4 more updates from letter-writers

Here are four updates from letter-writers who had their questions answered here this year.

1. My employee asked me not to give him any feedback

At our next meeting, I was prepared to have a hard discussion about the necessity of feedback. Instead, as soon as I brought it up my team member said he’d love to hear anything I had to say and wanted as much feedback as possible. Turns out two of his friends had been let go from the company that week for failure to improve after going on performance plans. Since then, he’s found a niche at work that he does really well in and has been receptive to feedback from myself as well as the people on that project. Our meetings are far more productive and he’s begun exceeding in a lot of the areas I had to push at. So, as much as I’d like to take some credit I think the real kick start was the fear that came from other managers having to do the hard work with his friends.

2. How to coach an irritated manager to stop yelling

I decided to start by meeting with the manager and the employee, because the employee had done something fairly minor that violated the PIP. I prepped with the manager beforehand, and practiced some (not long-winded!) phrases to address arguing. Despite the preparation, I ended up taking the lead in the meeting when it became clear to me that the manager had given such a convoluted explanation of the PIP that the employee legitimately did not understand that she would be fired if she did not comply. There were plenty of opportunities to shut down arguing and explain how that was part of the problem.

All in all, the manager was really struggling with wanting to be right – to get the employee to agree that the manager’s view was correct instead of simply agreeing to comply with the directive. She needed to shift to informing the employee of what was expected, and rely on the phrase “are you able to do that?” instead of “what do you think about that?”. Observer and fposte had some really helpful comments on this topic.

I’m still not sure how things fells apart for the manager, because she had been a very effective and well-liked manager before the yelling started, and had successfully handed several tough problems over the years. She really did try to use some new strategies, and even made a cheat-sheet of phrases to keep on her phone for quick reference. But in the end, she just could not get past the “bitch eating crackers” feeling with this employee, and she started to feel that way about all of her direct reports. A few months after the PIP meeting, she decided that managing just wasn’t for her and she has moved on. Since then, the employee has really bloomed and been given more responsibility by the new manager. There has been no more arguing, she successfully completed the PIP, and she’s no longer passing along management articles.

Thanks Alison and all the commenters for all the good advice!

3. Should my cover letters extend sympathies to the company CEO, whose daughter just died? (#2 at the link)

I later came to believe that mentioning the CEO’s daughter’s death would’ve been kind of tasteless, so I didn’t mention the tragedy at all. Thanks to you and your commenters for your candid feedback. While I didn’t get that job, I did get another job later in the year, so I’m pleased to say that things have worked out for the better!

4. My coworker wants to review my self-evaluation and maybe borrow portions for her own

It’s exactly one year to the day, and our boss is now requesting our end-of-year self-evaluations. Last year, I followed your advice and reiterated to her that I wanted to write my review in my own words. When I said this is how I’ve done it at all past jobs, she said kind of angrily, “I can tell.” (I should mention there was no anger from my end at any point, just puzzlement.) She asked that we just write one or two paragraphs that explain the tasks we have in common (“The teapot publishing team edits all documentation from teapot engineers.”) To keep the peace, I agreed. She remained silent when I asked who would write it, and so I reluctantly volunteered. Although I was annoyed at myself for being a pushover, I was glad I could submit a review that was in my own words.

I spoke with my manager after we submitted our reviews last year. At that time, he said we took this too far, and we should not do that again next year. Fast forward to last week. During a team meeting, my co-worker again asked that we write a joint section that covers our common responsibilities. My manager intervened and asked that we not do that. My co-worker agreed, albeit in a stony-faced way, and has not mentioned it since.

I never figured out what was behind all this. She is not new to the professional world, so I assume she’s encountered year-end reviews at some point. However, she has done some freelance and contract work, so maybe she’s avoided reviews or has not done one in a long time. My best guess about the anger is that she feels my request is un-teamlike. In general, she’s not good with boundaries and will meddle with my work queue because she sees our work as existing in one shared pot. (Like, “Oh, I called Ted because I saw that in your queue that he hasn’t returned that document to you yet.”) There was a similar agitated reaction when I told her that I’d like to fully manage my own projects. So, perhaps this “shared work” attitude extends to our reviews. Oddly, she’s also said that she “doesn’t care” about these reviews and that they’re pointless. In any case, it appears to be resolved. Thank you!

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. videogame Princess*

    Ok, number one made me laugh a little, even though it was also pretty sad. Glad he learned!
    Number two is such a shame. I remember reading that she was actually doing a good job and that she wanted help with this. But I doubt she will be a good manager in the long run if she allows her emotions to get to her. There are always difficult employees, and handling them is part of life.

    1. Blurgle*

      I thought then and still think now that the employee interpreted “feedback” to mean “ways we can bully you and cut you down to size”, which is how it’s often shown on TV.

      I also would not be surprised if an older coworker didn’t pull him aside and let him know he was being unrealistic in thinking the world worked like a TV sitcom.

    1. BethRA*

      I believe it’s when you’ve gotten to the point with someone that anything they do, regardless of how innocuous, annoys you. Like eating crackers.

      1. Kristin (Germany)*

        Actually, I believe it originated on Captain Awkward, although I can’t quite remember whether it was the good Captain herself who used it first or if it was one of the commenters.

          1. Kristin (Germany)*

            Rats, I was so sure! I suppose that ‘Captain Awkward’ is the answer to the question ‘Where did I first encounter the concept of bitch eating crackers?,’ but nobody asked that particular question, so.

      2. JBeane*

        I believe that card is paraphrasing comedian Katt Williams, although I’m not 100% sure the stand-up routine predates it.

  2. the_scientist*

    The original #2 letter was one of the most interesting letters and comments sections I’ve read in a while. I know the OP was pretty active in the comments for the original letter so I’m hoping they come back. OP: looking back on the situation now, do you think that the manager was the actual source of the problem? It’s very interesting to me that since the manager moved on, former problem employee seems to be doing well and excelling professionally, so maybe the manager was mostly at fault and had really just reached her limits as a manager. On the other hand, I just can’t shake the vague notion that the problem employee is a total bully who happens to be adept at spotting and exploiting insecurity/lack of confidence. I don’t know; I have no additional information other than what the OP provided in the letter and follow-up comments, but some of the problem employee’s behaviour struck me as subtly undermining in the most calculating way. I guess time will tell, because if the problem employee is a bully, she’ll find another target soon enough!

    1. Honeybee*

      Honestly, I felt this way too – this update left me with some mixed feelings. It’s possible that the manager was just not a great manager, but from the original letter it sounded like the employee in question had some pre-existing issues – she was already on a PIP and was described as “argumentative and disagreeable.” On the contrary, the manager was described as brilliant and someone who successfully handled many tough problems and was beloved by her team. And the end result is that this manager was chased out by a disgruntled employee who already wasn’t performing well? That does smack of the employee being a bully to me, too.

      1. girlonfire*

        I wonder if this particular employee just managed to push all the right buttons on that particular manager, and that it wasn’t that the manger wasn’t good at managing, but rather that there was a legit personality conflict that she couldn’t move past.

        1. INTP*

          This sounds likely to me. I definitely don’t think anyone would describe me like they’ve described the employee in the letter, but the dynamics seem similar to conflicts I’ve had with people with a certain personality type that goes along with yelling (that I don’t get along with ever really, but it was explosive when I had one as a manager). Nothing is resolved because I can’t communicate with a person in the heat of anger and yelling, but they can’t move on to the calmly discussing phase until I’ve shown that I “care” by getting emotional too, attempting to speak calmly while they’re yelling just makes it worse, I go to other contacts after failed attempts to communicate with them because it’s the only way to be heard without learning yeller-language, which makes them feel utterly disrespected and view me as conniving…it just doesn’t work. There are some personality types that just cannot work together, even if neither of them has a lot of social problems on their own, at least without sufficient lubrication (i.e. no problems to cause friction and plenty of more easygoing personalities around).

          1. LeRainDrop*

            I’ve had that experience, too — a manager yelling at me and getting hysterical, and then she shrieks, “Does this [issue] even matter to you? Don’t you care at all?” I’m like, “Yes, of course I care.” And she was like, “Oh, I couldn’t tell because you’re not acting upset.” She was hoping that I would be crying. Then again, she was big boss’s golden child employee, and she often cried to manipulate him into doing what she wanted.

        2. Meg Murry*

          Yes, after re-reading and seeing that the employee was 20 years older than the manager, I wondered if the employee was pushing the same buttons as someone else in the manager’s life. I’ve been in situations where I was managing a project and training a new co-worker who was about my father’s age, and he had a daughter a little younger than me. Sometimes the things he said to me (and the way he said them) sounded exactly like something my father would have said to me, and I had to really work hard not to snap back into snarling bratty teenager mode as an automatic response to that tone of voice or way of talking down to me or as if I didn’t know what I was doing.

          I am actually pretty nervous about this for my long term career – I think I could be a pretty good manager to decent employees, but I don’t know how well I’ll handle problem employees.

          1. Artemesia*

            I had a boss who was oddly hostile to me for no reason I could see. It went so far as him shouting at me in a meeting that my idea was stupid and completely wrong (the idea I put forward was the one that was adopted by the organization within two weeks). After one meeting where he was behaving like this, someone came up to me afterwards and said ‘You must remind him of his first wife or something, otherwise I can’t figure out what is going on.’ Seemed like a theory. I had been interim in his position for a a couple of years before he was an external hire and he was apparently made aware that I had supported another candidate, so I assumed it was that — but the first wife dynamic is certainly a possibility. In this letter I too felt that an obnox employee had succeeded in chasing a competent manager.

      2. Lily in NYC*

        But the update mentions the the manager ended up feeling resentful of all of her direct reports, not just the problematic one. And the problematic one did a complete 180 with a new manager so I don’t see how this is all her fault. It sounds to me like they were bad fits with each other, not just that one was “bad” and one was “good”. (To be fair, I didn’t read all of the comments in the original post so I might have missed examples of bad behavior from the employee on the PIP)

    2. OP #2*

      I have asked myself the same question! I think that the employee’s behavior was inappropriate and immature. She was being very difficult, and there were major performance issues. Regardless of whether her manager was perfect, she should not have been doing what she was doing. After I clarified the PIP for her, she complied completely and also improved her performance in other areas. The manager, apparently, wasn’t able to manage someone who was tough-to-manage. Previously, her employees had been pretty easy to get along with and more receptive to feedback. Just to clarify, the manager was not fired, and she was doing an excellent job in many aspects of her work. She could have worked through this and learned how to manage this really tough employee, but she chose to do different work instead, and that’s okay.

      1. Biff*

        I found your first letter really interesting as well.

        I feel I need to put that out there — under a previous manager who did not explain things well to me, and who was overall a wimpy boss, I became a bad employee despite my best efforts not to slip into that role. I bet if you had asked, oldboss would have described me as awkward or inappropriate. I got a new boss who is clear, direct and willing to actually go to bat for my team. And now I’m a vital employee tasked with key responsibilities.

        Kinda thinking you had a manager problem there, not an employee problem.

        1. INTP*

          Yeah, I had one boss who would describe me as lazy, conniving, manipulative…but it was because she was a yeller and that sort of benevolently overbearing personality type who isn’t satisfied until you think and feel what they want you to, and takes it as a personal slight when you don’t want them to be your mother hen, and I’m difficult in the more fiercely independent, don’t need nurturing in the workplace, egalitarian in awarding my respect but willing to adhere to a hierarchy because it makes pragmatic sense for one to exist way. I could. not. communicate. with. her. at. all. So I gave up on asking her for reasonable things at all, until I had something really important, and I’d go over her head. And she’d scream at me in earshot of everyone and scream some more that I wasn’t upset enough about it but in the end I’d have the (totally reasonable) thing I needed so it was just how I survived in that environment. Most of my managers give me excellent reviews for being accountable, team-oriented, and direct.

          1. SRB*

            Do you all work for my firstboss? Is that where she went? Or are you all me? :)
            That perfectly describes the first year or so of my professional life. I guess this is just more common than I thought.

      2. Observer*

        Regardless of whether her manager was perfect, she should not have been doing what she was doing. After I clarified the PIP for her, she complied completely and also improved her performance in other areas.

        The second sentence helps explain the behavior in the first sentence. I agree that the bad behavior should not have happened. But, it’s also clear that poor management was part of the problem. Besides the issue you had highlighted of too much focus on feeling rather than behavior, there was clearly poor communications on the part of the manager. It’s possible that the employee just thought that her manager didn’t have your backing, but from your update it sounds like she genuinely didn’t understand what’s at stake. If the supervisor couldn’t even communicate that, I can’t imagine how many other things were mangled.

    3. Vicki*

      “do you think that the manager was the actual source of the problem? ”

      That occurred to me too. Perhaps the manager needed the PIP.

  3. vox de causa*

    I’m really disappointed in update #2. It sounds like someone who started out as a good and competent manager was targeted and driven out by this employee in a very deliberate way. The employee was given too much validation for frivolous complaints. For instance, she should have been told very firmly to cease providing the management articles, and that her manager had your confidence. Allowing her to go around her manager in this way had the effect of diminishing the manager’s authority. The passive-aggressive way she pursued her vendetta against her manager was allowed to blossom.

    I hope I’m wrong, but I have seen someone very similar to this employee, and their pattern was similar – They had hundreds of ways to very deliberately get under their supervisor’s skin, and individually each incident could be explained away. They constantly used excuses to go around their supervisor or over her head, and upper management did not correct that issue.

    Once this employee had won what they considered a major victory, their performance improved dramatically for a while, but it was temporary. Eventually, they got bored or dissatisfied and targeted someone else. Then the pattern was repeated.

  4. INTP*

    #2 was very illuminating on the follow-up under the original post. It makes a lot of what seem like unreasonable demands of the employee look much more reasonable – like maybe the request for documentation of conversations was because the manager was being so unclear (or too unclear for that employee to understand) that the employee genuinely thought the conversations hadn’t happened yet, or hoped a written summary would clarify what the manager was trying to say, and maybe “argumentativeness” was an attempt to communicate while the manager saw any sort of questioning as arguing because she was so desperate to be right. The performance issues in the first place could have been caused by poor communication of expectations.

    Neither of them sound innocent of bad behavior of course, and it’s likely that they just don’t have compatible personalities to work together. It’s too bad that the company lost a brilliant manager but sounds like maybe the manager has moved on to a job she’ll be happier in?

  5. Myrin*

    #4 continues to be bizarre and, like the OP, I’d really like to find out what’s behind this weird behaviour. But since that probably won’t be possible I’m just glad it seems to have been resolved (and by someone higher-up no less)!

    1. KeyboardKat*

      I get the feeling that she thinks that she is partially responsible for OP#4s success and wants the credit for them – hence the insistence on having the same review for both of them.

      I have an ex-manager turned colleague (she got demoted to my level) who is ALLLL about working together on projects – especially projects where I am doing most of the work already. She had often volunteered to help me with my projects and often I had to shut her down via emails or in meetings that the help is not needed, and things are handled.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I’m not sure which person you’re referring to! Do you mean that the PIP for the argumentative employee was bs because it was a management problem and that it could have led to an unfair termination?

  6. Kadee*

    #2 – this is hard as I don’t want to come across as disrespectful towards you at all, especially since you seem to want to see your employees excel (and you had the courage to write in to ask for advice!) All that aside, have you reflected at all on your own role in things? It may be that the manager just wasn’t suited to a managerial role, but there were a few things you wrote that stood out to me that made me wonder if the new manager felt that you were (perhaps unintentionally) undermining her authority with the problem employee. The problem employee had been there for a long time and stated a preference to deal with you which isn’t exactly a great sign. When that employee violated the PIP, you didn’t seem to trust your new manager enough to handle it herself and you sat in on it. You then didn’t like the way the new manager was handling it and you took over the discussion. If I were the problem employee, I’d feel like I scored a victory over the manager as you might have appeared as dismissive of the new manager as the employee seemed to be. If I were the new manager, I might feel a bit humiliated that this took place in front of someone I was already struggling to manage. This isn’t to say that the new manager was proper in her behavior or that she shouldn’t be coached not to yell, but it makes me wonder if the problem was that the employee saw that the new manager didn’t have full support and kept pushing the manager knowing that you’d step in? Also, maybe the manager knew that was the case and that’s why she was so easily frustrated because she felt she didn’t have support in dealing with a person you characterize as a “difficult employee”?

    Since you seem to be so open to feedback, have you thought about talking to the person who had been manager and to see what feedback she has to offer now that she’s out of that role?

    1. Velociraptor Attack*

      I had the same concern about this. I was once in a somewhat similar position (though without the yelling) where I was supposed to manage someone that had applied for a promotion to my job and did not get it. She wasn’t the easiest person to manage but things got much worse when she found out she was older than me. My boss allowed her to go around me and when I expressed concern for this I was told that she was “like family”. I ended up leaving the company because of the situation. It may have seemed like it was because I “decided managing wasn’t for me” but it was because managing in that group of people was problematic.

      After I left she did indeed get my job.

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