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I am a project manager for a small team (about 7 people). I was chosen for this position by management over the one other senior member of the team, let's call him Bob. We both had reasonably comparable qualifications, but he's not on as good terms with management (a history of arguing).

Now all was well, I had talked to Bob about it, and he seemed to understand that there were no hard feelings. Lately however, Bob has become increasingly difficult.

He no longer seems willing to follow any instructions, and, while he still maintains he has no problem with my authority, Bob takes it upon himself to boss everyone else around when I'm not there.

It's becoming a moral and productivity drain to work with Bob, so I spoke to management about it. They suggested firing him, but given our history together, I'd really prefer to avoid it.

I've tried talking to Bob about it and mentioned that there is a very real chance of him being fired, but he seems convinced that he's doing The Right Thing.

Are there any other reasonable ways to impress upon Bob that he needs to bite his tongue and listen? I've been toying with allowing him more responsibilities in the hopes that he'll be content with leading 1 or 2 people on smaller projects. Is this a reasonable option?

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    Bear in mind, you're there to manage a team, not play nanny to one member. Do you have any relationship with Bob outside of work i.e. bridges that might be burnt as a result of the fallout from work? Do you have any authority over Bobbo: Disciplinary/Reward/Corrective? – kolossus Oct 13 '13 at 7:46
  • I find it difficult to imagine there is any team in existence where all the members couldn't use some mentorship in at least one skill area. It just so happens that the skill area where Bob needs help is one where we don't usually think to give mentorship. That doesn't mean that there's any less (or more) reason to offer mentorship in this case. – Amy Blankenship Oct 13 '13 at 23:41
  • @AmyBlankenship - I agree with you...up to a point. In a situation where Bob has made it clear that he's not going to play nice and everyone else be damned, what would you recommend? – kolossus Oct 14 '13 at 5:40
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    I don't see anything here that suggests that he's doing anything of the sort. I also think that a lot of the time, we jump to the conclusion that the other person is intransigent without making any effort whatsoever to understand the other person's POV. Given that the OP hasn't mentioned any efforts on his part to understand Bob's position, I believe that it would be a failure of his own responsibility to allow Bob to be fired without taking that first step. – Amy Blankenship Oct 14 '13 at 17:34
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I have been perceived as argumentative at more than one time in the past. Now that I have pretty much the most people-skilled manager I've ever had the pleasure to work with, I've had a chance to really dig down into what those behaviors are and exactly why I'm doing them. I am not meaning to imply that your coworker is exactly like me, but I just want to give you another perspective on the situation so that you can develop your skills and his skills should my perspective prove helpful and if you actually want to do this.

That being said, I'm going to word this as if his experience were my experience, because all sorts of wiggle words just make it harder to get the point across.

He probably genuinely has nothing against you.

Instead, he's frustrated. There are things in the workplace that just completely rub him the wrong way, and he's trying as best he can to smooth those out. Since you've made it plain that you're not receptive, he's trying to avoid your ire by concentrating his efforts when you're not around.

To the extent that he sees you as preventing him from taking action to make the situation less frustrating, yes, he probably is angry at you and may even vent about that anger. Whether that anger can be allayed by working through his frustrations is probably a function of how long it has gone on and whether he is the kind of person who can separate frustration with a situation from frustration with a person, and whether he and you can let go of past bad feelings once everything is cool.

He probably is not completely aware of the causes of his frustration.

A lot of times, when I'm frustrated, it turns out that there are many layers to that frustration. For example, I was very frustrated that my coworkers didn't have what I considered basic foundational knowledge. Digging into it, part of this frustration was that I felt I had been directed to program as if all the members of the team were expert programmers, but I didn't feel that my colleagues had the expertise to be able to understand most of the design patterns I was using. Underlying that was a concern that we are using a language that is falling out of popularity, and I knew that if my coworkers couldn't comprehend my codebase, I would be "stuck" in that language for as long as I stayed with the company--making it necessary for me to leave the company before I really wanted to in order to stay employable.

Even just expressing that to my boss made me a lot calmer and less frustrated.

How to get at and fix the cause of the frustration.

I am starting to get to the point that I can catch what's going on and head the frustration off at the pass, but your coworker probably hasn't been given the space to work this stuff out like I have, so you will need to help him if you would like him to stay.

The first thing I do when I start to get upset is really try to understand what it is that is at the root of the issue. You may have to ask him a lot of questions to get to that, and he will probably be very prickly. He may also not be very forthcoming, since you have essentially told him to keep it to himself. I can't really tell you how to get past your history--maybe you could try taking him to lunch or going out for a beer.

One thing you need to realize is that he probably feels that he has told you what is bothering him and that you've ignored him, whereas from your perspective you may not be aware of more than vague hints of what is wrong. From his perspective, it is either probably very obvious what you should be doing to fix the problem or he hasn't even thought about the fix he's so caught up in his frustration. It probably hasn't crossed his mind that you don't understand why he's upset and you don't know what to do about it even if you do understand.

Once you have gotten to the core of the issue, it should be obvious to at least one of you what would make the situation right, or it may be obvious that there is nothing that realistically can be done. In the first case, if there is no compelling reason not to make things right, make them right. I suspect that even in the latter case, the fact that your coworker has been fully heard will be enough to content him until the next issue arises.

If there is a pattern of working through issues rather than ignoring them, he will probably start to place a great deal of faith in you and may come to a point where he can do this on his own. At that point you've done him a great favor, because the pattern of frustration-->lashing out-->bad relations-->probably getting fired will be broken, and he will be much more employable for the rest of his life.

Communications with the rest of the team

It's likely that he is picking up on your desire for him not to express his ideas to the rest of the team, and that is probably adding to his frustration. I think you would do better to channel his ideas. When he raises an issue and you can see it's a valid one that needs to be solved. Assign several members of the team to get together at a specific time and hash through the issues and come up with a solution. This prevents problems from festering and forges stronger bonds of problem-solving on the team, as well as giving him a constructive outlet for his need to express himself.

So, your coworker may be higher-maintenance than you'd like, but I suspect that at least part of that is because he cares so much about what he is doing. Only you can decide if it's worth it to put in the time to channel that passion, if you even have the time. If you don't, it's probably kinder to cut him loose now and maybe he can find a team where that is exactly what they are looking for.

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    I like that you don't jump immediately to the blame game but rather acknowledge people are different and this affects how they interact with others. Great answer! – enderland Oct 12 '13 at 2:53
  • I especially appreciate the point that the employee may not be fully cognizant of the real root causes of his frustrations, let alone how to address them constructively. I have pretty low emotional intelligence myself, to the point where it takes a notable amount of time for me to even realize I'm emoting, let alone what the emotion is or what might be causing it. – Minocho Mar 1 '18 at 18:53
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I think part of your problem is in your title. You don't have an insubordinate coworker, you have an insubordinate subordinate. You appear to have not yet changed your own thinking to what a manager has to do when faced with a performance problem. You appear to still think you should be nice.

It is telling to me that management went right to "fire the person" when you discussed it with them. This tells me either the problem is worse than you have shared or the person has a history of being insubordinate with the previous manager and they are tired of dealing with him. You may need to to talk to HR and find out if this person was already on a performance improvement plan. In any event they are expecting this to be fixed pronto and the person to be gone if it isn't. I think Amy has some good points in her answer, but if management has already decided this person must go, then you have to fire him or show an immediate improvement. If they had not directed you to fire him, then you would have more options.

So you have a problem you can't ignore. Your job is at risk in this too. Senior management wants him gone and if you don't get rid of him or very quickly turn him around, they may conclude that you are not management material.

It sounded like he didn't take you seriously when you told him he could get fired. So likely you were too gentle with the message. There are times to be gentle and times when you need to be blunt. This is one of the "be blunt" times. Call him into a private place and tell him exactly what has to change and how you are going to measure progress of lack thereof and how long he has to turn himself around before getting fired. Consult with HR on the firing process, so you can tell him exactly what the steps are and where he currently stands on those steps. You aren't doing him any favors by being nice. You are making it more likely he will get fired because as long as he thinks you aren't serious, he won't change. Tell him that you respect his technical work and that you don't want to lose him from the team, but that his behavior is not acceptable. Give specific examples. Tell him the specific problems his behavior causes. Tell him what he will need to do to in order to keep his job. Then be ready to document every bit of what he does and have a weekly session to discuss progress. If he makes no progress, you need to fire him within a couple of weeks or as soon as you can get through whatever process steps your HR has.

You say he gives orders when you are gone. Make it clear to the rest of the team that he is not in charge when you are gone and they should not do what he tells them to do if it goes against their better judgement or if it goes against what you have previously told them to do. It is better in the short term to accept some delay in a decision while they wait for you to return. While you are working through this issue, I would take care to be out of the office during work hours as little as possible.

You suggest giving this person responsibility for a small team. This is a horrible idea at this point. If senior management had not already been involved, it might be made to work, but at this point you have to assume that he will be gone soon. Don't put a project at risk by putting him in charge.

A viable alternative for future problem children is to see if they want a transfer to another team. If someone doesn't want to work for you, then moving them elsewhere can be a win all around. However, given managment's reaction, it is unlikely they will approve such a move for someone they think should be fired.

Also for the future, don't bring these problems to management too soon (if you don't think the person should be fired, you need to work it out without going to senior management). Try to work with the person and get the improvement on your own. Bringing it up too soon makes you look ineffective.

The first thing you need to learn is to not accept this behavior from the start. The first time he was insubordinate, you should have called him on it (privately) right then. the longer you let something go one without addressing it, the more sure the person is that there will be no negative consequences.

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Your boss hired you to make your boss's job easier and to get things done. If Bob is not with the program than he needs to go. You are not his mom. If he chooses not to value his job as much as you think he should that is NOT your problem. Start the formal process of filing negative reviews in his HR file. This will inform him that you are serious and that he needs to decide where his priorities really are. Don't feel sorry for him. He made his choice. By the way, a real friend would not want to make your job harder or try to take advantage of your friendship in a way that could harm your position.

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