telling a difficult, pushy employee that she’s right … without undermining your own authority

A reader writes:

I recently took a job at a small strategy/data consulting firm, supervising several managers, each with their own team of analysts. I’ve managed before, but never managed people who themselves were managers, and I’m finding that there are definitely some wrinkles I hadn’t expected!

One of the managers I supervise is named Megan; she in turn supervises Sarah, a junior analyst. Sarah is a difficult employee in the way very bright and talented people often can be — one of the best analysts at our firm, but often abrasive, arrogant, and condescending. For example, she often criticizes her coworkers’ ideas in inappropriately strong terms, or offers to “fix” their work even if they haven’t asked for her help. Megan has been coaching her on this and some other behaviors, and there’s been steady improvement over the last few months.

Unfortunately, that progress seems to have come undone last week. The team regularly meets to pitch different proposals in response to our client’s requests; Megan chooses which option to pursue, and after the plan is fully developed, I approve the final version before it goes to our client. At this meeting Sarah offered one idea (Plan A) and another employee proposed a different idea (Plan B). Megan chose Plan B to develop further.

Sarah, however, has continued to vocally advocate for Plan A all week, even after Megan made it clear the decision was final. Megan spoke to her privately, but as best I can make out their conversation devolved into yet another argument about the merits of the two proposals. Complicating things, the entire team is aware of what’s going on, and things seem to have escalated into a feud where Sarah is waiting to be vindicated, Megan is constantly having to reassert her authority to make final decisions, and everyone else is waiting to see who “wins.”

Here’s the last wrinkle: I’m convinced that, in fact, Sarah’s criticisms of Plan B are accurate. I’d say plan B is competent but unexceptional, while plan A has the type of creativity/inspiration that we aim for (and market ourselves to clients based on).

I should note that I have a great deal of confidence in Megan. She’s excellent with people, and her team has consistently produced good results. Sarah probably has more raw talent, but that’s true in many of the analyst/manager teams I supervise, and I’ve never found it a cause for concern.

There have been a few times the plans Megan presented to me needed tweaking, but that goes for everyone I supervise. In the past when I’ve had doubts about a pitch, it’s been easy to handle — I talk to Megan, she goes back to her team and they work on revisions — but in this case, I’m in a catch-22. If I share my criticisms with Megan and ask for changes, I feel like I’ll be validating Sarah’s inappropriate behavior, encouraging her to act the same way next time she has a problem with one of Megan’s decisions, and permanently undermining Megan’s ability to manage her team. At the same time, I have a responsibility to my clients to give them the best product I can (and given my field, I’m strongly ideologically invested in their success).

As for why Megan picked plan B over A: the former was professionally put together and thorough, whereas Sarah’s needed a lot more polish to go from great concept to great reality. Ideally (and typically!) Megan would have evaluated both plans on their ultimate potential, but I suspect Sarah’s confrontational way of making her case made it hard for Megan to get enough distance to be objective.

Ooooh, this is hard.

You’re absolutely right to worry about validating and reinforcing Sarah’s behavior, as well as undermining Megan’s authority and ability to manage her team.

At the same time, though, personality issues shouldn’t determine what work you give a client.

I spent a long time thinking about your letter, and where I ultimately come down is this: The strongest managers are willing to be wrong, and they’re willing to give a fair hearing to viewpoints other than their own, even if those viewpoints come from people they find frustrating. Managers who dig their heels in because they don’t want to look wrong end up acting from weakness.

So, assuming you’re looking for a way to pick Plan A — Sarah’s plan — because it’s the better plan, while minimizing any undermining of Megan and not increasing the chances that Sarah will repeat this in the future… well, I don’t think there’s a perfect solution, but I think we can get you fairly close to that outcome.

You could coach Megan to frame the decision this way to Sarah: “I’ve thought about what you’ve said, and I think you’re making good points. I don’t think I’m infallible, and I’m willing to give Plan A a try … but I want to talk to you about some of the reasons I didn’t prefer A originally. (Insert feedback here about putting together a professional and polished plan.) Also, I need to be candid with you that the way you’ve handled this situation this week has been problematic. It’s not that I don’t want to hear opinions that differ from my own — I do. But I need you to raise those points calmly and politely. This week at times you seemed to be going on the attack — and that’s not how I want this team to function. I also need you to accept that decisions won’t always go your way. I will always hear you out, but once I make a decision, I need you on board and moving forward with it, not still debating it.”

Of course, Sarah may be sitting there thinking “But it’s because I pushed that you eventually ended up agreeing that I was right.” And that’s true, so Megan needs to address that head-on: “I’m concerned that the lesson you’ll take away from this is that if you push hard enough, you’ll be able to change my mind. So I want to be really clear with you that what happened this week can’t happen again. Sometimes I’m going to make a different call than you would make, and for us to be able to work together effectively, I need to know that you’ll be able to roll with it when that happens. Will you be able to do that in the future?”

Megan should also be transparent with the rest of her team: “I’ve heard Sarah out and I think her points have value, so we’re going to give Plan A a try. I worry that this got framed to y’all as a Megan vs. Sarah battle, and so I want to make sure it’s clear that that’s not what this was. I value Sarah’s viewpoint just like I value all of your viewpoints, and I want you to know that I’m willing to reconsider decisions if someone feels strongly and makes a good case. That said, as I’ve told Sarah, I’d like that process to look different than it did here — we should be collaborating to get to the best solutions, not feuding.”

Also! It sounds like Megan might be falling prey to a really common manager trap, where her frustration with Sarah is preventing her from objectively evaluating Sarah’s input and ideas. If that’s the case, it’s important for you to talk to her about that, and coach her around how to respond more objectively. If Sarah is going to stay on Megan’s team (and I’m assuming you’ve thought that through and concluded that she should), Megan has to assess her work with an open mind — and that’s especially true since the reason you’re putting up with Sarah’s difficult traits is because of the value she brings.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 395 comments… read them below }

    1. RVA Cat*

      Same, from somebody who was a Sarah earlier on in my career. Somebody really can’t be a top performer while also being a jerk. Not Being A Jerk is actually part of the job!

      1. Consulting Queen*

        Oh goodness, tell me about it. We have a “top performer” who is a nightmare to work with at my job and I was shocked to find out she was promoted to my level.

        1. MechE31*

          At a previous job, we had a top technical performer and our best technical expert on site, who was the worst person I’ve ever worked with (I’m fairly senior in my field). He was in a lead role with no supervisor duties, and everyone hated working with him. He got promoted to manager when his boss left and he said promote me or I quit. It ended terribly for everyone.

          He did get a demotion back to individual contributor about a year after I left.

          1. anonymous for this*

            I actually have a simple answer to “promote me to management or I quit!” demands: “Goodbye.”- by making the demand, they are fairly clearly not ready for management, while if thye are promoted to management, their technical knowledge- which is what you presumably want to retain- is largely functionally lost anyway, because a manager doesn’t generally do frontline work much.

            1. Michael*

              That’s my response to *any* form of ‘or I quit’ demand. Just by making their case that way, they’re proving that they don’t understand how to work in a professional environment.

              That’s really different (hopefully obviously) from a respectful, honest conversation about someone’s personal career/salary/etc. goals, even if it comes with the understanding that not meeting those goals will likely lead to that person moving on.

      2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Absolutely, but I also feel like there’s a wrong way to be right, and Sarah is doing that. She just dashed off the brilliant concept and let other people work on turning it into reality, while brow-beating everyone who didn’t think it was fully baked. It sounds like she’s the sort that’s brilliant and knows it, and doesn’t have the discipline to turn an idea into a plan.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          And so, I’d present it as, “”Plan A had the core of a good approach, but it was half-baked, unpolished, and needed a lot of work to turn it into an actionable approach. Plan B was selected initially because it was fully thought-through and didn’t need any work to implement. As we did the work on Plan A to explore its feasibility, our original decision changed. Sarah, if you want your ideas taken seriously, you need to spend as much time developing them to delivery-ready status as you did this week debating it. A plan that’s brilliant but poorly thought through is no better than a bad idea, and creativity isn’t all we look for when making decisions.”

          And I’d criticize Sarah in terms that strong. It sounds like the plan was inspired but poorly presented and incompletely conceived, and young, brilliant, arrogant people often coast through life on the assumption that brilliance conquers all – while letting more disciplined thinkers turn the broad sketch into a coherent picture. She needs to hear that a brilliant plan can also be crap, and that decisions can be made because of that.

          And then follow with the “I’m concerned that the lesson you’ll take away from this is that if you push hard enough, you’ll be able to change my mind,” etc etc etc.

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            I really like that framing. Sure, Sarah might be good at having the flashes of brilliance, but the disciplined follow-through is absolutely vital.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              I got hammered on this in grad school. I had a great idea, and lost a grant because I hadn’t done the boring detail work of planning my methods and selecting firm study sites. The follow-through matters more than the idea, usually.

              1. Michelle*

                This! I know someone who is all brilliant ideas and zero follow through. Nothing ever gets done unless the idea is important enough to someone else that they take the reigns. Brilliant ideas mean nothing if they die there.

              2. Elizabeth West*

                As a novelist, I concur. I can have the greatest idea in the history of books but if I don’t adequately convey it with the best language and stylistic choices and a WHOLE LOT of editing, then I might as well be polishing a turd.

          2. k*

            Perfect. It’s an important thing for Sarah to learn, and in this specific situation may help to minimize an “I’m right, I win” smug feeling from her.

          3. paul*

            I think that’s incredibly useful to remember; it’s A-OK to criticize a plan and point out objective reasons it wasn’t selected. A good kick in the ego isn’t a bad thing once in a while!

          4. MuseumChick*

            Excellent script, and honestly, this is a lesson many young professionals have to learn so it’s to Sarah’s benefit to learn it. It also seems that she has such a strong personality that using strong terms like this might be the only way to get through to her.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              Is there a word for a feeling of equal parts pity, frustration, and contempt? Because that letter made me feel it. Hard.

              1. MW*

                Yeah. Reading that just stings. Can’t decide whether I feel sorry for the Ideaman, or mad. Might not quite fit the description but I would call this sensation Anguish.

          5. My boss is grown-up Sarah*

            Oh my, you just described the head of my org to a T. This sort of young, brilliant person becomes so much more exhausting when s/he runs the whole shebang, but doesn’t have the discipline or attention to truly manage a complicated organism and regularly sends folks off to make some spark of an idea into reality whether or not it fits within the work your doing or the mission/direction of the org.

          6. Dust Bunny*

            OMG this so much. In restrospect, there have been so many people in my life who needed somebody to make them follow through on this kind of thing.

      3. AMG*

        I can be a Sarah sometimes. I have to avoid falling into the ‘I’m not here to make friends’ mentality, because the reality is that I AM here to collaborate with my coworkers and foster group work for the benefit of the company.

        As far as the managerial piece goes, if you are a weak manager or unsure/not confident in what you are doing, you will either depend on me heavily, or hate me. Or both. (I know, and I am working on it.) BUT, if you throw negatives at my work and my contributions for no other reason than the fact you don’t like me, I’m going to call it out, loudly. (Not okay, but I am not trying to justify Sarah or my defects, I am trying to provide insight.) The strongest, and best, managers I have ever had will acknowledge when they are wrong, will encourage me and the rest of the team to push back, and will treat the office like a team collaborating. The weak ones try to get their detractors to be quiet and go away at any cost. Don’t be that person, because the rest of the team knows what’s going on and they can dislike Sarah AND lose respect for you at the same time. It’s not a zero-sum game.

        1. Make sure Sarah knows she’s been heard, and don’t make excuses to brush her off. It’s the worst thing you can do.
        2. Treat Sarah with respect by telling her what she can do to improve her presentations going forward.
        3. I also agree that you need to talk to the group and explain the decision.
        4. Make sure Sarah understands that there is a time for ‘arguing on the way in’ and ‘saluting on the way out’ and that this is an anomaly in the sense that once the decision has been made, she needs to drop it and focus on making it a success, as she will not always get her way.

        Hope it helps. And on behalf of all the Sarahs out there, we are sorry. We care very much about the job and the company, so please help channel her and not stifle her. She will come around and be fantastic.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          “BUT, if you throw negatives at my work and my contributions for no other reason than the fact you don’t like me, I’m going to call it out, loudly. (Not okay, but I am not trying to justify Sarah or my defects, I am trying to provide insight.)”

          The thing I didn’t understand, when I was a Sarah, is that you don’t actually know everything, and that other people might be making decisions that seem to make no sense on the basis of information or criteria you’re not aware of. So it seems like you’re dismissing my beautiful, important idea for no reason.

          1. AMG*

            A good point as well, especially because I suspect this particular Sarah is relatively new to the workforce.

          2. Taylor Swift*

            You also aren’t entitled to know everything, especially if you’re at a junior level. A higher up may make a decision you don’t agree with because you don’t have all the facts and you’re going to look really dumb if you push back on it.

            1. anonymous for this*

              Yes and no. “There was a decision made at a higher level that I cannot explain (add yet if appropriate) that changes which decision is better” IS an adequate reason- but almost always, you should at least say that. It’s when pushback continues after that point that it becomes dumb.

              1. Taylor Swift*

                I disagree. I don’t think managers need to spend their time explaining every single decision they make. It’s just not feasible.

                1. Hrovitnir*

                  Well, I don’t think it takes meaningfully longer to say “you can’t do that, but let me assure you we thought it through” or similar than “you can’t do that.” It takes longer to have someone try and debate it, but that’s more likely with the latter anyway.

                  It’s also just part of treating people respectfully IMO. I strongly agree you’re not entitled to explanations and sometimes you just need to suck it up even if you are right, but I also think treating your staff like people who are going to be curious about what’s wrong with their idea is courteous and desirable.

                  Unless it’s way off the company culture to make suggestions, understanding why your idea was not feasible is good for you to know for the future, too.

                2. Newt*

                  I guess it depends on what sort of workplace you want.

                  If you’ve got the kind of workload where you just need people to follow instructions and Do The Job They’re Given, then I can see that fostering an atmosphere where bosses don’t explain themselves and staff are taught not to expect explanations would be important.

                  But any kind of work where innovation is useful, that’s a really bad approach. If you want people to come forward with ideas for improvements, solutions to problems, suggestions for new business ventures or out-of-the-box thinking, then being prepared to explain *why* you don’t want to accept a particular idea is crucial.

                  Speaking as someone who’s currently doing a lot of innovating in my current role, I’d never have gotten to the point I’m at now without managers being willing to explain why my early suggestions didn’t work for them – it gave me useful knowledge to ensure future suggestions were more researched, thorough and realistic, and gave me confidence that it was okay for me to make suggestions in the first place. Which has paid dividends to my employer too, since I’ve now rescued 2 failing contracts and it’s looking like they’re going to start using me as a Company-Wide Fixer Of Problems a ways down the line.

                  Of course, there’s a difference between explaining reasons behind a decision once, and having the team listen and take that in, and finding yourself re-hashing the same arguments over and over with an employee who won’t quit. I agree that those sort of discussions shouldn’t be framed as a debate or a chance to revisit the original arguments unless that’s something the manager themselves has a specific interest in pursuing.

      4. PlainJane*

        Yep! I’ve had a few conversations with high performers over the years that boiled down to: you do great work, but your attitude is undermining that work and will limit your opportunities here. I focus on the effect of their behavior/words/whatever on their co-workers and on specific outcomes. For some, it’s an eye-opener. They thought that doing good work was somehow separate from soft skills.

    2. GrandBargain*

      Except that Sarah was hired for exactly the same characteristics that make her hard to work with… brash, opinionated, brilliant, persistent. The firm’s very brand and reputation and value is based on delivering work based on those attributes. Not every organization will welcome the continual disruption this may bring and Megan’s coaching looks like it will minimize some of the problems. But, asking Sarah to not be Sarah is very shortsighted.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I don’t think that’s accurate. It’s possible to have all those characteristics without being obnoxious or inappropriate, and frankly, Sarah’s behavior sounds inappropriate for her workplace. I don’t think being bright and persistent give you a pass to be unkind, rude, or pushy. I think OP’s challenge is helping Sarah channel her natural gifts/traits in a way that supports the team and encourages people to take her up on her ideas.

        I’ve worked with brilliant jerks. They’re assholes. It’s demoralizing and infuriating for everyone else, particularly because they tend to think they’re always right (and smarter than everyone else), even when they’re wrong. Encouraging Sarah to move towards more effective methods of communication and participation helps everyone, including Sarah.

          1. Emi.*

            I had lunch with John Mather and at least for that hour, he was one of the nicest and most charming people I’ve ever met. In fact, I just realized he’s who Lord Merton reminds me of.

            1. My first comment here*

              My friend has had many work contacts with John Mather and agrees that he is an incredibly nice person.

          2. A grad student*

            Our department has a seminar series each year with guest speakers from around the country, and two of them were Nobel Prize winners. They were by far the nicest people we’ve had come speak.

        1. PlainJane*

          “It’s demoralizing and infuriating.” Yes. That’s the primary premise of Bob Sutton’s wonderful book, The No-Asshole Rule. Genuine assholes aren’t worth what they cost.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            It’s seriously one of my fave books, although I wish it had better guidance for people who work for jerks :(

        2. GrandBargain*

          … and that’s why the on-going coaching is a good thing…. because there are some behaviors that sound moderately inappropriate and other behaviors that sound unproductive (not always the same). The challenge is that the innovative, creative thinking and approaches the firm wants to be known for can some sometimes be more important than having client teams that always operate smoothly. I agree that having both is better, and that working with someone who is *always* a jerk would be infuriating and probably drive others away. But I don’t think this situation reaches that level… and besides, having team A and team B compete to come up with a solution means that producing innovation through conflict/debate/competition is a choice the firm has already made.

          1. GrandBargain*

            I want to add that I am not a proponent of the innovation through conflict or competition approach (sometimes called “let’s you and him fight”). It’s much better to build an organization where everyone collaborates in a culture of cooperation, mutual support and shared success. Not everyone shares that view though, and some organizations don’t work that way.

            1. Letter Writer*

              Hmm… I’m not sure I agree with the distinction you’re drawing. Our goal, which I think we usually hit, is to have both – an involved discussion about which ideas or strategies would best suit a given client’s needs, followed by a cooperative effort to shape/hone/polish those ideas into a final deliverable. It hasn’t been my experience that step one precludes step two; I agree that mutual support and shared success are critical, just not that they can’t coexist with robust debate over the best way forward.

      2. Agnodike*

        It’s incredible how possible it is to be brash, opinionated, brilliant, and persistent while still being pleasant, fun, helpful, and a good collaborator.

        I’m a high performer at my job, with a lot of opinions and a forceful approach to seeing my projects through. And ten years ago I was also a bit of a steamroller, just like Sarah: I knew I was right and I was fully prepared to flatten anyone who didn’t see it that way. As I gained more experience and insight, I learned to take all the good bits of being me (the drive, passion, and hard-work approach) and temper them with other qualities that made me easier to work with – and made my life more pleasant! I didn’t stop being me, and I didn’t give up any of the qualities that made me a high performer. I just started recognizing that I work with humans, who have human feelings, and that continuing to ignore that was going to be ineffective as well as rude.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        Asking Sarah not to be Sarah is very shortsighted?
        I am not sure that Sarah = boorish jerk. Or at least I hope not.

        So if I ask Sarah not to be a boorish jerk, I am being shortsighted? ugh.

        If her brilliance comes inseparably paired with being brash, opinionated and persistent. Then that is not true brilliance.

        Truly brilliant people quietly know that they know. They settle back and wait for everyone else to catch up. Or they present their ideas in such a manner that people step along with the explanation and at the conclusion buy in to their ideas.

        Truly brilliant people do not need to turn themselves into a bulldozer to make their points. They realize that their points stand on their own merit, no bulldozing is necessary.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I like the suggestion on how to frame OP’s opinions re: which plan to pick.

      OP, I think it might be wise or worth it to speak to Sarah directly, as well. Indulge me for a moment on this anecdote: When I was a baby lawyer, I saw a case go to trial that had been pending for 4 years. Defense counsel was right—there was no evidence and no there there, but he was so overbearing and hyperbolic/theatrical that it encouraged the judge to let it go to trial (as opposed to kicking it out of court earlier). The only time he sounded rational was once we finally got to trial, and his demeanor was totally different. Meanwhile, although the plaintiff was obnoxious, her lawyer seemed calm and reasonable throughout the previous four years of litigation. What should have cost no more than $50K to defend and no more than 9 months to defeat ended up costing the client almost 3/4 of a million and nearly bankrupted him (he had to take out a second mortgage to pay his legal fees). It didn’t affect his personal standing, but it affected his health and was a tremendous emotional strain.

      That’s a long way of saying that being a jerk, not knowing your audience, and being sloppy costs your company time and results in poor outcomes, because it makes it that much harder for a reasonable person to want to listen to someone who’s being obnoxious. I agree that good managers should be able to hear conflicting views and evaluate them on the merits, but Sarah is doing herself no favors by approaching negotiation/persuasion this way. Unfortunately, being right is not enough—you also have to say it in a way that will make people want to hear you.

      So I wonder, OP, if you could offer this as a teaching moment for Sarah. Being polished, professional, thorough, and calm are all traits that sound important in your company. If Sarah wants her ideas to be evaluated thoroughly, it would help her to figure out how to communicate them in a manner that’s consistent with your company’s standards.

      1. Amber T*

        I agree with your guidance, but as the OP is the grandboss in this situation, I think it would be best for OP to encourage Megan to point this out. If OP steps in, one of the lessons Sarah could unintentionally learn is “If I disagree with Megan, I can go to Grandboss and he’ll/she’ll support me if I’m right.” By all means if the situation happens again or the problems continue, Megan can choose to escalate it to OP. But for now everything should be coming from Megan.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Agreed! OP’s line about Sarah’s progress “coming undone” made me think that maybe this is a time for grandboss to sit down and lay things out with Megan present. Or maybe Megan should do it first and OP should do it the second time around?

          I have a hard time with the “brilliant jerks” category because undermining their boss is usually part of the bad behavior, but that also makes it difficult for a boss to set them straight without signaling that leadership higher-up agrees with said boss.

          1. Letter Writer*

            Yep, definitely agreed. The idea came up during my discussion with Megan, but we both ended up feeling strongly that she needed to be seen handling the situation, especially since her authority to manage her team was already being challenged.

            That said, I’m definitely on deck if needed.

    4. Sibley*

      I’m a bit of a Sarah. I’m a high performer, and can be difficult to work with – and have had enough coaching & time to mature to improve a lot. I’ve also decided against a management track path for the foreseeable future. But it took an investment by my managers to get me to this point, and consistent backing for when I get out of my depth and need help.

      The best manager I’ve ever had was always available for a quick 5 min chat about how to respond to an email or situation. I don’t need help with the technical. I need help with the soft stuff sometimes.

  1. Lora*

    Can you frame it as, “Plan B has XYZ merits, which is why it was initially chosen, but Plan A has ABC merits” and have Sarah work with Plan B person to develop the XYZ merits of Plan A and the Plan B person can learn from Sarah about ABC? That way it helps develop both employees without necessarily being a “Megan was wrong” thing so much.

    And definitely have that talk about how even rockstars need to be professional and easy to work with no matter how talented. You’re a small company and right now Sarah is a big fish in a little pond, but someday that will change for her and she won’t have the luxury of a learning curve.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Probably Plan B person can figure out on her own what were the outstanding points of plan A.

  2. Hanna*

    I don’t have any advice for the OP, unfortunately, but I wanted to say that this was a really interesting letter, and it sounds like the OP is very conscientious about managing and staff issues. Good luck!

  3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    I think another way to present it would be not ‘We’re going with Plan A’ but rather “we’re adopting some elements of Plan A.’ Given that the OP said it would need some work to get to the implementable stage, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to highlight that it wasn’t delivered as complete as it could have been (or ought to have been?) but that the core of a great strategy was there.

    All in all, something else that stands out to me is that the discussion of Sarah’s behavior needs to be much larger than the discussion of this particular incident. If she’s constantly difficult, then address the constant level of it, rather than the episodes.

    1. Mike C.*

      I don’t think this is going to work – employees like Sarah are going to see right through the ruse.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        It’s not a ruse. It’s the truth. As the OP described it, the core of Plan A is excellent, but it wasn’t presented as it ought to be. So picking up on the core of it — the useful part — is the right business strategy, but acknowledging that it wasn’t presented complete and implementable in full is also important.

      2. AMG*

        Incorporating elements isn’t the same as adopting the whole plan. Sarah will know the difference, and so will everyone else. You will look weaker because it will appear as though you are too fragile to admit when you’re wrong. It will also look like you refuse to acknowledge that Sarah was right and that it’s personal. (Which it may be but should not be.)

    2. Purest Green*

      I fully agree with your second point. I think it would be useful for Sarah to hear “your behavior is hurting you professionally,” or some variation of that.

    3. AD*

      the discussion of Sarah’s behavior needs to be much larger than the discussion of this particular incident. If she’s constantly difficult, then address the constant level of it, rather than the episodes.

      This is so key. I think Alison’s text very adroitly handles this particular issue/project but Sarah’s behavior is clearly problematic and needs to be addressed separately, and addressed well. As someone said above, even taking into account Sarah’s apparent talent and skill she is not a top performer, as being a top performer means playing well with others and taking feedback from a manager with poise and with respect. This is not currently happening.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It sounds like it is being addressed, though: “Megan has been coaching her on this and some other behaviors, and there’s been steady improvement over the last few months.”

        1. AD*

          Well, all due respect but in reading OP’s letter she says that the progress seems to have been undone. That, and considering Sarah’s behavior as reported here, suggests that something isn’t working.

          1. Brightstar*

            Megan’s being taught some things that are difficult to learn. To me it seems like reverting to bad habits, which can be expected in a situation like this.

          2. dappertea*

            The progress may have been temporarily undone, but it’s still been addressed, and there was no implication that it wouldn’t continue to be addressed. It seems like this was just confusing in how it should best be addressed in this one instance where it’s tricky to not reward that behavior and yet still deliver the best product to the client. If they’ve been working (and progressing) already, then I think it’s less on the manager not addressing it and more on Sarah for not accepting it.

            1. AD*

              Ok, I didn’t say that Megan didn’t address this at all, but rather that it needs to continue to be addressed. Which it sounds like we can all agree on.

  4. Bend & Snap*

    Is there an option for a Plan C? If one plan is weak and the other isn’t well developed, it’s not easy to assess them on an apples to apples basis.

    Beside the point of Megan reacting to Sarah as a person vs. her work, shouldn’t Sarah be on the hook for the same standard as the rest of the team–polished, well-developed ideas and presentations?

    “go back and develop Plan A more thoroughly for further consideration” seems like a good place to start with Sarah, if time allows. But validating Plan A from the get go isn’t going to fix the problem of her delivery, undermining of her manager in front of the team and overall going to the mat for an idea that wasn’t as complete as what her teammates proposed.

    1. MadGrad*

      Or at the very least, loudly state that plan A was lucky that it caught your eye, because it had been presented sloppily and normally wouldn’t have been chosen because of that. You might also directly talk to Jane about this, telling her that if she had spent more time doing a decent presentation and less time complaining then things would have gone better for her at the outset. Make it less of a win for her, and work it in to her overall training.

      1. Mike C.*

        Even though the plan was on the rough side, this sounds a bit dishonest. Seriously folks, we can address the issue in a direct manner while remaining professional.

          1. fposte*

            It may or may not be, depending on the roughness of the proposal, which we’re reading in a variety of ways. But it absolutely is indirect when directness is what’s needed–if it is that rough, tell Sarah that that was a big problem.

        1. Roscoe*

          Yeah, it sounds like the idea was better, if not as polished. But they just rally don’t want to give Sarah the “satisfaction” of being right, so they are basically still trying to discredit her

          1. Jadelyn*

            It’s not about giving anyone the satisfaction of anything – it’s about not reinforcing her bad behavior. Nobody is trying to “discredit” anyone. They’re just trying to make sure that BOTH messages – “you had a good idea” and “but that’s not how you go about getting it implemented” – get heard, and given Sarah’s propensity to ignore criticism they need to lean a lot more heavily on the latter in order to try to get it through to her.

        2. paul*

          It isn’t dishonest, if that’s really why it wasn’t selected (or part of it) And it’s not an invalid criticism to giveo t someone either.

          “Hey, your plan has the germ of a good idea but it looks like you just winged it rathert han actually developing it; that isn’t acceptable” is perfectly valid feedback

      2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Yes, this. I’m a former Sarah, and getting knocked down a peg by hearing that a brilliant idea with no follow-through is just as worthless as a bad idea was critical to my professional development. Right now, she’s brilliant, arrogant, and lazy. If she ditches that last adjective, she might actually make a splash.

        1. AMG*

          I completely agree! The truth hurts, but it is the best way to learn. She needs to hear it and while it should not be brutal, it should NOT be sugar-coated.

      3. TL -*

        Honestly, I would call Sarah in with Megan and say, “I’ve looked at both plans. Plan A seems promising, but honestly, it’s so sloppily presented and underdeveloped that it’s hard to weigh it against Plan B. Redo Plan B and come back and present it to me in X timeframe and we’ll consider it again.” X timeframe doesn’t have to reasonable because you’re working against the client’s deadlines now.

        And I would add to Sarah, “Let me clear, this is a one-time exception. Plan A caught my eye because of Y merits, but I don’t normally accept such sloppy work and I don’t appreciate the way you fought back against Plan B when you couldn’t be bothered to put together an acceptable Plan A proposal for Megan to consider. This doesn’t speak well of your work ethic or output and I expect that it will not happen again.”

        1. OhNo*

          I like your phrasing. It’s clear and just the right amount of harsh for the situation (because a certain level is appropriate in a case like this, I feel.)

          It would probably be good to give Megan advance notice, though – otherwise it might look like you are undermining her judgement on this one. Even better if you can frame it as a joint decision, like “Megan and I agree that it has some merit, but…”

        2. Not So NewReader*

          I would want to add something like, “If we see another verbal barrage like this from you again, it will result in a write up/ dismissal/whatever. You need to present your talking points clearly, concisely and once, not repeatedly.”

      4. Clever Name*

        I’m not a fan of indirect approaches for issues like this. It’s like me standing in the middle of my family room with my family present saying, “Gee. I WISH someone would do some cleaning around here!!” It’s a true statement and not dishonest, however, it’s not as direct as simply saying, “Son, please pick up your toys.”

    2. Princess Carolyn*

      It’s not clear to me whether Sarah didn’t meet expectations when she presented her plan or if the Plan B colleague simply went above and beyond. Some people are just very good at polish, and that gets their ideas more consideration than they might otherwise get.

      But I do think “Go back and flesh this out” is a great place to start.

    3. Sparrow*

      I was thinking something along these lines – a “if you develop and present a proposal as well developed as Option B person’s, we’ll re-evaluate” type of thing.

  5. MadGrad*

    Oh my God I know a Sarah right now. He’s generally considered by the rest of my group to be insufferable, and I’m sorry you have to deal with one OP. Maybe they’ll go on to do great things one day, but I guarantee you their coworkers will groan about them wherever they go.

  6. Alex "Barney" Barnaby*

    Wow, tough one.

    Would it be helpful to ask Sarah to polish up Plan A before resubmitting it? It can be phrased as “Plan A has a lot of potential, but Plan B is in better shape to go to the client. If you put the time in to get Plan A up to or above the standards of Plan B, we can consider it.”

    Of course, this goes along with the script about not being infallible, being willing to reconsider, etc.

    1. Mike C.*

      But the thing here is that Plan A might not need the extra work and that the OP would be acting in a dishonest manner that Sarah would likely see through.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        The OP did state that Plan A was in rough shape, so it wouldn’t be particularly dishonest.

        1. Mike C.*

          I did miss that, but what happens next time when Sarah has her plan done up completely but there’s still conflict? I feel like we’ve all been in situations where we had to do extra stuff at work just so someone could save face and though there’s plausible deniability we’re all smart enough to see through it.

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            I’m not sure why you’re coming at this like it’s a ruse or some kind of dishonest maneuver. If Sarah presents better work next time, that’s a net gain for the business, and as the OP said, one of the factors for her plan not being originally chosen was that it wasn’t complete as presented.

            The discussion of Sarah’s behavior should be separate from the discussion of Sarah presenting incomplete work.

            1. Mike C.*

              I feel like the focus on the rougher state of Sarah’s plan is being overemphasized in a way that allows management a good reason (as opposed to a bad reason like “I don’t like Sarah’s attitude”) to reconsider it later while avoiding the issue of Sarah being respectful. I’ve seen two or three other examples of this in the thread, so you’re not the only one but it certainly is a theme.

              It feels like overemphasis because the OP already believes, even in it’s current state, that Sarah’s plan is the superior one. Thus, it couldn’t have actually been so sloppy/rough/poorly presented because it already convinced the OP. I’m willing to bet that Sarah knows this, and making up some plan about “just improve it and then the OP can approve of it while saving face” is easy to see through. I’ve been through similar situations and it was always very transparent – the quality of the work was typical, the changes were superficial and so on. Sarah is going to see right through this and it isn’t going to help the long term issues, and it likely will make them worse.

              1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                I can see what you’re getting at, but I disagree that that just because the OP sees the potential for a superior plan, that the plan was actually in an acceptable state.

                If this is part of the job that Sarah is supposed to be doing, then saying “Okay, here’s a rough draft, I’ve done the important parts, everyone else can work out the logistics” is Sarah not doing her job properly and turning in half-assed work.

                1. Triangle Pose*

                  But Megan’s and OP’s job was to evaluate the potential. OP even says “Ideally (and typically!) Megan would have evaluated both plans on their ultimate potential.”

                2. S-Mart*

                  I feel like ‘professionally put together and thorough’ is actually overkill for internal pitch proposal meetings. You need to put enough effort into your proposal to be able to convince your coworkers, but OP says whatever proposal is chosen is fully developed (presumably after the pitch meeting). Putting too much polish on ahead of the initial pitch is both potentially more wasted time/effort, and also makes it harder for the rest of the team to have input.

                  I think it would be worthwhile to explain – possibly again – to all the team members how detailed an initial proposal should be. Maybe one plan was overdone or one underdone, it’s not clear to me which is the case here, and both can be bad.

                  Sarah may be guilty of underpreparing her proposal. She may think the bridges in her gaps are obvious. She may be doing exactly the amount of work that makes sense for that stage of the development process.

                  What Sarah is definitely doing is reacting badly to the choice made by her manager.

              2. AMG*

                I agree, Mike C. Call it exactly what it is, or you look like you can’t admit when someone else is right. You lose credibility with the team AND with Sarah.

              3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                “It feels like overemphasis because the OP already believes, even in it’s current state, that Sarah’s plan is the superior one. Thus, it couldn’t have actually been so sloppy/rough/poorly presented because it already convinced the OP”

                OP seems to believe that the idea is superior. But an idea is not a plan.

                1. Triangle Pose*

                  But the point was to submit a plan for further development. OP did not say Sarah submitted an idea with nothing else. Yes, Sarah’s plan was less polished but OP is already saying it’s the better plan for the client.

                2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                  Sure, but even at the proposal stage, a certain amount of practical follow-through is necessary to evaluate feasibility. Polish and completeness still matter.

                  I’ve rejected research proposals that were too vague or didn’t have enough practical planning included. And I’ve had proposals of my own rejected for the same reason.

              4. TL -*

                Eh, I would say that if someone presented me a sloppy proposal and then argued against my plan, and then continued to argue against my plan by picking it apart, rather than having a well-put together presentation on the merits of *their* plan – that’s a major problem. Even if the idea is brilliant, if you can’t present it in a way that your manager sees its brilliance, your presentation is the major problem here.

                1. Not So NewReader*

                  To me it looks like part of Sarah’s communication problem. She is abrasive in conversation and this particular piece of work was not fully prepared. Completed work that we hand in, is also a form of communication.

              5. TL -*

                ” Thus, it couldn’t have actually been so sloppy/rough/poorly presented because it already convinced the OP.”
                It could have been really sloppy, though. For example: My team was trying to figure out a way to transport something on top of a rolling cooler. I suggested using a milk carton and bungee cords. My brothers would’ve instantly known what I meant and thus been able to figure out my idea as soon as I said milk carton and bungee cords. Everyone on my team, though, is international and none of them knew what milk cartons were and only one of them knew what bungee cords were. So I had to polish up my ideas for them significantly to understand.

                It could have easily been the OP was able to see something in Sarah’s presentation because of shared background knowledge/similar trains of thoughts. But Megan wasn’t able to because she lacked the same background and Sarah’s presentation was not polished enough to convey the differences. And then Sarah, rather than polishing up what was great about her idea, just put down Megan’s idea, which is not going to help Megan understand why Sarah’s idea is *better*.

          2. Temperance*

            Part of me is wondering whether Sarah was expecting to get shut down, so she didn’t put a ton of time in.

            1. AMG*

              My impression is that it’s somewhere between arrogance (‘this is so good, they’ll get it right away and I don’t need to fill in all of the detail’), inexperience, and laziness.

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                And maybe a soupcon of simply not understanding what a fully baked proposal looks like.

      2. Alex "Barney" Barnaby*

        No, the OP stated:

        “As for why Megan picked plan B over A: the former was professionally put together and thorough, whereas Sarah’s needed a lot more polish to go from great concept to great reality.”

        Sarah should be aware that putting together a professional and polished plan is a requirement for getting her plan accepted. Have her put in the extra work – that’s not a ruse!

          1. Alex "Barney" Barnaby*

            I guess I’m of the belief that there’s also a benefit to having Sarah re-do it with a focus on polish, professionalism, and getting it to a point that it doesn’t cost her co-workers time to fix it up: it’s the exact kind of thing that very talented, somewhat arrogant employees need to learn.

            The lesson can then be that her initially outstanding ideas were overshadowed by a failure to do the “boring stuff.” Lesson is that it’s not anyone else’s job to do that: it’s hers. She’s new. It’s her idea that she wants to sell.

        1. Suze*

          Brilliant employee like Sarah: Brainstorms for awhile, comes up with multiple concepts, narrows it down, thinks about it some more, starts developing plan. Day before meeting, brand new idea formulates out of all those ideas. Doesn’t have time to polish it but really wants to present it. Other employee: Comes up with two ideas right away. Chooses one. Doesn’t think any more about the problem and instead spends all time after that creating polished plan for presentation.

          It’s not that Sarah isn’t working, she’s just focused on making a better option, not a better presentation. Presentation can and should be rough when it’s a concept, but then receive attention and polish after it’s been chosen by the team to present to the client. Here is the description of the process; regular meetings to discuss proposals with polish happening afterward:

          “The team regularly meets to pitch different proposals in response to our client’s requests; Megan chooses which option to pursue, and after the plan is fully developed, I approve the final version before it goes to our client. […] the former was professionally put together and thorough, whereas Sarah’s needed a lot more polish to go from great concept to great reality. Ideally (and typically!) Megan would have evaluated both plans on their ultimate potential.”

          We don’t have any reason to believe that these regular meetings had in the past required fully developed ideas. It’s also possible that the other employee added a ton of polish because they were tired of getting beat out by Sarah’s work, and their presentation was more shiny than normal or expected at this particular meeting.

  7. Rhys*

    This reminds me of a situation I had with a Sarah when I was editor of my high school newspaper. Sarah had just joined the paper that year and was determined to make her mark which led to a lot of abrasive behavior. She openly criticized the newspaper’s banner image (which I had designed) until the faculty sponsor agreed to change it to something super boring. I once cut an article she wrote because it overlapped with another article and was twice as long and she waited outside an Amnesty International meeting I was at and accosted me as I was leaving and basically screamed at me and called me a dictator. I wanted her off the paper but she ended up being named editor for the next year because nobody else wanted the job. It still makes my skin itch to think about.

    Anyway, this was an awful situation but it was also high school. This letter is about a grownup acting like a high school student, and I have to disagree with Alison’s advice to be honest. I think it’s better to give the honest feedback on Plan B and work to get it up to snuff and then maybe consider reviving Plan A for a future project (with the caveat that it needs to be presented in a more polished and professional state). No matter how much Megan says “I’m not changing my mind because of what you did, that wasn’t ok” I don’t see that changing Sarah’s behavior at all. It doesn’t sound like Plan B is going to harm the company, and if you have to keep Sarah around she needs to be shown that her adolescent behavior won’t be tolerated or rewarded.

    1. I'm a tailor's apprentice.*

      I worked with a Sarah several years ago. She was everything you and the LW described…and more. She was fresh out of college, sure she had all the best ideas, and needed all of them implemented right away or she got argumentative and nasty. There were 15 people on the team when she came aboard. She quickly made the team a toxic place; before her first anniversary there were only 4 people left on the team – even our manager left…a week after I did! I keep in touch with some people from other departments at that company and they have said she’s still in the same position and the team has experienced such high turnover that they can’t keep a manager. I still don’t understand why they’ve kept her.

      1. MuseumChick*

        I think this is touching on a really good point. What effect is Sarah’s behavior having on the rest of team? And, now, if they go back and go with Sarah’s plan the message the team will get is “If Sarah yells enough she gets what she wants.” No matter how it’s framed, Sarah will get that message also. It’s kind of like when a kid figures out if they throw a tantrum long enough mom/dad will give in and let them have two cookies instead of one.

        I don’t know what the answer is obviously there are a variety of factors but I would not want a Sarah on my team no matter how brilliant.

        1. Parenthetically*

          I totally agree. I’ve worked with Sarahs — many of whom only had one good idea but were good at appearing competent because they were strict/tough — and their presence is totally demoralizing to everyone else who puts in the daily hard work the job requires without kicking up a fuss about it. It’s ridiculous to expect the rest of the team to put up with someone who just decides to do it their own way and gets away with it because they’re so unpleasant. Talk about rewarding bad behavior!

        2. Jerry Vandesic*

          That’s a great point. Beyond the current issue, the bigger question is “Do you want Sarah to remain a member of your team? And if so, are you willing to accept the consequences (attrition, stress, toxicity)?”

        3. TheX*

          I agree with the dangers of “if Sarah yells enough she gets what she wants.” We’ve had a more experienced and smooth (i.e. less pronounced) version of a Sarah for several years who was able to advance professionally. This brought a little toxicity into the otherwise amazing environment. It lasted for many years and I even developed (and thankfully abandoned) a belief that in our organization it was normal that the loudest one was always right. The “best thing since sliced bread” has moved on though.

    2. Whats In A Name*

      Yes, so I really have to agree here. I really liked this letter and found it interesting but I think if Sarah gets her way she is going to see it as that – getting her way. I really agree that no amount of “this isn’t because you elbowed your way to the top of the selection pile” is going to get through to Sarah.

      1. Emi.*

        I agree, and I think it’s a strong argument for letting Sarah go–although then you have concerns that others on the team will think she was fired because the manager was embarrassed.

        1. MuseumChick*

          I was thinking the same thing. I think Sarah needs a serious talk that if this behavior continues her job will be on the line. Often people like this think they are so “brilliant” that no matter what they do a company won’t fire them.

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            Often people like this think they are so “brilliant” that no matter what they do a company won’t fire them.

            Louder for the people in the back! I had a Sarah at OldJob. She legitimately was good at a lot of things, but her leeway to cop an attitude with everyone above and below her was jawdropping. Joke’s on her — we all got laid off, and she ended up in a low-prestige, low-pay, no-ladder role. (I interviewed for the same job she ended up in, and turned it down for being too junior for me — and she was senior to me at OldJob!)

            Just because someone’s current job thinks they can do no wrong doesn’t mean that every job is going to think that.

            1. MuseumChick*

              LOL. Yeah, I worked with someone like this is grad school. They totally demoralized the cohort. Their ideas were good but they were such a jerk that by the end of school they had zero contacts/friends from the cohort. While the rest of us help each other out (send job postings, texts each other from work with questions about weird things we come across etc.) they don’t have that support. Now they are working part-time at a small museum in the middle of nowhere that no one has ever heard of. In school they got away with this kind of behavior but their rep in the field is bad because word has gotten out how difficult they are to work with.

  8. Jessesgirl72*

    May I also suggest, OP, that you coach Megan so that she 1) actually does consider all plans and 2) doesn’t say a decision is final, when it’s not final, and couldn’t be final, because she’s not the one who can make it so- you are? There would be much less face-saving required of her, if she hadn’t been so adamant to begin with. Her reaction is understandable, but she needs coached into better ways of coping as much as Sarah needs coached into not being an insufferable know it all.

    1. Parenthetically*

      Oof, yes, this is an issue in my job. If I don’t want something to be final, I don’t say, “And that’s final.” I used to, for the sake of “consistency,” and then I repeatedly learned my lesson the hard way. My boss, on the other hand, quickly jumps to, “That’s it, no more of X ever again, world without end, amen,” and then either has to look totally unreasonable OR go back on his “final word.” It’s genuinely a tough balance when dealing with pushy, arrogant people (I’m a teacher, so I’m dealing with moody teenagers), but yes, it sounds like Megan needs some help in separating her frustration with Sarah from her analysis of Sarah’s ideas.

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      This is also a really good point. This wouldn’t be a face-losing issue for Megan if she hadn’t invested so much energy in making the ‘and it’s final’ discussion.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        This is kind of what I wanted to say. I think Megan wanted Sarah to stop harassing her, so instead of telling Sarah that her behavior and attitude were not acceptable, Megan tried to shut down the conversation by making a hasty decision. When a decision is contentious, that’s when you need to be extra careful and deliberate, not extra authoritative.

        1. Jessesgirl72*

          And it’s even less effective to take the extra authoritative approach when Megan doesn’t have the authority! In her statements, she was claiming authority that belongs to the OP. Megan makes recommendations to the OP- the OP makes the final decisions.

          Honestly, I’m surprised Sarah didn’t take it over her head to the OP. Or she did and the OP left that part out, as how the OP has Sarah’s less polished plan in her hands.

        2. Michelle*

          These discussions need to be kept strictly about Sarah’s inappropriate behavior. Every time she tries to bring it back to arguing for her plan you say, “That’s not what we’re talking about here. Even if your plan is better, your reaction is not acceptable.”

    3. Kj*

      Yes. My boss often has rejected good ideas with a “and that’s final,” then had to revise as she hadn’t thought it through. I’m not a Sarah (I know when to quit an argument) but I have often thought “yep, that won’t end well” It means I respect my manager less for not thinking things through and considering all the factors. Sarah needs help, but Megan needs to be better too.

  9. elle j.*

    I put a lot of effort into not acting like a Sarah at work, but I have a lot of empathy for her — putting your name on a less-than-stellar project, or constantly having your input discarded in favor of a less effective option, is incredibly frustrating though it’s never an excuse to act like a pushy jerk. I think Alison is spot on in suggesting that OP talk to Megan about being receptive to Sarah’s ideas regardless of their source. Dismissing the input of a talented junior team member is a good way to lose that team member.

    1. JB (not in Houston)*

      If Sarah doesn’t change, I’m not sure that’s a loss for the team, because she’ll manage to drive away other team members.

  10. Mike C.*

    I think it would be important to really start coaching Sarah on her soft skills – conflict resolution, working collaboratively and so on. I’ve known a lot of managers with these issues at work and if they have someone coaching them I’ve seen drastic changes over time.

    At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if Alison’s suspicion that her ideas aren’t being evaluated fairly is leading Sarah to be so harsh in her dealings with her coworkers – perhaps some feeling that if she really pounds things home in the belief that she needs to do that in order to be taken seriously.

    It’s a tough situation, but I think it’s solvable so long as the OP is willing to tackle it head on and is willing to be direct.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      The one part that is missing from this whole conversation is a conversation with Sarah – to tell her that her style of presenting things is actually significantly harming the chances of it being fairly evaluated and accepted. This is key – that she understands that how you do it affects its acceptance. She may say that it is illogical (because it is) but you counter that most humans evaluate things based on emotion too. You emphasize that emotional conflict can keep good things from happening.
      “We both know that you think your work is the best and want it accepted. Here is what is keeping that from happening.”
      I’d also send Sarah to a crucial conversations class so she can market her ideas in a helpful way.

  11. Snarkus Aurelius*

    “Sarah is a difficult employee in the way very bright and talented people often can be — one of the best analysts at our firm, but often abrasive, arrogant, and condescending.”


    There are zillions of people who are bright and talented but who aren’t difficult, arrogant, condescending, and abrasive. I agree that there are bright and talented people who are difficult, arrogant, condescending, and abrasive, but that doesn’t make anything okay. Please keep in mind that the latter group still exhibits bad behavior regardless of anything else, and you don’t have to keep them around.

    Thinking that this negative behavior is somehow worth it really boils my blood. (I blame TV and movies for this crap but that’s a whole other rant.) It ignores truly talented people who don’t resort to such tactics while quietly rewarding bad behavior. What message do you send to everyone else? As long as you do well work-wise, you can behave however you want? That’s a fantastic breeding ground for resentment and resignations.

    You don’t have to put up with this crap. I don’t care how valuable or productive or smart this person is. Please don’t assume that being a jerk is a requirement for being a stellar employee.

    1. Mike C.*

      It’s not worth it to simply put up with, but many really tone it down with proper coaching and mentorship.

    2. Rat in the Sugar*

      Yeah, as much I like BBC’s show Sherlock, it is NOT meant to be taken as a model of actual behavior. Neither is House, or Gibbs from NCIS (who used to actually slap his direct reports!)– or even Adrian Monk or Bones, who were not so much a-holes as they were just thoughtlessly rude. Why can’t there be a show about someone who’s a genius at work AND is professional and nice?? I would watch the hell out of that!

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        David Wallace, CFO on The Office.

        The actor who portrayed him was a partner in an investment group in real life so I imagine that helped.

      2. Emi.*

        Or Agent Mulder, who constantly goes off-grid without warning, bosses his partner around, walks out of meetings when he gets mad, and once punched his boss in the face (!).

      3. Purest Green*

        I haven’t watched the show in a while but I remember Abby from NCIS being both awesome at her job and professional & nice.

      4. NW Mossy*

        Not a TV show, but my favorite fictional manager is Armand Gamache from Louise Penny’s Three Pines series. He’s a senior officer in the Surete in Quebec, and manages more junior officers. I in particular love this quote, which sums up his management style nicely:

        “The four sayings that lead to wisdom: I was wrong, I’m sorry, I don’t know, I need help.”

      5. Alex "Barney" Barnaby*

        It was a movie, it was about school and not work, and it was called Legally Blonde. :)

        1. Tomato Frog*

          Also Spy! Kind, considerate people surprising jerks by being brilliant at their job is my favorite premise.

      6. Michelle*

        I like Poirot better than Sherlock. He was brilliant, and even arrogant, but when someone less intelligent (or simply less observant) would try to tell him how things “really” were, he’d just smile and say something like, “Oh, do you think? Yes, of course it must be so.” And then go on with his own theories, leaving the police and the rest to their own devices. It was a running joke through the series that Poirot’s own Watson, Captain Hastings, thought the great detective was really an old fool who just happened to get things right by chance or good fortune.

        1. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

          Whereas it was actually Hastings that was the old fool, just one who happened to say the right foolish thing to get Poirot on the right track. :P

        2. Rat in the Sugar*

          Ah, of course I forgot about the great Belgian detective! So much nicer than Sherlock, always polite–and of course, always impeccably dressed!

    3. Anon for this*

      This. Work on the issues, but don’t be afraid to manage out if needed.

      And note that everyone learns from watching how you handle this sort of thing! I once worked with someone who was very skilled, and very prone to managing themselves. They got along great with the rest of the team most of the time, actually – they just didn’t follow management directives when they didn’t feel like it. And it was allowed to happen.

      And everyone watching learned that if you were sufficiently valuable, you could get away with not following the rules you didn’t like, even if the rules had reasons for existing. This is…not really what you want people to learn, and it results in behaviors you don’t really want to see from others besides your “star”…when they start feeling secure enough or brilliant enough.

      1. MuseumChick*

        *slow clap*

        Agreed. One of two things will happen to the people watching this situation. 1) They will learn they can get away with aggressive, pushy behavior and start acting that way. 2) They will learn that Sarah can get whatever she wants by exhibiting aggressive, pushy behavior and be demoralized because of it.

      2. Anon for this*

        And when I say “didn’t follow management directives”, I’m not talking JUST about deciding to shave 5 minutes off the wait-time for the lid to cool before starting to add decorations, or skipping having a second person check the ingredients in the hoppers before dumping them into the production line (when everyone else had to do so, and we won’t talk about the time the cinnamon-dusted teapot line was cayenne-dusted for a little while), although equivalents of those did happen.

        I’m talking about being sent a non-compete form to sign (as we all were) that, while probably unenforceable, said person simply chucked in the trash while we all watched. And was never made to actually sign it or levied any consequence for it…even though we had been told signing it was a condition of our continuing to remain employed.

      3. Jerry Vandesic*

        I always like the quote attributed to Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix: “Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high.”

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It sounds like they’re addressing it and seeing improvement: “Megan has been coaching her on this and some other behaviors, and there’s been steady improvement over the last few months.”

      My answer would have been different without that bit.

    5. Princess Carolyn*

      I get the impression that Sarah is relatively new to the workforce, and the LW says she’s been steadily responding to coaching. It’s a fact of life that many bright, talented people are not so great with the soft skills – because most people aren’t naturally great at everything.

      At the end of the day, a brilliant jerk is still a jerk – but I would caution you against throwing Sarah into that category. Like a lot of people, she’s still learning how to stand up for herself and advocate for her ideas without stepping on toes. I’d also point out that academic environments tend to foster debate more often than teamwork, so a really bright student who’s new to the workforce is likely accustomed to having this behavior rewarded.

      1. TL -*

        It’s a fact of life that many people aren’t great with soft skills – it’s only that bright, talented people are allowed to get away with it much longer because it’s easy to see how bright & talented are adding and very hard to see how lack of soft skills are subtracting.

        Once you’re no longer the brightest, most talented person in the room (and it happens to everyone, eventually) the standards for your behavior go up and it’s shocking how quickly people find the soft skills they’ve been lacking. It has nothing to do with being intelligent or gifted.

      2. pescadero*

        ” I’d also point out that academic environments tend to foster debate more often than teamwork, so a really bright student who’s new to the workforce is likely accustomed to having this behavior rewarded.”

        I’ve worked in more than one engineering job where this sort of behavior is even encouraged.

        Intel had their “disagree and commit” once a decision was made, but it was considered perfectly acceptable and recommended to advocate for/against ideas to the point of folks semi-regularly getting into shouting matches with peers and superiors.

  12. NP*

    “The strongest managers are willing to be wrong, and they’re willing to give a fair hearing to viewpoints other than their own, even if those viewpoints come from people they find frustrating. Managers who dig their heels in because they don’t want to look wrong end up acting from weakness.”

    Wow, that last sentence is one of my former managers to a T. He would never admit to being wrong, even when he was really, really wrong (and everyone on the team agreed he was wrong, so that’s not just me saying that because I was the Sarah in that scenario).

    1. Blue_eyes*

      Yes yes yes yes yes. This was one of the first lessons I learned as a teacher. Really good teachers can say when they’ve been wrong or made a mistake or want to change a decision they’ve previously made. People who are insecure in their own authority won’t admit that they’re wrong because they are afraid of looking “weak”.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      It takes strength to realize as a manager you can be wrong and STILL be the manager.

  13. Temperance*

    I can see where Sarah is coming from. She’s a gunner, and her ideas, which are admittedly good ones, are being shot down because her boss doesn’t like her. So she’s acting combative and argumentative, because she knows that she’s right and is being ignored. It’s a cycle. She wants to succeed and has good, successful ideas, and they’re being shut down. So she can’t even pitch something without it coming off as adversarial.

    1. MuseumChick*

      Interesting, that is not what I got from the letter at all. Sarah was given the opportunity to pitch an idea and simply did not do the work needed to present a polished proposal. Her boss, Megan, choose another idea where the presentation was polished/professional. That seems perfectly reasonable to me and Sarah has no one to blame but herself and instead of taking it as a learning opportunity she she throwing a tantrum until she gets what she wants. Now, Megan’s boss wants to ride in and switch gears to Sarah’s idea so, Sarah’s tantrum has worked.

      1. Roscoe*

        I think looking at it as “Sarah’s tantrum worked” is a bit too simplistic. Its not that she is getting her way because of a tantrum, she is getting her way because her idea was better. It really does sound like at least part of Megan choosing the other idea was personal. So they both have some fault here

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          She’s getting her way after a tantrum. People like this don’t care about correlation or causality.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            The nice thing about being a manager is that it doesn’t matter so much if Sarah cares about that. You can tell her what you need from her in the future, and you can hold her to that going forward.

          2. MuseumChick*

            Yes, basically this. If I were Sarah’s co-workers who had to deal with her rude, abrasive behavior, than watch as she pitched a fit about her idea not being chosen (something that certainly happens to everyone in the office) followed by suddenly the big boss say “actually we are going with Sarah’s idea” I would be extremely irritated and see if as Sarah being reward for, dare I say it? Gumption.

            The REALITY won’t be seen by co-workers who have had to put up with her. Rather, the PERCEPTION will be enough to for other in the office to be extremely put off. So what do you do? I think step on is to have a serious talk with Sarah where expectation for behavior are clearly laid out and the consequences for breaking those behaviors is explicitly stated. Second, you sit down with Megan and say something like “I want elements A and B incorporated into the project.” No need to mention they were part of Sarah’s original idea. Third, you help Megan in her coaching of Sarah and monitor Sarah’s behavior closely.

            1. fposte*

              I think Alison’s script for addressing the staff covers this, though. And in general, I really want my staff to move beyond the fallacy of moral hazard; if an employee really can’t get behind choosing the better plan because of her dislike of Sarah, that’s a problem with that employee that needs counseling in its own right.

          3. Not So NewReader*

            The expression comes to mind: “Good message, baaad delivery.”

            I love this because it’s so short and sweet. And it helps me to separate out the key points of the setting.
            When my husband was sick the “doctor” he went to said, “You need to get a will, health care proxy, DNR, etc. Because you are going to use all of them.”

            For some unusual reason, I remained calm. I simply said, “Good message, bad delivery.” We found a lawyer then we found a new doc.

            And yeah, I told ten people what the bad doc said. Because, why not.

            The same applies here. OP, nothing wrong with pointing that her delivery is so bad it will cost her the job if she does not improve AND maintain that improvement. Explain that this recent occurrence was a set back in her progress and it is a problem. She has been receiving help with her problem and it is expected that she improve. If she cannot improve and if these blow ups continue to happen you will not be able to continue her employment at your company.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yep, she’s getting her way because the idea is clearly better, according to the OP. If the idea hadn’t been better, this would have been a far easier letter to answer.

      2. Triangle Pose*

        Eh, the discussion of Sarah’s plan being less polished says to me that this isn’t the first go-around and Sarah knows her better plan will be shot down and so doesn’t bother to put in the polish to it because if the her better content doesn’t win, why waste time on polish? It’s not great that Megan isn’t evaluating the plans based on merits for the client and instead is focusing too much on who presented what idea.

        I totally get that Sarah isn’t handling this perfectly but I think Mike C. is right that Megan should be coaching her (this is really one of those things that is worth coaching to improve Sarah to keep such a high performer) and that OP should really be working with Megan on her management skills – 1) coach Sarah 2) evaluate plans on their merits, not on how who submitted the plan and how difficult they are to manage 3) what to do to ensure you don’t have an entire team that look at this and sees it as a “Megan v. Sarah” feud. That last one is really bad on Megan’s part – she’s their manager, if she’s a reasonable manager, her entire team should not be viewing this as “Megan v. Sarah” feud.

        1. S-Mart*

          Sarah might just be out of touch with how polished initial proposals are supposed to be (at this firm). You can definitely waste a lot of time on polish prior to a first team meeting. Or the other plan was over-polished for that stage in its development. Different places will have different expectations around the polish of first drafts.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          I have seen this mentioned several times that Sarah might think her work will be shot down therefore she does not bother to polish it.

          Sarah could:
          Quit the job.
          She could talk to her boss about the problem.
          She could keep doing quality work.

          Following this theory along, if it’s true then we have a person who is willing to do sub-par work, instead of talking out the actual problem, in addition to other problems she is displaying on the job.

          1. Hrovitnir*

            Yes, I find reading this into it strange. There’s no history of Sarah’s ideas being passed over for her attitude in the letter, so while it’s possible this is the case there’s no reason it absolutely is. It’s an aspect of the situation but really not the biggest problem IMO.

      3. AD*

        I agree with MuseumChick. Although Sarah may be gifted, at least in this particular instance her proposal was presented in rough form. This, coupled with her abrasiveness, led to what happened.

        Sarah wasn’t unequivocally “right”: she presented a potentially good idea poorly and then handled her manager’s decision even more poorly.

        This is a good learning opportunity for her, but if Sarah approaches this as “I’m just so good that other people (including my manager) are ignoring my ideas because they’re threatened by how good I am” she’ll not only be doing herself a great disservice by missing out on an opportunity to learn and grow, but she’ll also continue to be have real, chronic personality clashes with colleagues and managers.

      4. Temperance*

        I’m wondering if the better course of action would have been to go back to Sarah and tell her that she needs to polish up her proposal, because, while her ideas were good, X, Y, and Z were not. Instead, it looks like they’ve wasted a lot of time and effort to create an inferior prodcut.

    2. INeepANap*

      I also read this letter differently.

      “For example, she often criticizes her coworkers’ ideas in inappropriately strong terms, or offers to “fix” their work even if they haven’t asked for her help.”

      It looks like Sarah has a lot of behaviors that have nothing to do with her being right and ignored. Keep in mind we’re being told she is arrogant, difficult, and condescending by someone who is not the one being suspected of bias – theoretically, OP is the “objective” observer here, Megan isn’t the one writing in.

      Also, her idea wasn’t just shot down because her boss doesn’t like her. Her work product, which was unpolished, had a lot to do with it as well.

      If she wants to succeed, the best way to do that is to collaborate professionally with her co-workers, to submit work that’s polished and professionally put together, and to understand when she ISN’T right, just as much as when she IS right. I feel like if she had put half as much energy into developing her idea as she did into arguing about it, it probably would have gotten chosen to begin with, despite Megan’s bias of her. If Megan had still shot it down, despite being polished and professional, then Sarah would have been in a much stronger position both with her colleagues and with OP.

      1. AD*

        This is excellent, and a good read of the total problems presented in the letter.

        I think a lot of people are doing a quick read of the letter and thinking “Oh Sarah’s just being shot down because her manager is resisting listening to her because she’s abrasive” and the actual issues are a bit more complex than that.

      2. OhNo*

        You kind of grazed a point that I think needs to be pointed out directly – if Sarah was behaving in a polite and pleasant manner overall (instead of whatever she’s got going on) she would have a lot more collateral to bring to bear in a situation like this where she IS right.

        That might be worth bringing up with her whenever this talk happens. If nothing else, behaving the way OP and Megan want her to behave would give Sarah benefits when she needs to disagree with a decision. Instead of being an “oh, that’s just Sarah throwing another temper tantrum” reaction, it would be a “she’s usually open to our decisions, so maybe she has a reason this time – let’s take another look”.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        I am wondering why Sarah is still there. She must be good at the job in order for people to put up with her many ways of being obnoxious. If a person is bad at the job PLUS obnoxious there really is no question of what to do next.

        1. Letter Writer*

          She’s both extraordinarily good at the non-soft-skill part of her job, and also has been demonstrating some improvements over the last several months as Megan has been coaching her. It’s the combination of both things that forestalled a conversation about firing her; I don’t believe in letting brilliant jerks make things toxic for their coworkers, either.

  14. Undine*

    Is Sarah, or the team, going to be able to follow through on her proposal? If she can’t present a clean proposal, will she be able to pull together a final product that is well-organized and professional? And if Sarah can’t do that, does that mean that someone else on the team will have to do her cleanup? It sounds like working with Sarah would be a nightmare for anyone else and they might have to fill in a lot of holes, while “she criticizes her coworkers’ ideas in inappropriately strong terms.” Just because it’s a more creative/inspired idea doesn’t mean that the final result will necessarily be the best outcome, if it is less professional than usual or there are additional costs on your side to really complete the product to standards. Megan might have a better sense of what the costs would be to her team to go with this project.

    So letting Sarah know that this is a great idea, but she hasn’t done the hard work to bring great ideas to fruition might be another option.

    1. Grits McGee*

      That’s what I was wondering- how much does Plan A depend on Sarah being able to follow through? Or, how much will Sarah’s “ownership” of the project affect the work the rest of the team does? I would definitely think about this holistically- is the personality conflict you’d shake up worth the increased value of the project?

  15. SeptemberGrrl*

    I’m most like Sarah in this scenario (I recognize it and I’m a work in progress) so I can share some info on the best way to position it to someone like me :)

    Megan: As Megan’s manager, I think you need to have a frank discussion with her about what role her dislike of Sarah played in her decision. It’s very understandable why it might have but the two problems with that are: 1) Her job is to pick the best solution for the client and it sounds like she didn’t do that. As understandable as it is, Megan can’t let her personal feelings or a sloppy presentation prevent her from seeing what’s best for the business. 2) No matter how this is handle there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY that Sarah isn’t going to think “I knew I was right” and that’s because she was. What happened here is Sarah presented the better idea, her manager made a mistake in not selecting it and Sarah continued to advocate for it and prevailed. She did it in the wrong way but she wasn’t wrong about being right.

    Sarah: You say that Sarah had been making progress and that this situation represents a backslide. I think what’s likely is that Sarah has been working on her behavior but that she decided it was worth going to the mat (and back to some nonconstructive behaviors) because she felt the wrong plan was being put into action. If you want to retain Sarah, I think her progress needs to be brought into the conversation and I suggest that it be framed this way:

    – You’ve made progress over the past few months on the behavior issues we discussed and I can see you’ve made effort to change. However, on Project X, when you disagreed with my decision, you reverted back to some of those behaviors and we need to talk about how you handle it.

    And then go from there.

    I disagree on this: “Sometimes I’m going to make a different call than you would make, and for us to be able to work together effectively, I need to know that you’ll be able to roll with it when that happens. Will you be able to do that in the future?”

    Because that’s Megan saying “Sometimes I’m going to make the wrong decision and you need to let me make it”. That’s how Sarah is going to hear it because that’s what the upshot is. That’s a good approach for keeping the peace but it’s not a good approach for getting the best product for the client. In this case, if Sarah hadn’t said anything, a less effective plan would have been executed — is that really the desired outcome?

    I also think that Sarah’s presentation needs to be addressed. If she had a proposal that wasn’t fully fleshed out and was a diamond in the rough, she needs to understand that presentation and thoroughness count, and she needs to up the quality of how she presents her ideas.

    1. Naomi*

      “Because that’s Megan saying “Sometimes I’m going to make the wrong decision and you need to let me make it”. That’s how Sarah is going to hear it because that’s what the upshot is.”

      I disagree. In this case, Sarah had the better plan, but Sarah is not infallible and sometimes she will be wrong. Or she might support one plan because it’s better in X way, but the other plan might be chosen because it’s better in Y way. You can’t assume that any future decision Megan makes that’s different from Sarah’s will be inherently wrong or worse. More importantly, Sarah can’t assume that, and she’s going to have to learn that sometimes she won’t get her way and she needs to accept it gracefully.

      1. SeptemberGrrl*

        I’m sharing how I think someone like Sarah would hear and react to the words Alison suggested, based on the fact that I have some of the same tendencies as Sarah. I wasn’t stating a fact; I was posting about how someone might react or interpret something.

        I’ve been in meetings with 3 or 4 people where something is discussed in detail and after the fact, everyone has a different version of what was said. What is said/how it’s heard are often quite different, and I think it’s a factor worth considering when thinking about how to talk about these type of soft skill problems.

      2. Mike C.*

        Megan should be able to say why it’s wrong without relying on “I’m the authority so I’m right”. To folks like Sarah it’s all about the best idea winning, so simply accepting a subpar plan just to teach her a lesson is not only spiteful but it hurts the client as well.

        Sarah needs to be coached on her soft skills in a manner that is separate from the evaluation of work. The focus can easily be along the lines of “your plan was correct but the way you treated your coworkers was out of line, knock it off”.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          Her plan wasn’t correct. It was a good idea with poor execution. That adds up to a middling plan at best, and criticizing her for presenting a middling plan and then browbeating her boss for a week over selecting a plan that was decent with good execution is totally valid.

          And I think at some point, after a week of sniping, a boss should be entitled to say, “Right or wrong, I made the decision for reasons that I think are valid and reasonable, so can it.”

          1. Mike C.*

            The OP said she like Sarah’s plan better.

            And there are plenty of times where a boss is simply wrong and needs to be told so. It’s industry dependent as all heck, but it happens. I had a manager ask me do all sorts of statistical analyses where the data sets were too small and he kept pushing to change the limits of the data set to get the result he wanted. You bet I pushed back on that every single time.

            I wasn’t a jerk about it, but the authority of a manager doesn’t get around the limitations of the tools at hand.

        2. Naomi*

          Oh, I’m not saying they should choose plan B just to knock Sarah down a peg. But Sarah does need to learn to respect Megan’s authority even when they don’t agree, which Alison’s script addresses really well.

    2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      “Because that’s Megan saying “Sometimes I’m going to make the wrong decision and you need to let me make it”. That’s how Sarah is going to hear it because that’s what the upshot is. That’s a good approach for keeping the peace but it’s not a good approach for getting the best product for the client. In this case, if Sarah hadn’t said anything, a less effective plan would have been executed — is that really the desired outcome? ”

      Look, as a former Sarah, please take it from me: Sarahs are not always right, and even when they’re right, sometimes other people make wrong – or just different – decisions for the right reasons, and for reasons you may not be aware of or which you may not value.

      For example, Sarah doesn’t understand or doesn’t value that her idea was good but her plan was crap. Megan’s decision to go with the less-brilliant but implementation-ready plan isn’t wrong, because “the best product for the client” is the one that’s actually a product, not a pile of raw materials. That’s a valid management decision, one I’ve made myself. And at some point, Sarah needs to shut up and roll with it, because she’s not the boss, and she’s not the one entrusted with making the decision.

      The alternative is a manager being constantly undermined, debated, shouted down, and second-guessed by a smart but interpersonally unskilled direct report, which makes them an ineffective and disrespected manager who can’t actually manage.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Megan’s decision to go with the less-brilliant but implementation-ready plan isn’t wrong, because “the best product for the client” is the one that’s actually a product, not a pile of raw materials. That’s a valid management decision

        I love this, and I think this should absolutely be the framing for the discussion with Sarah. Handing in a diamond in the rough is not good job performance when your job involves handing in cut gems.

      2. SeptemberGrrl*

        Look, as a former Sarah, please take it from me: Sarahs are not always right, and even when they’re right, sometimes other people make wrong – or just different – decisions for the right reasons, and for reasons you may not be aware of or which you may not value.

        I’m a Sarah in many ways, as I said. It may be I stated things in a confusing way. I never meant to say or imply that Sarah was always going to be right. I was putting myself in her shoes and thinking about how she would *react* to hearing her boss say:
        “Sometimes I’m going to make the wrong decision and you need to let me make it”.

        I was talking about “How would someone who always thinks they are right hear that sentence”?

        Also, I did say that Sarah needed to understand that producing a more polished and complete presentation was important, so we don;t disagree on that point.

        1. Jaydee*

          I think the key is to see that it isn’t just a trade-off between Sarah thinking she was right, Megan was wrong, and she can bully Megan into choosing her ideas or Sarah thinking she was right, Megan was wrong, and sometimes she just has to let Megan be wrong because Megan is the boss.

          Sarah needs to be coached on how to effectively disagree with your boss and coworkers without being a jerk about it (and it sounds like more general how to approach interpersonal work relationships without being a jerk about it too). That’s really the issue here. It’s not whether she was right or Megan was wrong. It’s only partly about whether her idea was half-formed while the other idea was more polished. There would be no letter today if Sarah were generally a nice, easy-going person who had politely argued in favor of her proposal and who would accept Megan’s criticism of it as less polished and work to do better in the future.

          I think it’s key to tie the discussion back in to the coaching Megan has already been doing and to show why Sarah’s methods backfired on her. Instead of presenting a good idea in a professional, polished way, she presented it only halfway formalized and then proceeded to argue about it at length encouraging Megan to double-down on her opinions instead of rethinking them. All of that could have been avoided if she had presented her ideas well in the first place and handled her disagreement with Megan professionally.

          1. Mike C.*

            But again, the fact that the idea “wasn’t polished enough” isn’t relevant here – the OP already stated that it was clearly a better idea. If the OP can see that, then increasing the polish next time when it comes to a proposal isn’t going to change anything. If there was more polish, Megan could have still ignored it for personal reasons.

            The only relevant issues are :
            1. Sarah is acting like a jerk to others.
            2. Megan isn’t fairly evaluating the work of those working under her.

            1. Ann O.*

              There’s a lot of reading into it. We know the OP likes Sarah’s idea better, and the OP THINKS that the interpersonal conflict is why Megan picked Plan B instead of Plan A. But polish often affects perception. It’s possible that for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with interpersonal conflict that the OP sees Sarah’s intentions in Plan A more clearly than Megan was able to do this go round, but if Sarah had done a better presentation, Megan would have seen the same thing. It’s also possible that if we were involved in the decision making, we would disagree with the OP. Creative works always have an element of subjectivity to them.

            2. sstabeler*

              what if polishing it would add enough to the time it would take to produce the final product that the company would miss the final deadline? Granted, this should really be explained to Sarah, but it’s a possible reason to dismiss an unpolished idea over an inferior but polished idea.

        2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          Sorry, that was not directed at you, and was intended to build on your point, not directly reply or argue with it. “Take it from me” was directed at Sarah, not you!

      3. Rhys*

        It’s also not as though Megan is saying “2+2=5” and there’s nothing in the letter to indicate that Plan B would deliver a bad product. It apparently needs some polishing, but from the letter that seems like it’s par for the course at this company.

    3. Mike C.*

      I really, really like this approach. It’s direct, it’s to the point and it addresses the root causes without relying on plausible deniability.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        There’s no “plausible deniability” in saying “you handed in a diamond in the rough, your coworker handed in a cut and polished sapphire.”

        1. Mike C.*

          The way this was being presented up thread was to come up with seemingly busywork type changes so that the manager didn’t have to acknowledge that Sarah’s plan was already superior in it’s rough form and that the manager could save face.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            Her plan wasn’t superior BECAUSE it was in a rough form. A great idea and bad execution doesn’t add up to a great plan.

            And I don’t see why the manager saving face isn’t a priority here. She has to manage, not just get smacked around by an arrogant underling every time she makes a decision.

            1. fposte*

              But the OP doesn’t think Sarah’s plan *is* inferior. If it’s better for the client and for the company, it doesn’t make sense to implement a less worthy plan just because Sarah didn’t cross her t’s and Megan’s mad at her. The “Which plan gets implemented?” discussion needs to be disentangled from the “Sarah is a jackass” discussion.

              1. Parenthetically*

                The “Which plan gets implemented?” discussion needs to be disentangled from the “Sarah is a jackass” discussion.

                This exactly.

              2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                We’re conflating idea and plan. The idea is superior. The plan is inferior. That adds up to middlin’ at best. Execution isn’t just crossing your T’s; I think it’s 75% of any plan, and I’d rather have a solid competent idea that’s fully executed than a great idea that isn’t worked through.

                1. fposte*

                  But the OP doesn’t agree with you, and it’s her business. You’re projecting limitations onto the plan that aren’t evident in the post.

                2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                  Okay, but….the plan is described as “rough.” That tells me that more work needed to be done to make it a fully realized proposal, whatever that looks like.

                3. fposte*

                  @Not Mad–While it’s not stated explicitly, I believe the OP was offering that information as a reason why Megan may not have *seen* that it was the better plan, not why it wasn’t the better plan. There are a lot of situations where plans don’t require the level of formality you’re discussing. Not everything is a grant proposal.

                4. S-Mart*

                  At the internal pitch meeting? I’d take better idea with no plan over middling idea with detailed plan.

                  At the proposal to the client? Other way around.

                  Write the plan after the team settles on the idea.

          2. Triangle Pose*

            Yes, I agree with this. I think, like you said above, this is going to be really transparent. Sarah already feels slighted (even if she’s not totally justified) because at the end of the day she had the better plan and that’s what going to be delivered to the client. If you then try to downplay that better plan with busywork “polish” changes, it’s going to justifiably rankle.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              Why are “polish” changes considered busywork? Execution is easily 75% of any plan. Doing changes to make a good idea into a good plan isn’t wasting time or saving face, it’s the work that should have been done before the idea was ever presented. Presenting good ideas without the details worked out is a massive waste of time.

              1. Triangle Pose*

                Per OP: “Ideally (and typically!) Megan would have evaluated both plans on their ultimate potential” and “Plan B is competent but unexceptional, while plan A has the type of creativity/inspiration that we aim for (and market ourselves to clients based on)”

                I was speaking to this particular situation and I think it’s clear that what you described is not what’s going on. Sarah is not “presenting good ideas without the details” and is clearly not a massive waste of time because per OP, it is the one that should go forward to the client. Both plans are just concepts, neither are fully developed or excuted, Megan’s job was to pick the better one for even further development. Sarah’s had less polish but per OP, it presented the most potential and should be chosen for further development and eventual delivery to the client.

                1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                  I happen to disagree that ultimate potential is an ideal basis for selection, honestly.

                2. Emi.*

                  @Not Mad, ehh, it depends on what stage of selection you’re at. It sounds to me like this was more about pitching concepts than submitting proposals.

          3. AD*

            Busywork type changes? You’re putting words in the OP’s mouth as well as commenters here.

            The OP (Megan’s manager, not Megan herself, let’s not forget) says that Sarah’s idea needed a lot more polish to go from great concept to great reality. Did you read that clearly? That suggests quite a bit more than minor edits – it suggests that the initial proposal was submitted in rough form to the extent that it needed a lot of work before it’s advantages became clear.

            1. Mike C.*

              The OP already said that she like Sarah’s plan over the others presented. Saying that “more work needs to be done and then we’ll reconsider” is silly because it’s already been accepted as superior. That’s why I call it busywork. Polish will need to be done eventually but it’s not something that is preventing the OP from seeing that it’s the superior idea.

              1. AD*

                That’s double talk that is avoiding the point I (and others) have tried to make that Sarah’s plan, while good and even better than the other one presented, was presented in rough form and with several flaws that needed to be addressed. That’s not “busywork” and Sarah needs to learn to craft better proposals, regardless of the acuity of her ideas.

                1. fposte*

                  Where are you getting “several flaws that needed to be addressed,” though? All the OP said was that its lack of polish was the reason why Megan chose the other one–and the OP thinks Megan chose wrongly.

                  Sure, it would be good to make sure Sarah knows how to present a polished proposal where it matters, but we don’t even know if this is a situation where it does; plenty of proposals get made in rough form and that’s fine.

                2. Mike C.*

                  It doesn’t matter because the OP already said it was superior. That’s the OP’s decision to make, because the OP knows what’s going on here.

                  Prototypes, alpha builds, initial proposals and so on can be, depending on the context of the business, rough. That an idea needs more refinement does not make it not worth pursuing. That again depends on the context of the situation and in this situation the OP has made it clear.

    4. C Average*

      I think this is sort of like kids talking back to their parents. Sometimes even really good parents make, objectively, the wrong call, but for order to prevail in the household, there needs to be some weight given to “because I said so.” Even the best decision-maker is sometimes going to make a decision that, in retrospect, turns out to be objectively wrong. Unless it becomes some worrisome pattern, that doesn’t mean that all of their decisions must forever be subject to the review and approval of the people who report to them! Decision-making is hard; that’s why decision-makers get the big bucks, and even good decision-makers blow a call from time to time.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        “I think this is sort of like kids talking back to their parents. Sometimes even really good parents make, objectively, the wrong call, but for order to prevail in the household, there needs to be some weight given to “because I said so.””

        Totally agreed. At some point, “Because I’m person who gets to make this decision, otherwise known as the goddamn boss,” is a perfectly valid reason.

        1. Mike C.*

          I feel like if Sarah is such a high performer that she could be allowed to understand these reasons, if for no other reason than her approach would be better the next time around. We’re talking about adults here, simply saying “because I said so” isn’t helpful.

          1. Triangle Pose*

            Yes, I agree. I don’t think the parenting analogy works here because the workplace is not about teaching lessons for a future without parental guidance, it’s about delivering a superior product to the clients and managing reports and structure to support that goal.

            1. AD*

              No, that’s not true. A successful high performer can and should be expected to work well with others and take feedback well from a manager and to learn and take adjustments as needed.

              That’s what we see in this blog over and over – people who are skilled but have significant issues being considerate of colleagues or managers or who have personality clashed or issues that end up being significant hurdles to the successful completion of workplace projects and deliverables.

              1. Triangle Pose*

                I agree that a successful high performer can and should be expected to work well with others and take feedback well from a manager and to learn and take adjustments as needed. “because I said so” even when I’m making the wrong decision is not helpful feedback.

                1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                  Like I said though: “I’ve committed to the decision I made, and you need to make your peace with that” is sometimes the helpful feedback the young and arrogant need.

                2. Gadfly*

                  But, as a semi-Sarah, should a manager really have to sit down and explain every other decision to me? At some point, Sarahs do need to just accept that someone above them on the hierarchy made a decision and they don’t get to know all of why. Unless you want 85% of a manager’s job to be justifying decisions to the Sarahs.

                3. Mike C.*


                  No, but there should be enough managerial organization and communication such that employees understand the strategies their group will be pursuing so that their work can be tailored to those strategies. It won’t take 85% of the manager’s time, it will take regular communication and level setting.

                  Yes, this can go overboard, but there needs to be a minimum amount of explanation done by the manager if they want their employees to produce work that makes sense for the business.

              2. Mike C.*

                Look, I totally agree that there’s an attitude issue here. But at the same time my boss is not a feudal lord. My boss has the power to disagree with me, but she’s also going to tell me why, help me to understand and so on so that next time I’m better aligned with what she needs me to do. We’re a team here, not a parent/child.

          2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            Well, you shouldn’t need to have to say “because I said so,” because ideally your direct reports have enough respect for you that they don’t try to litigate you out of every decision that doesn’t favor them. But if you’re dealing with a week of sniping, “helpful” isn’t really the goal anymore. A general doesn’t painstakingly justify every strategic goal and tactical consideration to a lieutenant, much less a private.

            1. Mike C.*

              Yet in this case, Sarah was right.

              Look, if you were asked to produce an analysis of a well known data set that pointed clearly to one conclusion over another, wouldn’t you say something if folks were completely ignoring it and going the other way? If folks refused to give you another explanation (costs, more data saying otherwise, new issues that weren’t previously considered etc), wouldn’t you continue to press your case? You have hard, objective data in your hands, are you going to let people just ignore the reality in front of them with no explanation?

              If there is an explanation, then sure, back down. But I like like my job, and I like that my company is successful, and I’m going to object if I have good reason to believe that someone is making a really bad decision that I can back up with hard data.

            2. pescadero*

              “because ideally your direct reports have enough respect for you that they don’t try to litigate you out of every decision that doesn’t favor them. ”

              You now how to lose that respect? Make the wrong decision with no explanation a few times.

          3. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think managers should absolutely explain their decisions, particularly when there’s disagreement. But there comes a point where it’s been explained, and it’s reasonable to say “and now we need to move on and not keep debating this.”

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                Which, come to think, is why this is Ask a Manager, not As a Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist.

                1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                  Although I would follow Ask a Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist as well!

          4. NW Mossy*

            As someone with Sarah tendencies who also manages Sarahs, I can spend all damn day going through Reasons and still end up in the exact same Sarah’s-not-convinced spot. I’m willing to give the 5-minute overview of Reasons, but after that, I’ll call the merry-go-round-of-argument what it is and pointedly move the conversation on to more fruitful discussions. In this case, that would be coaching Sarah on what a polished and professional presentation looks like so that the overall packaging matches the quality of the ideas inside.

            It’s totally acceptable for a manager to say “I know you disagree. I’ve heard what you have to say. I’m still going with X, for the reasons I’ve already outlined. Let’s move on.”

          5. A wild Limi!*

            The problem I see is that “because I said so” covers a lot of things. There might be additional information that Megan might have in her selection process, things like client preferences and cost analysis that she’s run on Sarah’s brilliant but roughly presented idea. Having to go to the line layout of every decision that she makes just to entertain Sarah’s need to understand is just setting Megan up for a lot more work.

            Sarah gets paid to do her job, Megan gets paid to do hers. At the end of the day, Megan’s job is to decide which better suits their clients. Perhaps she’s a little biased and if so, that needs to be addressed by her own manager. It’s not for Sarah to know.

            Plenty of times I’ve had instances where I didn’t like decisions made by those in the chain above me. Most of my bosses have been good enough to allow me to pitch my argument, politely and respectfully (this part seems important), but if they decided to go ahead with things… I had to abide by that. That’s their job and responsibility to weather, not mine.

            If Sarah’s idea is really genuinely brilliant, then she can work to refine it and bring it back for another round if it’s appropriate to another situation later.

            1. Mike C.*

              At the same time, I’ve been in situations where if I had known more of those issues, I would not only have agreed with the manager, I would have also tailored my work towards those ends. My work is only as good as the specs given. If folks are going to hide relevant information from me, then they shouldn’t be surprised that the work I deliver doesn’t take those issues into account.

              It can be an incredibly frustrating situation to be put into.

              1. animaniactoo*

                Ditto this. We will not discuss the 4. 4! Revisions of an item from the ground up because the specs kept changing. Tell me in the beginning and I can make my *own* choices about where I think sacrificing the aesthetic is worthwhile and bring you a more cohesive item to start.

                1. NW Mossy*

                  One thing that I didn’t figure out for the longest time was that it’s very, very, very difficult for most people to be able to come up with a comprehensive and fixed set of specs for something that does not yet exist. It’s pretty abstract thought, and the more complex the final deliverable is, the more likely it is that peoples’ brains just overload trying to hold it all into a single, coherent vision.

                  I’ve found it works better for me (and my directs) to explicitly set aside any hopes of having the first pass at a deliverable be the final and instead plan in time to critique and rework in multiple rounds. Instead of fighting the fact that we’re generally better at critiquing an existing thing than inventing a new one out of whole cloth, we’re embracing it and structuring our development approach around it.

                2. animaniactoo*

                  I can deal with that. We’ve also moved beyond designing by committee. I can even take that it might take 2 or 3 rounds before we’ve got a concept we’re ready to move forward with. And that something might have to be pulled in a bit over here or over there to fit a new spec.

                  This was 4 rounds from the ground up on the engineering which meant that my design had to be reworked again and again and again to fit the new engineering.

                  Not tweaked, massaged, adjusted. I had to take the existing design and retrofit it with elaborate cuts and curls and swirls 4 times to new dimensions.

                  However, I will note this is a frequent issue with our product sourcing – the person in charge does not know enough to know how to ask for a close enough approximate estimate to make the thing work, so when we do designs that need new engineering, we often end up back here. Usually only 2 rounds though, not 4. I am bitter mainly because of how elaborate it was to redo this particular project, and because the final result looks okay (and gets great comments on the look), but I know how much better it was *supposed* to look.

              2. AnonAnalyst*

                So much this! I still remember the conversation I had with my manager about a client deliverable where he was frustrated that the issue that was the client’s top priority with the project wasn’t addressed. Only… he had never told the rest of us that that issue was the client’s top priority.

                Obviously three are pieces of information that might not be appropriate to share with the broader team, but there are a ton of details that fall through the cracks in my current job that just end up creating extra work for all of us because the people producing most of the deliverable are unaware of them.

    5. Chinook*

      “I think what’s likely is that Sarah has been working on her behavior but that she decided it was worth going to the mat (and back to some nonconstructive behaviors) because she felt the wrong plan was being put into action. ”

      As a reformed Sarah (I hope), I can absolutely see this as possibly being a case of “this is the hill I will die on.” I have done things where I know I am going to step on toes but I am right and it is worth risking my job/reputation/other consequences for this because, well, I am right and my boss is wrong (and wrong for the wrong reasons).

    6. Not So NewReader*

      “Sometimes I’m going to make a different call than you would make, and for us to be able to work together effectively, I need to know that you’ll be able to roll with it when that happens. Will you be able to do that in the future?”

      The problem is the first sentence. Sarah does not “make calls” she is not the boss. Megan makes calls because she is the boss. I can see where Megan might think this puts Sarah on equal footing with Megan.

      I am thinking along the lines of, “I am in charge of making the decisions for our group. If you disagree with me it is fine to tell me in a calm, clear manner what your concerns are. It is not fine to stone me every day and [insert other unacceptable behaviors here]. Should this ever happen again then the next step will be [insert explanation of what she can expect].” I think I would go as far as saying “This is good skill to learn, you will use it at every job you have until you retire.”

  16. animaniactoo*

    Okay, so this is the place where I fall down. I have problems finding the line and shutting up and just letting the decision be if I feel strongly enough that it’s wrong. It is the thing I call out on my own employee evaluation as a weakness. I’ve learned to be better about it over time. The other thing that has happened over time is that if I’m still pushing, my word is NOW respected enough to be taken more seriously.

    At this point, what I’d do is sit Sarah down and say “Sarah, I’m not disagreeing that this is a great concept. But at this point it’s only a concept, there’s not enough reality in it to make it a plan to go forward with. That’s why I went with plan B – which is put together enough to act on, although I agree that it’s not as great a concept. If you want to flesh out your plan and ask to re-pitch it in a professional manner, I am willing to consider that. If you want to come to me and request time to do that and help if you need it, I’m willing to grant that. But I am not okay with what basically amounts to insubordination in how you’ve gone about your disagreement with my choice. This may seem ridiculous to you, but right now I need you to go back to what you were working on, and then come talk to me [in an hour or so] as if it’s you’re first approach to me after I made the choice to go with plan B. Because I need you to practice how to professionally push a disagreement like this. You might start with asking me why I chose plan B over plan A, because I might have very good reasons that you’re not taking into account because you’re not aware of them and aren’t asking. Okay?”

    And what I would coach Megan on going forward is the idea of not making an immediate choice but rather “This needs more work to move from concept to reality. There’s enough here that I’d like to see that before making a choice.”

    1. ilikeaskamanager*

      i like this. It addresses the current issue and provides some coaching about how to deal with things in the future. . the idea that you should ask some questions first before going out on a rant is extremely important. You may not know everything you need to know about WHY something was done.

    2. RVA Cat*

      What are the stakes of the decision, though? There’s a world of difference between, say, exploding airbags vs. a weak marketing campaign.

      1. Undine*

        Actually, brilliant-but-sloppy is more likely to lead to exploding airbags, because there’s just that one little thing you didn’t check out.

      2. SeptemberGrrl*

        If you work in marketing, you can’t always say “Well, nobody dies if we make the wrong decisions, so who cares?” You can’t only strive for excellence if your work has life or death consequences. Sure you pick your battles, just like in any job. If they were arguing this much about a word in ad copy for example, that would be one thing. This is a proposal for a client and it’s about the overall approach, not a minor detail. Presenting the best possible client solution is worth giving this much consideration.

        1. Troutwaxer*

          And this may be an example of Sarah “whose behavior has been improving” picking her battle, but the old behavior is fresh enough in everyone’s mind that Sarah’s behavior is being misinterpreted.

          1. animaniactoo*

            Exactly – and picking her battle ALSO has to be done in a way that is professional and where she has to accept that she may lose. So the point is now to recognize that if she’s got good cause here, let’s backup and key in that next part of HOW to push a disagreement that you feel strongly enough about to push.

            I think the above has value in that it’s not just reversing the decision based on pushback, it’s creating the opportunity to pushback correctly and get re-evaluated by having followed the right steps.

            1. Troutwaxer*

              Agreed on “picking her battle… in a way that is professional.” I also have to wonder whether the “very bright and talented… one of the best analysts at our firm” Sarah has a proper mentor, not just a manager.

              1. Letter Writer*

                This is definitely something I want to address in the longer term — Megan is doing a great job coaching Sarah on professional behavior, but I think she could also really benefit from being mentored by another analyst-track person who’s similarly talented but knows how to present their ideas effectively.

      3. Letter Writer*

        I want to avoid anyone coming across this thread and recognizing who is involved, so I’m going to be a little vague; that said, to answer your question, we do work in a field very close to marketing, but our clients have very short term goals, and whether they have the right strategy (or even whether their strategy is *great* vs. just *good*) can easily be the difference between the success or failure of their entire organization.

  17. Troutwaxer*

    A couple things: First, I really like the “we’re adopting some elements of Plan A” framing, but that needs to be followed up with “but we’re using Plan B.” Second, I think the OP needs to intervene with both Sarah and Megan.

    The script with Sarah should be something like “Plan A is probably better than Plan B. But we’re using Plan B specifically because you need the lesson about (A) using better social skills at work, and (B) putting some more polish on your proposals. This should be followed by (C) “I have no doubt that I can find an analyst who is capable and brilliant, but has much better social skills than you do. Expect to be disciplined, then fired if you can’t improve your social skills.”

    The script with Megan needs to be something along the lines of “you need to be a better coach to Sarah on both social skills and polishing her proposals, and you need to choose the best plan from the beginning even if it’s Sarah’s plan. If I have to discipline or fire Sarah because she’s a difficult person I will be upset with you. Please don’t put me in a position where I have to intervene again between the two of you.”

    1. fposte*

      But you absolutely can’t choose Plan B as a lesson to Sarah–you don’t make workplan choices to punish your staff.

      1. Mike C.*

        Yeah, this seems like a really bad idea. You deal with the issues Sarah needs to deal with, not unrelated issues that happen to be connected to her.

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Uf, I’m not really good with that script with Sarah. It’s definitely an escalation of tensions, not a de-escalation, and it turns business decisions into a personal issue.

      1. Troutwaxer*

        After reading some of what was posted after I made my post above, I’d probably soften/change a couple things; there are definitely some posters who have a better handle on this than I do.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      I don’t see a big need to be afraid of choosing Sarah’s plan outright.

      Even if they accept the plan, Sarah’s behavior was unacceptable and her delivery of her plan was not up to par.

      Megan needs encouragement in her own “boss-hood”. OP, you can tell Megan that you think she is a fine employee, etc. Make sure Megan knows she has your support. Let her know that sometimes ornery people do good work, you know this to be true. Let her see that how to accept the good work and STILL insist on professional behavior from her subordinate. If you have to say, “Sarah has won nothing here. She is still accountable for how she treats you (Megan) and her coworkers. Nothing has changed in that regard.”

  18. DatSci*

    Would it be possible to expand upon the “really common manager trap, where her frustration with is preventing from objectively evaluating input and ideas.”
    It’s been apparent to me for years now that this is my manager’s situation with me as a direct report. I’m not as obstinate as Sarah in this letter, but it’s clear that my level of expertise in my subject matter area far surpasses his comprehension which is making him insecure. This insecurity/frustration has influenced all of his interactions with me including his evaluation of my performance.
    Would it be possible to describe the frustration/objectivity in evaluation trap in more detail (plus any suggestions on how to diffuse it from the direct report’s side as well)?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s simpler than you might be envisioning: When you don’t like someone or they cause you frustration, human nature sometimes leads you to evaluate everything from them through that lens … so you’re quicker to think “that won’t work” or “no, you’re wrong,” whereas if the same thing were coming from someone else, you might like it. You’ve probably experienced this yourself at some point where you really didn’t like someone and had a negative reaction to anything they said/proposed, even though you would have responded differently if it came from someone else.

      It’s a particularly toxic dynamic to fall into if you’re a manager, because it means that you’re treating someone unfairly, and you’re not getting the results that you could because you’re suppressing good ideas/good work/people’s talent.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        This is really tough stuff. I could not say the first thing that came to mind when I was dealing with a difficult employee because I KNEW I was not being fair.

        Sometimes, I would wait a few minutes so I could think it through and not say the wrong words.

        Basically, I would go back this question, “What would I say to this person if she was one of my more well-liked people? How would I address this with this well-liked person?”
        This gave me a starting point to think about actually wording.

        My next question would be given this particular individual’s personality, what does this individual need me to say/do in order to understand how this situation should be handled?

        No magic bullets, no one size fits all, that is for sure. But there are definitely times where I questioned my own fairness and I deliberately slowed down and thought about what I wanted out of the situation.

        1. Letter Writer*

          And the same thing happens in reverse! I have a couple people I supervise who I really genuinely *like*, which is great, but also means I have to be careful to disentangle my personal feelings from my evaluation of their work — especially if the situation involves a conflict between them and someone else.

          1. Letter Writer*

            (To clarify, I like almost everyone I work with — there are just a couple people who I suspect I’d be particularly good friends with if we didn’t know each other in a supervisorial context).

  19. Mrs. Robinson*

    Our Sarah just announced this morning that he is leaving, with an unsaid hint that he wants to go somewhere he will be appreciated. The general office feeling is one of joy and relief. Also, my deepest sympathies to those poor unsuspecting souls who will end up hiring someone who talks a good game but is actually unbelievably rude and refuses to take feedback.

  20. Wakeen Teapots, Ltd.*

    Oh I have been Sarah. The penny dropped one day that I could be brilliant and right as much as I wanted, but it would do zero good unless I also developed the skill set to get people on board with my ideas and plan.

    Really, it came to me in a blinding flash and everything was different from that moment on.

    If I were managing a Sarah I would tell her that she will continue to be frustrated the rest of her career, no matter what she does or where she goes, until she puts learning the skill set to get people on board *first*. Nothing is going to happen next until she learns that.

    1. Triangle Pose*

      I wholeheartedly agree that talent and brillance will do not good unless Sarah “develops the skill set to get people on board with my ideas and plan.”

      But I will say, we’ve already been presented with information that the people Sarah needs to get on board with her (better) ideas and plan are already set against her – Megan is not evaluating the plans based on merit and that’s a big problem. I can see how this would be super difficult for Sarah to continually experience. Better coaching from Megan on this point is really needed here.

      1. Wakeen Teapots, Ltd.*

        Yeah actually there’s a step further there, now that you point it out.

        It’s Megan’s job to get the best input and to make the best decisions from the best input. I don’t feel bad for Sarah if Sarah’s not being heard because of her inability to present her ideas in a way that people can hear, but if Megan tunes Sarah out without at least an explicit come to Jesus intervention, Megan’s not going to produce her best work.

        (I really don’t feel bad for Sarah. I have compassion for Megan in this situation but, as you point out, Megan needs to try to do her job better also.)

      2. Ann O.*

        I think that’s a harsh summary. The OP gives us two potential explanations for why Megan picked Plan B: it was much better presented and Megan may be affected by personal tensions with Sarah. We don’t know that the latter is true. The letter doesn’t suggest that there’s been a recurring problem of Megan shutting Sarah down (on the contrary, we’re told that Megan’s been coaching Sarah effectively on soft skills).

        Really, we don’t know that either of the the OP’s theories are true. We don’t have Megan’s POV, just the OP’s perception. It may also be that the OP and Megan simply disagree about the merits of Sarah’s plan. I am questioning why the OP even saw Plan A since it sounds like Megan is supposed to pick the pitch to bring to the OP and then the OP is supposed to decide whether the pitch is ready for the customer or needs further development.

  21. C Average*

    I used to be a little bit of a Sarah, and no one called me on my shit because, I think, they couldn’t quite define and quantify it.

    I actually overcame my Sarah tendencies through talking shop with my husband. His company has a clearly articulated “disagree and commit” policy, which fascinated me when I first heard about it. I asked him a lot of questions about it and read up quite a bit, because it seemed like a thing my company needed, too. Only through thinking about it at length did I realize I was exactly the kind of person who needed to be subject to such a policy!

    I’ve since come to believe that every functional workplace needs some clearly articulated version of “disagree and commit.” There’s a time and place for brainstorming, for poking other people’s ideas with sharp sticks, for advocating for your ideas. And then there’s a time and place for everyone pulling in the same direction because it’s the direction your leadership has chosen to take.

      1. SeptemberGrrl*

        “disagree and commit” are policies I’ve heard of as being in place at Intel and Amazon. Amazon states it as:

        Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
        Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

        1. fposte*

          That helps a little but also muddies the picture–is this within a “we want all our employees to be leaders” construct?

          When I look further what I find seems to be the principle book award committees run on–you’re hear to represent your views so you’re honor-bound to do it even if they’re contrary to those of other people, but when the decision is made the committee all stands behind it.

      2. AMG*

        Sounds like ‘argue on the way in, salute on the way out’. Argue to come to the best decision, but once that decision has been made, everyone work toward making it happen even if you didn’t initially agree. A longer version of ‘get on board’.

          1. Chinook*

            “‘argue on the way in, salute on the way out’”

            I like it too, especially when followed up with debriefings after projects that focus on “lessons learned.” This then gets passed the “I told you so” from arguing and losing and, instead, focuses on what should and shouldn’t be done next time.

        1. SeptemberGrrl*

          Right, and also that there’s no hard feelings against those who argued against the eventual decision during the process – everyone starts with a clean slate once the decision is made.

        2. pescadero*

          That is exactly what it is at Intel.

          Knock down, screaming, arguments – even with managers… but then the person with authority makes a decision, and everyone shuts up and executes.

    1. Mike C.*

      Yeah, this is a very healthy attitude. You deal with the folks who disagree and the folks who expect you to swear fealty to them.

    2. Aurion*

      I couldn’t remember who came up with the “disagree and commit” line here, but I’m glad you refreshed my memory! This is such a useful concept. I wish my parents would learn this.

  22. Letter Writer*

    Hey everyone! Thank you so much for your input, and thank you especially to Alison for your careful thoughts. In addition to all the great feedback, it’s incredibly useful for me to be able to process this ‘out loud’ and with other experienced people. One of the things I’m learning about managing managers is that it’s a bit isolating — there isn’t really anyone appropriate to talk this through with at my company. This site is a genuine gift.

    I’ll respond in greater length this evening (and hopefully have an update) but for the moment I just wanted to highlight two quick things that might make a difference to some of these responses:

    1) I absolutely agree that no amount of talent or productivity excuses unprofessional, jerkish behavior, and I want to emphasize that Megan had been putting serious time and effort into coaching Sarah on collaborating with her colleagues, reinforcing appropriate ways of disagreeing, etc. It’s clear that I need to help Megan learn some new management tools as well, but I don’t want to give the impression that she had been ignoring the issue.

    2) On a similar note, I’m fairly confident that Sarah’s work up to this incident has been evaluated on the merits; Megan has credited her for a lot of the successful pitches coming from her team. That said, the point about some of this potentially stemming from Sarah’s sense that there was a bias against her is well taken, and I’ll take a harder look.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Thank you, OP! This is a really great post to have, and I’m so grateful that you wrote in and Alison decided to publish. It hits that sweet spot between “this is a common enough issue that most of us will experience variants on it” and “this is an ambiguous enough issue that there are a lot of angles to be discussed.”

    2. AMG*

      Thanks for this comment. The fact that Sarah continues to need coaching is concerning. I hope you will come back and give us an update!

      1. sstabeler*

        not necessarily- it could simply be that she’s in the process of fixing her behaviour, but hasn’t yet finished. To use an example, someone trying to quit smoking hasn’t necessarily failed just because they’ve lit up a cigarette. (not least because it’s a legitimate tactic to quit by gradually reducing the number of cigarettes you smoke per day, until it becomes one every two days, one every 4, one every 8, you get the idea.)

    3. Triangle Pose*

      Thanks for the update OP! Glad to hear Megan is putting in serious time to coach Sarah, it will be great in retaining a high performer while making her a pleasant addition to the overall team. Also glad to hear you are looking into the bias issue. I hope in the end Sarah and Megan both improve and the Client gets the better plan implemented.

    4. AMPG*

      Great to hear from you! If you do feel that Sarah’s work up to this point has been evaluated on the merits, then I wonder if this is maybe showing that she hasn’t really learned enough from her coaching with Megan – that she’s basically just learned to tone it down so that (in her mind) people will recognize her inherent brilliance but hasn’t learned the deeper lesson that she’s not always going to get her way and that’s how life works.

      1. designbot*

        Or has learned that she’s not getting her way but is attributing that to randomness or bias instead of valid reasons like presentation, feasibility of execution, or difficulty working with her approach. I totally used to be a Sarah and it was a matter of value rank order. I valued talent, “the best idea,” above all of those other things. Sarah likewise needs to be shown how a great idea can fail if it can’t be executed on, or if you can’t sell its virtues to the client.

    5. Jessesgirl72*

      The one question I have for you OP, is that you stated that Megan’s lack of objectivity toward Sarah’s plan seemed out of character. How often does it come up that Megan is deciding between her own pet plan and plans from the team? I would find it very frustrating if the only way a plan I’d worked up could be proposed to move forward is if I could convince my direct manager that her own plan is wrong.

      It would take an exceptional Manager to be able to objectively and consistently make that kind of decision. Megan deciding between Fergus’ and Sarah’s plan would be relatively easy. Deciding between her own and Fergus’ plan would be harder. Deciding between her own and Sarah’s, whom she has conflict with? That doesn’t sound like a set up that is always going to end well.

    6. MuseumChick*

      Hi OP!

      I’m really looking forward to an update this. I worked with someone who had Sarah like qualities in grad school and, it was completely demoralizing. He got what he wanted through being a loud bully. His work was good, he even won some awards but he left school with not contact because no one on our cohort wanted anything to do with him.

      I would think deeply about the effect any decision you make will have on the team. While what happens behind the scenes may be different you want to avoid given the appearance of rewarding a tantrum.

    7. hbc*

      The one thing I would be careful about is this: “”after the plan is fully developed, I approve the final version before it goes to our client.”

      Is that true? If so, it sounds like you only know about brilliant plan A because Sarah threw her fit, and the competent-but-boring plan B might have been fine to launch when it got to you. So I would be very, very careful to not undermine your stated structure with Megan unless necessary–to the point that you might even still let her make the decision whether the appearance of rewarding Sarah is worse than the impact of giving Plan B to the client. You can do that while still letting Megan know that Plan A was the objectively better plan, and even that she failed to properly do her job when she first chose Plan B.

      1. Ann O.*

        That is exactly what I’ve been wondering.

        And if the OP is the one who ultimately chooses, what is the point of the round with Megan?

    8. Ann O.*

      One thing I’d love for you to clarify if you can is how do you know about Plan A? From your description of the process, it sounds like Megan’s team is supposed to pitch to Megan; Megan then selects which plan to present to you; and you decide when the plan that Megan has selected is ready to go forward to the client. If you routinely revisit the plans, it seems like this process is designed to undercut Megan and create extra tension.

  23. Princess Carolyn*

    Once again, Alison is so, so wise. And, once again, transparency makes all the difference.

  24. Dan*

    Specifically addressing Sarah’s abrasiveness —

    I don’t like advice focusing on “these behaviors can’t happen again” mostly because talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. At the end of the day, Sarah’s plan was selected, period. Telling her what not to do is very useful, because she’s left wondering what she should have done. More effective advice would focus on what to do.

    As I was reading the OP’s letter, and she came to the conclusion that “Sarah was right, but her delivery was wrong”, the real issue is how to get Sarah to give feedback in the appropriate manner. What should Sarah have done to get the big boss’s (and Megan’s) attention in an appropriate way?

    If Sarah and Megan have a difficult relationship, one thing big boss (OP) or another “trusted” person should be open to is some sort of mentorship arrangement with Sarah. Sarah needs a place where she can call things as she sees them, but then be able to get some advice on how to approach Megan.

    I know I’ve done that — if I have an issue with getting my boss to see something, I’ll go to a senior person whose advice I respect (and who can keep their mouth shut, because I really just want advice) to get the back story or tips or something. That approach usually works and keeps unnecessarily pissing people off to a minimum.

    1. Dan*

      Ooop, “Telling her what not to do is very useful” should have been “Telling her what not to do is *NOT* very useful”

    2. Cassandra*

      Some of the most useful coaching I’ve ever gotten has been of the style “Wakeen has a sore spot about X, so if you want to get him to agree to your plan, try Y and Z.”

      I am also a recovering Sarah, and this style of coaching keeps my eyes on the prize and my temper squelched by my strategy-brain. We Sarahs often just want stuff to WORK — including people-centric stuff. When I see that certain communication strategies WORK, heck yes I’ll use them… and when I feel I may be about to step in another pit of Sarah, I absolutely go back to the person who coached me before to ask for advice.

    3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      “Please don’t do X” is a vital part of the discussion, paired with “please do Y and Z instead.” Leaving “don’t do X” implicit can definitely result in it not being heard, and there’s value in specificity.

  25. Sue Wilson*

    If presentation is a valid reason to pass over a proposal, and you’re also afraid that Megan will be undermined, Megan needs to a) explain that’s why she got passed on, and b) tell Sarah her stuff isn’t even getting to the table if she can’t present it professionally. Then it’s all on Sarah.

  26. Rusty Shackelford*

    If Sarah’s plan gets a second look, I’d tell her “we’re doing this IN SPITE of the way you handled it, not BECAUSE of that.”

  27. designbot*

    I would also (either personally, or get Megan to) put some work into coaching Sarah the difference between talent and skill. She has talent, but the weaknesses in her proposal–unpolished, takes more work to turn into reality, etc.–are ones that will dog her throughout her career if she doesn’t work on learning how to turn those ideas into reality. If she gets a pass by getting other people to do the bulk of the work in that transition, she’ll never learn. If she has to own the execution, then she’s getting a learning experience that is valuable to the organization as well as to her.

  28. Stellaaaaa*

    I feel bad for Sarah (with the privilege of distance from her personality): It really sucks when you’re right and no one will listen to you. I’ve known a lot of women who fell into this rut. They get pushy and develop traits that are often more forgiven in men, especially in a business environment. IMO the way to work on Sarah’s issues is to prove that you’re listening to her and that you feel her talent is valuable to your team. This is just a thing that happens with talented, intelligent people sometimes.

    1. Temperance*

      Oooh thank you for raising this angle. You’re absolutely right. I myself have developed these traits in response to being ignored.

    2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Unfortunately, a lot of talented, intelligent people who are at a low level in an organization tend to mistake “I didn’t get my way and they didn’t make the decision the way I would have” as “being ignored.”

      Not always! Often, especially with young women, their good ideas ARE ignored unfairly.

      1. Stellaaaaa*

        Yeah, I’m not exactly siding with Sarah here. Like many people, I’d rather work with someone who was medium-high talented with an easier personality than with a genius to needed to be walked through the basics of human interaction. That said, if OP is working in an “ideas place” she maybe needs to figure out how to deal with ideas that come from people who are different in whichever way. When you want people who have unconventional ways of thinking and anticipating needs, you have to accept that this gift might come in tandem with an unconventional personality.

        All of that said, in this instance Megan is a bad manager and I don’t think there’s any point in protecting her while reading Sarah the riot act. My opinion is that Megan’s treatment of Sarah justifies a decent amount of her personality issues. Megan has proven that she will pass over Sarah’s ideas just because they’re coming from Sarah. That is TERRIBLE management. We’re focusing on Sarah’s personality but Megan plays favorites and that’s not something that can stand.

        1. MuseumChick*

          Up thread the OP stated that up to this point all of Sarah’s ideas have been evaluated by Megan on their merit. So, this is the first time Megan has MAYBE let Sarah’s behavior influence her decision. Even that is question given that Sarah did not present her idea very well.

          1. Stellaaaaa*

            Respectfully, there are a lot of “Sarahs” here who are putting themselves in her shoes and are coming to similar conclusions: she knows Megan doesn’t like her and doesn’t listen to her, which (on a human behavior level) provides no motivation or even possibility for correcting the behavior.

            1. Myrin*

              To echo MuseumChick above, OP actually says in her comment “Megan has credited [Sarah] for a lot of the successful pitches coming from her team” – that is not the behaviour of someone who doesn’t listen to their direct report.

              1. Stellaaaaa*

                I browsed the post and didn’t see the additions from the OP at a glance. I was basing my responses on the email as it was posted.

            2. MuseumChick*

              But according the OP (who is not Megan) Sarah’s ideas are being evaluated her their merits. Just because Sarah didn’t get her way this one time doesn’t mean she’s allowing to throw a tantrum.

              There is not indication that Megan doesn’t listen to Sarah, dismisses her, or behaves is anyway other than a more or less reasonable manager. Add to that is that Sarah has been made away that her behavior needs to change but as soon as she doesn’t get her way she throws a fit.

            3. chomps*

              But those people aren’t there, they are projecting based on their own situations. The OP commented and explicitly said that Megan has been using Sarah’s ideas and giving Sarah credit for them.

    3. Purest Green*

      As someone this has absolutely happened to, I don’t think there’s anything to suggest it in Sarah’s situation, but it is important to at least consider.

    4. AnonAnalyst*

      Yeah, this has happened to me in my boys-club workplace (not the telling coworkers how to do their work thing, but more forcefully pushing back against decisions because my input tends to be ignored). It doesn’t sound like this is what is happening in Sarah’s situation given that her issues seem to be broader-reaching than just this instance, but I certainly could relate to her frustrations.

    5. ThisIsNotWhoYouThinkItIs*

      I will say that most people are talented at their jobs and/or intelligent. There’s nothing in the letter to indicate that people aren’t listening to Sarah. There IS something in the letter to indicate that Sarah won’t let things go if she feels she’s right. She’s been loudly advocating all week that her plan is better–that’s pretty extreme (even if she is right).

      From an opinionated perfectionist: disagree (with whatever data/additional info) then commit, or find a new job.

    6. Princess Carolyn*

      Thanks for pointing out an angle that was nagging at me. Professional women are always being told not to be doormats, but it’s difficult to find good coaching on how to be assertive without being abrasive. Personally, I always find myself thinking, “OK, so I’ve rejected the idea that young ladies are supposed to put others’ feelings above everything else, but… now what?” Social finesse doesn’t come naturally to me, and it’s infinitely more complicated in a workplace setting.

  29. Workfromhome*

    May not be a possibility but any chance that there has been any new information come to light either from working on plan B or from the client that could lead to a discussion like:

    We originally selected plan B because of X,Y and Z based on what we knew at the time. The client also gave us parameters that supported plan B. Since we starting working on plan B X and Y factors have now changed and or the client has decided to change the parameters.

    Had this been the case when we made the decision plan A may have been selected. Plan A is somewhat raw and will need to be polished up and resubmitted given these new changes and might be the best solution.

    I’m not suggesting you fabricate anything just to get out of accepting the bossy employee plan. But if its an option you would be able to maintain the idea that people should support the decision made but that you are open to having your minds changed if something else changes (not by being badgered)

    1. MuseumChick*

      I think this is a good way to handle this. I mean, as new information comes in project have to chance, and clients often change course so it’s not outside the realm of possibility You could also frame it as something like, “After speaking with the again client we have some new information. Based on this information we are going to add A and B to this project.” A and B being elements from Sarah’s plan.

      1. sstabeler*

        As someone who can have Sarahish tendancies, I’d suggest a couple of things. 1) only do it if there really is new information. 2) ask for resubmitted plans bearing in mind the new information- after all, there might be a plan C that is even better (Sarah may even be the one to suggest it) since that makes it less “Sarah was right”

  30. Becky*

    I would like to recommend the book The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, by Robert I. Sutton.

    Its position is that even if workplace jerks get positive results in the short term, the long term is a net negative when you factor in workplace morale and everything else.

  31. Student*

    Many people have framed Sarah’s behavior as “inappropriate”. There’s really not much to go on in the letter that sounds inappropriate to me. She argued the merits of her idea when she felt it had been overlooked and better suited the client’s needs. I can understand that being asked to revisit a decision can be annoying, but it’s not inherently inappropriate. There’s no mention of ad hominems, raised voices, scheming, insults, or going over Megan’s head. I’m hard-pressed to even identify something concrete that would be annoying to Megan beyond pointing out a mistake while being a subordinate (i.e., making the boss look a bit bad).

    Megan’s push-back that the decision was final was, in fact, not true – and there’s a decent chance that Sarah knew Megan was BSing on this point, or at least claiming authority Megan didn’t actually have. I can tell when my managers are BSing about deadlines and decisions much of the time; I’m familiar with the approvals processes I deal with regularly.

    We should also not be so quick to dismiss that Sarah was right, in this case. From the OP, Megan dismissed Sarah’s idea on form instead of substance and wasn’t willing to hear her out. Sarah’s idea was more appropriate for the client, per the OP’s discretion. Being right by understanding the client needs, that counts for something. It’s a lot easier for somebody like Sarah to accept a “no” on something like this when (1) she feels like she’s been heard out on her idea instead of told to shut up and sit down (2) the person in Megan’s position has a solid knowledge of the client’s needs and a reputation for fairly considering ideas instead of choosing plans based on who she likes and how pretty the document formatting is.

    Hopefully this was a one-off on Megan’s part and normally she’s better in tune with client needs and takes the time to evaluate proposals on merits instead of superficial details. I think her problems are much bigger than Sarah’s. If not, these two are pretty much doomed to conflict, where Sarah becomes increasingly jaded about Megan until she quits to find a job where she feels listened to.

    1. MuseumChick*

      “Sarah is a difficult employee in the way very bright and talented people often can be — one of the best analysts at our firm, but often abrasive, arrogant, and condescending. For example, she often criticizes her coworkers’ ideas in inappropriately strong terms, or offers to “fix” their work even if they haven’t asked for her help.”

      “Megan chose Plan B to develop further. Sarah, however, has continued to vocally advocate for Plan A all week, even after Megan made it clear the decision was final.”

      This is pretty text book inappropriate behavior for most work places.

      1. sstabeler*

        Also, I wonder if the “final” decision was “we are developing plan B further, and that’s final”- which Megan does have the authority to say- NOT “Plan B will be the plan presented to the client and that’s final” which is OP’s job to decide. For instance, Megan might realise that it is significantly riskier to go with plan A, which is far less developed, and so you can be less sure of how long plan A will take to produce to the point it can go to the client. (or Megan might know there’s no way they will meet the client deadline with plan A)

  32. Biff Welly*

    I think the advice is good on how to coach the respective parties – Megan in ensuring she is evaluating proposals fairly (and continuing to coach Sarah on behavior) and the guidelines for Megan to coach Sarah were good as well.

    But the part I keep coming back to is that it seems like Sarah is getting too much credit here – if the proposal was not well crafted and needed work to even be brought together. How the proposal is presented to client can make or break a sale or project. In the non-profit world how a grant proposal is presented can make a big difference on which agency gets the award. So Megan’s decision is a real-world effect of not taking the time to compile an effective presentation. Sarah’s got to be able to make the case (regardless of if she feels it is the best).

    1. MuseumChick*

      This again brings me back to my grad school days. There was a MAJOR project we had to do that would end up being present to the public so we were all really stressed and putting our all into it. Once person on my team dropped the ball so badly on presenting her portion of the project that her work was reassigned to two other people on our team. If our client had been there for the proposal instead of just our professor it could have derailed everything we had been working on.

      People do seem to be given Sarah a lot of credit while at the same time placing motivations/behaviors onto Megan that are not just present in the letter in my opinion.

    2. hbc*

      It really depends on what they’re expecting. If I have an architect come to my house and say I want my basement redone, one might pitch a standard man-cave scenario that includes which wall the x” TV goes on and color swatches for the recliner, while another might look around and say, “Given your style, layout, and activity levels, I’m thinking a sprung floor for gymnastics and a kitchenette for entertaining.” The latter has no details, but it 100% is the better plan for my family, and it’s worth spending the extra time polishing it. If I just need my basement to not suck asap, the fleshed-out one is the best option.

      It sounds like eventual style/fit is more important than speed here, especially since the audience for the initial plan is Megan, who is supposed to see potential.

    3. Mike C.*

      Sarah is getting credit because the OP outright said that her plan was superior. Folks who keep making this point are presuming that the presentation of the plans somehow needed to be in some state of final perfection when this isn’t the case – this is an initial stage where plans are further developed later on.

  33. Lissa*

    As someone who’s definitely not a Sarah (I’m neither brilliant nor pushy, ha!) I’m curious if people would say or do anything in regards to the employee who presented Plan B? I’m imagining myself in that position, presenting a proposal I had worked really hard on, having it picked, having the Brilliant Arrogant Genius argue for her plan aggressively, and then having my plan be rejected in favour of hers, and…. eek. It feels pretty demoralizing. I definitely think you have to go with Sarah’s plan, if it’s better, but would you say anything to the other employee here?

    1. animaniactoo*

      This is an interesting point and I think it could give OP and Megan a good way to roll.

      OP said Plan be was competent but unexciting. It would be fine for Megan to go back and say something along the lines of “OP thinks this is falling a little flat, because we market ourselves as having solutions that are creative and inspired and on review I have to say that I agree that it’s competent but we want to put forward something that’s more than just competent. So Plan B Author, I want you to go back and see if you can find some creative aspects you can add to your plan to make it better than average. Sarah, I want you to go back and polish your concept to be a more finished proposal that has enough real-world grounding to be acted on. Please have those ready for [__] and we’ll review the changes then.”

    2. designbot*

      Have them team up together? That way the Plan B person can hopefully get inspired by Sarah’s big ideas, and Sarah can learn from the Plan B person how to actually prepare something effectively.

        1. designbot*

          What’s the alternative though? Either write off Sarah and decide to be okay with less inspired ideas, or write off Plan B person which punishes them for not having as much raw talent despite all their followthrough. Getting them working together is the way the business benefits optimally and it the way that both of them are useful contributors.

    3. Letter Writer*

      Screw it, I’ll just give him a huge bonus.

      Kidding! Sorry, it’s been a long day. Megan and I talked about this, and she’s pretty confident that (unlike Sarah) everyone else on the team is living up to our goals of not getting personally invested in specific pitches. She’s going to be sensitive to the situation in case she’s wrong, but historically it hasn’t been an issue (and we put a lot of work into encouraging that atmosphere).

  34. Argh!*

    I hate the word “difficult.” It’s non-specific and the person is only “difficult” for the person who lacks the skillset to deal with that personality. Anyone can be “difficult” for someone who has no history with that type of person, but the word is usually reserved for opinionated women. How often do you hear of a man being called “difficult?”

    1. Aurion*

      While some people certainly just don’t gel, a workplace shouldn’t need to bend over backwards to find the single person that can work with a difficult personality if multiple people find that person abrasive. Seeing Megan has been working with Sarah over several months, has given Sarah credit when it’s due, and OP has been observing the entire time, I feel like they have the history to that call. Difficult men have shown up several times on this site; let’s not go down that rabbit hole.

      1. Ask a Manager*

        Agreed, thank you. And actually, in my experience, I’ve seen men called “difficult” at least as much. This one isn’t inherently gendered.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I have to be logged into WordPress for the comment to be blue, but I wasn’t in this case since I was commenting on my phone (and it’s an onerous process to log in from there).

      2. sstabeler*

        not to mention that you can also get into issues of if they are truly the best person for the job- it isn’t always about technical ability. If you are hiring a programmer, and they can’t work with your Project Manager, then it isn’t going to work out, no matter their skill.

    2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Honestly? Often. It’s a pretty common descriptor for….well, difficult, people of both sexes.

    3. MuseumChick*

      Well, given that “difficult” in this letter was defined as being abrasive, arrogant, and condescending, with the added lovely behaviors of being overly and harshly critical of her co-workers, I would say I’ve heard more men described this way than women.

    4. chomps*

      Wow. There are definitely people that most people find difficult, and, based on Sarah’s behavior as described by the OP, I’m betting Sarah is one of those people.

    5. Letter Writer*

      I’m very aware that women are frequently penalized for assertiveness and self-advocacy in a way men aren’t, and I try to be really conscious of that potential bias in myself. In this case I’m confident that I’d consider Sarah’s behavior equally unacceptable in a male employee. If you don’t mind me asking, was there anything in my post (aside from the word ‘difficult’) that made you concerned about a gendered dynamic here?

  35. Channel Z*

    I am not entirely sure that Megan decided on Plan B because of tension with Sarah; it sounds like there were objective reasons for not choosing Plan A. This time around, OP doesn’t agree with Megan’s choice. The two issues need to be separated. OP must first decide how to implement the best plan, and how to assign the work. After decision is made, go to Megan with decision, and also with a listening ear. Ask her about her frustrations with Sarah, especially in regards to the team, and what you should do to respond. You instead of Megan, may need to be the one to talk to Sarah about her specific behaviour this week and be clear about expectations going forward. It might sink in better not coming from Megan.

  36. Jaybeetee*

    I hope Megan will also get proper support on managing a more difficult employee. This letter has me flashing back to my manager days (admittedly in a pretty young workplace, including myself – most reports were students or recent grads, most staff managers were in their mid-20s/early 30s), when it seemed nearly every manager I worked with had a major personality conflict at some point with one of their reports (and occasionally with each other). In two cases, dislike clearly coloured the manager’s general behaviour towards their report, and even legitimate concerns/disagreements would be handled more contemptuously than they should have been. (I “lucked out” by not having a specific personality issue with anyone, but a guy who turned out to be frankly a mishire who caused all kinds of problems and was eventually let go).

    I had a rep at this organization for being able to more or less get along with everyone, even the “impossible” people, as well as people who we knew had psychological/developmental issues that affected their work or interactions. I think I managed to toe a line between accommodating people’s quirks, while not completely caving in to them. These more difficult reports recognized that I heard and more or less understood them, which made them more cooperative with me, and more willing to go along even when they couldn’t get what they wanted. The managers who got into power struggles, or who started rolling their eyes whenever a particularly anxious report piped up with some problem or another, had far more difficult experiences.

    All this to say, one possible strategy for Megan (apart from continuing to coach Sarah on how to play well with others, because Sarah does need that) might be to cut Sarah some extra slack (more independence in her work, looser deadlines, more flexible hours, or something else that could be gotten away with in this particular line of work), in recognition of her abilities, which might also serve to make Sarah happier and more cooperative when things don’t go her way, as she will feel acknowledged and better understood. At the same time, Megan needs some support to ensure her possible dislike for Sarah doesn’t start clouding her interactions and judgments of Sarah’s work. Managing difficult people…can be difficult!

  37. Letter Writer*

    Wow, there’s a ton of great stuff here – forgive me for not replying to every great post individually, but I want to hit the broad points.

    I think the key to this whole thing was an insight Alison mentioned in the comments, which had somehow never quite crystallized for me before: “The nice thing about being a manager is that it doesn’t matter so much if Sarah [thinks she got her way by behaving badly]. You can tell her what you need from her in the future, and you can hold her to that going forward.” I was expending a lot of energy trying to figure out how to control Sarah’s take-away, when what I should have been doing was figuring out how to make sure she met *behavioral* expectations in the future.

    First, Megan. We talked it over extensively, and among other things we went over her decision-making. I’m confident she didn’t shoot down a good idea because of personal dislike. Megan got flustered by Sarah’s aggressive advocacy happening in front of a lot of people, and she reacted by shutting down the entire conversation; that’s obviously not how the situation would have been best handled, but it’s something I find pretty understandable. We talked about how it’s OK to not make an immediate decision when you feel under pressure, and how she next time she can address a specific behavior that needs to stop without including the ultimate business decision in her response. We also discussed whether I should speak to Sarah, but agreed that it would undermine Megan. Lastly, we talked about how the rest of her team might perceive this; she’s confident that everyone will handle things gracefully, but she’s going to also address it anyways (again, great script Alison).

    Second, Sarah. Megan and I agreed that we can’t try to lie or mislead Sarah about what’s happening; being tricky about the situation would make her look weaker. We’re going to adopt a couple ideas from this thread and Alison’s post, and Megan will tell Sarah this:

    1) After some careful evaluation of the various ideas, Megan thinks Sarah’s plan has some strong points that we should adopt
    2) The reason Megan had a hard time unearthing these good ideas were because of Sarah’s unprofessional presentation – both in terms of polish, and in terms of aggressiveness. This conversation is in spite of those factors
    3) Sarah will have the chance to take a few days, work on her plan, and then present it again to Megan in a calm, professional manner
    4) No matter what happens, Sarah can’t do this again

    Lastly, we both agreed that Sarah needs some sustained mentoring. We’re currently thinking about other more seasoned analysts who are similarly talented and who can impart some of the lessons discussed here: specifically, that inspiration isn’t a substitute for execution, and that being a jerk will hold you back no matter how good your hard skills are.

    Third, me. I’ve realized that this series of events has exposed a weakness in how I set up the entire division. The posters who were talking about the inherent tension in Megan making a ‘final’ decision before running it by me were absolutely right, but that’s on me, not on her. The system I put in place was working because most of the teams are so relaxed, and my suggestions for changes have been implemented easily, but this ‘stress test’ has made it clear that I’m putting my managers in a potentially difficult position. Moving forward, I’m going to talk with my team about how we can adjust the process from ‘manager makes a decision, then director approves it or asks for changes’ to something a little less rigid. I’m still thinking about what the right fix is (and this could probably be the subject of an entirely new letter!) but I’m confident that it’s what we need to do moving forward.

    Thank you again to everyone, and especially to Alison! I’ll try to provide another update later this week after Megan and Sarah talk.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      What a great update, especially your insight about the decision-making set-up!

      If you email me the later update, I’d love to run it as its own update post!

    2. MuseumChick*

      Thank you so much for the update. I think you have really found a way to handle all the nuances of this situation. Especially point two which holds Sarah accountable while still allowing her good ideas to be implemented.

    3. Cassandra*

      Wow, OP. This is so thoughtful and well-considered. I would love to work for you! (Though as a recovering Sarah, I might not be tops on your hire list…)

  38. PersephoneUnderground*

    I don’t think I’d be convinced by the suggested wording if I were Sarah. I think it’s important to include the message: “You were right that your idea was stronger, but your way of disagreeing (unprofessional complaining, undermining, etc.) actually made me hesitate to go with your proposal- if you disagree with a decision there are professional ways to make your case that you could have used here (maybe list some here, such as asking for time to polish the product and re-present etc.). I want you to understand this decision is being reversed in spite of your behavior, not because of it.”

    I may be repeating others above, but I didn’t see anything emphasizing that she risked her proposal being nixed even though they preferred it because the management didn’t want to undermine her boss and reinforce this bad behavior.

  39. Ames*

    Not exactly a “Catch-22”, and I know that’s probably not constructive toward the letter content, but it was bugging me.

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