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I overheard my coworker (entry-level but very intelligent and articulate), "Jane", tell a group of my peers that she thought I was unqualified to be a senior developer in our team.

I strongly believe that there should be a healthy level of trust and mutual respect among teammates for maximum team efficiency. Unfortunately, those key ingredients are now missing between us, and I'm concerned that this can negatively affect our success in an upcoming project that I've been assigned to lead (and where Jane is a junior developer).

How do I resolve this "issue" between Jane and me so that we could work together effectively?

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    She would believe you're qualified to be a senior developer after you demonstrate your leadership. It's just that simple. – scaaahu Mar 17 '13 at 10:04
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    @scaaahu, beg to disagree. Maligning another person's skills behind one's back is not a thing I'd do. This is ill will and office politicking in its pure form. Demonstrating leadership will not sway such a person easily. – Deer Hunter Mar 17 '13 at 14:52
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    I would be more worried about why she feels comfortable bringing up such a topic with the team in the first place. People tend not to be so open with their feelings unless they have a good feeling that others will validate or agree with them. – maple_shaft Mar 18 '13 at 11:30
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    @maple_shaft - Unfortunately, some people don't consider the situation. Honesty or "just being yourself" trump tact and professionalism. – user8365 Mar 18 '13 at 12:04
  • Are you sure she's not right? Are you sure that your peers don't agree with her? Because that matters. – MNGwinn Mar 19 '13 at 19:45
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Your developer skills may be senior, but it sounds like your people skills are not. People say things they don't really mean. People mean things, and say them, and later change their mind. If you decide your team can't function and you can't trust her because you once heard her diss your skills, you are being childish and decidedly un-senior.

You don't need to prove yourself to her. She's a junior and almost by definition not qualified to assess your level. The people who hired or promoted you are qualified to assess your level and have done so. So stop worrying about what she thinks of you and do your job blindingly well. This includes trusting the people you need to trust. Trust is an act of will - you can choose to do it even if part of your brain is reminding you about that one time the person hurt your feelings.

Chances are, at the end of the project she'll have changed her mind about you. But whether she does or not, you'll be better for having put your shoulder to the wheel to be a great senior team member even in the presence of people who didn't know at the start how great you were.

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    Gainsaying another person is not something people would do without meaning it. Having a potentially disloyal team member is a problem in the workplace. You cannot trust such a person, but you can work with her after some remedial action... – Deer Hunter Mar 17 '13 at 14:59
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    @DeerHunter totally disagree. Some people express ill-informed opinions that they later change, some people use far more confidence and certainty than they really feel. Some say "I think he's not" when they mean "he hasn't yet shown me that he is" etc. More importantly, the way to overcome an inaccurate opinion of your skills is to show your skills, not to fuss about whether everyone admires you enough. – Kate Gregory Mar 17 '13 at 15:05
  • +1 on not fussing. Yet it is basic politeness not to say bad things about others behind their back. Show courage, and do it when the person you talk about is there, otherwise it's cowardice and meanness... – Deer Hunter Mar 17 '13 at 15:36
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    @DeerHunter yes, "Jane" has a done a wrong thing. However focusing on that offence is unlikely to improve "Jane", the OP's relationship with "Jane", or the outcome of the project. Like driving out of a skid, look where you want to go, not at what you want to avoid. I'm not defending "Jane", just saying that focusing on her, and her "betrayal" (which may have been nothing of the sort to her) will not move the OP's project or career forward. – Kate Gregory Mar 17 '13 at 16:17
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    @DeerHunter You're naively assuming. Everybody is potentially disloyal -- some have tact, and others don't. The fact that this one is tactless makes it easy to deal with her actually. Like Kate said in the comment above, making "fixing" Jane your new focus is completely unproductive. Just do a good job and Jane will fix herself. Your best defense is doing a great job, not focussing on "discipline". – bobobobo Mar 17 '13 at 16:40
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"a healthy level of trust" - It seems you're hopeful of this "trust" at the outset that in reality takes weeks or months of working together to build. You're talking about confidence in you as a leader -- as others have said, you have to earn it.

Usually people don't voice their doubts. Her voicing hers in the manner she did indicates that she is just like you said -- inexperienced, and a junior. If she was a threat to you she'd have been more tactful about it.

It was out of line of her, as your junior, to say to her leader "you're not fit to lead" (basically this is termed insubordination and is frowned on in the workplace). A bit of a far-out reference, but in the military this type of insubordination is called mutiny, and it isn't tolerated very well there either.

So, 2 things:

1) Her inexperience leads her to assault you verbally. To handle it, step up and do a great job. She may or may not change her opinion.

2) It is very naive of you to assume that just because you've been assigned some juniors to work with, that you'll automatically have their admiration and respect at the outset. Some things have to be earned.

  • Best answer yet, in terms of identifying the situation. A little light on actions the OP can take away. – pdr Mar 17 '13 at 17:31
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    To clarify, she didn't say "you're not fit to lead" directly to his face. It sounds like she made this statement to the group when she thought the op wasn't around. While still unprofessional, I'm not sure it's the same as calling him out to his face... – jmort253 Mar 17 '13 at 23:53
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    @jmort253, you are right it isn't the same, it is far, far worse. – HLGEM Mar 18 '13 at 15:47
  • @HLGEM - Come to think of it, you're right... it's much easier to talk about someone behind their back than to take them aside face to face in private and give them constructive feedback, especially if the target is in a position of authority... – jmort253 Mar 19 '13 at 2:09
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She should be confronted about voicing these negative opinions to the group regardless of her personal evaluation of you. It's unprofessional, could have an impact on the team's performance and makes her look bad.

Depending on the cirmcumstances you may or may not have any idea the basis of her claim. If you think you can get some constructive feedback, you can ask for her opinion. Your job is to work with her and not try to gain her arbitrary stamp of approval. Life is too short to suffer fools.

Whatever you do, don't make the same mistake and go run her down. If you are asked to evaluate her performance, try to do it objectively.

  • Heh. I was just thinking about adding this answer, because I couldn't believe no one else had yet. +1 – pdr Mar 18 '13 at 12:36
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    "Life is too short to suffer fools" is exceptionally bad advice for someone who is leading a project. All that we know is that Jane has said something about the OP to others that the OP disagrees with. The OP is going to have to work with her whether he likes it or not, and stepping up and showing that he is a leader is what's needed to turn her opinion around. – nadyne Mar 19 '13 at 5:18
  • @nadyne Some people just can't be helped and losing 10 years of your life isn't worth it. There's always that one person that makes everyone's life hard, and you have to just let it go. If the OP steps up and actually delivers in his/her role then the majority of the team will judge the OP as a good leader, and "Jane" as a gossiper and that will be the end of it. She will either not be taken seriously by her peers or be forced to change her ways. – MrFox Mar 19 '13 at 13:53
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Personally I think you should confront her for her unprofessional behavior. I would say to her (in private): "I hear through the grapevine that you think I am unqualified. Why do you think that?" Follow up with a discussion of how you will work together and what the professional consequences there will be for her if she can't behave more professionally towards you. You might even tell her exactly what you have done that makes you qualified. You may find there is a severe disconnect between what she thinks you have done and what you have done or between your approach to problems and hers (Juniors are often far more likely to be unrealistic). Offer to have her removed from the project if she feels that she can't work with you.

This does several things. First it puts her on notice that she needs to more careful about what she says to who and will make it less likely she will say such things in the future. She is now aware that you are looking at her attitude and behavior and that as the lead, you are already not pleased with it and that she will have to change unless she wants to be taken off the project. It lets her know that you are not going to tolerate a snake in the grass and that she is no longer trusted until she proves she can work with you, not the other way around. Letting her resentment (and yours for her statement) fester with no discussion tends to make matter worse. Better to have the discussion and clear the air. Then if you truly can't work together, you can get her removed before there is harm to the project.

If she disagrees with your usual methodologies, then be sure to closely monitor her work. She is likely to do what she wants and not what you have directed her to do. Code reviews are especially important when there are conflicts in the team and the approach. Don't rewrite her code when it is not in compliance, make her do that.

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You should discuss this with your manager. "I overheard this. It makes me uncomfortable knowing that Jane holds such a low opinion of me, and I'm concerned about the impact of this on the upcoming project. How should I handle the situation?"

Your manager might choose to discuss it directly with Jane and leave you out of it, in which case you have to trust in your manager that they have done the right thing and are following up appropriately.

Your manager might choose to discuss it with you and Jane together (and Jane's manager, if you don't report to the same person) if they think that it warrants such a discussion. In that case, you should be prepared to say that you heard the conversation, and be very careful not to turn this conversation into a horrific meeting.

Overall, I think that the thing to remember here is that Jane is junior, and she's going to make mistakes. Learning both hard skills and soft skills is part of the process of progressing from junior to senior. The best thing that you can do here is to lead by example and show exactly why you were selected to lead this project. You most assuredly cannot respond to the comments that you overheard by questioning her abilities. You're the senior person here, and you need to act like it.

You must let go of your feeling of lack of trust, and work with her just as if you trust her as much as anyone else with her level of experience. Being able to put this past you is part of being senior and of being a project lead.

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    I agree with the last two paragraphs but not the first three. For a single occurrence, with no sign that Jane isn't working well with the OP, going to management to repeat gossip and express your discomfort with the opinions of others about you is making a mountain out of a molehill. – Kate Gregory Mar 19 '13 at 17:11
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    I think that there's a difference between saying to your manager "I'm uncomfortable, how should I handle this" and "I'm uncomfortable, fix this". The former places the burden on the person asking, the latter places the burden on the manager. In my opinion, part of a manager's job is coaching their employees through situations, which sometimes includes telling their employee that they are (to borrow your phrase) making a mountain out of a molehill. A good manager can help bring perspective and help the OP with the trust issue that he's explicitly stated that he has. – nadyne Mar 20 '13 at 3:40
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In a "professional" way - you can not. Jane may be envious of you getting the lead role, she may be sincerely troubled by your perceived incompetence (sorry!) or other character flaws. It does not really matter, since the two motivations can flow one into the other quite easily.

This is most likely personal, and there are a few ways around this. I'd suggest getting into humor mode and confronting her with a sincere smile on your face and a direct question: "Heard you don't feel I'm fit for the job. Wonder what makes you think so." You are not looking for answers or an extended discussion, mind, what you want to achieve is put a bit of caution into Jane's attitude towards you, and end the confrontation at the time of your choosing.

Just an addendum: you cannot trust her, never tell her anything that may be used against you, but you can work with her by establishing an air of imperturbability and moral superiority. Never get emotional, never give her any sign that you are weak in any respect.

As a team lead, you have to pull the right string in human character. Optimally, this would be your subordinates' trust in your leadership. Failing this (as is the case with Jane, as it seems), it is the usual mix of working for the wage and sharing the goals of your organization. You have to watch out for repeated invectives in your direction; if Jane doesn't fall in line, you'd have to have another confrontation, and if that doesn't help, escalate (provided there are other candidates to fill the vacancy).

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