how to coach an irritated manager to stop yelling

A reader writes:

I supervise four managers. One (who is brilliant and extremely receptive to feedback) is a younger manager who supervises someone 20+ years her senior who is argumentative and disagreeable. I can give the manager guidance about handling the argumentativeness from this employee (who is on a PIP for other issues), but – this manager has gotten very, very irritated and frustrated with her direct report and is snapping at her – yelling, even – which is very out of character.

I don’t blame the manager for being frustrated, but we’ve talked about how the goal isn’t to communicate to the employee that you’re outraged; it’s to communicate that the behavior needs to change and that there are consequences for not changing the behavior. What the employee is doing wrong isn’t outrageous, it’s just not okay and is really grating on the manager’s nerves. We’ve also talked about how she needs to remain calm and use a professional and even tone. She knows all that (in fact, she’s the one who brought this up with me), and wants to respond more appropriately, but is struggling to find the right words to say in the moment when she’s so irritated and angry. Her interactions with this employee have really hurt her confidence in her skills as a supervisor, and while I want to help her get back on balance, the yelling has to stop.

I encouraged her to take a vacation so she could step back for a while, but that didn’t seem to make much of a difference. What can I do to help this amazing manager get back on her feet?

Well, you’re absolutely right to be addressing this and not letting it go. Yelling and snapping at people (or otherwise showing hostility) is hugely damaging to a manager’s authority, credibility, and reputation, and it will make good people not want to work for her.

I’m not surprised that you think part of the problem is that she doesn’t have words to use in the moment; managers who yell often do it because they really don’t know any other way of getting what they need done. They’re missing some of the core tools that managers have to have in their tool boxes, and that lack makes them feel frustrated and desperate.

That means that the way to address this is by arming her with those tools. Often for managers, especially new managers, that just means being prepared with the language to use in difficult situations. So I’d sit down with her and review some of the situations where she snapped or yelled, and talk about what she could have said instead. For instance, she may need to have phrases like this in her arsenal:

* “We talked last week about how important it was to do X, but it’s still undone. What happened?”
* “I’m concerned that we’ve talked several times about Y, but I haven’t seen any improvement. What’s going on?”
* “The way you talked to Jane in the meeting was dismissive and caused her to shut down. Can we talk about how to approach that differently?”
* “When you missed yesterday’s deadline, I had to stay late to ensure the work got done. I need to be able to count on you to meet your deadlines.”
* “I hear you that it can be challenging to ____, but I need the person in your role to meet that bar.”
* “Because we’ve talked about this several times before, I’m concerned about the pattern I’m seeing in your work.”

Without knowing more about exactly what’s provoking her frustration, I can’t pinpoint the precise language she needs — but the idea is that you want to arm her with specific language to respond appropriately in similar situations in the future. It should be calm, assertive, and direct — and not emotional.

It’s also important to note that in the examples I gave above, there’s an implied “or else,” which is about consequences. When you’re having a serious conversation with an employee about concerns with that person’s performance or behavior, you should be clear in your own mind that if talking through the issues doesn’t resolve the problem, you have the ability to escalate the consequences — up to and including firing. This is key, because a manager who doesn’t believe in her own ability to impose consequences is a manager without the tools she needs to perform her own job. That’s what leads to feeling frustrated, helpless, and angry — which can lead to yelling. But a manager who is clear on her own authority to impose consequences knows that she has the tools she needs to get the results she’s charged with achieving, and therefore can act more calmly.

And speaking of consequences … This manager needs to understand what the consequences are in the situation for her. This isn’t a nice-to-change thing; it’s a must-change. Consequences of not changing it include a team who won’t respect her, great people not wanting to work for her, employees who will be afraid to give her tough news, and a generally less productive staff (since unhappy, demoralized people are less productive). Consequences also should probably include an impact on her career path in your organization; you can’t have someone managing people who responds to basic managerial challenges this way. You’re right to be supportive and to coach her on this, but if you don’t see pretty immediate improvement, it’s a serious performance issue in its own right — don’t lose sight of that.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 280 comments… read them below }

  1. Elkay*

    As an employee I hate being told “I hear you” by a manager because 99% of the time it’s followed by an unspoken “But I don’t care”. All of the other examples are concrete and have an air of working together to resolve a problem but “I hear you” can often come across as dismissive.

    1. A Teacher*

      Totally agree–its very dismissive in more cases than not. I watch assistant principals do it to students 24/7 and then turn around and do it to teaching staff. I’ve seen it in corporate when I worked in that environment as well. It basically has been every manager that’s used it way of saying “suck it up buttercup” because nothing can be done. It also makes me know my manager or boss really doesn’t have my back.

        1. blu*

          I think it does mean suck it and I think there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes that is just the case. Yes the job might suck or be tough, but that is what the job is. It doesn’t make it less genuine just because the the sentence isn’t “I hear you…and I’ll be sure to change the job in a way that works better for you”.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            That’s a good point too. You can genuinely mean “I hear your concerns” at the same time that you’re legitimately saying “but we need to do X anyway.”

            1. Jessa*

              I think “I hear your concerns, or I hear that x is an issue,” as opposed to just “I hear you,” might be better, Because yeh, despite the fact that when Alison says it I bet the tone is neutral and all, but most of the time when “I hear you comes out,” what follows it is either “we don’t care,” or concrete evidence they didn’t actually hear what was said or understand it or take it in. I once got so annoyed at a manager that did this, that I finally said “Okay, so what did I say?” and they stumbled.

              In order to pull off “I hear you,” you need to be a genuinely good listener who cares to listen to what the person is saying, and in the case of a manager already at her wit’s end, I don’t think it’s a good statement to put in her particular communications quiver.

              Also even though managers like Alison are good at this, to some people, it’s already so fraught with past biases and problems with too many people who can’t say it and mean it and be neutral about it, I kinda agree with the above posters who really think it shouldn’t be in anyone’s usage right now.

          2. Tomato Frog*

            This is what I was going to say. I’ve had bosses who would acknowledge my concerns but then tell me to do things differently anyway, and I’ve had bosses who would give no indication they’d heard me before telling me how to do things. I would take the former over the latter any day of the week.

          3. Sunshine*

            This is what I was gong to say. Sometimes, parts of the job aren’t easy, or fun, or handled the way the employee thinks it should be. The manager can acknowledge the opinion/feelings of the employee, but this lets them know it won’t necessarily change. I.e., suck it up.

        2. illini02*

          I think it really depends on the manager saying that. I agree, some do use it as a softer way to say “deal with it”. I’ve had that person, and it sucks. I have been lucky to have the other type as well too. The ones who really do take your concerns into account, and sometimes will make changes based on that. If they show that they are willing to do that, then an “I hear you” comes across much more sincere. Sometimes I’ve gotten “I hear you, but this came down from higher than me, so there is nothing I can do”, which is very fair to me.

        3. some1*

          I think it’s all in the approach. There’s a difference when your manager is nodding while you speak, looking you in the eye and looking both empathetic and professional and repeats back exactly what they “hear you” on; and the manager who is clearly waiting for you to finish talking so she can open with “I hear you” because she thinks it sounds good, and follows it with nothing that indicates she heard you at all.

          1. Kelly L.*

            Yes! The trick to any technique, I think, is to not sound too technique-y about it. Which is hard to quantify, but most of us know it when we hear it.

            1. C Average*

              Yes! I know EXACTLY what you mean about technique-y speech. It’s so weird and obvious when people are doing it.

            2. Elsajeni*

              Hah, yes. A classmate in my teacher prep program came to class one day and reported that he’d tried the (very formulaic) “classroom management by I-statements” that we’d been practicing the previous week on a disruptive high-schooler… who had replied, “Yeah, my stepdad uses ‘I statements,’ too. They don’t work for him either.”

          2. AnonyMouse*

            I think this is a huge part of it. There’s nothing wrong with sincerely expressing that you get why someone’s frustrated but you can’t really do much about it, and I think most adults are (or should be!) mature enough to understand that. But I think people do get annoyed when it feels like someone’s saying it just to say it, or to manipulate you with something that sounds good but isn’t substantive.

        4. HM in Atlanta*

          If it’s said, and then followed up by real-world, practical support, it’s great. If it’s followed by a “but” or a shrug or rolling eyes, or said as walking away, it’s dismissive.

          1. Linda*

            Thank you for this comment. Last week I handed an employee a phone message on a task that was for her. I was late for a meeting and simply said, ‘this is for you’ and turned to walk away. She (as if panicked) said, wait, you need to explain this. I said ‘just call them, I have to go.’
            Ever since then she has been sort of smouldering and pi**y. A few days ago I asked her about a task that she struggles with (she is a black-white thinker in a ‘gray’ job where she is incredibly uncomfortable with what she sees as rule enforcement or ambiguity). As I tried to get the history of the issue which I was now solving, she began reading the request to me. I stopped her and said I’ve already read that, what I need to understand is… before I could finish she had an outburst, stating ‘you’re dismissive of me and rude, you do this all the time.’ I replied that she had 1) just interrupted me and 2) was herself being rude. Rude is her favorite criticism of me. Suffice to say I then spent 10 minutes listening to why she feels unappreciated and so forth, and had to apologize for my offenses, which I could barely recall as it was a week ago. Incidentally, no one else ever says this to me, just this one person.
            So – lesson learned, I will just do all my ‘demands’ via email so I can stop this insufferable ‘you aren’t being nice and sociable and letting me drone on about how I feel threatened whenever you ask me questions that reveal I have no idea how to do parts of my job’ – part of her job is to tell people ‘no’ sometimes and despite her constant demands for more money she will NOT face up to delivering bad news, which is one of the things that differentiates her from her coworker by $7 per hour.
            I feel willing and able to do the things you all suggested and feel better already. Thanks to OP, HM, Not So NewHere, Kelly and lots of others!

        5. TotesMaGoats*

          Lots of bosses are really bad at reflective/active listening because they learned it in a leadership development class at work and not in a counselor/therapist class in school.

        6. A Teacher*

          I think a lot of it is in the approach, I see it and have probably done it myself as a teacher. After all, what is classroom management, but maintaining an environment and getting students to produce work? Students, at least, get really annoyed when that saying is used especially when its said with the air of authority. I think often employees know they have to suck it up–my students do as well, but I do need to be aware of how I say it to them–dismissively or with concern. I’ve learned to say “I get that you are annoyed, however…” For some reason the word “get” vs. “hear” seems to go over with my students better, and this is high school and at the college level where I adjunct.

          1. Hlyssande*

            It may be received better because ‘get’ is often used as a synonym for ‘understand’, but ‘hear’ is not.

      1. blu*

        I feel like this is conflating two different things. Having your back doesn’t mean that your manager can or should change the job.

    2. TotesMaGoats*

      I hear what you are saying. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

      But I do. I think some bosses use reflective listening poorly. You should use it to check that you understand what the other person is saying. When you throw in that “but” or “however”, you make the listener feel negated. I hear you but I’m not going to do what you want. Why make me feel better by saying you hear me?

      I think it’s effectiveness varies by the user.

    3. Jen S. 2.0*

      Re “I hear you,” I’ve experienced similar — and possibly have done similar — but usually it’s because the issue the person is raising isn’t critical to the situation. That is, it’s less that I don’t care, and more that we still have to get to a mutually agreeable solution regardless of this issue. This issue is not a discussion-ender.

      Take the example posted on AAM a few days ago abut an employee who is late to work because they are dependent on someone else for a ride. The boss may see why it’s happening, have an understanding of the circumstances, and have some suggestions…that all involve resolving the issue. The employee has been heard, and the boss knows why it’s happening…and the employee STILL needs to get to work 15 minutes earlier.

      (…well, I actually agree with those who think the manager likely could loosen up IF the job isn’t time-critical and IF the employee is otherwise good.)

      1. JB*

        I think this is a great example. Sometimes managers can’t take your concern into account or make changes based on your concern or situation. I’d rather work for someone who is sympathetic to my situation even if they can’t change anything or won’t change anything than someone who doesn’t listen or care. But caring doesn’t always mean addressing my concern.

        1. AnonyMouse*

          Yep, I agree. That question was a great example of a problem that has an understandable and sympathetic reason but still needs to be resolved the way the boss wants. If I was that OP’s employee, I’d actually respond really well to my manager saying they understood how my situation was challenging but we still needed to find a way for me to arrive on time every day.

    4. MaryMary*

      Oh, I do this in non-work conversations too. I hope my friends and family don’t think I’m being dismissive. For me, it’s a way of acknowledging the other person’s perspective without agreeing or endorsing it.

    5. M-C*

      +1. NEVER have I had ‘I hear you” be followed by anything constructive. It’s just a gimmicky way to say ‘fuck off’.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I absolutely cannot agree with that. I certainly believe you’ve never heard it used constructively, but it very much can be. I’ve used it and not meant “fuck off” and not had it taken as “fuck off” (unless I have zero ability to read other people, which I don’t believe).

        1. Judy*

          I don’t think I’d construct the term that way, but I’ve certainly never had the experience that it means anything but “suck it up buttercup” as said above.

          “I hear that you aggressively estimated this project, and now 2 months before production you aggressively estimated the proposed changes, but the business team has decided we will do these 10 months worth of work and meet our original deadline.”

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            “I hear you that Client X can be frustrating to deal with; I see how challenging he can be at times. But we did commit to seeing this project through, so let’s figure out how to move forward and finish the work while hopefully keeping you sane.”

            1. Kelly L.*

              I find myself using it a lot when I’m trying to sympathize that something sucks but I don’t have the power to fix it. “Yeah, I hear you, that sounds really annoying. Let me get a hold of (whoever) for you and (whatever that person might be able to do about it).”

            2. Elkay*

              This differs from my experience because you’re offering to help find a solution. Quite likely a sign of my bad managers but I still think it’s a phrase that needs to be used carefully because it seems like it holds similar connotations for others who, like me, may bristle at it and not hear the helpful part.

            3. Biff*

              I’ve never had a manager make a reasonable suggestion about how we’re going to keep people sane. Maybe that happens in other places, but primarily I’ve heard “I know that this drives you nuts, but suck it up.” This has been used for everything from to a crappy task that had simply rolled down hill (a reasonable time to use it) and sexual harassment.

              I would say that very, very few people can pull off the “I hear you” and not come across as a complete ass. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but more that I wouldn’t recommend it to someone that is struggling to find words. It really should be reserved for managers that really know how to use words effectively

        2. JB*

          Yeah, I think some people take it that way when the situation doesn’t get changed to the one they want. If their manager says they understand their concern and feelings on a matter but can’t or won’t change the situation, they think it means that the manager doesn’t actually care or understand.

          1. JB*

            But I’ll add that I think that a lot of people get frustrated because so often it *is* used to express a fake sentiment. I have seen it done that way plenty–person A goes to her manager with a legitimate concern looking for some way to address it, and the manager doesn’t give her anyway of handling the situation, she just says, basically, “I hear you, but don’t complain to me about it.” And that is not the right way to use that phrase.

      2. KJR*

        Actually, I use it with my teenagers, and we sometimes do end up changing whatever they are complaining about. If it’s a reasonable request of course! :D

      3. HR Manager*

        Depends on what the ‘but’ is followed with. And a good speaker should try to eliminate ‘but’s, and use alternatives.
        “I hear you regarding wanting to take the month of December off, and yet we have a client deliverable you’re responsible for on Dec 15th. How do you propose we reconcile that?”
        Just because an employee doesn’t always get his/her way, doesn’t mean the listener didn’t understand the request/concern. Sometimes, it really can’t be done.

      4. Mister Pickle*

        Allison referred to “I hear you” etc as “tools”, and that’s a really good metaphor. Most tools can be used for more than one purpose: a claw hammer can drive and pull nails. All tools can be abused: screwdrivers are often horribly misused. And some people are better at using their tools than others: Bob Vila versus me, for instance.

        I’m lucky that I currently have a very talented manager. He’s used the “I hear you” tool with me, but it’s never been dismissive. At worst, it’s a case of “I hear you, but there’s nothing to be done about it”.

        1. anon17*

          I think the intangibles behind “I hear your” are what are actually helpful, not saying those words or a variant. I just went through a pretty stressful time at work, and I finally told my boss it’d be nice to hear some acknowledgement of the situation. It was all new to me, so on top of the stress that was present anyway, by not having any acknowledgement from my boss that it was indeed a stressful situation made me wonder if it really shouldn’t be that stressful and that I was doing something wrong — which just added to the stress. I knew he couldn’t do much about the issue. In that situation, “I hear you” just means that you’re recognizing that I’m stressed, when what I really needed was reassurance that being stressed didn’t mean I wasn’t able to handle it.

    6. Aaron*

      The underlying premise in this comment string is that the manager IS sincere in acknowledging that they are listening and aware of what is being said. To avoid coming off like I-hear-you-and-I-don’t-care manager, ask a question after you tell them what you’re hearing. For example, “I hear that this is difficult to achieve. What is causing the difficulty?” This allows the employee to verbalize what they think the root problem is, and gives the manager an opportunity to remove those obstacles or show the employee these are obstacles they need to overcome as part of the job.

  2. Katie the Fed*

    OP, you might want to have some practice sessions with this manager too, or recommend someone who can do so.

    As a baby manager, when I had to face my first Difficult Conversations, I practiced with some colleagues of mine. I told them to be as wily and difficult as possible, try to wrest control of the discussion, be argumentative and difficult, etc. It helped a LOT – I felt I was prepared for whatever my problem employee was going to throw at me.

    1. MaryMary*

      I don’t think practicing Difficult Conversations is just for baby managers, I know senior people who still have someone role play the conversation with them, or at least talk through what they’re going to say with another manager.

      Also, Katie the Fed, I love that you use the term baby manager. I do that all the time to refer to people who are new to a role. My mom was kind of confused when I referred to the new hire at her school as the baby teacher (“no, she’s teaching third grade”).

    2. Joey*

      I know lots of people hate role playing or feel the fakeness of prevents them from acting real. What I do with my folks who’ve had issues is sit in on their difficult conversations. Coaching them on what to say beforehand, watching them do it, then providing feedback. This also gives you the opportunity to jump in if it starts going south.

      1. OP*

        I’ve wondered about doing this – but I worry that it might undermine the supervisor (who is already feeling undermined and shaken). This employee would MUCH rather deal with me directly instead of her direct supervisor, which is not practical or appropriate, so I’d like to try to guide the manager first (she would totally role-play with me) and let her handle it if I can.

        1. MaryMary*

          I don’t think it would be bad to sit in on a meeting with your manager and the problem coworker. I’d have the manager lead (and actually would try to say as little as possible unless things go way off the rails), but even your presence could reinforce that you and the manager are on the same page.

          1. OP*

            I’ve now scheduled a meeting with the two of them. Part of what I’m going to do is use this advice to help my manager prepare to take the lead in that meeting. I do hope the employee will see that, as far as the employee’s behavior, I’ve got the manager’s back.

            1. Jessa*

              And also make it very clear that you are not the go to person but your manager is. It’s important to reinforce to the employee that they are not to end run their manager to you.

              1. Lamb*

                +1! If the problem employee addresses anything to you during the meeting instead of the manager, shut it down imediately. “[manager] and I are on the same page about this; she can answer your questions.” Rinse and repeat.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I have done role playing with people. I tell them to give me their best shots- the most difficult things that they have trouble answering. But I don’t fire back one liners to what they are saying. I dissect how I view a remark like that and how it helps me approach it from a different angle.

        So the role playing itself is not like watching theater where two people are just tossing lines at each other. There is much discussion in between each line. This takes the sting out of the lines being bandied about.

  3. Kali*

    Next book idea? I would love to have somewhere to go that provides this kind of language. I realize that lots of practice makes it second nature, but having starting phrases like this would be super helpful for new managers.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      I used “101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees: A Manager’s Guide to Addressing Performance, Conduct, and Discipline Challenges ” by Paul Falcone. Good reference.

      1. Risa*

        I swear by this book. He also has one for performance evaluations and one for goal setting. I take his suggestions and then tweak them to the specific person/situation.

    2. Sarah in Boston*

      I just saw Sheila Heen at the Mass Conference for Women and based on her talk I bought “Difficult Conversations” and “Thanks for the Feedback”. I can’t wait to read both. The second book was the topic of her talk, which addresses the idea that while we are often taught how to give feedback, we are rarely taught how to receive it. Best breakout session I went to at the conference.

  4. MaryMary*

    OP, if your company has an EAP it may also be worth refering your direct report to them. I had a friend and coworker who was having a lot of the same issues as your direct report. In her situation, she was the project lead and not the manager, but the other associate was also a low performer and difficult to work with (this woman was the worst communicator I have ever met – you could ask her to repeat something you just said, or read back an email you sent her, and she’d misstate it). As my friend talked to her manager about the issue, she realized that she exhibited the same behavior in her personal life, particularly when stressed. My friend used our company’s EAP and was referred to a therapist. The therapist helped my friend control her temper and communicate more effectively, both at work and at home.

    1. AMG*

      This is a good suggestion, but you would have to know the employee well enough to determine how it would be received. I could see myself freaking out a little (especially already feeling shaken in my aabilities) and think there is something hugely wrong with me.

    2. Judy*

      I know I’m getting into a realm that managers shouldn’t necessarily go, but maybe a gentle suggestion that the manager look at ways of stress reduction. Making sure to eat good healthy food, get enough sleep and exercise regularly can reduce my stress levels immensely.

      1. OP*

        I have a very strong relationship with this supervisor, and I can absolutely ask her if there are things she can do to manage stress and be fresh and ready to handle this stuff. That’s a good thing to think about – I much worse at handling these types of things when I don’t feel rested and healthy.

  5. TotesMaGoats*

    Given the information from the OP, I wonder if the “yelling” by the manager stems from frustration over the employee/PIP/lack of consequences. If the PIP is weak or the manager knows that even though the employee should be fired or should’ve been fired a while ago, it’s not going to happen. Not that she should be “yelling”. Agreed on that. And there should be a lot of coaching on what to say and how to handle those situations. I just wonder what is as the root of the short fuse, if the manager hadn’t exhibited this behavior before now.

    1. The IT Manager*


      A problem employee on PIP continues to do things wrong, and the manager is so frustrated that she yells at him about it. If the yelling is occuring so frequently then the employee is wrong that often as well and may be should be fired by now. Perhaps that’s the source of the frustration.

      1. some1*

        But you can’t un-ring the bell that other people have heard the manager flip out and it’s probably affecting her reputation in the company.

        1. AnonyMouse*

          Yeah, and it also raises the bigger issue of her needing to learn how to deal with frustration a bit better. It’s possible that this situation is uniquely frustrating and this person is normally an amazing manager, but if I had an employee who was regularly yelling at someone she supervised I’d be worrying about how she was going to handle future difficult situations, even if we resolved this one by firing the problem employee.

      2. MaryMary*

        I’m wondering if the problem employee gets argumentative, defensive, and/or rude. It’s one thing to be calm when saying “we’ve talked about X before, you know you need to do Y,” and another to keep your cool when the problem person looks you in the eye and says, “Bullcrap, you’ve never told me to do Y” (and you have documentation about the four previous times you’ve given feedback about X and Y).

        1. OP*

          Yes. The employee will also ask for proof of what the supervisor is saying. Based on that, how would you change your response.

          1. A Non*

            If the employee’s at the point where they want to argue with everything their supervisor says, it may be time to show them the door regardless of their skill set.

            If it’s something along the lines of “but you never said XYZ behavior was a problem before”, the answer can be “it doesn’t matter what conversations we’ve had about this before, the point is that I need you to stop this behavior going forward.”

          2. MaryMary*

            My response doesn’t change, really. I would still calmly and firmly deliver the feedback. If “proof” is a major issue with this employee, I might start bringing documentation with me. “It sounds like you don’t recall, but we talked about this on the 18th. Here’s the email I sent you summarizing that conversation. Do you remember now?”

            It’s likely your problem employee will just come up with a different excuse. At that point, it’s back to calmly and firmly telling the employee “I need you to do Y, and I don’t want to have to provide this feedback again.”

            1. natalie*

              but this is terrible if you have to prove you said what you said! and this person may say “no, I never got this email and I don’t remember”. It sounds like this is not going not end well and the employee is not willing to improve at all.

              1. OP*

                yeah, I firmly believe that the supervisor has every right to say “I have already discussed x with you” without providing documentation of that conversation to the employee.

          3. Not So NewReader*

            If you know that this is employee asks this repeatedly then you can prepare her to deal with it.

            For myself, I cannot picture asking a boss for proof. If I know the proof exists, I simply go find it myself and present it. I have done this a few times. It did sharpen me about keeping documentation and keeping track of things.

            I have no idea what the employee is asking for proof of so am taking a shot in the dark here.
            Employee: “Prove that I was late on my deadline/report/task.”
            Boss: “Where is your proof that you were on time? It’s up to you to keep track that your work/report/task was done on time.”

            Employee: Prove that I am late for work a lot.
            Boss: I don’t have to prove it, I have seen it first hand and I can attest to it.

            Employee: Prove that what you are saying is true, that I have a negative work attitude.
            Boss: The proof is exemplified right here, right now. A person with a positive work attitude would not say what you just said. They would simply ask where the cause for concern is so that they can be attentive to that concern.

            I think a preemptive conversation regarding the employee’s frequent requests for proof needs to be addressed. Bosses do not need to prove every little thing.
            I think this subordinate needs to be told, “You must stop requesting proof of everything that is said.” In other words your manager needs to have you reinforce her position with the employee.

            An employee under my watch was a former employee of my department head in a different setting. The employee let me know that he did not have to take direction from me. [Yeah, he did.] I told my department head, who immediately informed the employee that I was his boss, he needed to do as I said and there would be no further discussion on the matter. This maybe what you have to do for your manager.

            1. OP*

              This is great, thanks. This is another area where I can role-play with the supervisor and practice responses to these requests.

    2. OP*

      Thanks for your input! It may be that she is unwilling to implement consequences (she has the authority and my support to do so). I’ve asked several times if it’s time to let this employee go, and she has said that she feels like the employee has a lot of strengths, and that the weaknesses can be worked through.

      I do want to clarify – the stuff she is yelling about is not the same behavior that’s on the PIP. The PIP stuff is serious, there is a clear plan to address it, and there has been significant improvement. This ongoing stuff is small – things that grate on the manager’s nerves (for example, the employee constantly complains and/or won’t let things go after she’s heard an answer). Objectively, I don’t know that this behavior is a huge deal in and of itself – I think that it’s continuing to happen because the manager isn’t handling it well.

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        This is good information for us to know. Thanks for sharing!

        I can tell you from personal experience that the constant complainer/won’t let things go can turn into a big deal. It really sours the atmosphere and can sow seeds of discord between the staff and manager. You feel like you are being chipped away at, all the time. Think of it as guerrilla warfare instead of a full frontal assault.

        1. OP*

          I can totally understand why this drives her nuts. She is responding it to by going into a long lecture explaining (over and over) why the employee is wrong to be complaining, why she doesn’t need/want the employee’s input on the issue,and why things can’t change. By “not a big deal”, I mean that it shouldn’t be that hard to handle – but it’s getting worse because it’s escalating into a 30 minute argument with the employee each time the manager hears it.

          1. TotesMaGoats*

            Then the coaching is not as much on the yelling, though that should be included, but on the long-windedness.

            1. Zahra*

              Yup. Sounding like a broken record is a good thing sometimes and avoids the discussion shifting away from the main problem.

          2. Zahra*

            I think it’s time the manager addressed the pattern instead of the individual occurrences. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you complain a lot and continue bringing up issues that are not changeable. It contributes to a negative atmosphere and, as it goes along, your legitimate complaints are disregarded since you’ve been crying “wolf” for months/years. That needs to change.”

            1. OP*

              Thanks. How about, “When you bring up so many things that you don’t like or want to change, it’s hard for me to know what’s really important. We can’t talk about, or change all of these issues, so I need your help letting me know which ones really rise to the top, and recognizing that some things just are the way they are”

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Maybe, but it sounds like it’s more severe than that. She might need to say, “I want to hear concerns, but once we’ve discussed them, I need you to stop bringing them up repeatedly,” along with Zahra’s wording about the negative atmosphere she’s creating.

                1. OP*

                  Thank you. That is much more clear and direct.

                  Can you some sit in my office and give me advice like this all day? Why do we have Elf on the Shelf, and no Alison on the Shelf?

              2. Zahra*

                I’d keep the bit about the negative work atmosphere.It affects everyone around her and will, in the long term, lower the team’s productivity. People who are negative about their work don’t produce as much or as well and hearing a Negative Nancy makes it hard to stay positive. It’s worth noting that the employee may not know which issues can rise to the top or not. Also, how long has that person been working at your organization? A moratorium on comments and suggestions could be implemented if she hasn’t taken the time to gauge the cultural norms of her new workplace.

          3. Jessa*

            Nooooo. No, no. NO long lectures. “We have discussed this, you have a habit of continuing on with the same things all the time. It needs to stop now.”

            The Manager cannot engage on this. It just feeds the fire. “I do not need to explain again the company position on this. This is what has to happen – (whatever,”) and if necessary literally “I am not going to engage you on this again.” And walk away.

            More than yelling the manager is handling this wrong by continuing to let the employee engage in this for long stretches of time. It’s like the parent with the kid having a tantrum. You cannot engage or you end up just encouraging the behaviour. You also cannot provide ANYTHING the employee or the kid things of as rewarding (because if you hold out for 15 mins then they know that 16 mins will get what they want.)

      2. Adonday Veeah*

        It sounds like the manager might be at the “bitch eating crackers” stage with this employee. That’s a hard one to work through. She might be so riled at this point that everything is personal. She may just need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and regroup. You seem to be doing a good job of coaching her through this.

        1. OP*

          Yes. I think you are right (and I learned a new phrase!). What other suggestions could I give her for how to practically step back and re-group? (She’s said before, “I hear you, but I don’t really know how to do that – I just come back feeling the same way”)

          1. sunny-dee*

            I’m the same way, about not being able to step back. I think the problem is, it’s not step back for a second and then re-engage. It is step back period. She should have a shut off (like, say, 2 minutes) and if the conversation is degenerating, she should end it right then. If there is something that needs to be addressed, maybe she should set up a meeting for it with an agenda and everything for some period removed (like, the next morning or later in the afternoon), and then she can prepare what to say.

          2. Observer*

            Ok, so she needs know that it doesn’t matter how she feels. She just needs to target the behaviors and find a better way to stop them.

            So Manager concludes by saying “OK this is how we are going to do this. Blah blah blah. Is that clear?” and Complainer comes back “But a, b and c”. The response is “I heard you when you brought this up before. This is how we are going to do this.” After that “This is how we are doing this.” Rinse, repeat. They key here is NOT to “explain”. This is totally not about someone who does not understand what she is supposed to be doing, and the manager needs to not get sucked into that.

            She should also consider cutting the conversation off. Once she’s said “this is how we are doing x” She can follow up with “If you have anything you need to discuss with, I’ll be in my office later.” and walk away. If the conversation is happening in her office ” the could add something like “I need to get to some other things now. If you need anything else, check back with me later.” And then turn to the next task.

            1. fposte*

              I want to extra-extra emphasize Observer’s excellent point that this isn’t about how the manager feels, because I think that’s the prime failure spot here. Manager keeps these meetings going ridiculously because she doesn’t feel like she’s gotten out of it what she wants; she’s waiting for some kind of emotional closure moment.

              But that’s not the metric–the meeting isn’t successful based on her feelings, it’s based on whether you’ve achieved your planned tasks. If you’ve said “Jane, the behavioral improvements I asked you to make on the 1st are clearly still continuing–you made the same mistake on the reports this morning,” and Jane says “It wasn’t me, that was the thing to do anyway, and the sun was in my eyes and you’re always picking on me,” there’s no reason for that to change your conversation agenda. You say “Nonetheless, I expect this mistake not to be made. This is not progress on your PIP. If you would like to retain the job, I need to see progress, which means avoiding these errors. I’ll follow up in email so we’re clear.” And then walk her out or walk away, because *you’ve said what you planned to and needed to*, and that was the goal.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I LOVE this point. OP, maybe you can use this with your employee, and be explicit that the measure of success for the meeting is “did X, Y, and Z get communicated — not embraced, but communicated calmly and appropriately, and then wrapped up efficiently after that?”

          3. Adonday Veeah*

            Oh, lordy, I wish I could explain how to get past this one. There’s a whole meditation/spiritual cleansing I have to go through every time. If it were me, I’d just stop having two-way conversations with this person, since they seem to be going nowhere. “This is how it is. Can you live with it? That is a yes or no question. If yes, then please do so immediately. If no, then let’s discuss an exit strategy.”

            Disclaimer: I do not manage staff, and now you know why.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Actually, this is sometimes quite reasonable after a certain point. Not worded quite this way, but more like: “You’ve made it clear that you’re unhappy with X, Y, and Z. Those things aren’t going to change. I need you to decide whether you can remain here reasonably happily, knowing those things aren’t going to change, or if it just isn’t the right fit for you. If you want to stay, I need you to stop complaining and pushing back on these things. If you don’t think you can do that, let’s work on a transition plan.”

              1. Adonday Veeah*

                I can usually determine what a reasonable strategy is in most circumstances. Appropriate delivery often eludes me. Thanks for your words!

          4. AnonAcademic*

            If she’s going to continue in management there will probably be other bitches eating crackers along the line. Maybe if she considers this trial by fire for learning how to deal with it, it would put it in some perspective?

            I had a SUPER passive aggressive coworker once and I think I learned more about how to politely escalate workplace problems from dealing with her, than from all the other people I’ve ever worked with combined. Handling it professionally even helped me get a raise and promotion at that job.

            1. OP*

              I do think that she really wants to learn. I didn’t observe the supervisor’s behavior, she came to me and said “I just handled something really poorly and I don’t now where to go from here. Can you help me think through it?”

              I was in a very similar spot as a young/new manager too, and I didn’t get the support or feedback I needed to handle the situation well – and I didn’t! It has been a long, long time since an employee was disrespectful to me or willfully argumentative (although I have had a “bitch eating crackers” situation with a low performer, promptly got rid of the employee, and got a good night’s sleep afterwards). I think that’s partially luck, partially that I’ve changed my approach, and partially that I now directly supervise only higher-level staff who I’ve hired myself knowing exactly what I want.

              The crux of all that for me is that I know that we all have to face these tough situations in our careers as managers – especially at the beginning – and I want to give this employee what she needs to navigate it now and in the future. I also want happy, confident managers because we all do better work that way.

              Bottom line, I’d bet this employee will be gone in two months or less (either b/c the manager will decide that on her own, or I will insist), but I want this manager to come out stronger on the other side – or it might just keep happening!

          5. Biff*

            A bit late to the party, but OP, I wonder if your baby manager actually just needs to accept that whatever the strengths of the employee, they need to go. You might need to coach her on how to pull the trigger.

  6. Matthew Soffen*

    What about the age difference ? There is a high likely hood that the older person being supervised is “subtly” undermining the authority ?

    Is it the case ? No idea, But it is a possibility. There could be a great deal of resentment in having someone 20 years your junior being your boss (especially if you think the position should have been yours).

    1. some1*

      I’ve found in situations like this it’s best not to speculate why someone is acting this way (she’s just jealous because you’re younger, thinner, prettier, etc.). It’s not relevant and if someone were to ask this employee, “Do these issues have to do with Jane being young enough to be your daughter?” it’s going to add fuel to the fire whether or not it’s true.

      1. Matthew Soffen*

        I’m saying this with some “personal” insight (After being forced to train a younger manager multiple times). I didn’t undermine him but I resented him and got out of the team as soon as I could.

    2. Cat*

      I’ve seen this happen. It doesn’t excuse the yelling, of course, and the manager needs strategies to deal with this regardless, but I agree that it’s quite possible this isn’t generally an issue with this manager.

    3. OP*

      That is possible – the older person makes comments about what the supervisor needs to learn, recommends management books for her to read, and talks about how she has more experience than the supervisor. The younger supervisor hired this person herself and has been here longer (as in, the older person did not apply for the supervisor’s position)

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        Wow, that’s incredibly demeaning. I’m a pretty calm person but after a while of that I’d probably lose it too.

        1. OP*

          It really is! I feel for her on this one. This supervisor is truly awesome (except for this yelling thing), so I’ve been trying to give her even more positive feedback and opportunities. Any ideas on how to respond when the employee makes these kinds of suggestions? She doesn’t seem to see the difference between sharing useful resources, and sharing resources as a way to insult someone.

          1. TotesMaGoats*

            There are some older posts about how to talk to people about attitude problems. I would start there. Because that’s what this is. It’s not performance that’s measurable and so harder to address. I wouldn’t normally say to go with the nuclear option of you saying something but maybe that’s a possible solution. It would have to be done carefully because you don’t want to undermine and probably in the moment. If you could catch it and give a raised eyebrow and wow, that might show that you thought it was inappropriate.

            1. OP*

              I agree. But I really want to let my managers work through these decisions as much as I can. I had another manager work through a similar situation last spring where I kept saying, “I think it’s time to replace him” and she really, really disagreed. After a couple months, a PIP, and some focused effort, she decided for herself that it was time. I feel like it was a really good opportunity for her to grow as a manager, and she became much more confident – I hate to take that away from people (not that I would let it go on forever, either).

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Agreed, but you need to balance that with the damage that’s occurring (to this manager’s reputation and the culture of the team she leads) meanwhile. I don’t know the answer to that, but don’t discount it in this calculation!

              2. TotesMaGoats*

                Then the convo I would have with the supervisor would be along the lines of “I know you think this person can be changed a be a productive part of the team but she’s already on a PIP and continues to publicly belittle you and push you to extremes. Can you explain to me why she’s worth that to you?”

                Because even if the employee completely changed their tune and performed above par and became all rainbows and sunshine, I would still resent the hell out of them for the previous behavior.

                1. Joey*

                  I had someone put it to me this way. “Are you willing to bet your reputation that you’re right about this employee?” If you’re not you’re making the wrong decision.

              3. A Teacher*

                If I had to work with someone like that and even if I knew my co-worker were on a PIP, I would wonder what the heck the manager is thinking? It would make me question her judgement–and sadly yours–its detrimental to your manager and ultimately even to you. The other employees may be thinking that the direct supervisor doesn’t have your support or that you are pressuring her to keep this troubled employee. Maybe not a fair assumption but how much info do the other employees have to go off of. As her supervisor, you sound awesome and its great you want her to take ownership and harness the job, but there comes a point when you have to step in.

                1. JB*

                  This. Her other direct reports must surely be wondering why she’s putting up with this. There’s a good chance that the answers they are coming up with don’t reflect well on her or you or both.

              4. Joey*

                Letting managers fail will help them learn, but it’s only worth it if not a lot is at stake. i would much rather jump in than let it go to shit before a manager realizes the right course of action.

              5. Nerdling*

                Since you said your direct report is new to management and had the responsibility for hiring this person in, it may be that she can’t objectively see that it’s okay to have hired someone who didn’t work out and to take steps to rectify that, such as by firing the person. She may think that having hired someone so lousy may reflect on her skills, or she may just not be ready to admit defeat. It’s not really rational, but she’s new to this. If that’s the case, she might need a sit-down where you say, “I know things aren’t working out with this person. Let’s get rid of her and you can start over with someone new.” She may need to know it’s okay that one of her first hires didn’t work out. Just a thought.

              6. Joey*

                And no ones mentioned this, but don’t forget the underperformer. Is it really fair to allow that person remain in a job they won’t succeed at just to give the manager a learning opportunity. I say rip the band aid off and let the employee start moving on the moment you know it won’t work.

            2. AMG*

              Yeah, I know you mentioned she has good qualitites, but this person doesn’t sound like she’s going to change. Perhaps your supervisor really needs to know when to cut it off the discussion as well as cut her losses.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                This. Being a new manager she might not have a handle on when to fire a person yet. Additionally, she may feel that this employee’s failure is HER own failure, which is not the case here.

          2. Malissa*

            Act like the resources might be useful. “Thank you for the suggestion James, I’ll look into that book.” Or have her ask, “What about that book makes you think it would be useful?” This should make sure that the employee is actually suggesting something useful and may cut down on bogus suggestions in the future if they know they are going to be quizzed on them.

            1. TotesMaGoats*

              I would be careful with this so that the person doesn’t feel like their actions are being validated.

              1. Helka*

                Agreed, this would be my feeling. The manager needs to find productive, professional ways to shut the argument down, not indulge it.

              2. Colette*

                Agreed. Asking for more info will just encourage the employee – the manager needs to redirect the conversation to the topic she’s trying to discuss.

              3. OP*

                She has given some of these resources directly to me, in the hopes that i will make the supervisor read them. I usually try to say “okay”, and not much more – sort of a “if you don’t run they can’t chase you” strategy. I’m hoping to make providing these resources a very boring and unsatisfying experience for her. She tends to take things…not how they are intended…so I do worry about accidentally making her feel validated here.

                1. C Average*

                  Wait, what? She’s coming to YOU with her copy of “Management for Dummies” and saying “Can you pass this along to my boss?”

                  I am trying to imagine any parallel universe in which I go to my boss’s boss and ask them to help me provide her with “helpful” resources regarding management.

                  Nope, I’ve got nothing.

                  But I can picture my boss’s boss frowning at me in befuddlement and saying, “Are you trying to start a book club? I am so confused. Why are YOU giving ME books to give to JANE? Jane can take care of her own reading list.”

                2. fposte*

                  WTF? I’m with C Average in thinking this kind of stuff needs to be met with incredulity at the least.

                  I think you’re right that your manager needs to be able to handle this situation differently than she currently is, but I think success is going to be about getting this employee out of the organization as smoothly as possible, not reforming her. Don’t let your manager hang onto this too long just because of her own weaknesses here (and perhaps her guilt about not handling this as well as she might). That’s bad for the organization too.

                3. OP*

                  I did not explain this clearly. It’s not that she’s handing me books and explaining to me what she wants to do with them. It’s more like she sends me a link to a book in an e-mail, or leaves a photocopy of an article or something when I’m not there. Generally, I just ignore it (along with all other e-mail that contains information I don’t need or want). But if she says “hey I left something on your desk”, I’d say “okay” (not yet knowing what it was). And then I don’t respond again.

                4. Not So NewReader*

                  Making this boring and unsatisfying for her is not working.
                  She needs to be told clearly NO.
                  She is using these little things to circumnavigate her immediate supervisor. The approach you are using she reads as “green light, go, keep doing this.”

                  This is an individual that you have to question every interaction with her. She is using those little interactions to leverage her relationship with your manager.

            2. Jessa*

              No, honestly as a new manager with a newish employee, I’d be very leery to take it this way, because that undermines me. I do not want my new employee to think that they can tell me how to do my job. Even if the advice would otherwise be good, that gives them leverage later to say “Jessa doesn’t know what she’s doing, don’t listen to her, I told her to do x but she didn’t.” Because I acted like their advice was good and I should let them do that. Bad idea.

              “I’d prefer you to be doing your job rather than advising me on how to do mine. Thank you.”

          3. Natalie Anne Lanoville*

            “If you have concerns about my management of you that I don’t address to your satisfaction, bring it up with my supervisor. If I ever want your advice on any issue related to my workplace performance, I’ll come to you.”

        2. Linda*

          Actually there’s a simple solution to this. Tell the employee – 1) I find your comments disrespectful and/or insubordinate; 2) these digressions from your work assignments aren’t helpful, we are here to discuss your performance, not mine. This person needs a talk to the hand approach. I once had to point at an employee, and say loudly ‘you need to calm down.’ It worked.

      2. Heather*

        Oh yeah, that changes my whole reaction to the situation. Younger manager still shouldn’t be yelling of course, but it sounds like the older manager is constantly poking her with sticks. I can’t blame her for being annoyed as hell.

      3. Student*

        This is a pretty basic and common problem in technical fields. Everybody thinks they know better than the manager! Your direct report needs to learn to stop looking for validation from her employees – that’s a terrible, guaranteed-failure position to put herself in. Employees are not there to validate managers.

        She especially needs to stop looking for validation from the problem employees that are on PIPs and under consideration for dismissal.

        1. OP*

          oooo…that’s well put. The manager has come a looong way over the years from wanting her employees to like her and be her friend to really managing for results. However, I think this might be the first time when she’s had an employee she didn’t personally like.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Maybe her concern is that she feels she has lost objectivity and she is over compensating for this loss by allowing the employee to continue on and on.

            1. OP*

              I think she’s trying to carefully examine her own behavior to ensure she’s not letting someone go unfairly simply because she doesn’t personally like them. Perhaps, however, ALL of her attention (in a backwards way) is on being fair to the employee, vs. doing the right thing. Self-awareness gone wrong :-)

  7. illini02*

    I’ll be honest, I’m not as bothered by yelling as others, because some people respond better to yelling than by doing the “cookie sandwich” criticisms. Others respond horribly to that. Also, if this manager is good with 99% of her reports, I feel like others probably know that this problem employee is a problem, and may believe they deserve the yelling. I’ll be honest, one of the best managers I ever had would yell now and then. It was directed at me once or twice. But I was able to take it, which some people aren’t. To me its about knowing how the employees will respond to it. I still respect him a lot, and would work for him again in a heartbeat.

      1. SJP*

        I’d also agree that the other staff members probably do know that the employee is the problem. Then again saying that, it doesn’t stop some loosing respect for their manager.

        Personally i’d probably be fine with it and know the employee warranted it but each to their own

        1. TotesMaGoats*

          You are right on both counts.

          I hate any type of raised voices because when I was growing up, we didn’t do that. So to me, any raised voice shuts me down. My husband, on the other hand, didn’t grow up like that and will get “loud” when talking passionately about things. I often say “stop yelling at me”. And he’s not, really he’s not. It’s a perspective thing.

          I think everyone has a coworkers who we’d all like to yell at. A nice “WTF dude?” Just to get it out of our systems. But we can’t. For all the reasons people have said here.

      2. ThursdaysGeek*

        True. At work, if my spouse lowers his voice and speaks sternly, it can be wildly alarming to others and he says it’s been described as yelling. But it’s so uncommon for him to be truly displeased (I’ve never seen it), that it’s very serious when it happens: thus yelling.

      3. illini02*

        That is so true. I have a deeper voice that carries. If the volume of my voice raises in the slightest bit, some people look at that as yelling, although I don’t necessarily agree with that.

        1. sunny-dee*

          The same thing happens on the opposite end. I tend to get loud when I get passionate or excited (or angry), and I’m really not yelling, but because my voice is pitched higher it can come off as shrill.

        2. VintageLydia USA*

          My husband does this. It has the effect of dominating conversations so we’ve been working on it (namely me telling him when he’s doing it and he’ll modulate it.)

      4. Miss Crankypants*

        Totes, is so right on this. For me, someone who stands/looms over my desk and talks loudly, even if that’s his normal tone of voice, feels like I’m being yelled at. It’s that combination of feeling small and looked down on and the voice that provides a bad combination for me. Unfortunately, my current boss considers standing over me, talking fast, and pointing at my computer screen is a “training session”.

        No, it’s not. It’s just standing over me, talking fast, and pointing. :) And it’s very hard for me to learn in that scenario.


    1. Zahra*

      I don’t like yelling, but a compliment sandwich will go right over my head. If you want to communicate something to me, you really need to go the “This is what’s happening (the incorrect stuff), this is what needs to happen (the correct way to do it). Make it happen.” route. Clear, precise and direct to the point of blunt.

    2. A Non*

      I’m very intimidated by yelling. If I overheard my manager yelling at someone else, I’d lose a great deal of faith and trust in that manager. If they wouldn’t yell at me because they know I’d respond badly, that’s all well and good, but I’m still not going to have as much confidence in them as I would in someone who just doesn’t yell.

      1. illini02*

        I guess I just don’t get why you’d trust them less. Trust them to do what? Be fair? Manage properly? Get results? I think it really depends on a lot, but because you yell, I don’t think that makes you a bad manager. Just like, being able to be very civil doesn’t make you a good manager. I think its more of a body of work thing. If they treat you fairly, why does that mean you are less confident?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          They look like someone who’s not in control and doesn’t know how to get things done without losing their cool. To a lot of people, that’s alarming (I’d argue with good reason).

          No one is saying just being civil makes you a good manager; that’s a bit of a straw man :)

        2. A Non*

          I wouldn’t trust them not to do it again. I find yelling to be viscerally frightening, even if it’s not aimed at me. My body starts pumping adrenaline, and I go into fight-flight-freeze mode. It’s the same response I’d have to physical violence, on a smaller scale. You can understand how watching a manager hit a subordinate would be frightening to everyone else and make them lose trust in that manager, no matter how fair they are the rest of the time – for me, yelling has much the same effects.

          Actually, dealing with physical violence would be easier – I’d walk out and never look back, and everyone would understand that. But sometimes people act like verbal aggression isn’t supposed to be frightening or affect people’s relationships, which makes no sense to me. What’s the point of aggression if not to intimidate people? It sure as hell intimidates me.

          1. the_scientist*

            Yes, this. I’d have a really hard time trusting a manager after they yelled at someone, even if that someone wasn’t me. I’d be walking around on eggshells wondering when it was my turn. Part of that is because I grew up in a ‘yelling house’ where the yelling was unpredictable. You never knew what was going to make the yeller snap and fly into a screaming, frothing at the mouth rage. The anxiety is suffocating. I get that its not my manager’s job to manage my past experiences and all that, but it’s unnecessarily aggressive to me and it’s certainly something that would be sending me out the door into a new position at the first opportunity.

          2. fposte*

            A raised voice isn’t inherently an aggression, though–it’s an emphasis. Some people respond badly to volume because it’s associated in their own histories with aggression, and some just don’t have much experience of working through it, but high-volume exchanges are pretty common in a lot of fields–artistic, athletic, military, etc.–where they aren’t necessarily aggressive.

            I think for most of our jobs yelling does tend to mean that we’re having difficulty being effective rather than we’re being more effective as a result. But I think a raised voice is a lot like tears in some ways, and I think people’s reactions to those often fall on a line of what they’re accustomed to in their own behavior rather than what’s inherently a problem (in other words, people who cry easily think others shouldn’t be bothered by crying, while people who raise their voices thing people shouldn’t be bothered by raised voices, but in reality both of them can be very troubling to other people).

            1. illini02*

              Tears! This is a great analogy. For some reason we, as a society or at work, are supposed to be ok with people crying to express anger, frustration, whatever (whether it happens is a different story, ut people say you SHOULD be more accepting). However to me, they are 2 sides of the same coin. If you think the yeller can’t control their emotions, isn’t it just as fair to say the crier can’t control theirs? I guess I”m just annoyed that I’ve been told to calm down and stop yelling when I’m not really yelling, but if someone tells someone to calm down when they are crying, they are considered insensitive.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                Telling someone to calm down when they are yelling, almost never works. And it can be like throwing gas on a fire in some cases.

                The only thing I have ever seen work with a yelling person is for the recipient not to engage and to answer logically. This is very difficult to do and requires nerves of steel sometimes.

            2. A Non*

              True, raised voices can mean a variety of things other than aggression, and excited-loud-voices don’t hit the same set of nerves as agitated-loud-voices. Though for a lot of people (me!) it’s still uncomfortable any time communication is louder than the circumstances call for. I also respond very, very badly to “I’m not angry, just frustrated” excuses – in my experience that means “I’m going to yell at you and then tell you you shouldn’t be upset by it.”

              Good comparison to crying, I hadn’t thought of that.

            3. ExceptionToTheRule*

              Raised voices are common in live broadcasting (google “what the f*ck is going on in tape” for a NSFW extreme example) and for me, it tends to happen when people’s attention starts to wander. By the third time I’ve asked a camera operator for something and haven’t gotten it, my voice gets louder and my tone more firm.

              **Yes, I do screen for this in interviews…

              1. VintageLydia USA*

                I never shot anything live, but I’ve done a couple live-to-tape events as a favor to my FIL when he was suddenly short staffed and being inexperienced I made a few mistakes that was corrected for VERY LOUDLY AND STERNLY over the headset.

    3. OP*

      This does vary place to place – but yelling is definitely not okay in our culture (human services non-profit).

    4. RJ*

      The yelling versus cookie sandwich sounds like a false dichotomy to me. There are plenty of ways to manage, motivate employees, and work with other adults. Poor managers may honestly believe that “yelling is the only thing that gets through to her” but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s abusive and inappropriate for the workplace.

      Yelling or displaying hostility may “get results” but it shows poor character and people will end up hating you in the long run. I’ve had so many shitty managers who don’t have much more in their toolbox than yelling — and let’s face it, yelling to get results is really just managing employees as if they were children in a dysfunctional family. Being under stress isn’t a good enough excuse. All ships float in the harbor, but that’s not what ships were made for — the true measure of someone’s character is how they treat others when they’re stressed or under pressure. Any idiot can easily be kind towards others who are nice to them.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes. It might get you results in the short-term, but it rarely produces good results over the long-term because of it’s impact on morale, culture, retention, and eventually recruitment.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        To me yelling is as if the person said, “I lack the skills to deal with this situation.”

        I was rushed to the ER for a puncture wound to my knee. The doctor was very short-fused and dropped the f-bomb and called me a bitch a few times because he could not deal with the fact that I was visibly shaking from head to toe.
        This, of course, caused me to shake even more because I realized the doctor was too blind with anger to do a proper job sewing my knee back together. I had absolutely no trust for this person. I think I was right to be concerned because it took that wound a very long time to heal up.

  8. blu*

    This “What the employee is doing wrong isn’t outrageous, it’s just not okay and is really grating on the manager’s nerves. ” makes me wonder if the employee isn’t actively trying to goad the manager into losing her cool/yelling.

    It doesn’t change the approach much, but sometimes it can help you stay in control if you recognize/understand that the person your dealing with is trying to get a rise out of you. I know it helps me disengage and pull myself back from escalating.

    1. OP*

      That is absolutely possible. I have wondered if the employee is trying to embarrass her. Which is working! The supervisor so up about how she (herself) has been responding to this.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Can you coach her to just walk away and deal with it when she’s calmed down. As in, say to her employee “This is making me really angry so I’m going to walk away now, we will deal with this again at x time”

        Or if it is the employee picking and picking after the manager has given her answer, to just say “I gave you my answer and it is x, this conversation is over” and walk away.

        Walking away isn’t the most polite thing to do, but its far better than losing your cool and yelling.

        1. OP*

          I do wonder if it’s wise for the manager to articulate that she’s angry…or if she really just needs to not act angry.

          1. fposte*

            I would vote to keep anger out of it. For one thing, the employee is dying to make this about the manager, so why feed that?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Totally agree. Bringing anger into gives the employee a weird amount of power. There’s no need for it. Here’s what the manager needs from the employee, here are the consequences if it doesn’t happen, enforce it, the end.

      2. Sarah*

        It really sounds as if this employee is doing everything she can to undermine and upset your manager, including making end runs around her such as asking you to give her management books. This is bullying, and honestly, it’s not backing up your manager when you accept the books and don’t tell the employee this behavior isn’t acceptable.
        When the employee starts expressing her opinion your manager needs to learn how to manage, the employee needs to be told to go home for the rest of the day. When she comes to you to pull another end run as she has in the past, she needs to be sent home for the rest of the week.

        Your manager should tell her once, at the beginning of the day, what will happen next time she behaves this way, and when she tries the end run to you, you will need to tell her you are sending her home for the rest of the week as her manager told her you would do.
        Nobody needs to talk to this employee about her behavior again. She just needs to have the limits she’s already been given enforced clearly. Simple declarative statements without discussion.

        Again, I feel strongly this is bullying. You and your manager need to end the behavior abruptly.

          1. anon in the uk*

            It strikes me that what nobody has said to the employee is simply ‘No’.
            No, you will not do (insert behaviour), it is unacceptable.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        This jives with the earlier comment that the employee asks for the manager to prove this or that.

        I think the employee knows that she is flying under the radar- she is deliberately being annoying but choosing ways that cannot be clearly identified or nailed down.

        I wonder why she left her last job.

    2. Anon.*

      This is a great point, especially since this employee is already treading thin ice, since she(?) is on a PIP, and may be trying to save face and make the manager look bad to the tune of “My manager is so awful, she’s always yelling at me.” Or, just is angry with her own situation and is trying to cause trouble.

  9. SJP*

    Unfortunately I have a very short temper (especially for stupid people) and would probably get like this manager and want to scream at her employee although luckily I have learned to control my temper and frustration and not just yell “Cause I told you to” and other stuff lines..
    I’m really intrigued to hear people’s feedback on how the manager can not yell..

    1. Katie the Fed*

      When you yell you’ve lost control of the discussion. I think the important thing is to know when you’re starting to feel you’re losing control and step away. Some things I do to keep my head on:

      – Come prepared with a list of things I want to address – it keeps the problem employee from derailing the discussion
      – BREATHE
      – Try to not take it personally. I think when we yell it’s often because we’re getting too emotionally invested in something that’s fundamentally not personal
      – walk away when you have to. “Let’s revisit this tomorrow after we’ve had a chance to think on it.”
      – Maintain control of the discussion. “I understand X, but we’re here to discuss Y.”
      – Keep it focused on behaviors, not the person. It’s the person’s behaviors that you’re frustrated about, even though it feels like you want to throttle the person.

      1. OP*

        Thanks, Katie the Fed. These the phrases Alison suggests are really helpful, as are your tips.

        I think that one problem is that the supervisor is going on and on and on when she’s addressing problems, instead of using just a few sentences or one well-thought-out phrase. It sounds very defensive, and like she’s trying to convince the employee of her authority.

            1. Not So NewReader*


              Dogs do teach you about setting boundaries. It is really cute when a 6 week old pup puts his paws on your legs. It’s not so cute when a 1 year, 100 pound dog puts his paws on your shoulders for the thousandth time.

        1. AnonEMoose*

          I’m not a manager, but I do sometimes have to deliver difficult messages to people. One thing I’ve found is that the less I say, the less they can argue with.

          So if whatever it is is truly not negotiable, it’s better to say “X needs to happen” or “X isn’t going to happen” and leave it at that. And then if the difficult person continues with the “But WHHYYYYYY???”, you just stick to “I need you to do X” and end the conversation.

          The longer you engage, the longer they’ll argue.

          Maybe it would also help to limit the amount of time she spends meeting with this employee? If she only has 15 minutes, and has another meeting after it, then she can readily resist attempts to argue or derail by saying something like “We need to wrap this up; here’s what I need you to do/understand/not do.” Or “We’ll need to talk about Y another time; right now I need to focus on X.”

          1. Aunt Vixen*

            Yes! Doesn’t Alison advocate this in, for example, salary negotiations?
            Q: What kind of salary are you looking for?
            A: I’m hoping to start somewhere in the range of $AREA.
            And then stop talking.

            It’s a lot like you said above, OP, where if you don’t run, they can’t chase you. The longer your supervisee (the young manager) keeps talking, the longer it will be before she wins. The employee can’t be allowed to have so much control over here any longer.

          2. Jessa*

            I think with a decent employee you give into one “why,” there are a lot of people (I’m one of them,) that just work better, are less stressed when I know that. Otherwise my brain keeps going “did they consider x? did they consider z? Cause if they didn’t it’s going to go down the tubes.”

        2. fposte*

          That’s really well-observed there. We talk a lot about avoiding rambling in interviews, but if anything it’s even more important to avoid it here. I also suspect that it’s a correct call that the manager is beating on this because she’s trying to get the response she wants, and that she needs to prioritize her having said her point rather than having elicited the response she wants. It also sounds like they’ve got a bit of a weird mirror here in that neither of them are good at stopping themselves, and your manager really needs to develop that skill. I would consider encouraging her to identify what point she wants to get made when talking to the employee and then have a closing phrase that puts the lid on the conversation and walks her way; then she can follow up the repetition in email. That way she has a better chance of getting out of the discussion before she gets into the raised voices stage just by controlling the duration of the interaction. My guess is that no new substantive information gets conveyed after about the first two sentences; the rest of it is essentially all noise that boils down to “Why don’t you do what you’re supposed to do?” Which is at best unproductive.

      2. JB*

        I don’t know if this would be helpful to the OP or anyone else, but I use the Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments to help me. I never took logic classes in college, so I didn’t know the terms for the different ways someone can derail a conversation or discussion. Having a technical way to describe what is happening helps me stay calm and clinical about it. That doesn’t help for situations like when the employee is giving the supervisor management books, but it helps when the employee uses one of these methods to try to deflect criticism or management. Now I can think to myself “ah, I see what you’re doing there,” and it keeps me from falling into their and from getting frustrated or angry.

        1. RJ*

          That is a really good book suggestion, I hadn’t heard of this title but it sounds really interesting. Maintaining detachment is crucial for staying calm when someone is trying to bait you.

          1. JB*

            True, and it’s really hard to do if you get caught up in countering their bad or invalid arguments instead of staying on point.

    2. GrumpyITGuy*

      As an employee, I would find it completely disrespectful to be in a situation were my manager is yelling at me. There is no way that manager/employer is going to get my trust back and I’ll probably start looking for a new job right away. You must also take in consideration that allowing this kind of behavior will not only hurt your reputation but also hurt the reputation of your company.

      1. Sonya*

        Just curious: Has anyone (as an employee) walked away from or out on a manager who was yelling at them, and if so, what happened?

    3. Former Mid-Manager*

      I’m the same way in that my default used to be yelling and I learned to control it. There are a lot of great resources out about how to deal with your “fight or flight response.” One of my favorite concepts, though, relates to the research on the Amygdala part of the brain. It takes something less than a millisecond for our instincts to be triggered and the result of the adrenaline and cortisol is that our ability to process information is reduced something like 20 times and we are prompted to act IMMEDIATELY. Interestingly, the emotion that most effectively triggers chemicals that counter-act the adrenaline and cortisol – what slows us down and helps us think – is gratitude. Gratitude releases dopamine in our brains. So, one possibility is to council the young manager to take time when she’s getting angry, step away from the situation, spend some time calming down (such as through a gratitude exercise) and then approaching it more calmly and collectedly. It only requires a few minutes to avoid the blow-up.

  10. Anonasaurus Rex*

    I can relate to being in situations where you don’t have the right words or phrases to use so you end up saying what you shouldn’t or just getting angry and frustrated. But I’m really starting to get bothered by how passive a lot of these phrases are. You’re asking an employee if you can discuss something they are doing wrong? I find that too often when my manager uses passive phrases, what he wants from me ends up unclear. Where did this trend come from?

    1. YourCdnFriend*

      I think the phrases Alison provided are conversation starters. They give the employee an opening to problem solve themselves (“you’re right. Next time ill do this” or “I’m so sorry, I got caught up in x and forgot about y. I think I need to start making to do lists”). But, if the employee doesn’t jump in, the next step in the convo is for the manager to be very clear about what needs to change and how.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That’s exactly right. This is the start to the conversation, not the entirety of it. Most people respond better to managers who are assertive but respectful and who don’t leap straight to “X is wrong; you must do Y.” If you don’t get where you need, then you become more directive, but you don’t start there in most cases, if you’re dealing with reasonably competent professionals.

        1. Serin*

          Most people respond better to managers who are assertive but respectful and who don’t leap straight to “X is wrong; you must do Y.”

          And it allows for the possibility that the manager might be wrong, too. “We discussed having that newsletter out on Monday. Can we talk about why that didn’t happen?” “Um, because you didn’t give me your article until Tuesday afternoon, boss — don’t you remember?”

    2. illini02*

      Same place the compliment sandwich thing comes from. Some people just can’t take direct criticism well. I hate the beating around the bush thing, but some people won’t respond unless you do that. I don’t get it either. I don’t know if it was maybe about how their parents raised them, or just that they are more sensitive. Its like not keeping score and giving everyone trophies in youth sports.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’m not sure if you’re saying that you find the language I suggested to be beating around the bush, but I really disagree that it is. It’s addressing issues head-on, but that doesn’t require being a dick. You can be polite and assertive at the same time.

        1. illini02*

          Sorry if that wasn’t clear. I’m not saying your responses were beating around the bush. But I do find that some people aren’t great at taking direct criticism. I’ve worked with these people, and it can be frustrating to have to be super delicate with them.

          1. esra*

            That’s just part of managing. You don’t have to be super delicate, but you do have to respect to a certain degree that different people need managed differently.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            I found reframing that to be helpful. I had a boss that felt you had to walk on eggs around employees. This was not helpful instruction for me. So I reframed that expression to a more lengthy thing that involved being respectful to a fellow human being and speaking to the point where necessary.
            That looked like “I see your point about doing X. However, the company wants us to do Y instead. So although, X does have merit**, we must do Y. From here forward, stop doing X and do Y instead.”

            ** I would not tell people their idea had merit if it did not. I am not a fan of bs’ing people. I really do think that it was part luck that I never had too much problem after speaking to a person. Some people just will not do a good/correct job no matter what the boss tells them.

      2. Mike C.*

        There are plenty of adult sports that hand out trophies for participation – namely just about every 5/10k or half/full marathon. This isn’t some new or generational trend.

  11. AdAgencyChick*

    I cannot say enough good things about “if-then” as a method of dealing with difficult people — both at work and at home. When there are bad behaviors that you can anticipate, and you can ingrain in yourself “IF this happens, THEN I will react in X manner,” then it’s easier not to react emotionally and lash out. “If my annoying aunt asks me when I’m going to have a baby, then I will make a joke about asking to use her bedroom so I can start trying right away.” (this may or may not be from experience) “If my coworker asks me to cover for her for the third night in a row, then I will go Miss Manners and tell her ‘that simply won’t be possible.'”

    So I would coach this manager to think about if-thens for the situations that drive her the most nuts with this direct report, where “then” is something that doesn’t involve yelling.

    1. OP*

      That’s a really simple way to frame this. Thank you. Maybe the key is to think about some common situations and then prepare a phrase for each so she’s ready.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        Yeah, the beauty of if-then is that emotional reactions are automatic, and they hijack your rational brain — but if you have some instructions already ingrained into your brain, you have an automatic response that’s *not* emotional.

        I have a tendency to get hijacked by my emotions too, so learning this was a godsend!

  12. Bend & Snap*

    This is the first job I’ve had where I don’t get yelled at regularly. I do service some internal clients who like to yell, but they don’t manage me and I don’t have to take it, so I end the conversation.

    At my last job my boss had screaming rage fits where his face turned purple, and one time he slammed his hands down on my desk really hard while yelling and I was actually afraid for my safety.

    Cue new job where people act respectful of each other and don’t use their direct reports as punching bags.

    Yelling is not OK in any context.

  13. OP*

    So – As I’m reading the comments and thinking more about this, I’m wondering if part of the problem is that the supervisor feels that, in giving feedback, she has to convince the employee she is right, or the employee has to agree wit her (not just agree to do what she asked). So she keep going on and on, and the employee keeps disagreeing/arguing, and both of them keep bringing up more points. Maybe this is what is standing in the way of her giving brief and direct feedback (waiting for the employee to say “oh! I see what you mean. You are totally right” – which isn’t going to happen, at least not in the moment).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yep, that’s what I mean about being confident in her own authority. She needs to be clear in her own mind that she owes the employee a clear, direct explanation but she doesn’t owe her endless explanation and cajoling.

      And really, it might be time for this employee to go, if she’s behaving like this while already on a PIP.

      1. YourCdnFriend*

        An employee that argues back with their manager and doesn’t follow direction? I’d say they need to go.

    2. YourCdnFriend*

      This adds a lot of context. I’d hazard a guess that the root of the problem is that the manager has low confidence in her ability to manage this employee. Someone who is confident in their role won’t even let an argument begin let alone engage in back and forth.

      I’d start with this and I bet the yelling situation would solve itself.

        1. TotesMaGoats*

          Maybe this isn’t the situation that would be best for her to grow in. It feels like there is too much emotion and time tied up that she’s not going to get what she needs to learn with this employee. Another situation and it would be a different story.

          1. HumbleOnion*

            Yeah, this seems like the kind of thing she’ll learn a lot from when she looks back on it. She’s in too deep, and has likely lost objectivity. A month or so down the road, and she might be able to see thing clearly.

        2. YourCdnFriend*

          I’d coach her about those specific conversations. Give her the script to start with very similar to what Alison provided. Emphasize that she’s in control of the situation and by being in control, she can end it and disengage if the employee starts arguing back.

          Also, I’d be explicit that you think she can handle this and that you have her back as she starts making those changes.

        3. Mike C.*

          Tell her what you’ve told us. It sounds like the kind of mistake that someone may not realize on their own, and these sorts of insights are hard to gain on your own when you’re in the middle of the situation.

        4. J. Lee*

          Maybe suggest she approach this in a different setting. Have the supervisor set up a meeting and give her a warning that her argumentative behavior is a PROBLEM. You said her PIP was for an unrelated issue – so maybe it would help to let her know this is a serious issue. Also – that way the supervisor can come into the meeting calm and prepared – instead of reacting when a situation comes up. A straightforward “I need you to stop X, Y and Z behaviors – they have become a serious problem”.

          1. OP*

            Ah! That’s a really good point. Perhaps, because the employee is not on a PIP for these issues, she’s getting the message that this stuff is small potatoes. Thanks for that.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              It’s making me want to write a second PIP that targets these behaviors, and I don’t even know this person.

          2. Jessa*

            This is a great idea. There needs to be a specific meeting and maybe, yes, another PIP, but meeting to talk about the issue instead of dealing with it in the moment, is an awesome idea.

        5. fposte*

          I tend to think confidence happens indirectly rather than directly, and that if the manager develops clearer systems and phraseology to deal with this behavior, that will make her more confident. Basically, she’s falling apart because she doesn’t know what to do. If she identifies something to do–two pre-planned sentences (randomly choosing two here) on problem, two pre-planned sentences on consequences, closing phrase, followup email–then she has a plan to follow. It’s not a plan that will necessarily fix the employee, but right now the success you’re looking for is your manager handling the encounters better rather than letting her spiral down the drain behind the employee.

    3. J.B.*

      Sounds like dealing with my 5 year old. Seriously. Supervisor should not yell. But an employee who is behaving like a 5 year old needs a consequence for that behavior specifically.

      1. RJ*

        I have had a lot of bad managers whose only management experience is parenting. Managers should never allow themselves to become locked into a power struggle with an employee, and treating a direct report like a child is inexcusable. Nobody likes being condescended to, and no decent manager would use condescension as a management tool, much less as a cudgel against someone they personally dislike. John Heider wrote an incredible management book called the Tao of Leadership that deals with how to use facilitation instead of struggling for power or authority.

        1. OP*

          That’s a good comparison. I did say to her last week, “so, we will keep trying to figure this out,but you can never again talk to anyone here like that”. “Parental” was the word I was looking for.

    4. Judy*

      I was once responsible for a particular software in a company globally. As I traveled to different locations with my teammates gathering requirements for our next iteration, one manager was very insistent we put a particular feature in that software. I expressed that we had that feature before, but the internal customers that used that software asked for it to be removed. My team then agreed to add the feature to the software, with a way to disable the feature if it wasn’t needed by the users. This manager then spent over two hours trying to get me to agree that it was a good feature. We originally put it in the software because we thought it was a good feature, but our customers discovered it caused more problems than it was worth. He seemed to want me to say it was the most useful feature ever.

      Two hours later, I’m still saying “We’ve agreed this feature will be part of the software, with the ability to be disabled. Can we move on to the next point?” every 10 minutes. After lunch he was back on track. I’d assume one of his employees talked to him over lunch, but was unwilling to call him out in the meeting.

    5. HR Manager*

      It’s not unusual for newer managers to believe they have to bring employees around to see things their way, when this is not true at all. She just has to give them a good business reason for what and why they’re doing things. This is something she will learn over time, and something you should coach her on in your feedback to her.

      As in my response below, I am sympathetic to those struggling with this type of employee because they can be a handful. I would coach her through this with better tools and ways to manage her frustrations, but I would cut her a little slack too and continue to offer your support in her handling this person. If the person is being as rude as to suggest management training, then she should address his rudeness and disrespect head on too. I just had a manager talk to me about a similar issue, and this should not be tolerated. Manager needs to be explicit that there are 3 options: succeed on the plan and work for her, fail on the plan and leave, or he chooses to resign.

    6. HR Manager*

      I just wanted to add this thought — ask your bright young manager “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?” [Note: let’s hope she chooses effective]

      Then explain why she doesn’t have to go out of the way to convince him of her perspective – he only needs to know that she has that perspective and they’re working together to try to fix it. Focus on being effective and moving employee forward on the process, and don’t let the other things get to her.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Along a similar line, OP could tell her manager that “you want to keep this person on staff but it’s a fight every inch of the way. If you are going to keep choosing to have this person stay on, then you are going to have constant and unnecessary battles, too.”

  14. Swarley*

    It sounds like you’ve been coaching the manager on how to respond in a more professional manner to these complaints, arguments, etc. But it sounds like you need to be coaching her on how to conduct a termination. Good managers want employees that will give feedback and ask helpful questions when a decision is being made, but when it’s consistent and unhelpful (which it sounds like) then it needs to be addressed like any other performance issue.

  15. Student*

    From the OP’s ongoing comments about the direct report that yells, it doesn’t sound like she’s even on the same page as you as to what a good manager does. Managers deal with people problems that prevent their team from working optimally. If all the team members worked well together out of the box, then they’d only need a technical lead, not a manager.

    This direct report may be an amazing technical person, but you haven’t presented any information that makes her sound like a good manager. She doesn’t know when to pick her battles, is easily flustered, loses her temper regularly, can’t make progress on smoothing over serious and ongoing personality clashes, can’t make the hard call to fire someone who is thoroughly destroying her authority and self-confidence, and apparently has zero tools at hand to effectively handle difficult people. Is the PIP for the argumentative employee for some technical deficiency, and that’s the only reason this manager has any success handling it at all? What management-side things does this direct report actually handle well?

    1. OP*

      Okay – I see where you are coming from. For the sake of not sending Alison a manifesto, a lot of context was left out here.

      In the past (and even currently), this manager has done a great job of handing a variety of performance problems from employees and interns. She’s been positive, helpful, supportive and successful. She has also handled firing someone before and did a good job. She is not in a technical field – she’s an experienced human services professional, and is truly amazing with clients (who can be quite difficult). I have seen and heard her do this stuff well before. It’s really just this one thing! But my worry is that she’s losing her confidence, direction, mojo, etc.

      I know from my own experience that sometimes there is just that one employee who pushes your buttons – even if you have handled similar things in the past, and that it can be a real challenge to handle issues – even issues similar to what you’ve dealt with in the past – in a way that is really your best.

      Does that help? I really appreciate all the feedback and ideas…let me know if there is other info I can give to fill in the blanks.

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        Can I just say that I appreciate that you are coming back to fill in all our blanks and answer questions?

        1. OP*

          I am SO HAPPY and honored that Alison even answered my question and i’m getting all these amazing comments too! This is like an early Christmas present!

  16. C Average*

    It seems really obvious that being pleasant and playing well with others are critical components in just about any job, but some people don’t intuitively get that. It sounds like this person needs to have it spelled out in very clear terms that part of her job is to be a good team player, and that being a good team player consists of some specific behaviors.

    I am someone who had to have this spelled out to me. As a lifelong loner and as someone whose workflow often isolates me from my peers, I’d wound up in a spot where I regarded my job as nothing more than completing the action items on my task list; it literally did not occur to me that “be friendly,” “be nice,” “be helpful,” etc., were also implicit action items on my task list.

    My manager’s admonition to “be more of a team player” was confusing to me because it was vague and it didn’t give me a concrete sense of what I was doing wrong. I posed the question in another AAM thread and Joey gave a great response that’s actually helped me tremendously:

    If I were this manager I would set up a meeting with the problem employee and we would go through this list together. We would establish what each of these items means. We would establish that the items on this list are action items for her job and that failure to deliver them will be seen the same way as failure to deliver task-based action items.

    1. C Average*

      Here’s the relevant post (which I also have printed and taped to my monitor–thanks, Joey!):

      Be more of a team player generally means don’t be difficult. That means things like:

      1. Accept and support decisions even when you disagree with them.
      2. Assume other team members have good intentions.
      3. Don’t stir the pot.
      4. Look like you’re attempting to contribute to a positive work environment and positive relationships.
      5. Voice disagreements only when they are welcome and in a positive and constructive way.
      6. Volunteer for opportunities to do additional work.
      7. Be on board with your bosses work life balance philosophy.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Am smiling. My very first boss said, “No one will ever tell you this, but part of what you are being compensated for is your willingness to get along with others.”

      Quite clearly, the manager’s subordinate has NO intention of EVER getting along with the manager.

  17. Snarkus Ariellius*

    So many thoughts, OP, so I hope you’ll respond.

    As someone who has been accused of the very same things, I’d just like to remind everyone that anger, frustration, and yelling don’t ever come out of nowhere.  Whether it’s personal or work life, there’s a reason for the negative behavior.  (But don’t assume it has something to do with personal life as I’ve had some uncomfortable conversations about poor work performance only to be asked if everything is okay at home.  Not.  Cool.)

    I get the impression that this is the ONLY employee this manager has issues with, correct?  While I like what AAM said, I’m hesitating if it’s just this one case.  Surely you understand what it’s like to manage someone who isn’t doing her job?  The begging, pleading, demanding, cajoling, and negotiating can take its toll.  You get to a point *where you just don’t care anymore.*  Is this manager held responsible for the employee’s work performance?  I have been there, and while it’s not pretty, yelling is a last resort because I literally tried everything else, especially when I’m getting in trouble for what direct report’s shoddy work.  I’ve ended up doing it all myself, which means I do two jobs but get paid for one.  And then I get more mad.

    Some of which, mainly the root(s) of frustration, is what I think is happening here.  

    Sure the manager’s behavior is on her, but the escalation is on you and the individuals who are responsible for the enforcement this employee’s PIP.  What’s happening on that end?  Is this person going to be fired if she doesn’t shape up?  Is she aware?

    It would be easy to pin the bulk of this on the manager’s behavior, but please resist that as it’s easier to do that than really see that you might have a crappy PIP or a lazy employee who has been getting away with bad behavior at the expense of others.

    1. Joey*

      No. This is just something you don’t do no matter how much the employee grates on you. Sure the feelings are understandable, but the actions are not.

      1. Snarkus Ariellius*

        Then you should be prepared to lose the manager over what should be a simple task of firing someone.  The more I read the OP’s responses, the more I see the employee being the root cause here.

        Yes, the manager should know better, but if she doesn’t have a history of outbursts or acting like this with anyone else (and it doesn’t sound like it), then examine the causes of the outburst.  Pinning it all on the manager’s behavior is a complete copout and does nothing to address the chronic problem.

        From a cost/benefit analysis, I know who I’d rather lose.

    2. OP*

      Okay – I want to make sure I’m answering your questions here.

      Yes – the manager is responsible for this employee’s work, and for the enforcement of the PIP. However, she also has the authority to discipline or fire her (see above for why I haven’t forced her to fire the employee). We don’t have HR (too small), so this is my call and I don’t have to ask permission to fire the employee – there’s nobody standing in this manager’s way.

      For reasons that are hard to explain concisely, the PIP has a 60 day time frame (b/c some of the things that need to be improved won’t occur with a shorter time frame). The PIP is being reviewed weekly, and progress is being made. The focus of the PIP is on two very concrete and very “big deal” problems. The employee does understand that she will be fired if she doesn’t comply with the PIP and then maintain those improvements.

      I really do understand why this manager is so mad! She came to me asking for help on how to handle this more constructively and appropriately.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Something that worries me is that the employee seems to think that her behavioral issues are totally separate from the “hey, you’re on thin ice and in danger of being fired” issues that the PIP is addressing. Which is really weird! She should get that she needs to model good behavior across the board, not just on the specifics of the PIP.

        The manager might need to say to her, “I want to be clear that behaviors X, Y, and Z will interfere with your ability to be successful here. In addition to the specific work goals outlined in the PIP, I need to see that you’re able to accept decisions even when you disagree with them, work constructively with me to solve problems, (fill in with whatever else she’s looking for here). I need to see these things change immediately; they’re as much a part of my expectations for your performance as the work goals in the PIP are.”

        1. OP*

          Thanks – I was reaching that conclusion too. There is no barrier to adding those items to the PIP, but even if we don’t end up doing that, it would be worthwhile to tell her that these issues are on the same level as those.

          You’re probably going to tell me that I shouldn’t taking this into account, but this employee is a little…odd? eccentric? socially awkward? I do want to have an organization where people with diverse personalities can be appreciated for their skills, talents, and contributions, but I’m realizing that we’re giving her too much room here.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            It’s great to have an organization with diverse personalities, but the issues here don’t sound like they’re about her being eccentric or socially awkward; they sound like they’re about her being insubordinate, resistant, and difficult.

  18. Rae*

    OP- The younger-older dynamic is tough. My very best manager actually delt with a situation similar to this with me, the youngling. I worked well with others and at 23 was supervising a 35, 42, 58, and several college (8-12) age students. The 58yo was the lowest level supervisor and had serious performance issues.
    She TORTURED me. One day she wore jingle bracelets around both wrists and ankles and made every effort to make as much noise as possible when I was on the phone placing orders. Like your older employee she made comments adnausium about how I’d be a better manager when I was older and got after me about every single mistake I made. She was also good at doing this without head manager’s hearing. She also belittled all of our vendors as soon as they walked out and tried to sew discontent among our faculty. He had no idea of the extent until a faculty that was close to him let him know.

    How I know this is not me is that instead of snapping I’d go to the back and cry. The manager finally cut her hours until she could no longer “afford” to work for us because she was meeting her PIP, but continued snarky behavior, and apparently our company didn’t allow for 2 PIP or a PIP revision.

    What helped me:
    1) Head manager kept telling me he was on my side
    2) Head manager spot checked other co-worker and corrected her
    3) Head manager always, always had his door open if I needed to get away from her antics

  19. HR Manager*

    The argumentative poor performer is one of the most draining types I’ve had to deal with. I think the first thing is to call the employee out on the argumentative behavior. I hope there are regular meetings for the person on the PIP. At the next meeting, start it off with:
    “I need to give you feedback, and I want you to listen, and let me finish without interrupting. I have seen a pattern where we discuss xx, and you insist on disagreeing or arguing over the details. I welcome your voice and your perspective on the issues we are addressing, but these back-and-forths on xxx are not productive nor have they changed my mind on what you need to do to address the concerns. I want you to focus on the broad improvements I’ve asked of you. When you insist on arguing the points of discussion, I am left with the impression that you are not listening nor understanding my concerns.”

    At this point, I expect the dude to have tried to interrupt multiple times to argue this point. She needs to stop him and say “let me finish.” And then call him out on the fact that he is doing this very thing right now, and that’s an example of what you are talking about. She also needs to set that tone that going forward, she will not engage him in this type of back and forth, and she will shut that down. She should describe parameters of how to address “real” work concerns with her, and that this is the path going forward for the duration of the plan.

    1. fposte*

      I’m wondering about going far enough to say that arguing with the terms of the correction will be taken as a refusal to comply with a PIP, and a refusal to comply with a PIP would be grounds for immediate termination. Depends on the org, I suppose, but why even make a plan if somebody’s clearly stating they don’t believe they have to do any of it?

      1. HR Manager*

        I didn’t read into OPs post that the employee was not doing any of it, but perhaps doing it badly and not understanding why the plan in the first place, and therefore nitpicking the manager’s feedback. If the employee is not cooperative period, then with HR’s blessing, I would recommend cutting the cords sooner.

  20. LoFlo*

    Is it a possibility that the argumentative employee is in a position where she sees a lot of things done technically incorrect and the manager doesn’t understand when and why things are incorrect she is being told this? Say the things being done incorrectly are like proper containment of hazardous materials, where a mistake would cause harm to many innocent people.

    I appreciate the OP having their direct report’s back, but the PIP employee many have some legitimate concerns about the supervisor’s basic knowledge of the actual work her reports do that is causing her to be so stubborn. Or the supervisor is not doing a good job communicating what the behavior issues are. Just saying you are not a team player and other people notice is not specific feedback.

    There’s been a lot of talk about toxic work places, and wishy-washy mangers seem to be a common theme.

    1. OP*

      Both the supervisor and I agree that the employee may have some valid concerns about expectations not being clearly communicated to her (because they are lost in a long lecture, argument, etc.). This is part of what the supervisor asked me to help her with.

      1. LoFlo*

        From the PIP employee’s perspective, has anyone admitted there are some other issues with the other party that are being worked on? Sorry, but if you don’t walk the talk, I would be very difficult for me to believe that my management is sincere and buy into vague comments about my behavior.

        I was frequently critiziced by some of my business partners for always needing to get my way, when my way was simply implementing a new government compliance issue. My old manager was so in the weeds, he never followup on these situations with me at the time, but then pull them out during some unrelated discussion as an example on of how I was disruptive.

        1. OP*

          Wait – are you saying I should tell the employee that I’m working on the supervisor’s behavior as far as how she treats the employee?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I would not. If the employee were a great performer who you cared a great deal about retaining, then maybe. But in this context, it will undermine the manager with someone who’s already actively undermining her.

            1. LoFlo*

              I am seeing this as a situation where both parties have some culpability, and OP is trying to justify throwing the PIP employee under the bus at the expense of retaining a manager who could very likely continue to be ineffective. I have to question why the performance issues were tolerated for so long before it resulted in a PIP. Was the PIP implemented as a smoke screen to deflect attention from this “awesome” manager .

              Sorry to be so suspicious but I worked for a manager who let things go for FOREVER, and when it got the attention of his manager then every one in the department was told that they had some type of performance issue and all had to shape up. As part of the process the manager said his action plan was to let employees sort things out themselves, the very same thing that caused so many issues !

      2. Not So NewReader*

        My belief is that this is often the case, the antagonist in the story line gains ground BECAUSE there is some truth some merit to her words.

        When a manager is not strong or if a strong manager waffles, a person like this can wield a lot of power.

        It is not up to the employee to dictate the boss’ behavior. She corrects the boss, she offers reading suggestions and she goes around her boss to talk to YOU.
        Please do not hang on to the few pieces of truth in what she says and allow that to negate the bigger picture.
        You have a manager under siege. All the talking in the world has not changed that. I fear that your manager is copying YOU. She sees you talking and talking with her so she feels that she must talk and talk with this individual. This technique of talking things through just does not work with everyone, I suspect that is the case with this employee.
        I get that you want your manager to learn but this experience has gone past the teaching phase.
        I mentioned upthread about a department head that told my subordinate I was the boss. That intervention had to happen. And this maybe your case here, that you have to step in and tell the subordinate “this is YOUR boss.”
        As you are saying here, that was the only time my big boss had to step in on my behalf. I never had another occurrence. My boss never autopsied with me what went wrong there-but you could pull some thoughts together and do that if you felt it would be good to do.

  21. Andrew*

    If the manager has had absolutely no success in dealing with this direct report, you really do have 2 problems, as Joey mentioned above. In addition to the disruptive employee you also have a manager who may have reached the limit of her abilities. Perhaps you need to revise your opinion of her as “awesome.”

    1. OP*

      I see what you’re saying – and there are truly two problems here. The manager might be at her limit as far as where her skills are today, but I have a lot of faith in her ability to learn and grow (based on a long history of working with her). We all struggle sometimes!

  22. OP*

    Thanks SO much, awesome AAM community and Alison, for all of these comments, feedback, ideas and resources so far. I really appreciate the opportunity to have help from all of you today. While I didn’t get much done at work today that I had planned, this was time well spent!

    I’m still reading and re-reading, and I appreciate anything anyone wants to add.

  23. Turtle Candle*

    Lots of great advice and feedback here, but I wanted to emphasize that this is an important issue to get resolved–not just for the employee’s, or the manager’s, but for the whole team/department.

    A department in which there was yelling (I mean, apart from “ow, I banged my shin!” yelling–you know, yelling at people in work meetings) was one of my most demoralizing, demotivating experiences ever, and I want to emphasize that I was neither the yeller nor the yell-ee. I was one of the “good” employees who didn’t get that treatment. But seeing that kind of thing (actually yelling, I mean, not just a strong or stern voice) made me feel both anxious and somewhat disdainful of my manager. I was anxious because it felt like an implicit threat–yes, you’re doing good work now, but get on my bad side and blammo! (And yeah, a lot of people do have an immediate adrenaline response to yelling, even if they aren’t the target–but even apart from that, even if you don’t get your fight or flight response triggered, it just feels out-of-control and wrong and threatening in a professional environment, IMHO.) And I was disdainful because I felt: we’re all grownups here, this isn’t two kids having it out in second grade recess, surely we can resolve our differences by doing something other than shouting? Surely we all have the emotional intelligence and self-control to talk rather than yell, or we should? My respect for my manager nosedived, because I felt that a competent adult in a position of authority should at minimum be able to keep from hollering.

    Furthermore, while it might be really obvious to you/your direct report why they’re yelling at this employee, it might not be obvious to the other employees. So the manager in question might be thinking, “Nobody else there needs to be worried about being yelled at–it’s just this person’s horrible personality.” But unless they’re going around saying “Yeah, X has a terrible personality!” (which would be utterly inappropriate in other ways) it may not be evident. I mean, it may be… but it may not be. And if it isn’t, then the impact on other employees is feeling like you’re surrounded by land mines: you know that some things might cause an explosion (because clearly, explosions are possible), but not necessarily what things. Which is both scary and demoralizing.

    In my experience, some managers in this position sort of act like, “Well, at least I’m not firing him/her, so that’s good!” Which–from a position of general team morale–is exactly opposite. As a fellow team member, I’d be okay seeing a peer (especially if they’re an under-performing peer with a negative attitude) fired, but I’d be not at all okay with seeing a peer get yelled at. The former conveys the message “I expect professionalism and a high level of performance and am not afraid to manage my team.” The latter conveys the message “I can’t control myself and let my emotions take over when managing.” And unfortunately it gives other low-performers the message, “You can get away with whatever you want as long as you have a thick enough skin to stand the scolding.” So the high-performers are discouraged and the low-performers get the opposite message you presumably want.

    (Also, I get that there are some work environments where shouting is par for the course, and–while I wouldn’t want to work in one–I do realize that that’s the reality sometimes. But it doesn’t sound like that’s what’s going on here.)

    Tl;dr, I have a lot of feelings about this. I haven’t been in an atmosphere like this for over ten years, but it made a big (negative) impression on me when I did–even though I wasn’t the employee who was the target of the yelling. This is, IMHO, something to get under control sooner rather than later–and if that means firing the employee who is the target of the scolding, that is better than continuing to scold.

    1. Turtle Candle*

      (Er, wow, I went on for a while. Sorry! I really am sympathetic to the manager in question–having someone snipe and nitpick and push back constantly will quickly drive you maaaaad–but I wanted to show the position of why it might be better for morale overall to actually get rid of the employee in question than to keep trying to moderate them, if the manager can’t get the yelling under control under the circumstances. Yelling is a realio trulio morale-killer.)

      1. OP*

        Thanks for taking the time to say all that, Turtle Candle. While I have felt strongly from the beginning that the yelling was a problems (because it is just not okay, at all, ever, to treat someone like that), your comment and others have made me think more about the impact on the rest of the team. I really appreciate what you’re saying about how the manage may be assuming that other people shouldn’t worry because it feels obvious to her that this employee is so out of line and that other people should see that they aren’t like her, but that’s probably not reality. I have focused so far on how the manager’s yelling impacts the employee she is yelling at, but I haven’t put much focus on how her behavior impacts other people and the entire organization. While I don’t want to rub salt in a wound (it sucks to admit that you’re wrong and ask for help, and have someone respond by telling you that you are really, really wrong and it’s worse than you thought), it is important enough to take that risk and encourage her to see this as an urgent problem, not something to work through piece-by-piece.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          I’m really glad it was helpful and not just a giant wall of text. :) And it totally makes sense that you’re thinking about the manager and the employee (and I suppose there are some workplaces where there may not be much/any impact on other employees… although I think it’s unlikely–oversplash of stuff like frustration and yelling is almost inevitable–and with an employee as disaffected as this, I’d be real surprised if they *weren’t* complaining about it to coworkers). But it can definitely have a huge impact both on team morale and on the reputation of the manager (whether that’s fair or not).

  24. Not So NewReader*

    I know that human services likes to be sure to include a range of types of people- and I am not just talking about protected classes- they need very techie people and people that are great at PR and people that serious finance whizs. The greater the diversity of people the better off the organization is- because most of their resources come from within, it is too costly to hire outside.

    Please look at that more closely. Inclusiveness does not mean everyone in sight. People need to be chosen on a deliberate basis for how well they can contribute to the organization’s efforts. The employee that you are trying to include here is sending out many signals that she does not want to be included- she does not want to work with the flow. She is running her own covert agenda and unraveling your manager in the process. This is an intelligent* individual who knows how to move the target around and make it hopeless for her manager to manager her. I hope your manager does not feel that the organization’s culture of inclusiveness trumps anything else. Because it shouldn’t and for the health of the organization it really can’t.

    (*People can be nasty or undermining and still be intelligent. You have explained it pretty well that this is a creatively annoying person. I suspect that if you target these new behaviors as unacceptable, then those will go away and a whole new set of antagonizing behaviors will come to the foreground. This employee is not going to run out of ideas in the near future. Her middle name is “Contrary”, as in Mary Contrary Smith.

    An aside- thanks for participating in the discussion, I think your comments really made the conversation more relevant to your setting, but also made it interesting/informative for us.

    1. Linda*

      Wow, thank you for this post (and to many others up above). Have been struggling with a new employee whose narcissistic behavior has resurfaced tensions between her and other staff. It has been like whack a mole. I’ve sent her and 1 other dysfunctional employee to Employee Assistance; my other 2 loyal employees seem frustrated. This was a group that was fairly satisfied.
      Nonetheless, I have been overly accommodating to 2 of them. I put the new employee on a PIP — as I like to call it ‘in the box’ and cut her hours. I put the other one ‘in a box’ around the sole issue of feeling sorry for the narcissist (sucker!).
      I love, love the ‘move the target’ comment. So true. But I have her in a box and she is not really ever getting out. When I hired her it was apparent she had never stayed in any job over 3 years or had a job where she moved from one facility to another – ow! Now I see why.
      Also I will use the other commenter’s suggestion to give every whining, negative, passive aggressive action the same reply – could you put that in an email? Love it.

  25. I live to serve*

    OP: I have so much sympathy for you and your direct report.
    This might help.

    I had an oppositional, passive aggressive direct report who not only spent her days arguing with me about “the way things work” “how we should proceed” from the smallest thing as in a deliverable in the form of a spreadsheet- my preference as her supervisor was simpler was better, hers was spending an enormous amount of time formatting with fonts and color coded highlighting despite my very specific direction in writing.

    After six months of this behavior (and weekly one-on-ones with my supervisor as I whined and cried on her shoulder, and her saying document and communicate) there was a PIP put in place not only for specific job duties but expectations in written and oral communication.

    Fast forward 6 months- negligible improvement on the part of the employee with continued behavior problems that could have been attributed to personality deficits. One-on-one meetings were so painful, I became physically ill at the thought of them. I turned myself in to Employee assistance who were able to identify behaviors that were unacceptable job-related ones. Having those detached objective opinions were really helpful. The best advice I got was to stop speaking to the employee. Sounds crazy huh. Yet…. I did just that. I did not “give the silent treatment” I was pleasant. I just did not engage. Suggestions on how I could do things better, etc…I said I can’t talk about that now. Why don’t you put that writing in an email. She liked to point out how I could change my management style so that she could be successful. Why don’t you put that in writing. Overstepping responsibilities…why don’t you put that in an email. Passive aggressive behavior to avoid work….why don’t you put your questions in an email. All directives, deliverables, deadlines were put in writing in emails to her. Although her cubicle was right next to my office, any request I had was in writing. I required that she produce a weekly progress report with due dates for all projects as well as a time log for tasks. This counted as part of the PIP in the area of accurate and timely communication.

    I did wonder why my supervisor didn’t take over the pip and be the one to finally fire my direct report . I believed at the time that would have been best then I could get back to MY work. I get now that I was manager responsible and that I didn’t get to hand off the troublesome employee.

    That said- although there were many instances that I lost my temper, I never displayed that to the team or to the employee. I took a breath. Counted to ten. Excused myself and went to my computer. I documented the conversation. 12/8/14
    To: Moaning Myrtle cc: Albus Dumbledore
    Today at 9:30 I requested an update on the Gringotts Diagon Alley Branch gold deposits as it was due last Friday at 5:00 and I had not received it. You expressed that the information that I was asking for wasn’t necessary for the the monthly report. The failure to produce the information as requested in an accurate and timely manner impacts the entire department. Please have the information in the format that I requested by end of the day today.

    Minerva McGonagall

    The exhibiting of self control- no raising of voices, no snarky comments, no power plays (I am the manager, just do it) Hardest of all no sarcastic remarks. Those I brought to the daily home recap of what Myrtle did that day to drive me crazy.

    And best of all…I had pages and pages of documentation so that when it was time to part ways there was no question that we had gone to every length to coach and support this employee for successful completion of the PIP.

  26. Cheryl*

    AAM is spot on with these examples. It truly helps to be armed with phrases to say when you feel yourself losing control or are at a loss as to what to say.
    I work in a customer facing environment as an enforcer of laws and regulations, so when I tell you for the 15th time that this is what you need to do and you then become argumentative; it is truly difficult not to handle the perceived anger as you did as a child or a teenager. For me, not being listened to is a trigger and it irritates me to no end…thankfully I am aware of that and now work doubly hard not to react as I did growing up.
    In hind sight everyone has these great ways of responding to whatever the stimuli was, unfortunately I don’t think the same way they do and those phrases never enter my mind. So I knew I had an issue and got help for how to resolve it before it blew up in my face.

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