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I'm the assistant manager of a small team, and the manager, "Mary", and I have a large difference of opinion about one of our members, "Ethan". He's the least experienced person we have.

Overall, I find him to be a hard worker with a strong positive outlook who's curious about the details of our trade and eager to jump in and practice new skills. Coworkers, including other managers he's interacted with, generally share this opinion.

Mary believes that he is unwilling to learn, possibly lazy, and not interested in developing as a professional. She mentioned two circumstances to me the other day as particularly galling to her; I thought they were trivial, but it seems that she perceives a pattern.

In my opinion, the friction is largely due to her manner of approaching him about mistakes or refinements in his work. She can be very high-handed when dealing with minor problems, to the point of condescension. (This is a difficulty I've had with her myself.)

No one responds well to condescension, and I know that some of Ethan's good will and respect for her has been eroded, leading to frustration and resistance on his part in their interactions. This, of course, is a downward spiral.

(It may be worth mentioning that until very recently Mary had a similar relationship with another team member; I'm not yet completely clear about what changed her mind, but she's happy with him now.)

I'd like to do what I can to repair the relationship and make both of them happy again, with the particular goal of retaining Ethan as an employee. I'm seriously concerned about him leaving within the next few months if this doesn't improve, and I definitely think he's a worker worth keeping.

I've quietly advised him, without going into the details that Mary shared with me, to keep his head down, swallow his frustration a bit, and be more cooperative with her. I intend to present specific examples of Ethan's good behavior the next time she and I talk about him.

As a manager, I need to take Mary's evaluation seriously, and not seem to be working against her even though I disagree. What other steps can I take to play both sides and respectfully change the boss's opinion of our team member?

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I think that this actually ends up being one of the most important parts of being a middle manager. "Ethan" (probably rightly) does not feel that he has the authority to speak up directly to "Mary", and might even feel that you tacitly agree with her if you aren't constantly undercutting what she's saying (which has its own set of issues).

Unfortunately I think the only real option here - at least the one which has the most chance of any level of real success - is to confront "Mary" about this situation and see if she has it in herself to change. I realize that this is probably the last thing you want to do - confrontation is never easy - but I actually think that you can use that. Approach this as a tough conversation you're only having with "Mary" because you have to have it and I think you'll begin to be on the right track.

In the conversation itself, even though it is literally a confrontation I also think that it's important not to be too confrontational. People have a tendency to get defensive and double down when they feel they are being told they are doing a core aspect of their job duties incorrectly, and I would not expect a person with a record of being condescending to be any less so here. Talk about the situation in terms of how it impacts you and, secondarily, "Ethan" instead of how her behaviors are bad and need to be changed. And try to come at this from a standpoint that you have an issue that you would like her help in brainstorming a resolution to. "Yesterday I noticed that following a conversation that you had with 'Ethan', he was visibly frustrated. Fortunately he is a professional and his production was not negatively affected by this, but I feel that if this continues, 'Ethan' will leave us for a less stressful environment. What do you think I should do about this?"

Now, that being said, I think there are a few ways this could work out, not all of which, unfortunately, are going to be satisfying to you:

  • "Mary" could downplay "Ethan" - she does condescend to him, after all - and won't change her behavior. Well, that is information you can utilize as well. Whether you want to tell "Ethan" about this conversation is up to you and the ethics involved. But if you know she's not going to stop, then you can react accordingly: you can at that point attempt to do stuff like isolate "Ethan" from her (which may or may not work, which is why I didn't propose it) or, frankly, begin looking for "Ethan"'s replacement.

  • "Mary" could say "oh, I didn't realize that!" and at least work to change her behavior. I'm not saying there's a good chance that this happens, but it does happen every now and then and sometimes the only way a person notices something like this is when this kind of thing is pointed out to them. If somehow, some way this ends up working out, I would notice it and at a later date go out of my way to positively reinforce "Mary" ("Hey, I couldn't help but notice that as of late the nature of your conversations with 'Ethan' have improved and as a result he seems a lot less frustrated with his situation at work. Thanks for your kindness and help.").

  • Mary could kind of go somewhere in between - act like there's not a problem but then work to change, for instance. This is one good reason (secondary to ethics) why you might not want to tell "Ethan" about your conversation. It's my experience that people will deny, deny, deny in person and then, as they sit down and think about their day, will come to a different conclusion on their own. Again, if this is how "Mary" responds, it doesn't make her a bad person, just a person.

  • Mary could take this in a really bad way and start including the conversation in future episodes of condescension. This would be horrible, but, well, it's also useful information. In this situation I would go so far as to say that if I were you I'd start looking for another job and/or take the complaint up the management chain; a person who reacts poorly to criticism is not a person you ever want to work with long-term in my opinion.

  • Finally, "Mary" could propose an alternative answer to what you'd originally thought of. That's the fun of presenting the issue as a problem with no clear solution: sometimes your prescribed one isn't the best. Maybe she'll stop going directly to "Ethan" with issues and present them to you instead (which, I know, makes you the bad guy with "Ethan" if there are issues with his work, but such is the nature of middle management). Perhaps she has good reason why she suspects "Ethan" isn't pulling his weight that, when enlightened upon them, you agree with. The point is to at least be ready for this as a possibility.

The answer I gave is relatively simple but not easy at all. Sorry!

  • Not easy, but thorough. I appreciate the idea and the enumeration of possibilities. Assuming that one of bullet points two or three work out, do you happen to have any suggestions for helping Ethan stay cool until Mary improves her style? – s.phillip.c Apr 7 '14 at 17:51
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This is a great question and ultimately it depends on what your manager will allow you to do. As a manager I always encouraged my assistant manager and employees to take on challenges. I would consider this to be a challenge.

What I would appreciate if I was Mary, as an acceptable course of action, would be for you to talk to Mary regarding you taking Ethan under your wing and building him into a better employee. This helps train you in employee development and allows you to improve your skill set as a manager. This also improves Ethan's skills as an employee as he is being trained by someone the company obviously has faith in. It will increase Ethan's morale as he will gain a solid plan of what is expected of him.

All of this being said, you should present to Mary a clear concise plan as to how you will lead Ethan to be the employee you believe he can possibly be. Don't attempt to make this situation where you are trying to go behind her back instead mention things like 'It is expensive to hire and retrain' and 'Employee retention is an important metric'. Make it as though you are concerned with what is best for her and the team, since that should be your overall concern as the assistant manager.


In response to the comment regarding a lack of face time:

It is not necessary to have face time regularly for this to be successful. The main issue seems to be a lack of trust between Mary and Ethan. The bridge here luckily is you. In order to address this, try and sit down with Ethan bi-weekly or monthly for a lunch meeting and discuss his performance. Have him ask you questions and you focus on his long term career success versus just what he has been doing for the last week.

I would also try and set up a bi-weekly or monthly meeting with some other employees as well. This would overall improve morale for them and it will give you insight as to what your employees are wanting and expecting and be able to relay that to Mary in a general way. For example, if a lot of people seem to feel like work has become stale, try and set up a fun event.

  • Indeed, going behind her back is precisely what I want to avoid. A concrete outline for Ethan to address Mary's concerns sounds like an excellent idea, although he and I are going to have greatly reduced face time because of an approaching schedule change. I may not be able to implement it myself. Having bullet points from her would help me understand both sides better. – s.phillip.c Apr 5 '14 at 22:50
  • Edited the answer above in order to give advice regarding this. Overall hopefully if it is implemented well, it should require minimal face time and just be enough for everyone to know you are there for them. The majority of the time, that is all anyone really needs. – Paul Muir Apr 5 '14 at 23:32
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What other steps can I take to play both sides and respectfully change the boss's opinion of our team member?

As Assistant Manager, presumably you have occasion to speak confidentially with Mary about people issues.

Use that opportunity to bring up the subject of Ethan. Explain from your viewpoint how you see her acting with Ethan, and that you aren't sure you understand her view, but want to learn more about it.

Listen to what Mary explains about the situation. Compare Ethan to the other team member whose relationship with Mary changed, and learn how that happened.

Then, ask Mary if she would like to "salvage" the relationship with Ethan. If she would, offer to help.

This approach puts you in a position to learn more deeply about your boss's outlook, and at the same time positions you to help improve a team member's standing, while working with her rather than against her.

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