how to manage a team that resents you

A reader writes:

My manager recently left, and I applied for the position, along with many other people in my department. Well, despite being the newest and youngest person, I got the job (yay!) but now everyone hates me. Everyone offered me forced congratulations, but these congratulations were often accompanied by things like “I guess experience wasn’t much of a factor since I’ve been here five years longer.” Or “Congratulations! You’re the first boss I’ve had that’s younger than me.”

I know the reason I got the job is because I have a strong background in media and technology, and our company is currently undergoing changes to have our media and technology products at the forefront of our product offerings. I’ve worked on some very complicated projects and senior management felt that the type of work I’m doing is the type of work they want to see, so they thought I should lead the team through these changes. I have been with the industry for five years, so it’s not like I’m coming in without any experience. Some of my new reports have been in the industry 15+ years but are very tied to the old way of doing things and hate change.

I’m great at my job, but management is new to me. I have asked my old boss for some advice, but I don’t want to make her think I can’t handle this. My strategy is to continue to excel in my work, hoping to lead by example. What I can’t get rid of are snide comments and “helpful” advice. For example, I handed out a batch of project assignments and everyone made comments like “Wow, you gave this one to John. Anyone can see that Bob should be doing this.” I told them I’ve been assigning projects based on the skills people have, as well as the skills people need to develop. The fact is, I am their direct boss and speaking to me in this way is so inappropriate. However, I’m trying to be sensitive that they are all upset they were passed over for this promotion.

I’ve arranged group outings, training days, lunches, and no one is warming up. I think what it comes down to is they all think that they each deserved the job, and they are waiting for me to fail. What would you do?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. AnonaMoose

    Did we already see this letter recently? Like two weeks ago? Seems awfully familiar…

    1. Kyrielle

      No, but the second “you may also like” link, “when you’re younger than everyone you manage”, was also this month. But that’s an outside hire and different scenario.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            I would like to (I adore picking them out for Inc from their photo bank) but not enough to pay for photos, which I imagine I’d have to do :)

  2. Boboccio

    How would your advice differ, Alison, in a scenario where the manager does not have firing authority? What about in an environment where termination is completely out of the question?

    1. Worker Bee (Germany)

      RUN… (if termination is out of the question)
      If you dont have firing authority get your boss (or the person with firing authority) on board with your action plan described by Alison and let them take care of the firing. If they don’t back you up: RUN ;)

      1. FD

        And this is why I love your blog–you use phrases like GTFO in an actual professional blog.

  3. Moss

    “I’d like you to think about whether that’s something you’re willing to do in this new context. I hope that you will, although if you decide this isn’t for you, I’ll support you in that decision.”

    I love this. I try so hard to be supportive, but I never considered that I can be supportive of someone in her decision to quit!

    1. Rena

      I feel like I need an Ask A Manager immersive language course. Alison’s wording is always so spot on, and I feel like I’d never come up with something remotely as eloquent under pressure.

    2. OfficePrincess

      I love it too. I really need to start a notebook for these phrases (since a sticky not on the monitor might lead to some questions).

      1. JB (not in Houston)

        Me, too! Yeah, I can just see me in a difficult situation, and my response is, “um . . . (tries to look casual while side-glancing at sticky note on monitor).”

    3. nofelix

      Honestly it comes across as double-speak to me. Like saying X is leaving spend more time with their family or to pursue other challenges elsewhere. Everyone knows what is really meant, and the duplicity of if makes the situation seem worse than it is.

  4. Jen

    This has happened to me. Fortunately, I only have one passed-over negative nancy. It’s been over a year now, and things have sort have improved. He does his work, but occasionally he makes snide comments. He’s the kind of person who blames other people for his failings, and I am kind of over it. He’s good at his job, but there are a lot of people who have his skillset who aren’t total dicks.

  5. edj3

    I think there’s also a tendency to conflate being an effective manager with being liked. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to be nor should you try to be a mean nasty human being. But being liked is not what determines whether or not you’re a good manager. Yes, the really good ones do tend to be liked but it’s not a requirement.

    1. fposte

      I was thinking that too, and I think that’s particularly likely when you’re suddenly supervising your former peers. It’s not like your first step should be to fire somebody, but the OP’s efforts seemed geared to being seen as a nice and likeable boss. But the problem isn’t that you’re not nice–the problem is they wanted your job and your pay, and being nice to them isn’t going to solve that.

    2. Green

      Yes; I’d have been a bit harder on the “group outings” and “lunches” response. Informal socializing more may help with some issues (perceptions of leadership accessibility maybe?), but this isn’t one of them. Sounds as though they’re not having any trouble being informal…

  6. Abby

    I’ve always been very leery of people who like to point out their many years of experience as the sole metric (instead of actual accomplishments) by which they should be ranked, because there’s a very real chance that they never evolved or personally improved in those years. Just because you’ve been around for a long time doesn’t automatically make you well-suited for a promotion.

  7. Stranger than fiction

    Just want to reiterate her own boss should be doing some mentoring, although I get the level of that will vary greatly depending on culture, but they shouldn’t leave Op out to dry and maybe she can take some leadership training

  8. Artemesia

    Alison’s advice is spot on. It is critical to work on your own management chops — as it always is when you are promoted to this the first time. It is not easy to be a manager.

    But you cannot let snotty remarks go unhandled. This is insubordination and and will affect the whole operation.

    You need to line up support with your boss by telling her the problem and how you are dealing with it. You need assurances that if it continues, you can get rid of those who refuse to comply with civil behavior.

    If you don’t nip it in the bud on the front end you will never get on top of this team.

    1. Rena

      +1

      I work in a bakery where gossip, passive aggression, and sniping at the bosses and other team members are daily occurrences, it’s exhausting and brings everyone down. I have a coworker who seems to be fueled by rage; if she’s not actively angry at a coworker, she won’t get much work done. This comes out as constant jabs and completely unreasonable remarks aimed at whoever isn’t immediately in the vicinity, and it’s terrible for the rest of us. She’s a long time employee, and it’s usually brushed off as “Oh, that’s just Gertrude being Gertrude. We’ve tried asking her to improve her attitude, but it hasn’t worked, so oh well!”

      Our supervisors and managers get promoted from within the team and then receive no training on how to manage people. I don’t think it occurs to them to seek out management training on their own. Everyone knows the drama sucks, and no one knows what to do about it.

      1. Artemesia

        I loved it when a new guy was hired in a major position in my department and was appalled by the number of staff who did nothing much and how difficult it was to get support for what he needed. He had enough clout to get the top people to deal with it and within a year of his arrival 3 long entrenched but feckless support staff were gone. The new hires were more pleasant to work with and more importantly got stuff done.

        Managing is hard. I was not particularly good at it myself and I wish I had realized early on how difficult it was and that it required a set of skills that smart as I was I didn’t have and needed to acquire. I got better but it sure would have been better to have recognized this earlier on. Just being smart and knowing how things should work gets you a long ways — but it isn’t enough and that really shows when you have an employee that really needs managing or a difficult situation like the OP’s.

        I remember my Dad the engineer taking management training when he was promoted and rehearsing talks to his group with a tape recorder at home in the evening. It doesn’t come naturally to many.

    2. "So you're saying the Russians have these, uh, Shoggoths, but we don't have any."

      Yes. I really don’t like to drag my superiors into ‘personality conflict issues’ (for want of a better term) but I don’t think there’s any way to deal with the situation described that doesn’t involve getting management involved and also that same management backing me up. Alas, I can all too easily imagine someone trying to work this situation, getting pushed and needing to take action (ie, disciplining or firing someone) – only to have management back down. I’m not saying it’s always – or even often – like that, but I’m sure it happens. And it’s got to be one of the worst feelings in the world.

  9. Risa

    I just had a conversation on Monday with one of my employees regarding a negative attitude – lots of muttering, complaining and generally be condescending to others within the organization, including executive management. We’ve had conversations in the past, and improving her attitude is one of her review goals this year. So I decided to formalize the conversation with a very specific set of consequences if her behavior doesn’t change. I was direct about the specific examples of her bad behavior. I tried to avoid overly judgemental words, but I clearly told her what I found inappropriate and unprofessional, and that her behavior was undermining her ability to work with others in the company.

    My manager was concerned that it was too harsh – no softening, no equivocating, etc. – and that she would be humiliated. However, by the time I was done with the actual conversation, the employee was thanking me for my concern and promising to address the problems. She even later sent an email apologizing and reiterating her understanding of the issue and what she needs to correct.

    Honestly, people want to be treated with respect, and one of the most respectful things you can do is clearly set expectations with them.

    1. JB (not in Houston)

      I’m so glad you did that. Some people don’t want to hear anything negative about themselves, ever. But a lot of people want to know exactly why their job is on the line and how to fix it–and that their job is on the line in the first place. I can’t imagine anyone having this conversation at my work place, and so people are always shocked when they;re fired.

  10. Rat Racer

    It seems like a very tough line to navigate – and I don’t envy the OP: on the one hand, you want to be open and receptive to feedback, but on the other hand, you don’t want to get into an argument back and forth with Jane about why an assignment went to John instead of Bob. And what if you decide that Jane is right, and the assignment really should have gone to Bob? It takes a very strong and confident manager to say, “Actually, I see your point, next time I will take that into consideration,” to someone who has been snarky and deliberately trying to undermine you.

    I think that Alison’s approach is the right way to go – it just takes a very strong and confident manager to be open to feedback and – more importantly – also to admit mistakes and be willing to change course if that’s truly what’s best for the company.

    1. Stranger than fiction

      Exactly and trust me they’ll prey on Op’s weaknesses, well they already are, so nip it

    2. Jo

      You’re right that this young manager should remain open to feedback and questions from her subordinates, especially since some of the more experienced and/or capable ones really might have good points to contribute. However, they have to do it in a respectful manner, not saying things like “anyone can see you should have done it the other way!”

      The OP could address both issues at once by saying something like, “You might be right about that, but your tone isn’t very respectful right now. Please remember to keep it civil, even when you don’t agree with me. Now, to get to your question, I had my reasons for giving that assignment to John, for example X and Y, and my decision stands.” Important to be clear that the ultimate decision is not a debate, or at least not one to be debated with a currently rude employee.

      TOTALLY OPTIONAL continuation IF and only if the person shows they are taking her seriously, and she’s prepared to engage them: “Can you share your reasoning for why you think Bob would have been the better choice?”

    3. Not So NewReader

      Going the opposite way, “Task X is a task that everyone here should be able to do and do well. It should not matter who is assigned to do it.” Of course, only if that actually applies to the situation.
      BUT, this only works if you mean it. You cannot say next week, “Oh Bob will be handling all of task X from now on.” Then it looks like you do not know what you are doing and people cannot keep up with your most current statement on the matter.

      Personally, I like to know who is the best at what. I think it is just a good idea to know that.

  11. luvzALaugh

    Seniority as the consideration for promotion is ludacris. All else being equal meh..consider seniority as a tie breaker,
    sure. You could still be at the same job for 10 years but you are at year one skill set wise. Just been doing year one over and over. I stay at current job even though the best advise says staying too long can have a negative effect on your career for the above stated reason. However, I’m careful to set new goals, take on new projects each year and detail them on my resume so it looks like this :
    Chocolate taste tester
    The chocolate is the Answer to life’s Problems Company
    2015 – lead a team to create new flavor variety currently increasing chocolate sales by 57%
    2014 – created a formal training program from the existing informal program resulting in improved retention from a 58% turn over rate to a 37% turn over rate.
    2013 – assisted with needs assessment to analyze the turn ver rate among chocolate taste testers.
    2012 – created a work around to lower productivity at the overconsumption of chocolate leading to 60% increase in department productivity
    2012 to present
    ensuring product quality
    bla
    bla
    bla
    listing details about my chocolate taste testing role

  12. luvzALaugh

    *2012 that should be: created work around to end lower productivity at the end of the day due to over consumption of chocolate.

    Guess I can hope add 2015 – reads and edits before hitting submit :)

  13. voyager1

    Just to give another angle, if you get passed over for a promotion, don’t be a dick. It just reinforces that the choice to pass you over was right and it will hurt any chances later.

    I got passed over last year, made it my goal to be gone in 6 months. I ended up getting the job I have now that is awesome.

    It is true. When one door closes another opens!

    1. Artemesia

      And if you are unfairly passed over – not just a close thing but clearly discriminated against or favoritism is at work — well then don’t get mad, get even. One of my BILs did not get the senior position he expected and probably merited in a university; he happened to run a highly lucrative program for the school and so he left, set himself up as an independent professional operation and now does virtually all the business that once went to the school. He is basically it for that function in the southeast region of the country. They dissed him and so he took their revenue away. I imagine it is a source of great satisfaction to him and he also is a lot richer as a result.

  14. Girasol

    Would there be any harm in asking, WRT Bob and John being given the wrong assignments, “You think Bob should do that? What are your reasons?” and listen respectfully to the answer? It might be useful info (“The customer hates Bob as a result of the incident back in 08”) or it might be silly (“John’s a dork, as everyone but you knows, and always gets the yuck jobs.”) But at least you’d know and would be free to reconsider or say, “My assignments stand,” with or without any explanation.

  15. Not So NewReader

    “but now everyone hates me. Everyone offered me forced congratulations, but these congratulations were often accompanied by things like ‘I guess experience wasn’t much of a factor since I’ve been here five years longer.’ Or ‘Congratulations! You’re the first boss I’ve had that’s younger than me.’ ”

    A few things. Everyone does not hate you. Respect is earned and level of respect grows over time. Think of yourself and your own boss. You gave her the obligatory level of respect, hopefully as time goes along, you will think she is awesome. Your employees are doing the same thing.

    Next, everyone offered forced congratulations. I remember asking my father about a similar thing. I said my cohort tells people “good to see you” but is sounds so canned. In an interesting turnaround, my father said. “The thing to remember here is that your cohort has enough presence of mind to realize that she needs to say something polite. You’re going to have to over look the fact that it sounds canned and focus on she wanted to say something that was polite.” So, OP, they had enough of their wits about them that they knew they had to say something nice and they tried.

    It seems that the remarks about experience and seniority are about YOU. But, perhaps not. I read it as them expressing their feeling of awkwardness as in, “I failed to make the cut here and I don’t understand why. I have more of this or that, why wasn’t I chosen?” To me this is like they got caught hanging out in their underwear- it’s an awkward moment where they have to come to grips with the fact that they are not the “bestest” in the world.

    I think that this is fairly normal human feelings, to be honest. Notice, I did not say professional feelings. But we are human beings first and professionals second. It might help you to picture yourself in their shoes. What would you think? Possibly you would not say it out loud, but you could think some of this stuff. Don’t carry what they say around with you, nor take it to heart. It is their discomfort not yours. Just focus on being a good boss, be fair, be consistent, stand up for them when they are right and coach them when they are wrong. Remember it’s their discomfort and they must work through it themselves. It takes time.

  16. Biff

    Does anyone else think it’s kinda odd that management promoted the one person the whole team seems to RESENT?

    1. Alyssa

      I don’t see anything to indicate the team resented the OP before she got the promotion. The resentment seems to be stemming from the promotion.

      1. Biff

        Sorry, I must have been unclear. I meant, it seems like the business could have or even did predict that promoting OP would cause mass resentment. Knowing that, why promote OP anyway. I wouldn’t think that’s a very solid business decision.

        1. voyager1

          Biff,
          We don’t know all the story of the why the OP was promoted and her coworkers were not. Sometimes the youngest member of the team is just better then the rest, and hence the promotion. If management only cares about who is going to resent it, then they will never promote anyone.

  17. Fish Microwaver

    I dislike very much when people say “he/she/they hate change”. In my experience it is not change that people hate, it is the way it is handled, which is almost invariably poorly.

  18. not telling

    AAM often preaches the ‘silence’ trick in interviews and I think there are other times, like this one, where silence also works. I don’t mean EVERY time, because then your team thinks you aren’t listening to them.

    But in the example of handing out assignments and someone saying ‘Oh you’re giving this one to John instead of Bob’, just pause for a second, and continue on with what you are saying. Responding to the goads and asides–any kind of response–shows your detractors that you are a little bit insecure in your new role, and that just gives them more fuel. By contrast silence makes sure that everyone hears and acknowledges the commentator’s insubordinate behavior and sees that you are not flustered or intimidated by it. You are showing them that you are confident your decision.

    I don’t mean you should play the silence card every single time. Just try it once or twice and I bet pretty quickly the commentary will quiet down.

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