Direct Report Trying to Make You Look Bad? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a senior leader in a large state government agency. I’ve been here a long time. I came to the job as a high-ranking, decorated veteran and have earned an excellent reputation.

I hired an employee about a year ago who seemed to have everything I was looking for. He was young, but I overlooked his lack of experience because he seemed right for the job and came highly recommended by a person I trusted.

His job is high-level program management and he does a great job. He has developed excellent relationships with the sector leads and the vendors that need to be managed. He puts in the work, he’s on top of the details, and he delivers. He has pushed all of us to develop and use new systems and he never drops the ball.

My problem? He has started bad-mouthing me to some of his peers and to people on his team. He is arrogant and condescending toward me in front of others and also corrects me in group meetings.

Sometimes he’s right, I am not always up to speed—often because he has withheld information from me. But just as often, he is wrong. Either way, it’s becoming clear to me that he’s trying to make me look bad.

It took me a while to catch on. I spent a great deal of time teaching him the ropes, supporting him, and guiding him. I’m so surprised he would turn on me in this way. I’m hurt and I’m mad—but more than anything, I’m confused. I’ve had a long, successful career and have never had anything like this happen to me before. My wife thinks he is gunning for my job, but he is a good decade or two away from even being in the running. I’ll be long gone by then—I’m about three years away from retirement.

Thoughts?

Hurt, Mad, and Confused

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Dear Hurt, Mad and Confused,

Well, yeah! What the heck? Who does this young whippersnapper think he is? Does this kid not know which side his bread is buttered on? What on earth does he stand to gain by trying to sabotage you? And in broad daylight in front of other people? I can’t fathom.

Sorry, had to get that out of my system.

Seriously though, you must confront him on this unacceptable behavior. Because of your status and reputation, it’s probably been a long time since you’ve had to deal with someone challenging your authority this way. You’re going to have to go into it with a beginner’s mind, which means looking at the situation with openness and curiosity and being willing to learn. You are almost there—the fact that you admit to feeling hurt, angry, and confused is an excellent place to start. To be honest, many people who fit your profile would have already slapped the kid down by now. And that might be what’s required. But you won’t know until you get to the bottom of this outlandish behavior.

You’ve already speculated about what may be driving his behavior and even brainstormed the possibilities with your wife. If it weren’t so off-putting, it would be entertaining. You could continue to speculate as a way to clarify and validate your own experience, but trying to guess what’s in his mind won’t get you anywhere.

Here is a potential way to go:

  • Set up a time to talk. Maybe choose a neutral spot if it isn’t a mandatory web conference.
  • Report the behavior you have seen—just the facts you have observed.
  • Share the effect the behavior has had on you and others; but again, only your own observations.
  • What if he denies your reality? Fine. You don’t have to gain his cooperation in validating your experience, you just need him to stop the behavior. Your experience is your experience and there is no point in discussing it. Some people would try to mire the conversation and make it about you rather than about them. Don’t fall for it.
  • Ask questions (some are favorites from Conversational Capacity):
    • What’s going on?
    • Please help me to understand what is driving this.
    • What does this look from your point of view?
    • We seem to see this differently—help me see through your lens.
    • What do you see here that I might have missed?
    • What do you want me to know?

NOTE: you will be tempted to ask why he is behaving this way. But why questions tend to put people on the defensive and fail to produce insights.

  • Listen carefully to his answers. Reflect back to him what you hear to make sure you got it right. “This is what I think I heard you say…”.
  • Find your part in what created this situation, if there is one.
  • You may find yourself getting defensive, and that’s okay. Just don’t defend yourself. There is no need for that and it won’t be productive. Just say one of three things: thank you, I understand, or tell me more.
  • You may very well learn something, and that would be great. Maybe you are doing something unconsciously. If so, make agreements about what you may be able to change if you think it’s reasonable.
  • Draw a boundary, clearly, by making a request. (For Henry Cloud’s amazing book Boundaries, click here!)
    •  I expect you to keep me properly informed. If I say something inaccurate, correct it and own that you should have told me.
    • Treat me with civility and respect.
    • If you need to give me feedback, do it in private, not in front of others. It makes people uncomfortable and isn’t appropriate.
  • Be ready to defend your boundaries. Be clear about the consequences for non-compliance with your requests. It’s possible you have lost the habit of needing to draw a boundary—after all, up until now, your status created implicit boundaries. Or your people have been exceptionally well behaved. Or both.
    • If it happens again, I will point it out to you.
    •  If it happens again after that, I will _____. (Fill in the blank and be prepared to follow through.)
  • Since your wife is up to speed with the situation, maybe do a role play so you can have your language ready to go and polished.
  • Document, document, document. If this situation needs to be escalated, you want your ducks in a row. You may have to let him go. No one is indispensable, even if it feels that way. Be prepared. People who are acting out can sense what they will be able to get away with. Under no circumstances should you send the message that any more of this nonsense will be tolerated.

The clearer our boundaries are in our own minds, the more people seem to understand them without having to be told. I don’t quite understand the alchemy of how that works, but I know for sure that it does.

At the very least, you’ll get some practice standing up for yourself, which you haven’t had to do in decades. You’ll probably learn something about your employee. You may even learn something about yourself, your leadership, or your team.

Tap into your beginner’s mind and your warrior self. It’s an odd combo, but it’ll keep you young!

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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