Career Q&A: Dealing with a difficult employee

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I am a manager with more than 10 years experience in leading teams and have generally received positive feedback about my management style. In my current team, I have an employee that I supervise who heavily micromanages me and is very difficult to deal with. Any time I need to ask her a question related to her work, she reacts very defensively and aggressively turns the conversation around to what is wrong with how I am doing my job. Frankly, it has become so tense and combative between us that I want to avoid dealing with her altogether. I know it is wrong for me to let this happen but I don’t know how to stop it. Any advice?

We feel your pain and empathize with your situation having witnessed similar dynamics between managers and staff. You are correct that you should not be letting this happen or enabling this behaviour — not just because it is not good for either of you but also because it is not good for the well-being of your other team members and organization.

As part of their legal responsibilities, most Canadian organizations now have clear policies for preventing and mitigating bullying in the workplace. However, many of these policies currently address only peer-to-peer and superior-to-subordinate bullying. Over the last few years, there have been increasing reports of cases of subordinate-to-superior bullying around the world, which is also known as upward bullying. As a manager, you have the right to work in a safe and respectful environment as much as you have a responsibility to ensure this is provided for your employees.

When situations arise like this — and where you feel safe enough to do so — we recommend taking the following steps in order to understand the source of these types of destructive behaviors and mitigate them:

Educate yourself on what upward bullying looks and feels like. Although conflicts similar to the one described above are not always caused by bullying, you would be wise to familiarize yourself with the characteristics of upward bullying. The most typical examples involve power struggles — actions meant to humiliate, sabotage or otherwise damage the manager's reputation and credibility. Examples include repeatedly refusing to share important information about tasks, consistently not meeting deadlines, undermining decisions by refusing to engage in agreed upon tasks, or consistently acting defensive or aggressive in any communications with the superior — regardless of the topic of conversation. Victims of upward bullying experience similar impacts and symptoms as other bullying victims including: increased levels of stress or anxiety, decline in health or exacerbation of existing health conditions, feelings of shame, decreased levels of motivation, loss of confidence, not wanting to go to work, active avoidance of the problem and withdrawing at work and / or home.

Be curious and share your curiosity with the other person. When faced with a situation where an otherwise reasonable person's behaviour seems completely unreasonable, and where you feel safe to do so, we encourage you to get curious about what the source of the behaviour really is before employing more heavy-handed interventions. We rely heavily on the model in Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high (Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler; McGraw-Hill 2002) to help prepare for these types of conversations. Ask yourself what do you really want for yourself in this situation? The other person? The relationship? How would you change your behaviour in this situation if you really wanted these results? Why would an otherwise reasonable, rational person behave this way? What are the facts of the situation versus your stories or interpretations of what is happening? The model also teaches you how to create a safe environment for the conversation including the danger signs to watch out for and name when a conversation starts to turn destructive. In our experience, these types of controlling or dominating behaviours in the workplace often stem from people feeling extremely vulnerable themselves — for a multitude of reasons, personal and professional — and one way some people try to regain equilibrium is to control others through aggressive and defensive behaviours. If you are able to understand what the perceived threat is, you might be able to remove it.

Start documenting your interactions, attempts to resolve the situation and the feelings you experience. Do your due diligence. Familiarize yourself with your organization's policies and procedures for addressing bullying or other harassing behaviour. Document each incident carefully — focusing on the facts of the situation, your different intervention attempts, the results and your own feelings. Use your documentation as both a reflection tool for honestly tracking your own behaviour during these interactions and as a tool to address the behaviour at a more formal level, if required in the future.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. The bottom line is that no one deserves to be bullied and that this type of behaviour is unacceptable in the workplace regardless of what the source of the complaint is. Many managers who have experienced upward bullying or who have been overwhelmed by other intense personnel issues may feel reluctant to ask for help because they feel they should be able to find a way to manage. This reluctance to ask for help can greatly damage not only the people directly in the conflict but also other staff and, potentially, the organization's productivity, reputation and credibility. Your core responsibility as a manager is to keep the organization running effectively and efficiently. If situations occur that are beyond your capacity to effectively manage, it is your leadership's role and responsibility to provide that support — whether through internal interventions or sourcing outside expertise (e.g. through the support of an executive coach or mediator, training on how to handle interpersonal conflict, support groups, etc.) to help you deal with the issue. Although it may be difficult when you are in the throes of a conflict at work, always try to remember that the worst thing you can do for all involved is to avoid dealing with the issue and that you certainly do not have to deal with this alone.

Nancy Ingram and Christa McMillin are co-founders and partners at Foot in the Door Consulting which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Together, they have over 30 years of experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector. They can be reached through www.footinthedoorconsulting.com.

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