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I am a manager who supervises a team of 8. One of my employees ("Bob") expresses a fear of having his head bitten off, being raked over the coals, etc. prior to expressing his opinions (for example, "Don't bite my head off/rake me over the coals for saying this, but..." or "I know I'll be eaten alive for saying this, but..."). Bob does this virtually every time he expresses an opinion, even when his opinion is not much different from others'.

My 7 other employees and our larger team of 35 do not express this fear - they regularly share their opinions without preface.

Despite his fears, Bob shares his opinions several times at every meeting, frequently interrupting other team members and not waiting for them to finish. These are issues both his previous manager (who left the company for ostensibly unrelated reasons) and I have addressed with Bob, and he has improved in response. He has the capacity to change his behavior in response to feedback. Prior to our feedback, he would try to speak as much as possible during meetings.

I have never personally witnessed an incident in which Bob was chastised for his opinions or for sharing them, and Bob was not able to provide examples of such incidents when I asked. Nevertheless, Bob continues prefacing his opinions with his fears as mentioned above.

Ordinarily, this would pose no problem. However, this is now having the opposite effect.

Other team members have told me (during 1:1 meetings in private) that they are uncomfortable expressing their opinions after Bob has expressed his because they fear that if they disagree with Bob or criticize some aspect of his ideas, he would interpret that as having his head bitten off, being raked over the coals, etc. and become irritated or angry towards them. Three team members told me that they felt Bob was trying to pre-emptively squash disagreement even before speaking.

Bob seems to feel others impede him expressing his opinions freely, but ironically, the opposite appears to have become true. The rest of the team largely feels they are walking on eggshells around Bob. So, how do I frankly tell Bob that he needs to stop what is, at this point, an ingrained habit of expressing these fears before every time he expresses an opinion?

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    How old is Bob? How much experience does he have (cf the rest of the team)? How does he perform in general? – user58697 Jan 27 at 3:51
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    Do you and the rest of the team members and Bob come from different cultures? Some cultures are more assertive and others more deferential – Anthony Jan 27 at 17:13
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    I am always amazed when team leads put up with problems like this. You know how Stalin said "If we shoot the man in the head, there is no problem with the man." Similarly ....... "Fire Bob". – Fattie Jan 27 at 17:35
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    @Fattie He's had 3 "needs improvement" reviews now (so a year and a half of not improving sufficiently despite improving). In May, if he still hasn't improved, I will be able to fire him. Until then, I have to try everything and document to show I tried. His previous manager told me about all of these problems and they persist. – Chris F Jan 27 at 18:16
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    @ChrisF - I see - makes sense! Good luck! – Fattie Jan 27 at 22:24
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Simply address the problem directly. If the communication of the entire team is being effected it needs to be dealt with. You say yourself that Bob can improve from constructive feedback. As you indicate that he is a bit moody I would be extra cautious with the wording. Read over this example and fine-grain it for him personally and then go over it a few times.

Hey Bob, You preface every statement you make with an appeal for civility and fair treatment. So much so I believe it is more of a verbal habit than anything at this point. Can I ask you to stop please. First off, no one has ever bitten your head off. No one bites anyone's head off. No one jumps down anyone else's throat. In addition to being extraneous it is causing people to feel the need to be extra cautious how they talk to you. It will improve communication for the whole team if you can just speak to us directly.

  • Well, what I wrote was that he has the capacity to change his behavior in response to feedback. I wouldn't say he responds well to feedback. He tends to react negatively when he receives it and takes several weeks to see some positive change in his behavior, which is more than others. – Chris F Jan 27 at 2:12
  • @ChrisF edited but the answer doesn't really change – user85135 Jan 27 at 2:19
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    Thank you. Ironically, I feel I have to walk on eggshells when giving him feedback. But this is a good start for me. – Chris F Jan 27 at 3:18
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    It's not all that ironic. He's probably a bit fragile and that's why he initiates everything with a defensive position. As the manager you get to be the one to help him work with his peers better. – user85135 Jan 27 at 3:21
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    He does come across as highly sensitive, while, of course, claiming that everyone else is overly sensitive. – Chris F Jan 27 at 4:31
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It's just a mannerism like any other. Normally you just get used to things like this. It's harmless enough, it's not a mannerism like hawking and spitting while clearing your throat.

If you must, then just interrupt his apology with... 'You're fine, carry on' or something else short and to the point to forestall him.

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    constant interruptions may force them to change their behavior without having to have a discussion with them. +1 – user85135 Jan 27 at 2:43
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    It's not harmless. As I wrote, other team members have told me (during 1:1 meetings in private) that they are uncomfortable expressing their opinions after Bob has expressed his because they fear that if they disagree with Bob or criticize some aspect of his ideas, he would interpret that as having his head bitten off, being raked over the coals, etc. and become irritated or angry towards them. Three team members told me that they felt Bob was trying to pre-emptively squash disagreement even before speaking. The rest of the team largely feels they are walking on eggshells around Bob. – Chris F Jan 27 at 3:15
  • @ChrisF you could tell them it's just a mannerism... or tell them to grow a bit of self-confidence... or just interrupt his apology... or just tell them to ignore it... it's a tiny issue to get uptight about. They're adults I assume? They don't blieve they might actually take a bite out of his head or start a fire and rake some coals? – Kilisi Jan 27 at 3:18
  • In that case, I can just tell Bob to grow enough self-confidence to overcome his fear of disagreement. It's not everyone else that has the problem here. "They don't blieve they might actually take a bite out of his head or start a fire and rake some coals?" - You seem to have misread the question: Bob is the one who pretends to believe this, not the rest of the team. It's bizarre to tell everyone else to accommodate Bob's sensitivities, when Bob is the one causing the problem. – Chris F Jan 27 at 4:25
  • @ChrisF nope, just you I think, this only becomes a drama if you make it one... no offense – Kilisi Jan 27 at 4:26
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Thanks for the clarifying comment; I take a liberty in quote them:

How old is Bob? How much experience does he have (cf the rest of the team)? How does he perform in general?

He is older than the rest of the team, but has less experience than some (he was out of work for several years). He is not an especially high performer because he is in a collaborative role where he has to communicate with other departments and really struggles with that. His technical skills are good, otherwise he would have been fired under his previous manager. I haven't had a review with him yet, but he has consistently "needs improvement" reviews.

Sounds like a blossoming insecurity. I am not a psychologist, you also are likely not, so not much you can do to alter his behavior. Talk to HR; they are in the position to ask him to take counseling.

Meanwhile you do have some tools to your disposal. Change his role to more technical and less communicative. Or put him on a performance tracking program. It really depends on how do you see his future in the team.

That said, I really don't see why his mode of speaking annoys coworkers that much. They are professionals; they should see what he says, not how. There is no place for sensitivities in a professional environment. His excuses shall not impede disagreement. This is what you should convey to them.

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If Bob speech has the effect that others hold back with their opinions, then you have to counteract that in team meetings, and it is actually quite simple.

If he says "I know I'll be eaten alive for saying this, but..." then you let him speak, but afterwards you say loudly "we're not eating anyone alive here, so if you don't agree with Bob, I expect you to speak up. Just because Bob is afraid that doesn't mean he is special in any way."

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    Public humiliation is bad form for a manager. – user85135 Jan 27 at 12:58

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