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I am the new manager, promoted recently; he is team lead (most senior in terms of technical experience).

Basic situation:

I give some tasks. He looks for every single opportunity to complain against me, against the task, against senior management, sometimes bordering insubordination. Leaves exactly at the end of working hours sometimes without finishing all his tasks. Sometimes even shows me the finger when I ask him something. I have tried addressing his needs, giving him more authority on a number of projects, actually delegated quite high priority things. Yet he still shows the same attitude.

But if e.g. I am on holiday and my boss (who was also our former manager) or any other senior manager gives him the very same task; he replies professionally, shows "above and beyond expectations" dedication, works until midnight and tries to shine as much as he can.

How can I confront such a situation? How can I tell management that this guy is playing a double face and does not respect my authority?

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    One thing you probably need to make clear (and I am assuming that this is the case) is that you also feed your opinions of him up to senior management at performance review time/management meetings and that his attempts to circumvent you or feel he doesn't need to impress you will only be counter-productive to him – Mike Jan 24 '14 at 10:07
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    This is a much improved version of your previous questions, Thanks for the effort you have put in, even if it did leave a little mess in it's wake! ;) We can sort out cleaning that up now though, welcome to the site! – Rhys Jan 24 '14 at 11:27
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I can add some perspective there because I am that guy!

Not literally. And I've never given anyone the finger at work (Seriously, he gave you the finger?)

In one situation, a manager came into my office, and without any formalities, told me to come into his office, where he began explaining to me that my code was wrong and broken, and he didn't like the style.

I tried to explain that it was not broken, and if there was a problem with the style we could talk about it, but he was very insistent in not having any discussion whatsoever about it, and just having it his way.

HIS PERSPECTIVE: He has an important responsibility to maintain the website. He needs complete subordination from all his employees to meet his responsibilities to his superiors, and get the job done.

MY PERSPECTIVE: I take pride in my work. Saying that it is wrong and broken makes me feel vulnerable, and offended. Not listening to my explanation makes me feel unheard.

At the end of the day, the person who manages both of us had to get involved three times, and finally got us to work out a compromise.

The silly thing here is the work was easy! I just didn't do it because I didn't feel respected. If you are a pro developer, you do not care that you are getting "paid." Pro developers have insane amounts of job security. Pro developers value respect very highly.

I am sure your problem developer is also extremely competent. I am sure he could easily do all the work you asked him too.

You should have a seat with him, and in a very respectful manner, ask him to explain his attitude. DO NOT interrupt him or try to defend yourself. Just listen. Then after he is done talking, do not invalidate what he has said, but say, "I'm sorry if you felt that way. It was not my intention, and, being caught up in my responsibilities, I failed to recognize that in you. Do you think, if moving forward I'm more sensitive to your needs, we could build a better working relationship?"

I am certain he would say yes. At the end of the day, it may be more valuable to you to eat some humble pie and have a developer who does what you says, then to be proud, yet an impotent manager.

NOTE: This management philosophy is adapted from Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which you should read if you would like to hear more about this perspective.

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    "I take pride in my work. Saying that it is wrong and broken makes me feel vulnerable, and offended." +1, this is me as well. When challenged I often react with my gut. – MikeTheLiar Jan 24 '14 at 15:08
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    I broadly agree with this approach (it's the sort of approach I would use), though I do think in this particular case, from the description given by newboss this employee has at the very least flirted with crossing the line where leaving things at "if I'm more sensitive then moving forwards..." is no longer adequate. I think that any discussion at this point does need to be a two-way thing but it also needs to incorporate an element of explaining what is and is not acceptable and that further unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated. – Rob Moir Jan 24 '14 at 17:26
  • Thank you itcouldevenbeaboat. Your situation makes perfect sense. I generally am (or display being) very empathetic with everyone. I never ever say sth is "wrong" and only give constructive feedback. Whenever he disagrees on specific work instructions I usually lean toward a response like "I know what you mean; one year ago I might have done the same, but now we must follow procedure from above." I often try to give the impression that it's "us (team) vs them (senior management)". Just FYI we're not IT folks but sth like a PR team who use a lot of IT tools to analyze, promote etc. – NewBoss Jan 25 '14 at 0:51
  • And to clarify: my above comment doesn't mean that I simply say "Great feedback, but our bosses have other plans.". I always communicate feedback between my reports and senior management. But at times I need to act fast e.g. we get a new deadline for task X: today! This guy places lots of attention to detail (which is good, I know!), but that way he will never meet the new deadline. Or, IF I wanted to adopt his idea, the rest of the team would need to deliver the same standard (for consistency). When I know that's unfeasible, I say "let's leave it, focus on finishing". Could that be wrong? – NewBoss Jan 25 '14 at 1:07
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    @DJClayworth I think if you look very carefully, you'll see my answer has nothing to do with the question or with workplace dynamics at all. It's actually an encoded recipe for scones. – Code Whisperer Jan 27 '14 at 18:10
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Why do you need to 'tell management' as if you're expecting someone else to deal with it? If you're his line manager (rather than a team leader or whatever) then you need to manage the situation. Giving more responsibility to someone who cannot handle what you've already given them without addressing the root cause of their problems is not likely to help.

Speak to this person. Explain that their attitude is unacceptable. Give them a genuine chance to air any grievances they may have with you and make an honest effort to resolve these issues (this may require changes from both of you in how you approach your relationship). If you were promoted into a role that they thought they would get then you do have to expect a bit of friction. Be realistic about what you can expect - if he's being paid to work a certain amount of hours then, especially if he's suffering from low morale in general, you can't expect him to put in much more than that minimum effort required.

You might want to assure the guy that you're happy to work with him on improving his skills to be ready for the next management opportunity, etc. but that this needs to start with him backing you up in public even if he disagrees with you in private. How are you interacting with him? Management is not 'command and control' and if you are leaning a bit towards that in your interactions with the team, or this one person in particular, it will generate ill will, especially when coming from someone who was previously a peer.

With that done, log any problems you have with this employee. Speak to your manager and your HR department about the issues you've had and the steps you've taken to resolve them, and ask for HR's help and advice with monitoring future behaviour with an eye to taking formal disciplinary steps if things do not improve.

  • Thank you RobM. Appreciate your answer! What I was trying to emphasize is that the person in question is really good, technically, and when given instructions by other managers, often responds with a nearly perfect attitude. When we have 1-on-1s he never brings up any complaints with me and says everything is fine. He rarely behaves negatively there. But, in front of the team and our managers, he doesn't hesitate to put the bad light on me. Sometimes even says stuff like "oh, I saw this film about a bad boss, just like NewBoss", etc. Is this clearer? – NewBoss Jan 24 '14 at 10:04
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    It's perfectly clear. You need to draw him out. If he's only acting up with you then you need to outline your expectations, that he's failing to meet those expectations, and what changes you will need to see. – Rob Moir Jan 24 '14 at 10:08
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    @NewBoss it's your duty/job to manage this person and the team they're on. You can't allow someone to use that sort of behaviour as a tool to prevent you from managing them. The ultimate result of that will be the whole team losing respect for just you, or the whole company. If this employee reacts aggressively to attempts to manage them then address this through a formal disciplinary process - I assume your employer has policies against verbal and physical intimidation of one's colleagues. – Rob Moir Jan 24 '14 at 10:21
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    @NewBoss, it looks worse if you let insubordination go on than if you fire him for it. He is a cancer in your team, he needs to know that the attitude has to go or he does. – HLGEM Jan 24 '14 at 13:57
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    @NewBoss, you will never win the respect of your team if you don't act firmly when a team member is being insubordinate. You can't be effective in your own role by being fearful of upsetting an employee who isn't behaving professionally. If you attempt to correct the behavior and the employee handles it badly, you have the ability - and the obligation - to institute a more formal disciplinary procedure with HR and/or your senior management. – Roger Jan 24 '14 at 16:13
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I can offer an answer based on personal experience, since in some ways I feel similarly to your employee.

I have a situation where in terms of my direct reporting, the tasks I am given do not match at all with my expectations about what my duties would be in the job. I have worked very hard for almost two years to be a team player on these tasks, assuming that once I "proved myself" then my job description would migrate back to what it was supposed to be based on the communication during the hiring process.

I have a great manager who is proactive and listens to me -- but at every turn he also tells me that absolutely nothing can be done about my dissatisfaction with my job duties. It cannot and will not change, even though I have repeatedly expressed the fact that I am not happy with the job duties I have been given, I feel they are not what I signed up for, and that I have done more than my fair share of the unpleasant work (and done it a way that has been praised by many folks in the company).

Now, I do not approach my manager with disrespect as you document about your employee. I like my manager and respect him, I just cannot tolerate the inability to change my job duties to reflect those that I was told during the hiring process.

It's obviously unacceptable for this person to publicly display insubordination and disrespect. I am not an HR worker, so I don't know the best way to handle that, but you should consult with HR to determine how to rectify the disrespect.

And I would largely keep the "disrespect" issue separate from the work issue. Since this employee displays good work ethic and efficiency in delivering things for other people, my suggestion is that perhaps the employee is very dissatisfied with the way this work could directly translate to career or experience opportunities.

Doing the same work for other people is not surprising. For other people, it builds goodwill and a reputation of good "corporate citizenship" which can help the employee advance. But doing these tasks for you, as if it is accepted that these tasks are supposed to be the primary job duties, could seem like it is pigeonholing the employee into implicitly accepting these items as primary duties when it reality they are not the things the employee wants at all.

Lastly, you should challenge your assumption that the work is "exactly the same" for other people. It might seem that way superficially for you, but in reality there could be pockets of more or less interesting topics. There might be technical achievements or new skills that can be learned because of minor variations in the way that others ask for the task to be completed. The employee may see those as learning opportunities meanwhile seeing the status quo tasks from their usual manager as "brain rotting" and as tasks that actively harm personal development.

Again, the biggest issue here is to correct the disrespect, because no one can be happy or get work done if that is going on.

But after that, take a long hard look at the assumptions you are making about this employee's job satisfaction. Are you challenging them? Are you providing learning opportunities? Have they communicated projects they prefer and have you arranged to give them lots of working time to focus on those?

I think the above is an often overlooked explanation, but there could also be a few others that I will describe with less detail:

  1. The employee may not be happy with pay / benefits / perks. They may not feel like other managers control this stuff, but they may feel that the direct manager is not doing anything to help them get a raise. Especially if they are a very strong IT person as you put it. They may feel their skills are overlooked and under-utilized, and yet the manager is not working hard to ensure they are fairly compensated.

  2. The employee may feel overworked. Even if, as you say, they are not delivering things fast enough. Did the employee just complete a big project recently, like within the last 6 months? Were they asked to do work on an especially bad project? One with bad infrastructure? Did they have to fix messes created by someone else? In the great book Peopleware there is a useful chapter on Overtime vs. Undertime. Employees who max themselves out cognitively, either because they must endure work that they dislike for a long time, or because they have to work too many hours, will always go through an extended phase of undertime, where they seem disconnected and are unable to get back that strong drive or work ethic. Even if you don't see it directly, you should ask yourself, and the employee, whether they have experienced this recently? If so, maybe something as simple as granting them an extra long vacation would fix the problem?

Long story short, there are many hidden reasons why a worker might feel this way that have nothing to do with legitimate insubordination, and as a good manager you should explore all of these options carefully before concluding anything negative about the worker.

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