alan is not going to leave a 30-minute discussion with a few other people he obviously considers beneath him and suddenly become someone else if he's obnoxiously egotistical and unreasonably paranoid at the same time. Your (all of "your") job shouldn't be your-job-plus-making-Alan-fit.
posted by tzikeh at 8:19 AM on January 12 [19 favorites]


I think it is very likely that Alan will not survive his first performance review if things continue how they are going.

Doesn't this kind of seem like the system correcting itself and handling a marginal hire? Alan sounds pretty toxic from a variety of angles.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:21 AM on January 12 [40 favorites]


I am sorry, that wasn't really on target for your question. If what you really want to do is salvage this guy, even given everything in your question, opening with a conversation with some generic 'so how do you think things are going' might be a way to get Alan to initiate conversation about the difficulties he is having which would allow you to talk about culture generally.

But still, I'd think about whether you want to interfere with the system working as designed and chalk it up to 'hiring lessons learned'.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:24 AM on January 12


Alan has targeted Bob because Bob is the most likely to unmask him as a fraud. Alan has bounced around a lot because he is a bully.

I agree the solution is to push Alan out. If he successfully pushes out Bob, he would not settle down, he would just find a new target.

Let him get fired.
posted by jbenben at 8:25 AM on January 12 [16 favorites]


Three suggestions:

1. Because you headed the hiring committee, of course you are invested in this hire. However, a great skill for you to develop is to deal with any mistakes you make up front. This may be one of them, so have a think about whether you really want to protect Alan's employment.

From your post, I'm not clear on why you would want to have him on the team when his long-term impact is likely to shift the culture away from the values you represent. You may hope he will be the one to change but I'm not sure that's likely.

2. When Alan asks, give him your kind but true opinion. "Alan, since you asked, I think one thing contributing to your issue today is that we favour a collaborative approach here."

3. As much as possible, let it go, as you are not in a supervisory role.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:09 AM on January 12 [17 favorites]


Why is Alan worth saving? I mean, maybe he is, but it is not immediately obvious to me that that is so. Are you personally invested in this? If so, for what reason? Are there implications for your institution that would make it beneficial for you to try to keep him?

These are the sorts of questions you should have satisfactory answers to. Satisfying to you, at least, and to a departmental review committee as well. If Alan is to be part of the future department you want to grow in your career in, you need to have a good sense of why that is so.

It's easy to get lost in the immediate crises. It's natural to want to try and help one who is failing. But sometimes helping someone survive at work who is always going to be a problem isn't always the wisest course, whether for you, your colleagues, like Bob, or for the future of you institution.
posted by bonehead at 9:23 AM on January 12


Could you craft a second-hand or third-hand anecdote as a sort of fable in which the protagonist suffers the consequences which you're worried might befall Alan, with details Alan will relate to his own situation, and drop it as a passing comment? That would require acting skills to deliver plausibly, I guess.
posted by XMLicious at 9:33 AM on January 12


If this is a faculty member, where is the department or division chair in all of this? Who's going to be running the review meeting? That's someone who probably needs to be giving Alan the heads up. Bob should be left out of it because he's already got enough of Alan to deal with.
posted by TwoStride at 9:42 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]


You take Alan out for a beer. You ask him whether he's happy. And you ask him leading questions about how HE thinks things are going, and what HE thinks are ways he needs to improve, and whether he thinks he's gotten good feedback about fitting in. Ask him how he thinks the performance review would go, right now. Ask him what he thinks the people who do that review, value. Get pushy about the reflection.

If he says he thinks it's going great!, you say, well, really ... ?
Whenever you see an opening that he thinks it's not going that well, you confirm it. You say, you're right to think that, and I have a feeling you're not alone in thinking it.

Then you help Alan brainstorm about different things he's willing to do or change. You can give him feedback on whether each will be likely to help, or not.

I'm so grateful for my own colleagues now.
posted by Dashy at 12:53 PM on January 12 [7 favorites]


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