Need help leading an all-male team
March 18, 2023 1:34 PM   Subscribe

I am a female project manager at a small niche consulting company, where the junior staff at the moment is all-male. For the 1.25 years after my arrival, they were mostly chill. Lately however, they have not been chill, and it's starting to unnerve and irritate me. I need help sorting out how much of their behavior can reasonably be attributed to my shortcomings as a project leader, and how much is entitled bollocks (no pun intended). Also, how do I respond without just pulling rank or coming off as a whiny schoolmarm?

(FWIW, because I realize this question might lend itself to such an interpretation, I am not in tech/software engineering, though a few of our people have engineering backgrounds and I do not.)

This is an absolute book, I'm sorry, so TL;DR: my previously good working relationship with my all-male consulting team seems to be in serious jeopardy. It seems highly likely that the main factor is my increasingly tense relationship with the team's current alpha male, who has become increasingly hostile and distant in our interactions over the last few months for reasons I'm genuinely having trouble tracing. This came to a head this week, when he seems to have influenced another person I'm supposed to be leading to ignore my instructions and cut me out of the loop on a project, to disastrous effect. I need to address this both with Alpha and with the other consultant, but don't know what tack to take, in part because of being a woman in a 90% male environment, and partly because I don't know whether I bear all or only most of the responsibility for the situation.

I've been in this position for a year and a half. I arrived from a related but different job, where I mostly led workstreams whose contributors were my age (early 30s) or older. Now I am responsible for actively supervising junior and 2-3 YOE consultants, all in their early to mid 20s, who usually have technical expertise in specific areas but generally lack the interest or experience to effectively do things like customer relationships, budget management, quality control--you know, project-manager stuff.

I am acutely aware that from a purely technical standpoint, there are projects where I don't add much value. Consequently, I am ALWAYS careful to recognize the consultants' knowledge and contributions, including in front of clients, and to not frame instructions or requests as something they owe me or something I'm giving them to do because it's somehow beneath me as a more senior member of staff (which is how my superiors treated me when I was young and which infuriated me).

If deadlines start to clash or a project is more time-consuming than expected, I either lobby my boss to obtain extra resources or, more frequently, take certain tasks upon myself which would normally be theirs.

I know that my leadership skills need work, but I do not think that I am by and large inconsiderate of my coworkers.

The main critical feedback I've received is indeed that they want, theoretically, for me to be more decisive and driven in directing their efforts, setting expectations, etc. I fully admit that I am still working on this, and I can understand that they may find it frustrating. However, when I DO insist on deadlines, impose re-dos, or assign additional tasks, I am regularly met with significant and frequently public pushback: "the edits are dumb, why didn't you tell the client no"/"yeah I'm technically AVAILABLE Tuesday for the meeting but isn't there something in YOUR schedule you could move?"/various frankly kinda whiny remarks. I mostly chalk it up to them being young and (like all of us) underpaid.

Lately one of these people, Dan, has been particularly exasperating, arguing with almost everything I say, claiming he's too busy to respect deadlines, and then getting on my case--in front of other coworkers--about weird minor shit, like sharing his opinon that *I'm* not sending client emails fast enough (despite the projects in question being on track). It seems incredibly controlling and petty to address this with him directly ("respect my authority uwu"), but now I'm regretting not having nipped it in the bud, because it's making me furious, and furthermore seems to be undermining my credibility with other staff.

Case in point: On Wednesday I requested a meeting to solicit Dan's advice on a project I'm leading with another consultant, Jim, since it's on a complex topic that Dan knows more about than either of us. I explicitly said during the meeting that we had a check-in with the client on Friday, and that the goal of the meeting was not to overhaul our presentation, but to see if it could be made clearer. He had some useful feedback, and we agreed that he would spend Wednesday afternoon working with Jim to integrate some of his recommendations. It is very, very common for consultants not officially on a given project to lend a hand when needed/they have time, which Dan definitely does at the moment.

On Thursday afternoon I checked in with Jim about his progress on the presentation. He said he was putting together some charts and commentary pursuant to Dan's advice, and could I please make my additions in the new version? Sure, no problem. I finished my edits at 4 pm, confirmed with Jim that he would (*and could*) take care of slides X, Y, and Z, and moved on to other, pressing tasks.

I had intended to check the presentation at the end of the evening, but then had an incredibly stupid but nevertheless painful household accident which put me out of commission for the night. Since the stuff Jim had described doing was relatively minor (generating graphs from data he had already analyzed, adding a few lines of commentary), and I have never known him to struggle with these tasks, I decided to check in with him in the morning, the meeting being scheduled for late afternoon.

I arrived early to work to find Jim already at his desk, looking like he wanted to punch something. He was very, and uncharacteristically, surly with me when I greeted him. I asked to look at the presentation together, aplogizing for not doing a final check at the end of the previous evening and explaining I had had a minor medical thing. He said nothing, and glared at me. I then opened the document and saw that not only had he worked on it til midnight(!!!), but that none of my edits existed anymore--they must have been written over, or deleted due to a syncing error. I managed to restore my own slides, and explained what had happened to Jim.

I then saw that Jim had added a significant amount of content which was out of scope, not just for what we had agreed to present in the meeting but for the project itself. I was equal parts surprised and frustrated, since it is unlike him to make major changes like this without asking. It seems Dan told him to add these things. I reminded Jim that this was not what we had agreed to present, but it was of course too late to undo the damage of his having worked all night, believing I had beefed it on the edits without telling him. He glowered at me all day, was tense and terse in the client meeting, and complained to me afterwards that the meeting (planned for weeks) had been a waste of time. He furthermore spent the morning making weird, condescending remarks to me about my own slides ("your summary slide is pointless, please mask it"), which I was too stressed and tired to address in the moment but which made me extremely (unreasonably?) angry.

So, I clearly fucked up by not supervising Dan and Jim's Wednesday work session to make sure they were staying on-track. I guess I also ought to have insisted on making sure Jim had told me about ALL the additions he planned to make.

HOWEVER, I also feel that:
- Jim should have alerted me (as I have asked him to do in the past) when he realized the edits were going to cause him to work into the night (which I have never asked of him and have told him in the past I don't want), and him taking out his frustration about that on me was inappropriate
- failing this, at a bare minimum, Jim should have asked me wtf was going on when he couldn't see my own edits that I explicitly told him had been done
- Dan is an experienced and capable member of the team, and I am 100% certain that he knew that what he was telling Jim to do went beyond what I had asked them for

My suspicion is that Dan deliberately did an end-run around me due to whatever general issue he has with me and his perception of my competence, and pulled Jim into it/encouraged him to ignore my instructions. That the consequences of this were disastrous (wasted time, weird client meeting due to Jim's exhaution/unprofessional demeanor, general misery) will, I'm sure, not change Dan and Jim's perception of their actions. The entire analyst/consultant team spent Friday giving me the cold shoulder, including the ones I usually have decent rapport with, so it's clear to me that Jim and/or Dan must have thoroughly slagged me off in the private group chat that I know they have.

So, here I am. In less than 2 months I have apparently allowed my credibility and relationships with the consulting team to deteriorate to the point where it is affecting project outcomes, and I am really hesitating on whether to:
- continue acting normally to avoid showing that they've upset me, which would just make them feel more empowered and justified in their behavior
- address it head on with Dan and Jim in a formal way ("here is what I've noticed and here's why it's unacceptable, going forward we are going to do X, Y and Z")
- address it more informally/collaboratively ("hey, I've noticed X,Y, and Z, what's going on?")
- quit and look for non-PM roles, because clearly I'm not that good at this.

I guess my questions are:
1) Were my mistakes--and I know I did make mistakes--on this week's project so egregious that I deserved the kind of reaction I got from Jim and the rest of the team?
2) What tone should I adopt if/when I address it with Dan and Jim?
3) Am I being too paranoid in my suspicion that Dan is actively trying to undermine me?
4) Are my relationships with the non-Dan members of the team salvageable? If so, what course would you recommend?
posted by peakes to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have a similar type of job. There's a lot here, but this stood out to me:

> I clearly fucked up by not supervising Dan and Jim's Wednesday work session to make sure they were staying on-track

This isn't really a fuck-up -- you shouldn't need to supervise every single working session to ensure it doesn't go off the rails. If there's a fuck-up here, it's a longer-term one in ensuring Dan and Jim understand what's expected of them on the team and can work independently.

But also, it sounds like the only concrete negative outcome here was Dan's unprofessional demeanor in front of the client -- that seems like the biggest thing to address with him immediately.

Otherwise, I think you might be catastrophizing a bit. If this single incident (which overall doesn't sound like it had major consequences externally) is enough to jeopardize your working relationships with the entire team, there were already larger problems to begin with and you should address those rather than focusing on this particular incident.
posted by mekily at 1:51 PM on March 18 [7 favorites]

The alpha male terminology is derogatory. These are not dogs that need training, they’re people.

These working relationships are not working for you or for your coworkers. Try 1:1 conversations, learn what motivates your coworkers, listen to their suggestions on what might work better for them, and collaborate on new methods of working together going forward.
posted by shock muppet at 2:49 PM on March 18 [5 favorites]

The tone of your post strikes me as weak and placating - you are quick to assume that everything that happened is your fault and you need to apologize and fix things. Well, maybe not 100% of everything but I"m guessing your inner critic is telling you that it probably is pretty close to all your fault and you should just quit.

I want you to take a minute and assume you are an alpha male and none of this is your fault. If it isn't your fault, whose fault is it? Go back through the story and make a list of all the things that someone else's fault. (This is just an exercise, not how you would want to actually interact with others)
- Jim failed to alert you (as he had been told to do) when the edits ran into over time. Jim's fault, not yours - he had been told and failed to do it.
- Dan gave Jim bad advice to include material that was out of scope. Bad judgement on Dan's fault plus ignoring the chain of command. Plus that it makes it his fault that Jim worked late on something that didn't need to be done.
- Jim listened to Dan. A mistake but probably an honest one. Maybe need to warn Jim that Dan is expert in some areas but lacks insight into some issues and Jim should check with you on certain things, especially when they had scope to project outside of what had been discussed in the meeting.
- Someone messed up that your edit didn't get included. Should Jim have taken more time to look for them? Plus, would you want Jim to assume that you had done them and check in with you (even after hours) if he didn't get them? Probably not fault, maybe just a system error but maybe also a lack of follow up.

Do you see how things look different from this perspective? I don't want you to turn into an entitled, self-aggrandizing monster but you do need to be able to borrow this perspective to see how others have contributed to their own problems and may need mentoring to avoid repeating the mistake rather than assuming it is your fault and your job to fix it.
posted by metahawk at 3:00 PM on March 18 [34 favorites]

> Jim should have alerted me (as I have asked him to do in the past) when he realized the edits were going to cause him to work into the night (which I have never asked of him and have told him in the past I don't want), and him taking out his frustration about that on me was inappropriate

Maybe you could start by having a 1:1 discussion with Jim, when you've both cooled down a bit. You could reiterate that you were surprised to discover he had worked very late, and emphasize that that must have been very frustrating for him.

I think you need to re-iterate that you don't expect him to be working late and putting in a lot of unpaid overtime, and when he finds himself in a situation where there is not enough time in business hours to produce the required presentations or client deliverables - he needs to communicate the problem to you, and it is your responsibility as project manager to fix it.

Many junior employees who do not have much real work experience don't have a clear understanding about what their responsibilities are, and where they end, and might place unreasonably high levels of expectation on themselves that no one else in the business is expecting. People may need to be coached repeatedly to get out of this mindset.

It's likely there has been some miscommunication, most likely unintentionally, where Jim has perceived he is expected to do a bunch of work, when there is no such expectation, and the unpaid work he has done is actually useless.

Hopefully you can get Jim to tell you his understanding of the situation, why he was so angry, and that might give you something concrete that you can address with Jim or with the wider team.

Does your workplace have regular scheduled 1:1 conversations (say weekly or fortnightly) between employees and their managers? Are you the line manager of the junior/intermediate consulting team, or is that someone else's responsibility? It could be healthy if there is someone in management that the junior/intermediate consultants can talk to about what is frustrating them, understand how to help them grow in their careers, and if there's a way you can find out about any issues raised in those conversations that could help you and your colleagues improve how you are communicating or interacting on projects.

(aside: consulting companies can often have cultures of junior staff being expected to work very long hours, with lots of unpaid overtime, as the way to climb the ladder. Spend a lot of time at work and socialising outside work with your fellow cohort of over-worked junior consultants. Compete to bill the most hours, climb the ladder, toward the distant goal of making partner. Up or out. Arguably the owners of some consulting companies intentionally design and structure the culture this way - getting a bunch of cheap/unpaid labor makes business sense, especially if intermediates who burn out or drop out are easy to replace with fresh grads. Is this the culture at your workplace? What is valued and rewarded?)
posted by are-coral-made at 3:08 PM on March 18 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: (Just to clarify following are-coral-made's question: I am indeed not these folks' line manager, we all theoretically report directly to the managing director regardless of rank. This sort of "missing middle" definitely comes with some issues. Thank you for everyone's input so far!)
posted by peakes at 3:21 PM on March 18

I'm a programmer and I've found that tech workers (I'm assuming you're working with programmers or people with similar personalities) often have pretty poor relationships with project managers even when there aren't any sort of gender or personality-driven issues. This seems to be true in most consulting companies because inevitably there's going to be a lot of friction between clients and individual engineers who just want to do things. Whenever anything goes wrong the project managers get caught in the middle and blamed for everything because it's a lot easier to blame a project manager than a CEO or their direct lead who has authority over raises/etc.

Most of your examples in this discussion involve situations where either you or they are failing to meet (possibly inflated by upper management) expectations. If you want to try and get things back into a better place I think you might need to reframe things to focus on how each side of the relationship can help the other side. IE, are there aspects of the consulting process that particularly bother them that you can help shield them from better? Or are there specific things they could do to make your job way easier? Maybe you just need to expose them to more of the process so they understand the value you're actually bringing. Anything you can do to place yourself "on their side" when interacting with upper management or clients will help improve the relationship. I assume you're already pretty busy so doing this might require putting less effort into other areas.

Young tech workers tend to assume that project managers only add "useless process" that gets in the way of getting things done. If they've never been on a truly failed project team they can't really understand the value that a good project manager brings. On one of the teams I consult with they just brought in a new project manager who made a big deal of "simplifying the process" and removed some rules that were making some of the programmers irrationally angry, and that immediately made the team relationship better than with our previous project manager. I don't know what the right answer is for your situation, but things you can do to make the value relationship more positive might be worth the loss in productivity or missing a few deadlines.
posted by JZig at 3:36 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

This wasn't one of your questions, but I'm seeing a lot of assuming and suspecting and seeming where I think you need to be having more direct conversations. You don't say what Jim's response was to your comment that he'd added additional content, but you also don't know for sure what precipitated it -- you think it's coming from Dan but I think there are alternate explanations possible.

You need to nip so much of this shit in the bud -- this team is not chill, they are at best passive aggressive. Do you have mentorship/supportive management/anyone who can help you navigate?

My advice (former PM who has had a similar experience) is to go beyond the "shoulds" and inquire "why" -- try to treat this like a project issue, not a personal attack on you. Framing it this way can also be helpful if you need to escalate.
posted by sm1tten at 6:00 PM on March 18 [13 favorites]

My vote would be to have a 1 on 1 with Dan and ask him what's going on. You might possibly find out about some issue you're not aware of. If not, then tell him to stop arguing with you.

Also, if you don't already read it, I highly suggest Alison Green has really good scripts for these types of situations.
posted by elizabot at 6:33 PM on March 18 [4 favorites]

I've been an engineering director responsible for a multilevel geographically distributed team of about 100 with consulting responsibilities, including technical people and project managers.

To begin with, you really need clarity about who is responsible and accountable for what, especially since this team does not report to you. Small companies are often bad about this kind of clarity, so if you don't have it, you need to push your manager to provide it.

In particular, are you ultimately responsible for the team deliverables, with the team serving as a resource for you? Are you the one who answers to upper management if something doesn't get done? Or is that responsibility unclear? Does Dan have official or unofficial (bad) technical lead responsibilities for the team? Has Dan perhaps been given feedback that he needs to demonstrate leadership for career progression?

If you are the responsible person, then that hierarchy needs to be made clear to Dan, while at the same time acknowledging and supporting his career goals.

If you are the support person and someone else is responsible, then you are outside your lane and need to step back, regardless of their feedback which may be inaccurate. If they see you as trying to exercise authority that is undeserved/unhelpful, they may give feedback that reflects what they think is supposed to go along with that authority, but that doesn't mean they want you to have it.

If responsibility is amorphously attributed to the whole team and you can't get upper management to sort that out, then you need to foster a co-conspirator sort of relationship with Dan and the others, where you collaborate on what each of you needs to get the job done and progress your careers, and negotiate who will do what accordingly. If you act like you are their manager when you aren't really then that always leads to this kind of resentment and resistance.
posted by Rhedyn at 4:28 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]

continue acting normally to avoid showing that they've upset me, which would just make them feel more empowered and justified in their behavior

Men don't worry about that. Be annoyed with them. Tell them how their behavior is affecting the work, in no nonsense terms.
posted by tiny frying pan at 5:48 AM on March 19 [4 favorites]

Whatever Dan’s problem is, his actions have had direct, adverse effect on the team and on client interactions. That’s what you need to address. As part of that conversation yes, find out what’s going on.

Jim probably tried to do right. In doing that, he may have made errors of judgment and got caught up in whatever Dan is trying to do. You can acknowledge his good intentions but still explain the negative results for him and the client and help define strategies to avoid that going forward.

It can be really unnerving to be met with open, petty criticism by people who are supposed to be under your supervision, especially if you know you are in fact doing your job. Don’t ever permit that kind of subversion to go unchecked. Part of your job as leader is to manage these personalities, including negative feedback if required.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:33 AM on March 19 [4 favorites]

You didn’t address the disparaging comments about your slides in real time because you were “tired and stressed”….You don’t push back on other snide remarks because the staff is young and underpaid.

I have heard many women present this narrative—someone does something inappropriate, or unprofessional, or unwelcome, and they don’t directly react because excuse, excuse, excuse.

So, I don’t think it matters why your team is being the way they are. The important thing here is that you have accepted the dynamic. It is frustrating to me that you think your only options are to “pull rank” or be a “whiny schoolmarm”. Outdated gendered stereotypes are not useful.

If you don’t feel comfortable telling someone (male or female, old or young) to stop with condescending comments or unwelcome feedback, seek out resources or training that teach these skills. It can be hard at first, but nothing you cannot learn.
Good luck.
posted by rhonzo at 6:10 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]

+ 1 to metahawk's idea of reimagining this scenario from the perspective of you being the "alpha" of the group.

You may be feeling insecure about your leadership style but try not to act on those feelings. People who are "alpha" will respond better to alpha energy. Instead of focusing on your own shortcomings (believe me, you are humble enough, and you don't need to self flagellate), focus on the facts of the situation. They are both being super passive aggressive and rather than communicating their concerns they are going behind your back or silently seething. That's honestly not a good look for either of them, so I don't necessarily think you've done anything wrong. But what you can do here, is meet with both of them individually and ask what's on their mind. And when you do this you need to be assertive, honest and frank, and hopefully that will diffuse the passive aggression. And you need to develop firm statements and state them confidently and let them hang in the air without apologizing. And also, if anyone tries to interrupt you, stop them by saying "Let me finish please."
posted by winterportage at 2:00 PM on March 20

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