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I am a project manager for a design firm. When I initially started, I was to do an assessment of the company. However, the project manager at the time and one of the senior executives did not want me there. Therefore they instructed everyone to NOT speak to me. The employees are young and impressionable.

Fast forward, the project manager was demoted and moved to another office (his own fault), and I was made project manager. His support staff did not approve of that. Therefore, they are resistant to any changes or suggestions made by me. It’s a challenge with them daily. Most of them are not college graduates - they lucked out when they got this job. But because I am not "technical" (as they say) they do not feel they need to respect me. However, I have been a project manager for most of my career, managing technical projects successfully without being technical. What they do not understand is I have leads and supervisors who are technical; my job is to ensure that we meet our deadlines and that process and procedures are adhered to.

Fast forward again, I have had a couple of subordinates file a formal complaint against me stating I am not technical, I am disrespectful, etc. They are all inaccurate. However, they used an outburst I recently had with them as the catalyst to go to management to have me removed. I accept responsibility for losing my cool, but it was after a year of hitting walls with them.

In past jobs, my employers would not tolerate a subordinate not doing as they are told or filing a complaint against a manager for that manager telling them to carry out their work. IF it's not abuse or sexual harassment, they would normally comply.

What can I say to my employers about this situation and why they are allowing the employees to go over my head?

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    @Rebecca - you may also want to mention what country you're in. Some of the misunderstanding in the answers could be due to cultural differences. Employees in Japan, for example, would be expected to act one way while employees in the US might be almost the opposite. Many of us tend to assume you're in the US or UK, but that's not always the case. – Omegacron Jun 29 '17 at 22:41
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    Most of them are not college graduates - they lucked out when they got this job. But because I am not "technical" (as they say) they do not feel they need to respect me. - ...I am not technical, I am disrespectful, etc Have you considered that your judgement of their ability to do their job is equally biased than theirs on you and that this might well shine through in communication, making them feel disrespected? – skymningen Jun 30 '17 at 8:49
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    Okay, now, a really important advice - graduating means bollocks in several fields, especially in IT. Some of the best IT professionals out there never hit college and learned by themselves, and a bunch of the worst even have som PhD's. You really, really need to reevaluate yourself if you are using this stance to judge them. Were I your manager, your posture on this question would be enough for me to consider firing you. – T. Sar Jun 30 '17 at 14:45
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    Could you clarify "I am not "technical""? For example, are you trying to say that you couldn't do their job? Asking because it's relevant to their perceptions - if you're just less component than them, that'd be one thing; but if you couldn't even do their job, then that's an entirely different scenario. Technical teams need a top-level technical mind; in large organizations, that's often a CTO, who bears the technical brunt for the CEO. If you're not a technical person, you can't perform that duty; you'll need a technical proxy between yourself and the team. – Nat Jun 30 '17 at 21:22
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    You show clear disrespect to your employees by implying they're incompetent and "lucked" into their positions. If you think a degree means a damn, you're probably a very poor project manager. If I were your management, your attitude here alone would make me consider firing you. Your obvious inability to work with your team just seals the deal. As Sun Tzu said--if a team is unable to follow commands, it's the fault of the commanders. – A. McDaniel Jul 1 '17 at 2:53

10 Answers 10

206

With all due respect, I don't believe that the entirety of the problem sits with the staff.

You wrote:

The employees are young and impressionable.

and

"Most of them are not college graduates they lucked out when they got this job"

and then

Fast forward again, I have had a couple of subordinates file a formal complaint against me stating I am not technical, I am disrespectful, etc. They are all inaccurate. However, they used an outburst I recently had with them as the catalyst to go to management to have me removed. I accept responsibility for loosing my cool, but it was after a year of hitting walls with them. Not exactly sure why I am on this site.

If I were your management and saw this, I would have to agree with them. There are MANY people in IT that never got degrees including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. If you are walking around with the attitude that a degree or lack of one determines whether someone is "lucky to get the job" then you truly are not technical enough to understand the nature of the job, and it is a VERY disrespectful attitude to have. Losing your cool is also disrespectful.

It's fairly clear that you do not respect the staff from the above comments.

If you want to get anywhere, you need to change your tone and approach. Managing IT staff is like herding cats. Try to force them to do anything, and you'll get the claws. There may well be numerous problems that need to be addressed, but you need to respect your group to get respect.

Remember, the job of a manager is to determine WHAT needs to be done, not HOW to do it. This is where you'll get no end of ire from your team if you try to tell them how to do their job when you know less about the technical aspects than they do.

Here's how you do it.

  • Have a "back to basics" meeting. Talk and listen to your staff
  • Let everyone know that you're going to have a "fresh start"; nothing in the past will be held against anyone
  • Let them know that you value their input and skill
  • Solicit their input

Now, how to deal with your employers.

  1. Understand that you are in a different corporate culture. It appears that you are used to cracking the whip; the upper management is obviously not that way
  2. Get guidance from your superiors
  3. Address your team's concerns so that they don't go over your head
  4. DOCUMENT EVERYTHING

Since they have already filed against you for something you did actually do, you need to step back, eat a bit of humble pie and get along with your team as everything you do for now will be considered retaliation.

If they are in fact as bad as you are portraying them, you need a paper trail. Document everything and build files. In the meantime, be above reproach and do not EVER lose your cool again, especially since you already have.

52

The first thing you need to do is sit down and have a long look at whether you are a good fit for this organization. From your writing, you seem to be more of a control type project manager and you are working with Millennials who resist that type of management technique. There is also possibly a particular mismatch also between old style waterfall project management and developers who use Agile techniques. I am honestly not sure at this point if the situation is salvageable; it may be the best thing you get out this is to learn to how to be successful managing a team in the future.

If you want to try salvage this, you are going to have to do several things. First, you are going to have to have a heart to heart talk with your current manager and see if he or she even wants to salvage the situation. I can tell you that in many places the developers with the technical knowledge of the system are far more valuable to the organization than a non-technical project manager because they are harder to replace. That may not sit well, but it is is often true.

Next you are going to need to adjust your style to successfully manage these people. You are going to go to them and say, "This is not working for us, what do we need to do differently?" then you need to listen without bringing up objections or defending yourself. Then you need to make some changes based on what they said. You don't have to do everything they ask for, but you must make some changes based on their criticism or you will never get their respect or cooperation. You have to accept that you are partially at fault in this situation and that you need to make changes. What you have done in the past is clearly not working, the only way to fix it is to do something differently. the only person whose actions you can control is yourself, so the only way to make the situation change for the better is to change what you have been doing.

The first change I would make is to get more technical. Project management is not just about deadlines, it is about successfully getting the job done. Sometimes that means listening to the technical people when they tell you they can't meet the deadline. Sometimes that means passing that news to the client or senior management. What you do is translate technical to nontechnical and vice versa and you are failing at that. It is key to understand this in order to understand why these people object to you.

By getting more technical, I don't mean you have to program. I mean you have to learn to understand their technical challenges and trust them when they have a problem that they are not lying to you (which means you need to know enough technical information to understand if you are being played). You need to be able to get enough information on the technical difficulties they face to be able to discuss them knowledgeably to other nontechnical people who control the purse strings and deadlines.

You need to teach your developers and leads to break down their technical problems in a business fashion so that others can understand them. You need to be able to explain to them the business needs and why certain things they are resisting are important to the business.

I have worked with more than a hundred project managers in my career. The only ones who were truly successful and who had teams who would walk through fire for them were technical or who respected the technical expertise of their staffs and were able to successfully translate business concerns downward and technical concerns upward. The others were viewed universally as clerks who contributed nothing to the project except to add roadblocks and force people to give up their private lives to work ridiculous hours meet unrealistic deadlines that they refused to change even when circumstances changed. Projects got completed for these people in spite of them not because of them.

Nothing in what you wrote shows me that you respect the technical expertise of your staff. You say they are lucky to even have jobs, You say they are disobedient as if they were children. If you treat people with disdain and disrespect and you get that back in spades.

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    I agree for the most part, but it's not just a millennial thing. I'm a grandpa who has been in IT for over 20 years now, and I would also chafe under this kind of management style. Technical jobs - especially IT - tend to attract independent thinkers. And independent thinkers tend to react negatively to "cracking the whip" as it were. – Omegacron Jun 29 '17 at 15:21
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    I also think this may not be a salvageable situation. And likewise that the OP should avoid any agile-based company in the future, or anywhere where they may have heard of ideas like "self-organizing team" or "servant-leadership". – user3067860 Jun 29 '17 at 17:19
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    @Omegacron, I am not saying others are not like this as well just that Millennials are far less likely to tolerate this behavior than earlier generations who started work when this management style was more common. – HLGEM Jun 29 '17 at 17:26
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    @HLGEM - ah, gotcha. Agreed. – Omegacron Jun 29 '17 at 18:21
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    Just to add to Omegacron's point: the term waterfall model was introduced in an article arguing against it in 1970. – reinierpost Jul 1 '17 at 21:24
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What can I say to my employers?

If you have these incidences of insubordination documented, then present your proof.

Why are they allowing employees to go over my head?

This is typical for an employee to bring a concern with their manager to someone above them in an attempt to resolve it. Given the severely one-sided situation report you gave us, I find it difficult to believe they haven't already tried this and are now in a bid to remove you and/or make your life hell.

What the problem actually is

You don't respect your employees, and this is evidenced in those few short paragraphs.

You refer to your employees as subordinates.
You're ageist ("the employees are young and impressionable").
You don't value the skills they bring to the company ("they lucked out when they got this job").
You admit you aren't technical, but then say that the accusation that you aren't technical is inaccurate.
Finally, you seem to hold a very outdated opinion that employees are slaves beholden to their manager's every whim ("my employers would not tolerate a subordinate...filing a complaint against a manager"). Employee retaliation is actually illegal, by the way.

Your employees did the correct thing and followed protocol by registering a formal complaint against you. Given what I've gleaned from your own writing and depending on how upper management views the seriousness of their claim, you could be in real trouble.

How to fix it

Realize that, because you are not technical, your contribution to the execution and completion of the task is basically zero. Your job is to coordinate your team's efforts, but they are ultimately the people that make the project happen. Defer to their expertise and job capability, show some faith in and respect for your employees. Give them constructive and positive feedback to build a rapport with them. These are management basics.

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    @SierraMountainTech They should be considered "colleagues", and they are there to do a job, and that job is probably not "do whatever the project manager asks". – Erik Jun 29 '17 at 14:10
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    @SierraMountainTech project managers manage projects, not staff. – Retired Codger Jun 29 '17 at 14:20
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    @SierraMountainTech Somebody without technical chops has no business "instructing" their technical staff and shouldn't presume to do so. – sleddog Jun 29 '17 at 14:22
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    @SierraMountainTech The way I did it was to make back-channels, cultivate relationships with upper management, and ask them if I could help in any way. I also sent out emails, CCing others so that they'd get credit when they did something good, and spoke to them privately when there was a problem. A few times I bought teams breakfast. For some strange reason, my projects got done quickly. – Retired Codger Jun 29 '17 at 14:28
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    @RichardU It's almost like there's more to management than telling your employees what to do and how to do it thinking emoji – sleddog Jun 29 '17 at 14:29
8

I'm going to assume a couple things for this answer. First, that you have documentation of your subordinates' non-cooperation, whether that be emails or notes you've taken or whatever. Second assumption is that what you've said is 100% true and that you are in the right. Based on how you describe your subordinates, I think it's entirely possible that you have been disrespectful and perhaps make unreasonable requests of them. I'm going to ignore that possiblity for now.

First thing is to have a sit-down with your boss to talk about the accusations. Is this something they are taking seriously, or are they already on your side before the complaint has gone anywhere? This will give you a good sense of how much you need to worry, and how careful you have to be with your actions going forward.

One answer suggest writing up your subordinates for poor performance. While this may be something you should have already done, right now this is a bad idea. Filing a counter-complaint immediately after they filed a complaint against you will just look like retaliation. Certainly gather your evidence of their poor performance, but don't file an official complaint.

When you go to talk to your boss, or HR, or whomever handles the complaint, go with your evidence. Show them how your team has been uncooperative, what steps you have already taken to try and improve things, and why you haven't written them up before. Explain why you think their accusations are inaccurate. If one of their points is accurate (you aren't technical), explain why that doesn't affect your ability to manage.

I think you're in a difficult situation here, and frankly, I'm not sure you're going to come out on top. The only way you're likely to get through this without being reprimanded is if you have clear evidence to present. As it is now, it's one persons word against a group of people.

  • BTW OP has already mentioned they should have been keeping record. I believes that means they have not this far. – Sierra Mountain Tech Jun 29 '17 at 13:46
  • @SierraMountainTech I'm guessing you're talking about the comment "Thank you al. I should have done writeups from the very beginning, however". I took that to mean that they haven't been doing formal performance write-ups, not that there isn't an email record of problem conversations. – David K Jun 29 '17 at 13:51
  • I just wanted to make sure. As your first assumption was about documentation. – Sierra Mountain Tech Jun 29 '17 at 13:52
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    I would say your third paragraph assumes that the subordinates actually have had poor performance beyond "insubordination". The OP hasn't actually said that the project is not getting completed or is otherwise not meeting expectations. If the project is succeeding, then claiming "poor performance" solely for "insubordination" seems to send the message to upper management that even the OP is saying that the project succeeded in spite of her, especially when coupled with the formal complaint. – Derek Elkins Jun 29 '17 at 17:25
  • +1 for at least entertaining the possibility that the OP is not an evil/clueless PHB trying to break the spirit of her misunderstood cow orkers. Not to mention actually giving some helpful advice rather than speculating on how the evil/clueless OP is ruining the work environment for everyone else. It's certainly possible that this is in fact the case, but pretty well all of the other answers read far to much into the question for my liking... – jkf Jun 29 '17 at 20:14
4

Here is my take on this situation.

I have not been a "permanent" project lead but I have been placed as the lead of several different projects when the need was there.

Your goal is to make sure you reach your deadline and you are ultimately responsible for said deadline. If your Jr staff has refused to cooperate for an entire year the only thing this will serve to do is damage the chances of you meeting your deadlines.

I would imagine after a year you have already tried different approaches to gain their respect and you are still at a loss with your team. This might be due to the mentioned replacement of the team's previous project manager but is possible and maybe more likely due to the negative attitude that seems to show from your question.

Update: After reading what @Richard U has posted I have a better understanding of the situation as a whole.

First I would like to say what should have been done from the beginning, though doing this now will likely cause a problem.

You should have been keeping record of each incident. It would have been a way to protect yourself against any formal actions taken on you. You would have a record of every event that has cause a disruption in your team to back you up.

As it has been pointed out by others, your wording does give off a tone of disrespect towards the team members you work with. This is more likely the catalyst that prompted your team to take formal action rather than your one outburst. The outburst was probably just the cherry on top.

Without knowing all of the variables here and assuming you had good intentions, but maybe don't realize your attitude is not that great, here I would suggest you speak with your manager and decide on a course of action with them. Be it an apology from you or any other action your manager deems fit to rectify the situation.

Keep in mind that because complaints have already been filed against you it may appear as thought you are retaliating when you go to formal write-ups now. You might want to discuss the proper course of action with your manager to ensure that you do not get accused of retaliatory actions.

Note: Any form of record is helpful even if it is an email record or IM record from your internal IM software.

Paper trail is very important these days, though I wish it was not needed as it seems childish at best that we need to keep a running tally of ever little detail like we are trying to work towards a gold star or the dunce corner.

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    While written notices of poor behavior may be what the OP should have been doing, now that the subordinates have filed a complaint, this will only appear as retaliation and will NOT go over well now. – David K Jun 29 '17 at 13:20
  • @DavidK: I agree that it could appear that way but after a year of failure to get the team to listen to instructions what other options does the OP have? As I said their options are limited and I do not see another rout that is more applicable here. – Sierra Mountain Tech Jun 29 '17 at 13:22
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    @SierraMountainTech Do you even see the absolutes OP wrote? They're all young and impressionable, everything they said about her was false (even though she contradicts herself), and they should feel lucky to work under her. She accepts responsibility for losing her cool, but then wants to retaliate against them for filing a formal complaint. They're all wrong and she's right? Dude, come on. I know you have it in you to demonstrate more intellectual honesty than that. – sleddog Jun 29 '17 at 14:59
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    @SierraMountainTech It's called a paraphrase, my dude. It's not a quote. There are no quotation marks. Here's what OP said: "...they lucked out when they got this job." Do you really believe all of her absolutist statements are true? All of them? (I count 6). – sleddog Jun 29 '17 at 15:18
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    @SierraMountainTech I'm done trying to improve this answer. The fault of her poor management lies with her, not with junior staff. To imply otherwise demonstrates a disastrous misunderstanding of the goal of management. And to suggest behavioral write ups is incredibly petty and retaliatory. This is a straight up bad answer that shifts the blame from the person clearly at fault to junior personnel and fails to even address, let alone answer, the questions the OP actually asked. – sleddog Jun 29 '17 at 15:31
3

I think what is actually going on here is a communication break down. You are unsatisfied with the way your employees are working and they are unsatisfied with you. This happens in the workplace for various reason. I couldn't even begin to try and guess what exactly the core of this issue is, but what I can do is give you steps to figure out that root of the problem and how to solve it.

You need to have 1 on 1 meeting with each employee with a non-paritial 3rd party. A lot of companies have forms of non-formal conflict resolution procedures. This normally has someone outside of company come in to facilitate a discussion. Ask your employees what you can do to be a better project leader, or if there is anything you are doing wrong. Going on the defensive and saying its all them will not resolve the issue. Approach as if there is enough blame to go around and you get better results.

Depending on the outcome of these meetings, you may see things in a different light, maybe they just don't like your management style and that is the root cause of the issues. All I know for sure, is that you will not know what the issue actually is until you sit down and talk it out. Find out where they are coming from, and tell them where you are coming from. This is the professional way to handle it. You could also throw in that next time you would appreciate it if they would come to you with issues rather than going over your head. Tell them that you can't fix it if you don't know what wrong. I am not saying that you are to blame, but a good leader reflects more on their actions than the actions of their followers.

3

It might be worthwhile changing your relationship with them.

You are the project manager - you manage the project.

You are not the manager of the employees working on the project.

Your job isn't to crack the whip, it's to collect progress reports, time estimates for tasks, maintain documentation showing the schedule and projections, and relay that information to your manager, their manager, and them.

This might not be how it's set up, but in your environment you might want to flatten the organization, tell your manager you aren't interested in managing them, that's like herding cats, and they don't respect that anyway. You instead want to manage the project itself, and simply relay their completion on time, or failure to complete on time to their technical manager, who will then work with them to either provide better estimates in the future, or, if needed, provide the oversight necessary to complete the work to schedule. Since they are setting the schedule (you are getting your time estimates from them, right?) then there shouldn't be an issue with their manager calling them out when they fail to meet their estimates.

I suspect this would solve many of your issues, and further it might place you more in line with what a project manager typically does in the software industry.

3

Couple of things to ponder over yourself: [EDIT: I am not trying to excuse the staff here, or condone behaviors like misogyny, but instead just trying to give some plausible (some more likely, some unlikely) explanations as to what some of this behavior may stem from.]

  • To command respect, you have to gain it. Being less technical than them means that this is understandably harder to achieve. I know I wouldn't respect my team leader the same if he was only there for the logistics and lacked the vast technical knowledge he displays and empowers the team with daily.
  • I assume you're a woman, and while I do not condone such behavior, it's quite plausible some of them might, consciously or unconsciously, feel their manliness threatened by a woman having authority over them. The world isn't a fair place, so you need to try extra harder than a male lead would to give them zero space to doubt in your abilities.
  • You state the complaints against you are ALL inaccurate, yet you clarify that they're partly because you're not technical (which you admit to not being) and disrespectful (which you were when you lost your temper). You need to re-evaluate your claims and focus on the positives you bring to the table as a leader rather than denying the undeniable.
  • Regarding losing your temper: again, the world isn't a perfectly courteous place, and people not related to you owe you nothing. Do everything correctly, and no one cares; mess it up once, and you're done. Keep this in mind.

All in all, start seeing your subordinates as allies and not potential enemies. Work with them extra hard, and gain their respect by being courteous and unbiased to the best of your ability. Changing your attitude will create a gradual change of their attitude as well, so leave the bad attitude behind and it'll become reciprocal.

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    Not being "Technical" enough is not a valid reason to not have respect in this role. A Project manager does not need to know the ins and outs of the technical side. they just need to know how things need to work and who in their team is best to achieve the goals of each part of the project. A successful project lead doesn't need to be at the same level in the technical side as their Jr staff. Your comment about women is dated. Most people are not like this and even if 1 or 2 people in the OPs team were it would not be the entire Jr staff. – Sierra Mountain Tech Jun 29 '17 at 12:53
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    1) is false. It's not harder to earn respect as a non-technical person, unless you pretend to know better than your experts, in which case it's totally deserved that you're not respected. – Erik Jun 29 '17 at 12:53
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    @SierraMountainTech This is personal bias if you may, but I do feel someone that is well-versed in the technical side can know better how things work(what is harder to achieve,what needs more time to deliver) etc. On misogyny, thats not at all dated and is still a thing nowadays. Not implying all of them are such but some of them may as well be(consciously or unconsciously). I am merely trying to explain some of the possible reasons here for this disdain, not saying thats all there is to this. – Leon Jun 29 '17 at 13:01
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    @All I am not trying to excuse the staff here, or condone behaviors like misogyny,just trying to give some plausible(some more likely,some unlikely) explanations as to where some of this behavior may stem from. – Leon Jun 29 '17 at 13:29
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    If you think misogyny is outdated, suggest you research Uber and misogyny on Google google.com/… – HLGEM Jun 29 '17 at 17:08
1

You could be the problem, they could be the problem -- we will not know from your question (not that the question is not good, but it is a few lines of text summarizing a year of cooperation).
For instance you could be the middle-management-project-empowered kind of person whom subordinates despise because he "does not get" what is being done and is buried/hidden behind Gannt charts; or they could be insolent brats, comfortably sitting in their superior-minded positions and anybody from outside is "not good enough for us". Or anything in between.

Either way, it is clear that there is no good vibe between you and them, and possibly management (this is not clear). Except if you have incentives to stay (share options, promotion path, lateral move possibilities towards a more interesting job, ...) you should just leave. Matching mistakes happen, you had one year to figure out that this is not temporary so your better job is elsewhere.

0

Management is not going to deny a formal complaint. That would be terrible for moral.

Have you seen the complaint? If so respond in writing.

Get a meeting with management and discuss how to fix it. Don't make it about saving your ass and they are brats. You might cover how this situation escalated. Be open that you should have better documented performance problems and will do so in the future.

What goes against you here is you seem to have problems with the whole team so it can look like you are the problem.

I hope the senior manager that did not want you there is still not there.

Don't get defensive but this could go poorly. If management does not openly support you (even if you get a private reprimand) then you are not going to ever get control of this group.

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