my nightmare former coworker is now a superstar

A reader writes:

A few years ago, I managed a long-term project that my coworker, Jane, was working on.

Jane was tricky to work with. In terms of technical skill, she did a few things exceptionally well but her overall performance was slightly below what I would have expected from somebody with her experience. But it was her soft skills which made her really difficult to work with — she missed deadlines missed, made careless mistakes, would sulk or throw tantrums if given negative feedback, and would simply not do tasks that she didn’t want to do.

We haven’t had any contact since I left the company. But, after a “you must have worked with Jane when you were at X — isn’t she amazing!?’ conversation with an acquaintance, I looked her up and discovered she’s doing really well! She’s landed jobs and worked on projects that I would have loved to have worked on.

I know I should say “good for her” and move on. I also know that anything could have happened in the intervening period to explain her career turnaround. But it’s completely thrown how I view myself.

If I’m honest, I was far from perfect when I worked with Jane. Our mutual line manager, Lydia, was micromanaging the project we were working on. Think things like reassigning Jane to high stakes tasks she’d previously struggled with “because she’ll only learn if she’s given opportunities” but not letting me reorganize my own work so I could supervise Jane — and then flipping out at me 24 hours later when Jane had messed up. She also flipped back and forth between “I’ll handle Jane’s performance” (and then seemingly not doing anything) and “it’s your project — if you have a problem with Jane’s work, you deal with it.”

At the time, I felt I remained professional. With hindsight, I must admit I did not do a great job at hiding my frustration. I don’t recall anything too extreme, but I think I came across as grouchy and curt. This could have hardly helped Jane’s performance. (And, in defense of Lydia, the “I know you’d like Jane to do X, but I was thinking Y because of Z” cases I was putting forward, which I thought sounded level-headed at the time, were probably coming across as just whingy by the end!)

I’d framed this to myself as “sure, it wasn’t my finest hour but Jane (not to mention Lydia) was a nightmare.” But given Jane’s subsequent successes, the narrative is now “Jane’s a superstar and I must have really handled the situation terribly to get such a bad performance out of her.”

Should a good manager be able to manage anybody regardless of the situation? Is it possible for a decent manager and a decent worker to just not work well together?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 131 comments… read them below }

  1. Enough*

    Just like in personal relationship you could both be good workers just not good together. And not getting the support that either of you should have will just make it worse.

    1. PinaColada*

      Absolutely, and there could have been aspects about the company culture/systems/processes that were not aligned with her being able to produce her best work. For me, any type of micromanagement is a slow dissent into misery.

    2. Jack Be Nimble*

      It’s extremely possible for two good workers to not work well together. Sometimes there are personality conflicts or other challenges — it happens! In most cases, I think that two people committed to professionalism can work together, even if they hate each other’s guts. It sounds like, based on the LW’s account, nobody was at their best in this situation, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there were other factors at play that made it even harder to work together.

      Two usually-great employees in a dysfunctional environment might end up at each other’s throats when they would have been good collaborators in another company — and it does sound like this was a particularly dysfunctional company!

    3. Richard Hershberger*

      Many years ago I was part of the crew that opened a new Walmart. We started with a completed building that was an empty shell. A lot of the job was putting together shelving. A lot of this was two-person work simply because the component parts were big and unwieldy. I might be paired up with one guy and we would be ready to kill each other at the end of the day. I would zig when he was zagging. That gets old. Then the next day I might be paired up with a different guy and it would be a joy, zigging and zagging in unison. This had nothing to do with our being good or bad workers or at our specific tasks. It also had nothing to do with how much we liked one another. It was just subliminal stuff that made us work well together, or not. This was an important life lesson.

      1. azvlr*

        This is so true with me and my two sons. My older son and I seem to read each other’s minds when we are solving problems or moving big stuff around. My younger son and both don’t seem to be able to communicate what we are doing and get frustrated with each other. On the other hand, he is one of the most organized and self-motivated people I’ve ever known. They each have different strengths, and there’s no way I can say I love one over the other.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Some people blend with the group- they do it naturally or they work at it, sometimes both.

        On the other end of the spectrum, some people can be working with a group of ten people and still be working all by themselves. They make zero effort to connect with what the group is doing, or with how the group likes to handle things.

        When I started working I was a klutz. Part of the reason was because I was just not used to working in close proximity to others. I would turn too quickly and graze someone, things like that. I have noticed that sometimes with in groups a couple people can prefer just lifting heavy, bulky items with each other and no one else. Right here is why that happens, some people won’t or can’t get in sync with another person. Other people routinely won’t pay attention to their own grip or footing and that makes a lift harder also. I had to train myself to be more observant and estimate things better. I have a friend who is absolutely anal about this stuff. He has done so many heavy lifts that he knows with in an inch where the helper should stand to get the item through the tight doorway etc. I would describe him as having an over-exposure to too many types of difficult lifts.
        I am always amazed at the differences in what people have seen and learned in life and in working.

        In OP’s story it could be that employee finally blossomed, maybe the dots connected for her like never before or maybe someone gave her a serious talking to. Back in the early 1900’s a family member when to Harvard. Their grades were dismal but their baseball game was GREAT. Finally a dean pulled the family member into his office. Basically the dean said, “There’s people with a lot less on the ball than you, yet they are getting better grades than you. You have some decisions to make here.” Back in that day this was a very stern talking to. Family member reset their priorities to focus on school work first and foremost. Right person, right message and right time.

  2. Ali G*

    A micromanaging and ineffective boss will bring the worst out in almost anyone. I’d bet Jane isn’t too thrilled with her behavior back then either.

    1. Rayray*

      I had a job with a micromanaging boss. It was a job I could have really done well in, but it was near impossible to get things done with all the extra steps I had to do to document every single damn thing I did – I swear I spent more time printing emails and outlook calendar entries for her to review than anything else. I know she also listened in on phone calls I was on. It was exhausting being managed to at way and it affected my attitude big time. I was depressed and frustrated all the time at work so I definitely was no longer my normal kind and cheerful self. I was sullen and moody, I still tried my best to do the job I had but I hated her so much that I resented the job and just did what I had to do to get by. I’d not be surprised if most people there remember me as just being quiet and never happy. I’m doing much better now though in a different environment.

      1. KELLS*

        Same experience for me! The call eavesdropping was the worst… she’d just stare at the side of my face and occasionally make comments in my ear while I’m trying to manage the call.

        We didn’t mesh at all. She tried to get me fired twice and the boss luckily gave me more chances. I could do no right in this woman’s eyes and she made sure everyone knew. I later worked at a firm where her friend was my manager- it was a complete 180 after my manager mentioned she spoke to this friend, I went from trusted employee to seemingly untrustworthy.

        Now I work in a government position doing the same job she thought I was incompetent at. I’m excelling under minimal management and I’ve never been happier.

      2. This is She*

        I sympathize with this so hard. It’s a fault of mine that I’m a little too easily demoralized by micromanagement or siloing or other trickle-down failings, and that brings on the frustration and depression and dissatisfaction which I think I am hiding pretty well, until I think about it way later and criiinnnge….

      3. ArtsNerd*

        I’m currently in a situation where I’d normal THRIVE. It’s a flurry of activity, lots of quick decisions that need to be made, fast deadlines and new systems while we get ready to reopen after our pandemic closure. It’s the kind of situation that would, ordinarily, really help me feel re-invigorated and deeply engaged with my work. (I’ve got ADHD and fast moving, creative thinking, extremely varied and high-quality-but-not-necessarily-perfect work is my jam.)

        Instead it’s been absolutely agonizing. For months.

    2. Lacey*

      Yes! I had a micromanager two levels above me at a previous job. Even though my manager didn’t handle the situation well – I was also pretty aware that her micromanaging boss was tormenting both of us.

    3. My two cents*

      This! I mean, for all we know, Jane was getting told exactly the same things the Letter Writer was getting: “Here, you do this.” on day one and then “WHY DID YOU DO THIS” on day two! That would make me so frustrated and would go a long way to explaining the source of her behavior–though the behavior itself is still terrible, of course. But, if there’s anything we have learned from this blog it is that dysfunction in an organization brings out and normalizes dysfunction in individuals.

      Letter Writer, I think there is so much room in this situation to have empathy for Jane AND empathy for yourself at the same time. Your manager sounded like a nightmare.

    4. HS Teacher*

      This is the perfect comment. Every micromanaging boss I’ve ever had has hated me. Every boss who lets me do my dang job and treats me like a professional has promoted me multiple times. I am a rock star, but only when I have a rock star manager.

    5. Anon for this*

      I’m a former Jane. I’m doing a job now which is similar (if senior) to a job which I failed at over a decade ago. For years, I thought I was wrong for the job. I’ve since discovered that being a terrified newish grad with an intimidating, micromanaging boss got me off to a very poor start which I never managed to recover from.

      My newer coworkers don’t know anything about that and I hope they never will. I do fine now, I don’t know about a rockstar but I’m now where I hoped I’d be at this stage of my career.

  3. Lilo*

    I train people as part of my job, and we swap people around commonly for precisely this reason. Sometimes a trainer/trainee pairing just isn’t a good fit and someone else’s strategies just work better on someone else. Instead of taking it personally, just acknowledge that and move on. It’s hard to see when you’ve only worked with a couple people, but when you’ve done this a lot, you encounter it a lot more. It’s why when someone is struggling at my job the first thing we do is swap trainers.

  4. wolfmama*

    Oh, OP. I’ve been a Jane, and what I’ve taken away from it is that there’s not a situation in which I can conclude that someone else’s work is a disaster unless I am personally in a situation to manage them and have actually worked with them on the big picture protocol. It sounds like you weren’t in that role because of Lydia.

    I do think that you should reexamine why you were so willing to assume that Jane was terrible. Your description sounds to me like:
    (a) you weren’t aligned on priorities (deadlines) and what needed to be perfect; I’d suggest thinking over how serious the “careless” mistakes were and whether they were things you or Lydia sometimes did.
    (b) you lacked healthy communication protocols on the project (feedback); I wonder if it was more like “great ideas on the Jones project, could you just clean up the slides, check for typos, then we’ll send it to Lydia?” or the kind of personally/globally directed stuff that can really hurt relationships and make it sound like you’ve reached a Conclusion about Jane, as in “you aren’t proactive.”
    (c) there wasn’t a great deal of clarity and accountability on what Jane was required to do (I remember managing to not do a thing last year and I’m still wondering how on earth that was possible).

    Bigger picture, maybe you were too focused on her and less on your own performance and letting the chips fall. There’s some great Byron Katie quotes on this stuff about staying in your own business that I feel really apply to this kind of situation. But kicking yourself now just adds to the Good/Bad employee talk. I would truly suggest just wishing Jane well and trying to take a closer look at big picture expectations and alignment if you run into these conflicts in the future.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I was also a Jane. I was in the Wrong_Job and I didn’t know how to handle conflicts and challenges. If there was a mature way to handle a situation, I managed to do the opposite. Anyone I worked with would would say I was a nightmare. I was never offensive, but I was definitely a brat.
      But then I got another job and everything clicked. It was the right job, with the right people and after 5 years, I was a rockstar in my career.
      Part of my issues were what you pointed out. There were many voices all having different priorities, no clear feedback, and anything that I was officially accountable for didn’t align with everyday communication/activities. I was not able to navigate all the conflicting directions so I festered and flailed.
      Looking back, I know I wasn’t mature enough to handle the situation and I’m okay with that. But anyone who knew me then probably still thinks I was a loon.

      1. Rayray*

        Yep, makes perfect sense. I also have been a Jane. I hate thinking about how others remember me. I really did like all the people from my last job but my boss was an absolute nightmare and made my working life absolute hell. I certainly could have handled it better but it felt like no matter what I did, she still wouldn’t treat me like a capable grown up so I developed an “eff it” attitude and just threw all emotion out as I went into work and was basically a robot. I cringe thinking how others perceived me because they really were a wonderful group.

        1. Not All Wanderers*

          I had the same experience at my last job. I was a super high performer at every previous job and since but there was absolutely no possible way to ever do something “right” under that manager. He was an incredible micromanager, possibly the single worst misogynist I’ve encountered in my career (which is saying something), and to top it off was utterly delusional about best practices in my specialty since he was at least 30 years out of date. By the end of the first year, my attitude sucked because there frankly wasn’t any upside of putting on a good face or investing energy in my job because he would ensure any activity failed anyway.

          Yes, his supervisor was aware but had made the conscious choice to just wait for him to retire.

        2. JSPA*

          If someone’s intellectually oblivious to a problem–whether that’s a hard skill or documentation or people skills–letting them know they need to tighten up their act can be helpful.

          In contrast, if they’re already putting their full intentionality into the process, but it’s something that’s legitimately difficult for them, that sort of feedback can do the opposite. Especially so for people who are socially awkward, physically awkward, who zig when others zag, or whose internal self-check monologue is, for whatever reason, already at a problematically high pitch.

          If someone’s working through a haze of avoidance, negative self-talk, fear of screwing up without quite knowing how, and panic over being given a project that’s too far outside one’s wheelhouse, it’s hard to do something as basic as documenting what tasks are done, not done, or too daunting to even start. And people often don’t know what sets them off (and can’t negotiate for a job that doesn’t include those things) until they’ve run up against those things, and found them insurmountable.

          A fresh start (or more than one) can make a world of difference, in that they can take the hard-won skills and hard-to-integrate feedback from the one job, and bring it to a job where they don’t have to feel pre-judged. It’s not surprising that a Jane would blossom in a second or third job. If it makes OP feel better, if Jane had come to them later in her career, it might well be OP that would have found Jane to be easily managed into superstar status, while Jane’s prior managers were left wondering.

          If there’s a lesson to be learned for OP, it’s that employees are not some static quantity, to be labeled and pinned on a card, as a specimen. OP wasn’t even blind to the fact that Jane had areas of superstar potential.True, neither OP nor Jane (nor Lydia!) could find a way to effectively manifest that potential in the context of Jane-as-she-then-was, and the-job-as-currently-defined. But that doesn’t mean they missed an obvious path; the path might not have existed.

          If anything, it’s a lesson on working with people to help them into a job that’s a good fit, somewhere else, if there’s no great path forward with you. “I feel you could be so excellent at many things, but this job doesn’t seem to be your place to shine” is much fairer to the “early-era Janes” of the world, than “what a nightmare.” The situation can be a nightmare. But the person’s a person.

    2. Temperance*

      I was a Jane, too – especially with letting some tasks slide and focusing on the bigger, more “important” ones. At the time, I had a counterpart who wasn’t capable of some things that I was (like programming the phone system, more advanced admin tasks, A/P). He was slow to pick up on new things, too, which was a headache for me, because our grandboss both favored him and relied on me for all her special requests.

      So … I just let some other stuff drop.

      1. I was Jane*

        I was a Jane once. I was working on a huge project that was ill conceived from day 1 and leadership kept changing. It was a perfect example of great people being promoted out of their area of expertise and not stepping back and listening to experts. And I was going through a personal crisis. I cringe when I think of my work and attitude at the time.

    3. sunny-dee*

      I’ve been a Jane. I missed deadlines, but I was in (literally) 35-40 hours of meetings a week, starting at 6am, and trying to manage multiple projects for 7 different products. I could only get 3 or 4 things done a week, and it may be that I had 10 or 12 due, and it was just the best I could do.

      And if you’re wondering … yes, my management was both incompetent (they had merged two departments, and they had previously managed the other department and had no idea what my department did) and they were micromanaging – but they made up for it by being sarcastic and belittling and constantly shifting priorities and blaming me for working on what they said was the top priority yesterday when they decided they had a new priority today.

    4. Consultant Catie*

      Yes — as a Jane (for a while I SUCKED, and now I’ve found my niche and by all accounts and promotions and raises am doing really well), people change, learn, and grow. And honestly, it doesn’t have much to do with the managers I had, it really had to do with my own maturity. A good manager can manage anyone, but may not be able to manage anyone into success in the job they’re in – even good managers get frustrated, need to use PIPs, need to fire people, and managers are human too. If you can recognize what you would have done differently and take steps to make sure you don’t repeat your mistakes, which it sounds like you’re doing, please try to reframe things to yourself! You’re a good manager who made mistakes, AND Jane has done her own growing up and learning – it’s great that you’re both getting second chances :)

      Good luck!

    5. Anna Badger*

      another Jane here, who also worked for a Jane. my first few jobs, I was brilliant at parts of the work and crap at others, and I had one manager in particular that I just Could Not Get On With. she was going through some stuff, and I was going through some stuff, and those stuffs just did not make for a healthy working relationship – I got some not-stellar performance reviews, and she got spoken to by HR for raising her voice at me.

      I moved workplaces and found a role and working environment that suited me perfectly. i got promoted within a year to a role designed specially for me. people regularly rave about me to my manager. she stayed at the same company and has also been promoted (and i hear through the grapevine that she’s a much calmer and more pleasant manager!)

      would I work for her again? never. do I believe she’s changed significantly? absolutely.

    6. Junior Assistant Peon*

      I had a job that I felt was a bait-and-switch, and I developed a rotten attitude as a result (which I could have handled much better in hindsight). I’m sure I have a lot of coworkers from that place who don’t think much of me.

    7. Data Bear*

      Yes to all this, and I will add another thing for OP to consider:

      It sounds like working for Lydia was very stressful. Is it possible that caused OP to view her friction with Jane in a more negative light than she would have if things were otherwise going more smoothly? It’s good to keep in mind how much our emotions color our perceptions, and chronic stress can really sneak up on you.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I wondered if some of the problems that the OP is attributing to Jane were actually rooted in Lydia.

        I would love to know how Jane viewed the OP, too.

        1. EvilQueenRegina*

          This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, about whether my frustrations with a coworker are rooted in our (now ex) manager – while a lot of that situation is different from OP’s so I won’t get into it all on this post, I do think that she was a part of the problem.

    8. ShanShan*

      I’m also going to say for the record that “sulking” and “tantrums” are pretty subjective terms.

      I’ve had people describe what I was doing as “sulking” and “tantrums” a few times. Invariably, what I was doing was expressing legitimate frustration at a difficult or unfair situation to someone who didn’t want to hear it.

      If I said anything out loud, they called it a tantrum, even if I was saying reasonable things in a normal tone of voice. If I kept quiet and bottled up my frustration, they called it sulking. There was no third option that I could see.

      I’m not saying that’s necessarily what’s happening here. I’m just saying that when you’re extremely stressed out, every interaction that doesn’t go your way looks like either sulking or a tantrum.

      1. Argus*

        I was thinking this, too. We aren’t hearing much about OP’s communication style during that time and/or their willingness to handle feedback or disagreement from Jane.

      2. CommanderBanana*

        Exactly – I’ve been told my facial expressions are bad (?) when they were in response to someone screaming in a meeting.

      3. JSPA*

        Nudging back gently…

        unless the person who “didn’t want to hear it” has, “getting unsolicited feedback from person A” as part of their job duties, it’s OK for them to refuse to hear person A’s frustrations.

        And most people find it both possible and advisable not to speak while frustrated, plus concurrently not act silently frustrated, by refusing to engage pleasantly on other topics.

        The third options are plural. They include,

        a) finding out who, if anyone, is supposed to receive feedback then
        b) wording all feedback dispassionately, allowing the facts to carry themselves, without borrowing extra authority from the frustration they cause.

        c) treating the job as something that pays you to carry out someone else’s vision, whether or not you approve (not something that pays you to fix their vision) or

        d) finding a job that will pay you to have opinions and feelings and focus on your own analysis and vision.

        e) telling friends, partner(s), therapist(s), diary or a hole in the ground about how messed up the project and your chain of command are.

        Whatever they may say, jobs mostly do not (by and large) actually want our “whole selves,” reactions and opinions and second-guessing all included for free, along with our actual job duties.

        1. Simply the best*

          This seems like a very uncharitable and condescending response to ShanShan’s comment.

      4. Autistic AF*

        This is a great point. It’s dismissive, infantilizing language – has LW gone full BEC?

      5. meyer lemon*

        I’m prepared to believe that the LW is pretty thoughtful and self-aware, since they are now re-evaluating their experience “managing” Jane and asking for Alison to weigh in as well. So I am leaning toward believing that Jane was not acting her most professional here–and we also know that she missed deadlines and decided not to do certain tasks if she didn’t like them, which is pretty objective. But you’re probably right that the LW was not inclined to be maximally charitable toward Jane by the end of this.

        My takeaway from this letter is that it emphasizes how situational behaviour is. No one was really set up to succeed in this environment, it seems like. Now Jane is doing much better in another context, and it sounds like the LW is as well.

      6. Shark Whisperer*

        Agreed! I have a former manager who would probably say that I sulked and threw tantrums. I wasn’t throwing myself on the floor and screaming and I never was sulky when I was with clients or the public, but I definitely let my frustration with my boss show more than was probably professional.

        I still think I had very valid reasons to be frustrated with that manager, but I was also a young non-profit worker full of righteous indignation and chose inappropriate outlets for it.

    9. Pickled Limes*

      Fun story about me and my Jane:

      We worked together in the Upheaval Department where everything was constantly changing and we were going through managers like they were tissues. I was trying to keep my head down and just get my work done, but I think I underestimated how much the instability was affecting me. And there was one person in the department who irritated me like nobody else. She complained about everything, all the time, and it took her so long to do her assignments and I was constantly annoyed and frustrated. In the end, I was transferred to another department and Jane stayed where she was.

      A couple years later, we were both transferred to the Stability Department. Everybody had consistent work hours, our manager was active in attempts to make sure everyone had the resources we needed, every circumstance was the complete opposite of the way it was the last time we had worked together. And Jane and I got along so well! I was so surprised by how funny she was and how much I enjoyed the projects we worked on together.

      Our inability to work well together the first time was a direct result of the uncertainty and lack of control that permeated our environment. With that gone, our team-up was so different.

      1. Goldenrod*

        This is such a good point. Bad management pits people against each other, and creates stress and uncertainty that makes it really hard to work in a productive way with others. There’s too much fear and backbiting. I’ve noticed this in all of the toxic workplaces I’ve been in.

    10. Argus*

      I’ve been a Jane, and I chock a lot of it up to having a very poor relationship with my supervisor (equivalent of OP) and being poorly managed by my equivalent of Lydia. In my case, the supervisor and I had a very difficult time communicating and it often wasn’t clear to me what he wanted or by when, which resulted in a lot of conflicts about work product and timing that would then turn personal. Frankly, we didn’t like one another. I thought he has a disorganized mind and I second-guessed everything he did, and he tended to view me and my work through the worst possible lens, even as our mutual manager and others in the organization viewed me as an exceptional worker (they also viewed him as a good worker). I was very disrespectful to this person and ignored a lot of his guidance because I felt he treated me unfairly and because our mutual manager always seemed to have my back when I did. So, OP, maybe there is something along those lines to consider: Did you really just dislike Jane, and she you, and perhaps that fed into this dynamic where neither of you could see one another clearly?

      1. Argus*

        Probably also worth mentioning that within weeks of transferring out of this toxic dynamic to a new team, I was flourishing and rose in the organization rather quickly.

    11. LizM*

      I’ve been a Jane.

      I was given a huge project and didn’t realize at the outset that leadership had done almost no work to create buy in for what they envisioned as a pretty transformational process, and they hadn’t adequately staffed the team. It was an impossible task, made more impossible by the fact that leadership felt the success was *very important* but weren’t willing to invest the time to get the rest of the organization to buy in, so I was basically on my own to convince people this project was a good idea even though they didn’t see a problem with the current way of doing business.

      There were points in the process where I got pretty prickly. To be fair, a lot of the “constructive criticism” I got was not constructive and it was pretty personal.

      Then we had an election and a new political appointee threw out the whole thing, and just, ugh. Not that I’m still bitter or anything.

      Bad projects tend to bring out the worst in people. If you’ve looked back and realized you weren’t at your best, I think it’s fair to give Jane the same benefit of the doubt.

      1. LizM*

        I should add, there were others I worked with on this project who I would have strangled had we not been based in different locations. I ended more than one phone call in tears I was so mad.

        They’ve gone on to be successful in other parts of our agency. I’m successful in a different part of our agency. Certainly, I wouldn’t hire them if their resume came up on a list based on my experience, but I am glad to see they’re able to succeed in a different context, and I like to think that I’ve gotten better at hiding my surprise when people say they like working with these people.

  5. The New Wanderer*

    Sometimes people flounder in some situations and flourish in others. Years ago I was on the same team as someone who was kind of a nightmare, difficult to work with, would not “agree to disagree” and would keep pushing until you agreed with him or walked away. When he later applied to the company I was working for, I was asked for my opinion and based on our previous difficult relationship I recommended he not get hired. He was hired.

    I knew a few people on his new team, and they reported yet more stories of what a disaster he was – taking personal calls all the time, insisting on specialized training for things he had previously claimed experience with, being an all around PITA. He applied for a transfer/promotion and got it.

    He found his niche. He’s now rocketing upwards in a way I can only dream about. He’s impressed the right people and is involved with some high visibility efforts so he’s doing something right. I don’t get it, I still see the same self-inflating person he’s been in the past whenever we’ve had to interact, and I don’t think I personally could work with him on a regular basis. But honestly, good for him for finding the right place for him, may we all be so lucky.

    1. GammaGirl1908*

      This this this. When you’re in the wrong job, or at the wrong place, or have the wrong manager, you seem to suck at all of it. A bad job fit can make you feel and seem like a complete failure at absolutely everything. You’re spending 8 hours a day struggling through things you don’t do well, and getting chastised by everyone around you for not doing them well. It’s depressing and demoralizing.

      But when you find your place, where they do what you do and work the way you work, it all clicks.

      I remember similar conversations on this thread: https://www.askamanager.org/2018/02/what-if-i-cant-succeed-in-the-world-of-work.html

  6. Bernice Clifton*

    “you must have worked with Jane when you were at X — isn’t she amazing!?’

    Keep in mind that maybe nothing has changed about Jane and your acquaintance just has a different business relationship with Jane than you do. She might still sulk and throw tantrums, and your acquaintance is an a role where she would not know about it.

    1. Tomato Frog*

      Yep, definitely worth considering. And I’ve seen more than once that just because someone’s had a great career on paper, and keeps getting opportunities, doesn’t mean they’re someone who is actually great to work with, or even good at the day-to-day of their job.

    2. Alexis Rosay*

      Yes, definitely possible. The worst, most toxic person I’ve ever worked with in my life was also one of the most adored by people who didn’t know her well. To this day I have people who interacted with her peripherally tell me how fondly they remember her…to be professional, I have to grit my teeth and smile.

      But hopefully, that’s not the case and Jane actually turned her work style around.

    3. Panhandlerann*

      That is so true. I had a colleague (we were both university faculty) who was adored by many students. Behind the scenes, as a colleague, she was a toxic, dishonest mess who made the work lives of everyone else in the department (and beyond) an absolute hell. A former student who’d loved her came to work as an instructor in the department. I’ll never forget his amazement at the awful way she acted at staff meetings and the way she threw people under the bus.

    4. tamarack and fireweed*

      Maybe (quite possibly!) something changed about Jane. After all, we all do in fact change over the years and she could have matured and learned a few valuable lessons. Maybe nothing changed and the unpleasant behavior is just better masked. Maybe nothing changed fundamentally, but it was the circumstances and management style that brought out the worst in her (and possible the LW).

      There are many useful comments about either how the commenter also in the past was somewhat of a “Jane” due to bad management and workplace cultures, or how the LW and her Jane may have just been at this time in their careers and faced with inconsistent management, a really bad fit with each other. But I think it is valuable to remember that both the “superstar” and the “nightmare to work with” persona are likely nowhere near as clear-cut as they sound in retellings and memories. None of use are *just* our worst selves.

      So as the LW I’d take the “superstar” praise with a grain of salt – likely Jane was able to move into a position where she could build on the undeniable qualities (that the LW acknowledges) and tamp down her previous performance issues. The LW herself seems to feel that *she* is now doing much better work than in that past situation too, so to see some change in Jane would not be surprising. Could Jane have been blossoming even back then with a better management? Maybe! But a) that wasn’t within the LW’s power to provide and b) … maybe not! Maybe Jane had to do some work on herself. This is not something the LW should beat herself up over. What could have been is a dangerous path to go down as there are just so many unknowns! Jane and Lydia *were* nightmares, then, but they don’t have to have stayed nightmares forever. Maybe there’s someone the LW could have a conversation with along the lines of “I really would like to figure out the key elements were that caused our team to be such a shitshow then if it is true that both Jane and I are capable of so much better. Was it just Lydia, and I didn’t see the whole extent of her impact on Jane? Or was there something else? Or did we grow so far from where we were?”

    5. TWW*

      Possibly what changed about Jane is that she now has more autotomy. She won’t have to push back against (or throw fits over) unnecessary/unreasonable tasks and deadlines if she gets to decide what to do and when to do it.

  7. Jellyfish*

    Self reflection is good, but don’t beat yourself up over someone else’s actions – especially when you don’t have the full picture.

    Six or seven years ago, I was deeply mediocre at my job. Now, I look pretty dang good on paper, and I hope I’m a decent worker in person too. I’m in a position that’s a far better fit for me in every way, the personal issues I was dealing with before are fully resolved, and frankly I’ve grown up some since then.

    My manager at the time wasn’t perfect, but they certainly weren’t doing anything wrong or causing me to be a poor worker. I just eventually figured out how to change for the better. It has very little to do with any former coworkers or managers.

  8. Maisie*

    This seems like more of a Lydia problem than a Jane problem. Lydia was not managing; it sounds like she was babying Jane (not holding her accountable, letting her do whatever she wants) and placing the blame on you.

    1. Sara without an H*

      Yeah, I was struck by the fact that the OP has assumed responsibility for a situation which was clearly Lydia’s responsibility. Why???

      1. LW here*

        I think it’s because Lydia (at least on occasion) told me it was my responsibility and it’s warped my thinking a bit. Alison’s advice has given me a bit of closure on something that bugged me about the role – I spoke to Jane about my expectations on the project and, when things didn’t change, I raised it to Lydia, trying to frame it as ‘Jane has done X. It’s causing Y problem. I’ve tried to address it by Z’ and that’s really all that was in my power. But, because Lydia used to turn around and say ‘Well, this is your project, LW, so you need to find a way to deal with that’, I got it into my head that I was missing something. So many people used to tell me at the time that the thing that needed to happen was Lydia DOING HER JOB but I think my thinking was pretty warped by that point that I was absolutely convinced it was me missing something.

  9. Flyweight*

    A few years ago I had a supervisor (Sally) who was known to be terrible – lazy, non-compliant and combative. She was fired after I’d only been on the job for a month. Then last year, I discovered that Sally has been working at a friend’s company, and that they love her. She’s been there for 2 years and has a great reputation. I was genuinely so pleased to hear this, as it seems like she really turned her career around. Sometimes all you can do is assume that someone was at a different phase in their life, and they’ve changed since then.

  10. Generic Name*

    I understand where you’re coming from in terms of how you’re re-examining your past with regards to this new information on Jane. As a 3rd party reading the account of Jane’s past performance and her new superstar status, my first thought was, “Wow, something must have been going on in her personal life before that has changed between then and now”. I didn’t think her past performance had anything to do with you. How could it? You weren’t her manager, and you both were managed by a crappy manager. Heck, maybe she got herself into therapy and had a positive outcome. Who knows? But I don’t think any of it is a reflection on you.

    1. cncx*

      that’s me, that was my first thought too. i was a nightmare to work with during my divorce, and a combination of therapy and a good boss got me back to being an acceptable coworker again. in the job before the good boss, i had a poor manager and it was just the perfect storm of no one being their best
      i hate to use bad fit because sometimes bad fit is a code word for a lack of diversity but sometimes it really is a bad fit, and someone can flourish in a role due to a combination of variables and flounder due to one.
      i hope and think i am a better coworker now

  11. Myrin*

    For whatever it’s worth, OP, and maybe just because I can be cynical sometimes, it’s possible that your estimation of Jane was exactly right at the time and that she hasn’t changed in the meantime, either, but still “landed jobs and worked on projects that [you] would have loved to have worked on”.
    All it takes is for her to impress the right person who maybe gets blinded by the few exceptional skills you mention, who maybe doesn’t work with her day-to-day and only sees the results of a good time and attributes that to Jane, who maybe simply finds her likeable, who maybe sees themselves in her, who maybe isn’t a good manager, and so on.

    This is not to contradict Alison’s excellent advice or the thoughtful additions by other commenters but it is a possiblity to keep in mind if it helps you at all.

  12. CRM*

    Lydia’s management style likely set both OP and Jane up for failure. Being forced to to work on projects that you struggle with because “it’s a good learning opportunity” sounds like absolute torture to me. Unless the tasks that Lydia was forcing Jane to do were vital to her role (as in she needed to improve or else there would talk of letting her go), it would be miserable to not be able to do the parts of your job that you excel at for the sake of “growth” in areas where you struggle and maybe aren’t even interested. If I were Jane, that would definitely cause me to be resentful. I’m sure that dynamic flowed into your relationship with her, since it sounds like Lydia was pretty hands-off with her, and without the authority to play to her strengths or even help manage her on the tasks she struggled with, there was nothing you could do to help. Be glad you are both free of that situation!

  13. Foreign Octopus*

    This is such an interesting letter!

    Normally we don’t hear about what happens to the Janes of a letter except that they’ve left the company or they’re still there after the OPs left, so this is a really interesting look at what happens on the flip side of things. Thanks for sending it in, OP!

    1. Myrin*

      I was thinking exactly the same!
      Also, the more general question of “Should a good manager be able to manage anybody regardless of the situation?” is an incredibly fascinating one to me.

  14. anonymouse*

    What you know as fact:
    You had an individual contributor on a number of projects whose work output caused problems for the product, the other members and you.
    You had an individual contributor whose personality kept you from communicating well. (You gave input, feedback and she sulked or threw a tantrum.
    You had a manager who was driving you crazy on a daily basis by changing the goal posts.
    You were able to pivot and get other people to pivot, except Jane.
    What you believe:
    Jane is an outstanding employee now.
    You failed to nurture, coax her true potential out of her.

    Maybe she is a better employee now; maybe she’s better at hiding her feelings and has found a way to only do what she can do very well.
    Maybe you don’t have the ability to lead everyone to their potential; maybe you do.
    This experience is not the metric on which to just your abilities. This is a BEC who popped back into your life.
    let it go.

  15. New Mom*

    I briefly worked for a woman who could be really mean. It was a student role, and she was a FT employee at the college. She was known for being a superstar but definitely kicked down at certain female students and I unfortunately was one of them. That college is the main employer in town, and almost 15 years later she is still there but has risen in rank. I was doing an informational interview with another staff member to put out feelers for a job when I finished grad school and the staff member asked what roles I had held as a student.
    Staffer: Oh, you did X, that means you worked with Ms. Mean Lady. She’s so amazing! So amazing. I loved working with her. Wasn’t she great?
    Me: (Ahhh, no!) Oh, yeah she was great…

    Then I changed the subject. I think the best option is to just not say much, even though you did not have a great experience working with either of them.

    1. Cedarthea*

      I worked at a non-profit that had a fairly notorious individual on the board and active in day-to-day operations. He was, and still is, a nasty piece of work who is racist, sexist, homophobic and a jackass. However, it was in a small town and I was only on a one-year contract and my direct boss was a good person doing the best he could and so I stuck it out.

      Once people knew I worked for this organization they always asked me what I thought of this person and I found a perfect sentence when people would try to get me to badmouth and trash him, and that was “Wakeen is a strong advocate for llamas”. I would repeat this until the person got the hint that I despited the man’s guts but that I wasn’t going to create drama.

      It was a wild year on that contract, during the time two of the board members tried to get the other arrested for trespassing and ended up just suing each other. They would smack talk each other at our public board meetings.

      I don’t miss the board but my boss was a great guy and I volunteered with him for almost a decade until this past winter when the board (some new and some the same from when I was there) decided to take control of a whole bunch of things away from my old boss and I stepped away. It makes me sad, as they did good work and my old boss deserved better.

    2. Nicotene*

      Also there’s a certain type of person who is always going to say “so-and-so is so wonderful!!” about any mutual acquaintance. I wouldn’t take it too seriously, even if a couple different people said something vague I’d chalk it up to the pleasure of having a friend in common.

  16. Mockingjay*

    ‘…things like reassigning Jane to high stakes tasks she’d previously struggled with “because she’ll only learn if she’s given opportunities” but not letting me reorganize my own work so I could supervise Jane — and then flipping out at me 24 hours later when Jane had messed up.’

    I’m inclined to think that Jane was probably a decent worker all along. How could anyone succeed in that environment? Talk about being set up to fail.

    1. PT*

      I was thinking that about the “sulked and threw tantrums” characterization too.

      As someone who worked in a workplace where there was extreme pressure to break the law and cut corners to save money, I am sure I had a reputation for being uncooperative and difficult because I would not. Meanwhile I had a pretty solid following of people downstream from me who appreciated my safety compliance and said they felt more confident with me in charge. One person thinks it’s “so unfair I can’t ride my llama when it’s just a measly thunderstorm WATCH this is GARBAGE” while two other people are thankful they were not caught out in a storm unawares.

      It is one of those eyes-of-the-beholder sort of characterizations.

      1. Cat Tree*

        I worked at a toxic place like that too! I’m not sure what I was asked to do was illegal, but it was certainly unethical. I uncovered an issue with one of our niche projects and the company owner didn’t want to spend the money needed to test and fix it. I get it that she had a business to run, but I can’t just look the other way shot we knowingly send out equipment that doesn’t work right. I don’t think I ever acted in a way that could be described as sulking, but I’m certain she viewed me as difficult and uncooperative.

      2. tamarack and fireweed*

        I dunno – we have a bias in favor of believing the LW’s description for a good reason after all.

        I know I have been in jobs where I underperformed and sometimes, because of intense stress and the too many requests flying at me from my co-workers, could become snippy to the point of this being pointed out to me. If some old co-workers from one particular team would be asked now they may remember me as rude! However, my immediate boss or anyone senior who cared about me and my career would have been away of the cascade of circumstances that made me go sour and less than the expected standard of friendliness (long late evening work to fix a tech problem, barrages of requests from account managers bypassing the ticketing system, trying to help everyone at once which wasn’t sustainable…) and gradually helped me to dig out under it (insist on and train AMs on ticketing system, wait 30 min before responding to a ping on IM [by which time 50% of questions had been answered by the questioner], get more staff). My direct supervisor may have described me as periodically overloaded, inexperienced in workload prioritization, and sometimes switching from super helpful to super gruff on a dime, but not as “a nightmare”.

        So my tendency is that while Jane probably had the *qualities* to be a good employee potentially (like the LW!) she was not actually one in reality at the time (like the LW!).

        The lesson for the LW should not be “I was not a good enough manager to develop this gem” but more along the lines of “bad performance isn’t necessarily a character trait – a bad employee may have in themselves the potential to become a good one”.

    2. frozen*

      No disrespect to the LW, but I agree with you, Mockingjay. Especially having seen this sort of garbage in the workplace multiple times, and also having been the victim of it once.

      1. LW here*

        In fairness, Jane’s bad behaviour started before Lydia started pulling things like this. But it is fair to say it escalated pretty quickly after that and, on further reflection, I do think the project was one where nobody could have possibly performed at their best and perhaps my view of Jane’s performance is more unjustified than I’d previously thought.

        I think Lydia’s thinking was that I wasn’t giving Jane a fair chance to develop. I’d argue that wasn’t a fair criticism. Right at the start, I put Jane on a piece of work which I knew would be a stretch for her and it went horribly wrong to the point we had to rope in people from other departments to put it right. From then on, I tried to assign Jane work which played to her strengths and, if there was something she needed to learn, look out for tasks where she could either be closely supervised or it was such a small part of the overall big picture that it wouldn’t matter if it went wrong and had to be re-done later (preferably both!). But I think the stars aligned to create those opportunities less often than Lydia wanted?

        From Jane’s perspective, I think she actually saw it as Lydia having faith in and believing in her. I’m not sure to what extent she realised I was being told to rush in and put out the fire afterwards – I think she was either entirely oblivious to that fact or thought I was meddling.

        In fairness, Lydia only pulled this stunt a few times before it seemed to dawn on her that it wasn’t just me not giving Jane a fair chance and Jane’s performance was in some respects actually just that bad. She did micromanage in other ways but this was the most extreme example. One thing I do remember is just before I left Lydia was arranging for Jane to go on some training courses so, who knows, maybe even something from one of those clicked.

        1. Andy*

          I think that in such situation, if I was Jane, I would conclude the whole thing was setup to fail from the first moment.

          She got task that was sttetch for her and then got forever punished for failing it.

  17. Lora*

    Oh my goodness, I totally understand. At my first job out of grad school, there was another engineer and we have very similar first names so people got us confused a lot, and I was pissed because she SUCKED. OP, when I say this woman was an embarrassment to women in STEM, I mean she would roll up to work late, take off her shoes and leave them under her desk, refuse to put her shoes on and go in the lab/clean room for more than a couple of hours during her shift, did literally NOTHING on the projects she was assigned to and let the rest of the group pick up her slack, and then took long lunches and left early. She couldn’t troubleshoot simple stuff, couldn’t support failure mode investigations, couldn’t reply to emails in a timely fashion, couldn’t be bothered to do training. She could kiss butt and was nonthreatening to male colleagues and managers and crapped on other people when she wasn’t keeping her head down. That’s it.

    You guys, she switched companies and then got promoted all the way to head of Quality at her second employer. As near as I can tell she bounced around a few of their “throwaway” departments where they tend to put useless people they can’t get motivated to fire before landing in Quality, and the company’s solution to those throwaway departments is to hire contractors to do the actual work. I wish I could get paid 50% more than I currently make to sit around barefoot answering an email once a week while I hire contractors to do my actual job, that’d be sweet.

    Basically, life isn’t fair and some people are just stupid lucky. Is what it is.

  18. fposte*

    I like this question because it reveals the way we can see a single dimension and convince ourselves it’s a big, fixed truth when almost none of us are that simple. I totally agree with wolfmama that this is a moment to try to get beyond the good/bad employee dichotomy–and also the good/bad manager dichotomy. You undoubtedly did some things well in managing Jane, and some things badly in managing other employees who didn’t react the way Jane did. While the better the manager gets the better they are at harnessing different kinds of people effectively, sometimes there are mismatches.

    It sounds like Jane settled comfortably into a “that awful Jane” place in your mind and your reaction to having that unsettled is to shift to “that awful me.” What if you took the moment to shift beyond “that awful” anybody and just considered this as evidence that workplaces can be challenging places that can frustrate and anger people, and that neither you nor Jane had the tools and mindset to negotiate that?

    1. Pippa K*

      When someone praises a difficult former coworker and assumes you’ll agree, one possible reply consistent with fposte’s framing here might be ‘well, it was a challenging workplace in some ways, so I’m not sure it’s where any of us did our best work, but she’s clearly done great things since.’ Or if that’s not quite right to say out loud, it might be be helpful to say it to yourself!

    2. anonymouse*

      This is so much of what I feel. The either/or of Jane was bad, I was good.
      You can do everything right and still lose. – Captain Picard

    3. CommanderBanana*

      Yeah. There have definitely been people who brought out the worst in me at work (and vice versa).

  19. 1234*

    Another point that I haven’t seen mentioned is, are the other projects/opportunities more fitting to Jane’s skill set? Is Jane more passionate about those other projects? Did the other company foster a team or environment that was more to Jane’s liking? Maybe she was willing to put in the work at the new company to succeed. I have seen people slack off at X job because they didn’t give a crap/didn’t like the way the company handled things but turn around and be a rockstar elsewhere because something about that role/company motivated them.

  20. Cat Tree*

    I was sort of a Jane, although never as bad as what you have described. After being laid off from a decent job during the great recession, I cycled through a series of a few jobs that lasted generally less then two years each. I always went in feeling ambitious and optimistic, only to find that I couldn’t actually achieve anything because of no management support. That is super draining and would eventually make me unmotivated. I also got inconsistent feedback, because my performance was inconsistent (although never bad, just average to very good). When I performed well, the person in charge of that project would ask (or demand) more and more of me, but they were usually things I literally could not do such as making a change in a system that is owned by someone else.

    While trying to stay longer at one place to get rid of the job hopper look on my resume, I still kept an eye for truly excellent opportunities. And finally, I landed in a job at a company that has a high performing culture AND managers that are actually good at managing! I’ve been here 5 years and have had two promotions, plus ranking in the top bracket for several performance reviews, and other types of recognition. With a supportive management chain, I can actually thrive even among a bunch of high performers.

    I suspect something similar happened with Jane. She was likely frustrated and not getting what she needed. And now she found a place where she fits better and can perform better. At a minimum, it sounds like she never got proper training/mentoring but was assigned harder assignments anyway at your old company. Often when it’s sink-or-swim, the outcome is sinking. At her new job, she was probably given these stretch assignments but also the support she needed to actually learn how to do them.

  21. Clorinda*

    Maybe Jane really has matured and improved. And maybe her struggles on that project were an essential part of that road to improvement. Or maybe she’s exactly the same and is in a situation that’s a better fit for her personality. Or maybe she’s no better than she ever was, but has high-level flimflam abilities. In no way is any of this your fault or your problem.

  22. katertot*

    “Is it possible for a decent manager and a decent worker to just not work well together?”
    YES- I am a firm believer that sometimes someone can be a good manager w/ a good employee and there just isn’t a personality mesh there. Now, this definitely is more of a personality thing than them truly being a bad manager and it being a bad match, but I do believe that an employee can be seen as struggling, then thrive under a different manager that has a totally different style. And it wasn’t that the previous manager was bad, just that management style didn’t work with that employee.

  23. introverted af*

    I think this is a good example of how sometimes people are just mis-cast. That can’t be an excuse for allowing a culture of discrimination to continue, but there are legitimate circumstances were a person isn’t a good fit for an organization but is at least a perfectly adequate worker in another organization or with another supervisor.

  24. Generalist*

    I can imagine a situation where Jane thinks about OP “Boy, I found her tough to work with but I hear she’s been successful ever since. Was it my fault?” Maybe you both weren’t working at your best standard, and have matured/learned/found better suited jobs in the time since.

  25. Kiki*

    I don’t know about other cultures, but I feel like in the youth-centric US we sometimes like to view people as static when it comes to things like work or school. Someone is a good student. Someone is a good worker. I am currently a good employee thus I will always be. I can be plucked from my role and plopped in an entirely new one and I will still be a good employee. If I end up on a 30 Under 30 list, it means my whole career will be just as successful as the start.

    In reality people grow, learn, and evolve. Likewise, people go through tough times, experience health issues, or end up in environments that aren’t right for them. Sometimes good management makes a difference, other times the change must come from personal maturation. Some people jump into the working world knowing exactly how to succeed; other people need to learn everything the hard way but come out the other side with wisdom that more than makes up for the years of struggles.

    LW, I would reflect on your perception of Jane, but don’t beat yourself up over not having a great working relationship with her. It’s impossible to know what’s really going on with her work life from the outside.

    1. Kiki*

      Some people jump into the working world knowing exactly how to succeed; other people need to learn everything the hard way but come out the other side with wisdom that more than makes up for the years of struggles.

      One of my favorite examples of the latter situation is Anthony Bourdain. He couldn’t have had the career he had, the perspective he brought, and the entertaining anecdotes he wrote about without having made some blunders.

      I grew up thinking I always had to be perfect to succeed– a deeply unhealthy mentality borne out of an unaccepting culture. As I’ve grown older, I realize all my “wrong turns” have been what made me a better person. Frankly, I was kind of insufferable while I was perfect. My “failures” forced me to grow into a kinder, more empathetic and creative person.

      1. BookishMiss*

        The line about people from my first few jobs not recognizing work me now totally hit home. It’s very true for me – early work world me was a PAIN. I had some awesome managers and colleagues who helped me figure out how to be a good colleague, but if i ran into anyone from those jobs now who hadn’t been around for the whole of it, they would (rightfully) not think well of me as a coworker.

        Growing pains are painful, and maybe Jane has had a few. Or maybe, as others have said, she’s been in better fitting roles, or a non- work situation has changed, or, or, or. It doesn’t mean that what happened in the past has been misremembered.

  26. animaniac*

    Should a good manager be able to manage anybody regardless of the situation?

    No. Particularly not if your definition of ability manage is “person correctly performs job (without much drama)”.

    Is it possible for a decent manager and a decent worker to just not work well together?

    Absolutely! And even more so if they’re stuck in an environment that is not conducive to them working well together.

  27. Allison*

    I’m Jane. I was fired from my first job 8 years ago due to attitude problems, and while I do understand that I could’ve handled things better back then, ultimately that was not a good work environment for me. In short, I felt the rules were unnecessarily strict, performance expectations weren’t always realistic, my boss was a micromanager, and some of my female coworkers acted like they were still in high school. Getting fired was honestly a relief. But I went on to jobs where I was successful, appreciated, treated like an adult, and most importantly, HAPPY. Again, I understand the importance of handling a bad work situation with professionalism, and I’ve matured over the years, but I’m also proof that environment can absolutely play a role in someone’s work product and attitude.

    Even more recently, I worked a 6 month contract at a company where even when I did my best, I constantly fell short of expectations, but after the contract ended I started a new job where people are amazed with my work.

    What stinks though is that even though that first job was so long ago, the people I worked with at the time probably still think of me as a disrespectful jerk, a weirdo, and probably a slacker.

  28. SheLooksFamiliar*

    OP, there is ALWAYS room for improvement in how you interact with your colleagues, and anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. In the situation you describe? It’s far more likely that you and Jane just didn’t mesh well. Her work style and personality may have been your polar opposite, which means it would’ve been tough to work together anyway. But you had Lydia making the situation worse, and doing things you weren’t able to control.

    Take away what you can from your experience with Jane and Lydia, and be honest with yourself regarding the part you may have had in the breakdown. Again, there is always room for improvement. And the next time someone sings Jane’s praises just smile and nod, look distracted, and change the subject.

  29. pretzelgirl*

    I don’t know how old Jane is, but its quite possible she just “grew up”. As someone in their (gulp) late 30s, I am not even the same person I was in my late 20s. I was still really insecure. Somewhat irresponsible and could be a pain to work with I am sure. I got married, grew up alot and had kids…so alot of priorities shifted. Its possible this all true for Jane.
    Or as others and Allison mentioned maybe she was just in a bad frame of mind and dealing with outside stressors. Maybe she was in a bad relationship or had a close family member or friend that was ill. Maybe she was ill! Who knows.
    I know its hard, but I would just try and move on and forget about it.

  30. L*

    I was Jane. I actually had ptsd that was untreated and the OP-version in my work life was absolutely horrible to me. When I moved on she was smug

  31. Bookworm*

    No, I don’t think so. It would be ideal if a good manager could manage anyone regardless of the situation, but that sounds like a unicorn person and situation–you’d have to have stars to be lined up in a very specific manner for that to happen.

    I’m sure you’re wondering about the “what if?” but I’d say after seeing some people thrive in different work situations, relationships, etc. it’s just one of those things where it wasn’t a good fit for everyone involved and luckily Jane seemed to have grown or found the right fit for her, etc.

  32. AllThingsToAllPeople*

    Something we often overlook in the professional world is that growth happens and it’s messy, so the goal is to be able to move forward and make changes, and, well, grow. There is this idea that we must be perfect from the start, and frankly, it’s detrimental. We must be willing to work through our imperfections. We must have the right attitude. We must want to do better. Perfection, however, is elusive and can be a frustrating standard. Keep going and keep growing.

  33. E*

    In my first job out of college, I had an emotionally abusive boss who created a dynamic in which I became a Jane. Seemingly like Jane in this letter, I had excelled before and have excelled since (especially since leaving the company). For some people, an emotionally abusive or even just difficult (I get the sense the LW is downplaying how emotionally challenging working with someone ‘curt’ day in and day out who’s in a position of power over you can be, and yes, it can make people make MORE mistakes due to stress) boss, can make them feel so badly that it becomes impossible to work well. That’s not to downplay the mistakes Jane made — I’m certainly aware of the mistakes I made during my time in this role! — but that yes, there was likely a dynamic or interaction between you two that contributed. It’s great that she’s doing well now; give her the benefit of the doubt, reflect and learn from what you could have done differently in that situation, and move on.

  34. Judgina Judy*

    I have always wondered about something similar to this. When you have a mediocre co-worker who just seems to do well at work because they have superb social skills (think a** kissing), while you put your head down and do all the work and yet get no recognition. It is just something that just stands out to me. I have a co-worker who does the barest minimum, just enough to get by, yet is the most vocal in meetings and organizes every happy hour and bridal shower and birthday parties. Remembers all the baby names and birthdays and yet cannot seem to turn an assignment in on time or respond to emails in a timely manner. This person has been promoted or recognized on an almost annual basis and i wonder why the bosses dont see what we see. Sigh. Such is life.

    1. CommanderBanana*

      Yeah, it took me a long time that most workplaces don’t actually put that much importance on being good at your job.

      1. PT*

        It’s that being good at your job very often doesn’t mean ” being good at the tasks that make up what the average person would consider to be your job” and usually does mean “doing what your company wants you to do how they want you to do it.”

        So for example, if the average person would define a good personal trainer as “someone who is knowledgeable about anatomy and physiology and helps people work out in a safe and healthy way for their body and fitness goals,” that sort of trainer is still likely to be fired from many gyms, because a lot of gyms define a good trainer as “someone who meets an arbitrary dollar value sales quota by upselling and making the customers feel really good about themselves health and safety be damned.”

  35. Theory of Eeveelution*

    I’m confused — was LW Jane’s manager or not?

    The headline describes Jane as LW’s “coworker,” the first line says that LW was managing a project, LW describes Lydia as their mutual manager… but then LW complains that Lydia wouldn’t let them “supervise” Jane. LW’s last line makes it seem like they were Jane’s manager, and they are wondering if they failed in managing her. This line in particular is confusing me:

    “Is it possible for a decent manager and a decent worker to just not work well together?”

    It implies that LW is the “decent manager” in this situation, as this letter is not about Lydia.

    I really feel for Jane in this situation. It seems like Lydia failed both LW and Jane, but Jane got the worst of it: Lydia set Jane up for failure by assigning her to projects that she knew Jane couldn’t do, and then “flipped out” on LW shortly after for predictably failing, which LW then took out on Jane. Then there’s LW, who may or may not be Jane’s manager but is certainly acting like they are, who brings a “grumpy and curt” attitude to the table, and it’s no wonder Jane is not performing well in her role. It seems to me like Jane was being both micromanaged and undermanaged by Lydia, while at the same time was being micromanaged by someone else who wasn’t even her manager. No wonder she wasn’t performing well, I wouldn’t have been, either.

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      Sounds like OP was a team lead, and so should have directed workflow, set benchmarks, kept an eye on deadlines, etc., but did not have the power to fire someone, write them up, initiate a PIP, etc.
      This can work very well, and does in many places. But people in OP’s position have to have the support of their Lydias–sticking their oar in and then complaining about the change in direction does no good for anyone.

      1. LW here*

        Yes, this was it (so in charge of making sure Jane knew what work she needed to do and making sure it got done but no power to, say, find her a training course if she was struggling or write her up if she continued to do something after being repeatedly told not to – that latter part was Lydia).

  36. Goldenrod*

    “I’d framed this to myself as “sure, it wasn’t my finest hour but Jane (not to mention Lydia) was a nightmare.” But given Jane’s subsequent successes, the narrative is now “Jane’s a superstar and I must have really handled the situation terribly to get such a bad performance out of her.””

    OP, it sounds like part of what bothers you about this is the narrative. It may be a narrative that a lot of people are buying into – or you may just be assuming it’s what people think.

    Either way, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this topic, and realized that it’s SO important to tell and own your OWN narrative…because bosses/managers often get to frame reality by how they tell a story.

    Here’s an alternate narrative to consider, by the way: Maybe Jane really does still suck, and she’s thriving now because resonating with a toxic culture in her new job and being rewarded for it.

    Or: maybe not. But my advice to you would be to really think about the stories you tell yourself – about yourself and about others – because that’s how you create your own reality.

    Whatever Jane is doing or not doing, if she got better or didn’t – none of that really matters anyway. It sounds like you did a perfectly fine job in a trying situation, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. That’s the narrative I encourage you to focus on.

  37. Peg*

    I could be Jane. My old manager “Joe” could’ve written this. In my case, my less than spectacular performance was a direct result of his bad attitude and him being hands-off when I needed him (“that’s your problem to solve” despite it being something I had no control over due to our org structure) and hands-on when I didn’t (“I want you to do this my way even though you’ve been doing this for years with great results, and I’ll be sitting in on your calls to make sure you don’t go against me”).

    I was a superstar before he managed me and once I was able to shake off the trauma and impostor syndrome of being managed by a total asshole with a superiority complex, I was a superstar after he managed me. I can literally hear his voice in this letter, except he’d never ask if my “poor performance” was a direct result of him being a jerk to me every day.

  38. Mystic*

    I’m stuck on a specific part. Jane was given projects that she struggled with, in order to get better at it. Was she given extra training for it, or mentoring, or anything? Or was it “you’ve struggled with this. Here’s more of the same thing, with nothing else except get it done.”
    It’s…kinda sounding like a bad situation overall to me, but it doesn’t mean OP was in the wrong.

  39. DNDL*

    God, I could be Jane if this letter had been written by my first manager. I am an absolute rock star in my current role (and I know that sounds braggy, but my boss said the same thing this morning!). But when my previous manager was here, my performance suffered horribly. Part of it was me being new to my position, but I would argue the bigger issue was who my manager was. She was a new manager, and she tended to micromanage and be very strict with how I could or couldn’t approach a project. My current boss gives me the freedom I need to approach projects in a way that suites me, and as such I’ve had great success in my role and have won several awards for my work.

    I hear old boss has a bigger managerial jobs now with more direct reports. I hope she is doing better and finding success in her role, but I know that if someone asked her about her time working with me, she’d have a very similar reaction to OP.

  40. pieces_of_flair*

    This seems like an example of the fundamental attribution error. We tend to attribute other people’s behavior to dispositional characteristics (“Bill missed the deadline because he is lazy”) while attributing our own behavior to the situation (“I missed the deadline because of X and Y external factors”). Human behavior is much more influenced by situational factors than we generally realize. So Jane wasn’t fundamentally incompetent, careless, lazy, sulky, etc. She was in an environment that prompted those behaviors. It seems that now she’s in a different type of environment and is behaving differently, which is great. LW and Jane were both just in a crappy situation.

  41. Minerva*

    I’m not sure what your role was, but do consider that you may not have been fully fair in your assessment of Jane. Maybe she has changed, but really think about if you were helping her be better or setting her up for failure.

    This isn’t to blame anyone, but to see how you could have approached a Jane to get this better performance out of her. A really brilliant manager gets more out of people than a mediocre one.

  42. LW here*

    Thanks Alison for answering my question and for all the comments so far (really interesting to hear from so many people who identify with Jane, although I do find myself cringing as I realise more and more that she probably does not have the fondest memories of me either!). I submitted this a couple of weeks back, when the shock of discovering Jane was doing really well was still a bit raw. Having had time to reflect on it a bit more and read all the feedback, the following occurs to me:

    1) This project was set up in a way that was not going to get the best out of anybody, so I wasn’t seeing Jane at her best. I don’t think it would be fair to describe it as a bait-and-switch job because I think Lydia legitimately thought she wanted the project as she described it when she hired me but she just didn’t understand the work required to run said project and questioned a lot of the decisions I would make, which are decisions which have just been treated as the norm in jobs I did before and since. Wolfmama mentioned a lack of clarity could have been a problem for Jane. I think that was probably right because I was telling her ‘ABC are really important’ and Lydia was going ‘ABC really don’t matter’ which obviously would have caused Jane a lot of confusion as well potentially leading her to think I was heavily critical of her work without good reason (again, ABC have been important in every job I’ve done before and since so I’m pretty certain this isn’t a case of me being unfairly critical).

    2) It’s probably unfair to depict Jane as sulking and throwing tantrums all the time. She did have moments of quite frankly quite childish behaviour. I seem to recall these were in reaction to pretty standard instructions or feedback (like, ‘you’ve missed the deadline on X – please can you make X the next thing you do?’ said in what I think was a fairly neutral tone but, like I said, with hindsight, I realise my tone was not always what I intended in this role). But it’s been a while since this happened and I realise the 5% of the time Jane behaved awfully has stuck much more in my memory than the 95% of the time she probably behaved like a perfectly decent human being.

    3) I’m getting way too all or nothing in my thinking on this and there are plenty of options besides ‘Jane was bad and I was good’ or ‘Jane was good and I was bad’.

    1. Andy*

      > I think that was probably right because I was telling her ‘ABC are really important’ and Lydia was going ‘ABC really don’t matter’ which obviously would have caused Jane a lot of confusion as well potentially leading her to think I was heavily critical of her work without good reason

      Lydia was your supervisor. It is not so unusual to pick what bigger boss says from mutually conflicting instructions. So then your complaining was surely interpreted as unfair – she was told ABC does not really matter. And it is setup to fail, Jane is getting blamed by you for doing what Lydia said. We have such conflicting instructions situation in work and I can tell you, seasoned veterans ressent those who they perceive treating them unfairly.

      The point here is that Jane was junior in apparently dysfunctional setup. Just like you was under pressure unable to ensure everything works, neither was she nor anyone could.

  43. twocents*

    I’ve been on another side of this. Many years ago, my department hired a new manager, and I came across an old manager of hers who said “oh my goodness you get to work with Jane, isn’t she amazing!!” This old manager of Jane’s very sincerely meant it.

    But my experience with her was that honestly Jane sucked: she didn’t communicate, she didn’t grasp basic processes and had no desire to learn, she was two-faced and would smile politely and then gossip behind your back. (A little dangerous as the newcomer into the group, as the existing employees caught on quickly!)

    Within a year, she was demoted and lost all of her directs. A year after that, she was, shall we say, invited to pursue other opportunities.

    Most people aren’t rockstars at literally everything. Sure, reflect, see if you could do things better in a similar situation, and then move on.

  44. llamaswithouthats*

    While I don’t think I threw anything that could be considered a tantrum, I’m pretty sure my previous managers would starkly contrast with my current managers’ perception of me. This is for a couple of reasons:

    My last job was one of my first jobs in my career. I made some mistakes.

    Since leaving my last job, I got diagnosed with ADHD, something I didn’t know how to manage then.

    My current job plays more to my natural strengths.

    My last job did have some cultural and structural issues, and my managers there were inexperienced and ill-equipped to deal with them.

    Long story short: people can change and improve, but sometimes need to be in the right place to thrive.

  45. HR Exec Popping In*

    OP, we have all had times when we thrive at work and times when we do not. It is likely that Jane has worked on her opportunity areas and is now thriving. The takeaway for her success should not have anything to do with you and your capability. Is it possible you may have been difficult? Sure. It is also just as likely that you attempted to manage a difficult situation to your best ability at the time.

    I learned long ago that my success has absolutely nothing to do with anyone other than me. Are there times when I feel a pang of light jealousy when I see someone whom I personally don’t think is great advancing beyond me – sure, I’m human. But their success does not detract from my success. Life and professional success isn’t a pie – the size of her “slice” does not effect the size of your “slice”.

  46. COBOL Dinosaur*

    I was let go from a job where I ‘did not perform’. I was micro managed to the point where I couldn’t do anything right. The environment was toxic with a manager who would bully those who didn’t pander to him. Everyone else bullied the current target of that manager to avoid being bullied themselves! That environment, added to my ADHD, set me up to fail. I am at a job now where I am a Super Star. Sometimes it really is about being in the right work environment and having the right person as your manager.

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      What a lot of people don’t realize – often (although I wouldn’t say “more often than not”) an underperformer is a victim of his/her environment, and that can include management.

      What DOES happen is that a guy or gal leaves Toxic Industries and goes on to Nirvana Company and does very well. There is often resentment at Toxic Industries — over that person’s success. I think I related to people in here once that I ran into a group of people from Toxic at a football game tailgate – ten years after leaving them for greener pastures.

      My word – it was pathetic. And Mrs. Anon was turning green trying not to laugh at them, I had to get her away from them.

      But the story goes – I could not function properly and I could not reach my potential at Toxic Industries. Then again, those that “thrived” (it was more “existed”) at Toxic did OK and most probably couldn’t survive at most other places I’ve worked since then.

  47. Imaginary Number*

    It makes me feel good seeing how many people are saying “I could be Jane” because I immediately felt the same way. I’m doing great in my current role and frequently get feedback that I’m one of the best performers. When I was newer to the company, I had a role doing similar work (but with a fraction of the responsibilities) and struggled because I didn’t have the technical skillset yet. This bled into affecting my soft skills, because I didn’t have the confidence to communicate about my project outside of the people I worked with on a daily basis. I probably got defensive when I discovered that there was something I missed and it was something I had no idea was even required.

    And then I developed the technical skills I needed and got better.

  48. Pearls and Tech*

    I think Lydia is the person who would need to question how her management played into Jane’s performance, not OP! Early in my career, I was a bit of a Jane in that I was still learning so much, and didn’t give everything the proper weight or understand nuance yet (but I never threw a tantrum or sulked! my gosh). I do think one of my first (bad) managers caused me to lose motivation to learn those types of things, but it doesn’t sound like OP had the power to manage Jane. So I really think it’s on Lydia, IF management had anything to do with it.
    That said, it’s possible that (as many have pointed out) there was some other factor you could not see. I’ve seen coworkers improve so much after getting through a hard situation, healing from physical or emotional trauma, etc. My own health has definitely affected my work performance at points, and thankfully, I’ve been very well-supported. But I can certainly understand how invisible things can affect performance!

  49. Not Lydia*

    I have managed the same employee for 9 years, and he has evolved from a tantrum thrower to an outstanding performer. Experience and self reflection really can transform someone one! I also wonder if Jane was early in her career when she was OP’s colleague and simply matured.

  50. El l*

    I think you’re overthinking this one, and missing the obvious. Which is: What if it was just the situation?

    Leaving aside things people learn to do, Jane might just be in a situation that plays to her strengths and hides her weaknesses. Perhaps she has someone to field for her on the things she refuses to do, or to quietly and trustingly check her work. Perhaps the projects play more to her talents than the one you worked on. These things happen all the time.

    For your own part, the situation sounds set up for you to fail. A (possibly) talented employee without the support she needs. A micromanaging boss who undermines you. It may have been a more difficult project period than you fear. Anyone who wonders why you couldn’t get the best out of you, which I bet aren’t many…wasn’t there.

  51. Uh Huh*

    A toxic manager can destroy their whole team. People who would work together really well under an even half-decent manager will loathe each other under an incompetent or otherwise toxic manager.

    One of my ex-managers, “Daniel”, tried to completely destroy my career and credibility out of spite. He was new to his role and completely incapable or performing it. The team I was working with were not working well together at all due to Daniel’s actions.

    His main “strategy” to keep his job was not to learn how to do it, but to blame other people for his errors. These were errors that no one else actually could have made, because only he had access to the information and tools required to complete the task. (Like being the only person with access to a certain specialist machine or software, and the being the only person with the security access level to access the information and/or materials required.)

    Upper management, who should have known better, fired several people (including me) due to Daniel’s abject lies. These were all illegal firings, of course.

    Terrified he’d be found out, Daniel tried to destroy all of us in terms of career and credibility. I think he thought we’d leave the industry and/or never try and reveal his general awfulness. Thankfully, a couple of members of upper management became aware of the problems with Daniel, and were eventually able to convince the others of Daniel’s serious issues. But it took almost two years. A lot of good people were destroyed, or almost destroyed, during this time.

    This was all about ten years ago now. Weirdly enough, I know someone who worked under Daniel about four years before all of this, and she thought he was “wonderful”. I also know someone who worked under Daniel about eight years after the fact, and he thought Daniel was “great”. Both of these people are good judges of character and have worked with some real psychos, so I take them on their word. But I also know someone else who worked with him about a year after I did, and she had the same issues with him, as did someone else I know who worked with him in a different role about five years ago, where conditions were also “difficult” for Daniel.

    All I can assume is that my colleagues and I met Daniel at the worst possible time. He was incompetent and unsuitable for the role, and was unsupported by the relevant upper management but was also too proud to request support which I believe would have been provided, at least in some way. Daniel may also have had stressors in his personal life at this time. I don’t know.

    But what he did was utterly unforgivable and I do not believe there was any justification to any of it. I think Daniel is someone who is a good manager under only the best conditions. In other words: is he fit for management? No.

    Especially considering that members of that team I was on under Daniel’s mismanagement have indeed gone on to work together again. And we do work very well together. The problem was indeed Daniel himself.

  52. ToodlesTeaTops*

    Sounds like a Lydia problem more than Jane. I mean I get that Jane wasn’t at her best either, but it also sounds like you weren’t either. A terrible manager (speaking of Lydia here) can bring out all sorts of weird childhood coping skills that can be unusual for mature adults. I recently thought my coworker was incompetent because the pass off I would get from her was so jumbled. My supposedly rockstar manager turned out to be two-faced and I finally realized my coworker wasn’t even an issue. My manager stuck her in a terrible job position with terrible standards and then punished my coworker by refusing to promote her while promoting someone else with no experience. Needless to say, we are both supporting one another and looking for better jobs to get away from our manager.

  53. Birch*

    I worked for a combo Jane/Lydia and have had similar feelings seeing this person achieve some objective metrics. But I would also say, “landing jobs” and “working on projects” doesn’t 100% mean this person is really succeeding in those jobs and projects! We have all seen missing stairs get kept and promoted because it’s the easy thing to do, and the situation looks completely different to someone on the outside vs. on the inside of the team. There’s a lot of ways to publicize and spin things so that projects look more successful than they are, enough to get the grapevine spreading “oh isn’t Jane so successful!” After having experienced that, I’m so skeptical now and I don’t take that kind of info seriously unless the source has worked closely with someone.

  54. James B*

    That final question is extremely powerful and shows a real self-awareness! The answer is “Definitely yes.” It happens in sports all the time, especially international soccer. A player might be excellent under one manager and underperform under the next, or vice versa, for a multitude of reasons. In fact, I would bet real money that there’s no manager in all of soccer who gets the best performance from every single player on his roster.

    Is the same true of managers in the workplace? I don’t know, and the biggest difference is that most office managers aren’t overseeing anywhere near the ~25 players on a soccer roster. But I do believe the principle could be true nonetheless.

  55. CoveredInBees*

    There are so many reasons things didn’t work that have nothing to do with your abilities as a manager. For example, I’ve only recently found effective treatment for my own mental health issues that have been impacting my life (including work) for at least a decade.

  56. AAnon*

    I was a Jane at several jobs, and it still fills me with the worst level of shame even all these years later, now that I am in a job I am flourishing in, and have gotten past some major, major personal issues. I have gotten better about the self-talk, but it still creeps up on me from time to time, knowing how absolutely awful I had been in the past. I had a plethora of personal issues, which caused me to act very immaturely, I was prideful, overshared, and had addiction issues, and was in desperate need of counseling. I was struggling so deeply in my personal life, no one knew really what was going on with me (and to a certain level, I didn’t either until Crap Hit The Fan and I almost lost my job).

    I would encourage OP to do what Allison said, look at your part objectively, but don’t read into things that aren’t there. I would be absolutely *horrified* to learn that a former coworker was doubting themselves because they heard that I am successful now.

    As for how I handle the Janes in my life now, since I was one — I really try to take an objective position, and not let it rattle me. I tell myself all the time when people act out, it’s probably about them, not me (sometimes it is about me, of course, I am not perfect), BUT I also do try to address conflict head on in a respectful way, when appropriate. It really is made more tricky when you are placed in a situation like OP, where you don’t have authority to change or fix things, but there are so many things going on behind the scenes in people’s lives.

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