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?