when you manage someone who you personally dislike

A reader writes:

I work in a small company (35 employees) in a team of four people. We are a “young” company (average age around 30) and we get along; many people have become friends and about once a month we go out for drinks, invitation open to all.

Some four months ago, I was appointed team leader and around that same time we hired a new colleague on to our team. He is young and this is his first office job. He is openly grateful for being employed (in today’s economy) and very eager to learn. He does his job quite well.

The problem is that I found myself really disliking him personally. He is very smug and often condescending in everyday conversations, and very intense (trying to become close friends with everyone very quickly). I also notice that he is sometimes a kiss-ass, both within the team and with our higher-ups. Regarding the rest of the team, another team member mentioned that he sometimes annoys her and the fourth member has mostly worked in another location and likes the New Guy’s work but has mentioned no personal impressions.

I don’t talk to other team members about my personal feelings. I don’t want to be petty and I don’t want this problem I’m having to influence the team (I have seen how damaging a personal dislike between two people, when allowed to flare, can be to a team). The New Guy, as I mentioned, does good work and I don’t think he is malicious or would be intentionally damaging. But we work very closely together, in the same office, he attends the company’s unofficial social events and although in an ideal world I could only focus on his work, I’m afraid that me finding him personally obnoxious could become an issue.

Do you have any advice on how I can handle my own feelings?

First, stop seeing your relationships with colleagues in terms of who you like and who you don’t like. Your job as a manager isn’t to be friends with the people who work for you — in fact, it’s to not be friends with them. (You need to preserve professional boundaries so that you can objectively assess their work, give feedback, make tough decisions about their tenure with the company if necessary, and generally be their boss, not their friend.)

That means that you need to focus on his work, not whether you enjoy hanging out with him.

However, if his behaviors are impacting his effectiveness, then as his manager, you’re almost obligated to talk to him about that. And that might be a legitimate issue here, since it sounds like you’re partly identifying a problem with how he’s fitting in with your office’s culture and expectations about behavior. (I say “partly,” because I think this is only true of the smugness and condescension; his attempts to quickly become friends with others are really not your business.)

I’d think a bit on what the impact of the smugness and condescension is. Is he coming across as if he doesn’t respect his colleagues’ opinions, which is bad for his working relationships with others? Is he acting as if he has nothing to learn, which would legitimately worry you as his manager because it might mean he’s blocking out important information he really does need to learn and/or turning others off from helping him? Is is bringing a negative energy to meetings and discussions?  These are the types of things that you should talk with him about, because these are legitimate areas for you to care about — they affect his own performance and they affect your team in general.

But again, you should be approaching this utterly dispassionately — it’s not about whether you like him (irrelevant); it’s about his impact in the workplace, good and bad.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. ChristineH*

    Just a thought, but his smugness could be because he was able to get a job–his first one at that–in this economy. Also, because it’s his first job, it’s possible that he doesn’t realize the way he’s coming across and that it could turn people off.

    That said, I agree with AAM’s advice. Unless it impacts the work of the team overall, then try to not let it get to you (I know, easier said than done). I do think that if he’s directly and repeatedly condescending to you, then would be the time to address it.

    1. jmkenrick*

      Also worth noting: maybe he’s just trying to come off as confident and like he belongs there – and it’s just a bit too much.

        1. EngineerGirl*

          Thanks for saying this! I ‘ve been accused of “arrogance” when I was very confident of my technical opinions – I knew that subject matter thoroughly, and the other person couldn’t even get basic concepts. They were offended at my confidence. So +1!

          It is hard to tell from the letter just what it is. Using terms like “smug” and “kiss-ass” tell us nothing. They are the writers opinion, not any sort of fact based observation. And those terms are pretty disrespectful. This makes me question the writers biases. In fact, I wonder if the OP is looking for trouble just because he doesn’t like the other person?

          I mean, HOW is he being condesending? Does he change his voice into a sneer or interrupt people? Use terms such as “Duh! of COURSE it is this way”? If that is the case, then the OP has an obligation to let the new guy know how those behaviors are being taken. But the OP needs to do it soon. The OP is already letting his resentment build instead of taing care of the issue. That is a guarunteed formula for an explosion later on, and the new guy will be blindsided by it.

          1. Jamie*

            For whatever reason technical people do get stereotyped as arrogant – I really think it happens when one’s area of expertise is so foreign to the other person …so any clarification or rewording into layman’s terms is seen as arrogant.

            It could also be that technical people tend to be logical and direct in their communication, which can be off-putting to the more relationship oriented people.

            1. jmkenrick*

              Probably a combination of those factors. Also I’ve noticed that when I’m familiar with a subject and spend a lot of time communicating with other people who also familiar with the subject – it’s easy to forget that not everyone speaks that language. So I can start acting like somethings are “obvious” which can come accross as condesending when I’m dealing with people who aren’t familiar.

              I’ve definitely noticed that trait in other people as well.

  2. david*

    given his propensity to form relationships with the ‘higher ups’ he may become your boss one day… Just saying, you cannot afford to let anyone know how you feel.

    In fact, in the work environment, no one should know that someone doesn’t like them. There are a multitude of nasty back stabbing things people will do when they feel threatened or feel they need to defend themselves.

    He actually sounds like he is upwardly mobile, so you will need to be extra careful

  3. KayDay*

    AAM – would your advice be the same if the OP wasn’t “friends” with so many of his co-workers, but just personally didn’t click with people he was professional with.

    For example, at my job, I’m not at all friends with the researchers I work with. In fact, I literally have to be paid to hang out with them (during conferences/symposiums). However, I still like some of them more than others–some are creepy, some act like children, some are very funny, some are caring, some are quiet yet insightful, some are just plain mean. Since I don’t manage them, it’s not an issue; but what if I were the CEO and had to manage them?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      As a manager, you’ve really got to ask how it affects the work (of the person as well as the team/organization overall). Sometimes the answer is that it doesn’t, and if that’s the case, you really need to ignore your personal dislike. But other times, if you look at the behavior through the lens of culture and performance, you may find that the person isn’t displaying the values/behavioral norms that you have a business reason for wanting employees to display.

      Being creepy, childish, or mean are definitely things that go beyond personal dislike to actually having an impact on the organization, and they can be addressed from that angle.

      1. Anonymous*

        Is Team Lead = Manager? I have worked in organizations where the Team Lead is not actually the manager of other team members, but rather more of a facilitator of the team’s work. If that’s the case here, the OP may just have to suck it up.

        1. KayDay*

          Good point! I’ve actually been thinking that Alison should write a post about how to deal when you are in a more “unofficial” management/leadership positions but aren’t the real manager with (e.g. the assistant who gets to help “supervise” the interns, the associate who leads the team of peers on a project, the project manager who has to deal with consultants etc.), but I don’t have an anecdote or actual question to write in with. (hint hint nudge nudge)

          1. Catherine*

            I would LOVE an article on that. I have become the unofficial project manager for my department, and I regularly manage the other employees on my team in day to day stuff, and even participate in hiring. I’m pretty much doing everything except performance evaluations now. I work with a great group of people so we haven’t really had any performance or fit problems to address but we’re getting a new employee next week.

            1. Cruella Da Boss*

              I would think that one with an unofficial title would be expected to behave as if they had actually earned that title.

              In my corporation, that is what is expected of “unofficial” managers that eventually rise to that title.

              Along the same lines as “dress for the position you want, not the one you have” or in this case “fake it ’til you make it.”

          2. Joe*

            I’m actually in sort of the opposite position. I’m the official manager for people on my team, and I’m responsible for performance reviews, personal development, etc., as well as providing mentorship/guidance on technical matters. However, I’m not responsible for assigning them work, tracking progress, or making sure they complete things on time. So I do get into weird situations at times where there are things I might be expected to have authority to decide, but I don’t.

    2. Nichole*

      I wondered this as well. It sounds like this may be a completely manageable issue if they weren’t all involved socially. Now OP has work-friends and coworkers mixed up and doesn’t want the group dynamic to change. It’s like when one of your friends gets a new girlfriend who didn’t *do* anything, you just don’t like her and wish she’d stop coming to your parties. But she won’t. So just like in that scenario, you tolerate the new guy until he either goes away or you get used to him socially, and at work, treat him like (I hope) you’re treating everyone else.

      As a side note, sometimes smugness=insecurity. He may be nervous about his first big boy job, so he tries too hard. And david has a good point-if he’s good at what he does, it’s very possible that he’ll eventually learn to toot his horn in a less obnoxious way and could be your boss (or a key voice in your boss’s ear) someday. Seeing the good in him now is a useful strategy in a practical way if you’re at all ambitious, either to make him an ally or feel out potential competition. Don’t see it as making nice with a brownnosing brat, see it as an intense game of Office Risk.

      1. Catherine*

        “It’s like when one of your friends gets a new girlfriend who didn’t *do* anything, you just don’t like her and wish she’d stop coming to your parties. ”

        That’s a great analogy. And what do you usually do in this situation? Just talk to the person and get to know them. That usually alleviates the smugness, and I agree – most of the time, smugness and condescension is a cover-up for insecurity. I have a friend who tends to come across this way, but the more I get to know her, the more comfortable she becomes with me and doesn’t feel like she has to keep up the act.

        1. A Bug!*

          ” And what do you usually do in this situation? Just talk to the person and get to know them.”

          I don’t know about you, but I band together with several like-minded friends to talk smack about her behind her back and share furtive eye-rolls whenever she’s talking. Eventually she feels unwelcome and goes away, and that means I win.

          1. Indie_Rachael*

            You and Anonymous must be in my office. I’ve been considering writing in for awhile now to get advice on my catty office environment.

            As for New Guy — that really sucks that the OP would seem to allow really personal feelings, which don’t seem to even be based on tangible work offenses, get in the way of work. If New Guy finishes assignments on time and works well with others, then he’s not a problem. Not that I’m saying OP is blaming New Guy outright, but I never understand why someone would blame their emotionalism on someone else.

  4. Imran*

    I feel sorry for the smug guy. He is young. He is doing good work. He will get better with time. Hopefully :)

    1. Nathan A.*

      Young folks like myself relish opportunities to show off skills to peers. I find its a way to show how much you want to contribute to the organization and the team, not as a matter of self-satisfaction.

  5. Alex*

    If you are in a position of a team leader you have to try your hardest to put feelings aside. If you dislike this employee too much you might find yourself looking for reasons to find fault in his work which is not the quality of a team leader. If you do find fault in his work ethic because of a concrete incident that is one thing but his personality should not play a role.

  6. Student*

    Since you’re the boss and not a co-worker, why don’t you take this opportunity to mentor him? You say that he’s doing good work, so it would probably be to your advantage to keep him on.

    You could try giving him tips on how to present info in ways that are more effective, so that he no longer comes off as “smug and condescending.” Try pinpointing the presentation problem that makes him seem unpleasant to you instead of focusing on your own feelings. Next time it happens in your group, take him aside and say something like, “New Guy, when you talk down to Other Guy like that it really takes away from your message. We all hear your condescending tone toward Other Guy, instead of your great idea. Focus more on presenting your great idea and less on showing that Other Guy is dumb – if your idea is really that great then you don’t have to tear down Other Guy to show it.” Or, you know, something more specific to whatever problem you have with him.

    1. Satia*

      I agree with student.

      The other thought is that the smugness and arrogance, which I’m assuming is what the OP means by saying he’s condescending, is merely masking a more deeply rooted sense of insecurity. This is a first job, after all. How confident could he really be? No doubt if you saw the vulnerability behind the facade the ability to feel compassionate might become stronger.

      And even if it is not a matter of his being insecure, mentoring him is the best way to polish down some of those rough edges.

    2. fposte*

      Another agreement. If you’re really sure it’s not just that he’s not your taste and he really is raising hackles wherever he goes, consider turning it into a mentoring moment. Go for coffee and say “Bob, people were really helpful to me starting out and I’d like to pay that forward. We love your work in x, y, and z, and I think that I could help you make your future here even brighter if you were interested in hearing some advice about working with the team. Are you?”

      And then be genuinely helpful. Pick, say, two behaviors–condescension and intensity, maybe–and offer an example of each with a contrasting example of how the interaction could have been more effective. This is not the time for the famous Lou Grant advice of “You know how you are? Don’t be that way.” This is a low-key acknowledgment that some of this unstated stuff can be hard to pick up at first, so you’re stating it.

    3. Long Time Admin*

      Student said what I was thinking, only Student said it better than I would have.

      People who are new to the job force need to be mentored and coached. There were several people who helped me way back when, to adjust to this new world of business.

      And david is right, too. I’ve seen that happen time and time again.

  7. Josh S*

    “Appointed as Team Lead” =/= “Manager”

    The OP could be on equal footing with the new hire as far as office hierarchy goes. He may not be in a position to manage the new hire, offer feedback, or any of the other ‘managerial’ things, but rather just a team lead on the project. This throws a wrench on the OPs ability to manage the person & personal habits of the new guy.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      The OP could still be a mentor to New Guy. It doesn’t have to be all official, just some friendly advice as stated above to help New Guy fit in better.

  8. anon-2*

    Being a manager, you have to “get over it” , unless your new employee’s demeanor is affecting production (negatively) and causes staff disruption.

    One of the great leaders in sports was the late, great, Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders. He adopted a policy = “Just win, baby.”

    One time, a young cub reporter walked into the reception area at the Raiders’ training camp. He was stunned – this is the NFL, and yet there was a woman sitting behind a 1950’s style steel desk, and there was a heavily worn-out carpet under it. When he commented on the condition of the rug — she replied “we don’t care about carpets around here. WE CARE ABOUT WINNING.”

    Another thing Davis espoused = “You only have to work with (players) – you don’t have to take them home with you.” I guess that holds true – in the other direction – whenever I had a bad manager, I only had to work with him, I didn’t have to take him home with me at night, either.

    Is everyone working? Is everyone productive? If so, what’s the problem here? Can you, as a manager, get over it?

  9. Joanna Reichert*

    “He is young and this is his first office job.”

    There’s your answer right there.

    I’ve worked in quite a few different industries and the older I get, the more I notice ‘off’ behavior in younger folks new to the professional world. Some things that are shocking, some things that are just plain bad/lack of manners. I certainly understand your frustration.

    If you think he’d be open to constructive criticisms, by all means privately speak with him about his mannerisms, especially since they could impact business. In other matters, you’ll have to chalk it up to a ‘agree to disagree’ in personality and style.

    1. Rachel B*

      I agree with Joanna. It is so hard for young employees to learn how to behave in an office setting. At the same time, it can really hard to work with them. The things that may have made you cool in college or certain grad school programs- sounding smart, sucking up to professors, having a network of “bros”- don’t translate well in more laid back offices.

      Remember: The offending coworker may not be a great fit for this company or industry. He may be trying to bide his time until a more appropriate offer for him opens up.

      1. Sarah*

        The difference between the working world and college is huge. It can be tough to learn unspoken office culture. Plus, work environments and expectations vary anyway, so being the new kid on the block is always going to be a little confusing at first. I say give him a break. It’s easier to spot flaws in other people than to recognize them in yourself. Other people have probably inwardly rolled their eyes at you, and you had no idea you were rubbing them the wrong way. Try to approach the situation with a little compassion and humbleness.

  10. Just Me*

    Is the OP position team lead or manager? Team leads that I have worked with were not managers or supervisors and were not responsible to educate the employee on the finer points of working with people. They helped with solving work issues, problems and questions the team had. I am not saying the OP can’t and or shouldn’t I am just saying is it technically the OP’s job? And what does the OP really want? To stop his behavior? To make him into someone she likes better? I am just putting it out there.

    The OP states very clearly that her team is social together and that the new guy attends these “unofficial” company social events and the OP doesn’t like it. He is trying to become close friends with everyone quickly. Ok maybe he is trying too hard.

    But, if I were the new guy and all of you were “friends” and go out why wouldn’t I want to come along and get to know all of you? Whether I am obnoxious or not (because I don’t see me as being that way), why wouldn’t I want to tag along? And why do you get to decide it is ok for the group but not for me? I am not defending him as I don’t know what he is like. I am just saying it sounds like what another poster said about a new person hanging out with the new group. He is not being accepted.

    But, the OP can’t have it both ways. Like AAM says, you can’t be friends with the group and maintain the boundaries needed for your position and then also decide who can be “in the group”. There should be no “group“ that involves the OP now.

    As a work leader you might have the “power” so to speak to help mold a newer person into a great co-worker if he is lacking in certain skills, especially if he is new to the work world. Look into that if you feel you can help. And as well, you need to bring the group together. You have to know that group dynamics and employees will change and you have to learn how to effectively manage changes. Look at ALL the personalities of your group now. Not just the new guy. Is someone not being as helpful to the new guy as they can? Are they afraid the new guy is smarter than them? Do they see him as a threat? Can you say without any hesitation that everyone is being every so welcoming to the new guy? It is ALL the new guys fault?

    I think this is more about you and what you perceive your roll is. With no condescension meant, are you a camp leader or work leader? No disrespect intended……really.

    1. Phyllis*

      I have to agree. This sounds like a no-win for the new guy. He’s trying to fit in the group dynamic & is perceived as ‘trying too hard’. If, like what I would do because I don’t look to work for my social life*, he opted not to hang out with the crowd after work, he’d probably be looked down on for that as well.

      *I see them 8-9 hours a day. That’s plenty, thanks.

  11. Charles (in another's shoes)*

    “Dear AAM;

    I’m a recent college grad in my first real job (yea!). Unlike many of my schoolmates I was actually lucky to land a job in my chosen field (yea again!); I cannot begin to express how grateful I am. (yea a third time!)

    This job is working in a small company in which everyone is just a little bit older than myself. I believe that I do good work (at least I haven’t made any really bad errors). I am eager to learn and willing to try new things. I consider myself a “go-getter” and let them know that I am willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. I try to be friendly with everyone.

    However, here’s the problem. They all tend to socialize together which makes me feel like an outsider. They have a standing “get together” once a month and have never invited me; should I just tag along as if I am invited or should I wait for a personal invitation?

    Additionally, two of my co-workers seem to actually dislike me! Am I being paranoid in thinking that they were talking about me? Only the higher-ups seem to treat me as a professional and not “the college kid.”

    Normally, if this were a situation still at school I wouldn’t care so much if someone didn’t like me. However, I thought that this was a work environment and that adults would be more professional and not show their personal dislike for someone. What makes this even more difficult is that the one woman is my team leader (I think she is new to the position); I afraid that no matter how good my work, no matter how hard I try to fit in, I just cannot win!

    Is this normal? Should I expect this kind of behavior in the work world? Or am I unrealistic to expect professional behavior at work?

    Sigh – the new kid on the block”

    1. Ry*

      This? This is beautiful.

      I don’t know New Guy, but we all work with at least one person who drives us crazy. If that person isn’t undermining our work or doing anything illegal, then to a certain degree we’ve just got to deal with it. I manage my relationship with “that person” by minimizing my contact with her.

      Seconded (or nth-ed) the idea that whether “team lead” or “manager,” OP should not be going out with coworkers after work because this stuff ensues.

      1. Sarah*

        I agree. It sounds like the OP has been especially lucky so far to be able to work with a fun group of people he considers friends. This isn’t what you should necessarily expect from your job. It’s great when it happens, but you can’t expect it to last forever. Most of the time, you will work with someone you’d love to take down a notch or two, but doing so would be unfair, malicious, and detrimental to your career. You’ve just got to let some things go if it’s just a personal dislike.

    2. Long Time Admin*

      + a million times.

      It’s good to be reminded that there are at least 2 sides to every story.

  12. Jane A.*

    Imagine that guy becoming your brother-in-law and having to live with him in your family for the rest of your life!!! (I disliked him then, and it’s worse now.)
    Aside from that, I agree with Alison. Keep yourself separate so you can be objective and address the behavior if it becomes a problem. Also, maybe someone else could pull him aside and give him a friendly “headsup” about more effective ways to fit in. It is his first job. Might be the nice thing to do. Then everybody wins and there’s no awkward feelings.

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