how do I tell a difficult employee she’s right without undermining my authority?

A reader writes:

One of the managers I supervise is named Megan; she in turn supervises Sarah, a junior analyst. Sarah is one of the best analysts at our firm, but she’s often difficult, arrogant, and condescending. For example, she often criticizes her coworkers’ ideas in harsh terms or offers to “fix” their work even if they haven’t asked for her help. Megan has been coaching her, and there’s been steady improvement.

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

Sarah, however, has continued to vocally advocate for Plan A all week, even after Megan made it clear the decision was final. Megan spoke to her privately, but their conversation devolved into yet another argument about the merits of the two proposals. Things seem to have escalated into a feud where Sarah is waiting to be vindicated, Megan is constantly having to reassert her authority to make final decisions, and the whole team is waiting to see who “wins.”

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

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

But I’m in a catch-22. If I share my criticisms with Megan and ask for changes, I feel like I’ll be validating Sarah’s inappropriate behavior, encouraging her to act the same way next time she objects to one of Megan’s decisions, and permanently undermining Megan’s ability to manage her team. At the same time, I have a responsibility to my clients to give them the best product I can.

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

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

{ 167 comments… read them below }

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      Yep! Links will take a while to get through moderation, but in the meanwhile you can search for “sarah megan” and it’s the first hit.

      1. Librarian1*

        oh, I’m so glad she ended up getting fired. There’s nothing I hate more than someone getting away with behaving awfully just because they have other, non-social skills.

      2. Alpacas Are Not Dairy Animals*

        The “no asshole rule” is all fun and games until everyone else is actually less competent than the asshole, and it’s no use pretending that doesn’t happen.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          As long as they’re competent enough, though. And being an asshole actually means that person is not as competent as they need to be.

          Also: Nowhere in this does it say that nobody else is competent. It says Sarah is a stand-out, but there is zero indication that the team can’t do a good job without her (and might do a better job without the power struggle to derail things.)

      3. Jennifer Juniper*

        Thanks. Sarah got what she deserved for her insubordination and arrogance. Hopefully she learned some humility and knows how to respect authority now.

    2. Firecat*

      I just read it – Sarah went nuclear after a seemingly positive meeting with Meghan and reached out to OP implying Meghan should be demoted (it seemed Sarah wasnt aware that OP already knew about this). Sarah was then fired by OP.

      1. J.B.*

        That’s good (the firing part, not the nuclear part). I was already thinking from this letter that Sarah sounded exhausting and was probably not worth the trouble.

      2. Smithy*

        That was incredibly satisfying to read in many ways.

        First, good ideas can often get lost in noise and polish and there is so much to be said for taking the time to coach someone to present their work in the strongest way possible.

        Second, the vast majority of us work in fields where as talented as we may be, it will not replace being a good and professional colleague. Certainly – and unfortunately – enough workplaces do treat talented bad actors as irreplaceable. But they’re really not. And it sets up teams terribly to think of them that way.

        1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

          One of the most valuable things I’ve learned here is to recalibrate what makes an “excellent employee.” Give me the one who makes a few mistakes and does his/her work in a normal time frame over an errorless terror who speeds through everything and uses the extra time to destroy morale and teamwork.

          1. LizM*

            Yup. Being a good team member *is* part of your job if your job requires you to work on a team.

        2. El l*

          Excellent. That’s pretty much the lesson I take from this whole saga, too:

          The challenge of all office politics is for all to behave in such a way that quality work comes first. That’s why everyone has to adjust and grow a little to become a decent teammate in the office, and why we worry about cultures and dynamics on interactions. Impediments – like personality – must be removed for the sake of the work.

          This saga shows what happens when ego and abrasiveness gets in the way of that.

        3. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          Or even just teaching what is needed to get your idea actually evaluated. By brother once worked with a guy who was eventually fired for a tantrum to the grandboss about his ideas never being chosen at evaluation stage. He was FURIOUS about it. Grandboss told him that he needed to start making presentations that looked like time and effort actually went into them. Most of his coworkers would come with a spreadsheet of estimated costs, documents evaluating what can be done in house vrs what may need contracted out, and a PowerPoint of the whole idea and what the final thing would look like. This guy would bring half a page with lots of “trust me”, “to be determined”, and “needs to be evaluated stills” on it. The first was the standard in that job – he just didn’t want to spend all that time. Yeah – he pulled a Sarah and was fired. Moral – if your idea can’t be fully judged against the others, don’t be surprised if it’s not picked.

        4. The Starsong Princess*

          The thing is, Sarah may have been bright and capable but how many other bright and capable people did she drive away?

  1. Heffalump*

    I would tell Sarah very firmly that I was changing my mind in spite of her behavior, not because of it.

  2. Firecat*

    As a former Sarah myself, I think it’s heartening she is making steady improvements. It may be helpful, if you believe her raw talent can lend itself to being a rockstar once her soft skills are boned up, to find a neutral mentor who can provide feedback to Sarah.

    I can almost guarantee that any coaching from Meghan on her handling of this situation won’t stick. That’s were a neutral mentor can shine.

    It also sounds like Sarah needs to learn the lesson I really struggled with at first. Oftentimes being right is less, or even not at all important, compared to being someone easy to work with.

    If you want to further develope Sarah some of thing’s that really helped me:
    After an emotional meeting, preferably where Sarah wasn’t a player, walk her through the EQ of the meeting. Questions like – how did you feel when HR said X? How do you think others felt? Why do you think they felt that way? How did HR handle the delivery? How would you have improved it?

    After Sarah presents a plan – how do you think your teammates felt about it? Why? Did you notice that Kevin was lost after 10 minutes? How can you better present the information next time to keep your team engaged?

    This will train Sarah to see how people react emotional in meetings and to frame difficult conversations as a skill. I also found the book crucialn conversations helpful but YMMV.

    1. GraceC*

      Unfortunately, according to the update to the original post (April 2017, can be found by searching “telling a difficult, pushy employee that she’s right … without undermining your own authority”) Sarah needed to be fired after she was told that her idea was going to be used and she promptly emailed the OP to demand that Megan be demoted and publicly shamed

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        Unfortunately, according to the update to the original post (April 2017, can be found by searching “telling a difficult, pushy employee that she’s right … without undermining your own authority”) Sarah needed to be fired after she was told that her idea was going to be used and she promptly emailed the OP to demand that Megan be demoted and publicly shamed

        Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory…

        If I were in Sarah’s position (vindicated after further review), I’d pull OP aside privately and suggest that she make some tweaks or changes to my proposal, just so everyone involved can save face and move forward in a mostly positive manner. Few ideas, least of all one of *my* ideas, is so perfect that no improvements can be made.

    2. Greg*

      Former Sarah here as well! No fight was too small and if I was right? You’d better believe you were going to here about it, both before and after. Never got fired, but definitely got passed over for a few promotions and was met with many an eyeroll throughout my twenties.

      What changed? My then-girlfriend/now-wife just…didn’t fight back. “It’s not worth it,” she kept saying. Took a step back and said, “Huh. You can do that?” And things (I) got better.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        My mom is seventysomething and will never learn: She’s both someone who is Always Right and someone who Can Never Let Anything Go. It’s exhausting, and she wonders why people don’t like her.

        1. Greg*

          I became a lot happier when I learned to let go…even and especially if I was right. Much less angry. much more focused on myself and what I was doing versus what other people were doing. Once I regained my company’s trust I jumped up pretty quickly. Friendships got better. I hope your mom finds that!

        2. SeluciaMD*

          This is my father as well and yeah, exhausting is exactly right. He also doesn’t understand why certain family members don’t want to be closer or spend more time with him when 1) this is his general approach to life; and 2) he talks only about himself and never asks those people simple things like “how are you?” or “how’s work?” that are pretty standard in the land of interacting with other human beings. And yet? It is everyone else who is mean and selfish for not caring about his needs and feelings. (Which are, BTW, always Right and Valid no matter what.)

      2. Jennifer Juniper*

        I am the polar opposite of Sarah. I have apologized for stuff I haven’t even done because someone of higher rank / social status accused me of doing it. I thought maybe I had actually done it if Higher People had said I had done it.

        I will also apologize in an argument and agree with people even when I don’t. To me, preserving harmony is the only objective.

        I am aware that is just as problematic as Sarah’s behavior.

        1. Gloucesterina*

          I wouldn’t be so hard on yourself–it sounds like the Higher People are encouraging this type of suspension of professional judgment, no?

    3. Lynn*

      I had a mentor tell me “you can be right, or you can be effective.” That really stuck with me.

    4. AcademiaNut*

      That’s an incredibly important lesson to learn, and a subtle one, particularly with people who are bright and competent. It’s not just about being easy to work with – it’s also being able to be right in a tactful way, knowing how to pick your battles (and what’s worth being angry about), and having emotional self control. I’ve had colleagues who were very good at their jobs, and basically nice people, but launched into full outrage mode any time they thought there was a problem, however minor, and subsequently lost all common sense.

      It turns out that publicly ranting about how your employers are incompetent morons is really bad for your promotion prospects, regardless of whether it’s a legitimate issue, or a personal pet peeve, and regardless of how many papers you publish. So is being known as a difficult person who will publicly attack people they disagree with, particularly when your potential peers have input in the hiring process.

  3. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Four years later and this is one where I would LOVE to hear from Sarah now. Was this the wake up call she needed? Or did she double down and continue her inappropriate behavior at her next job?

    1. Mr. Shark*

      I was thinking the same thing. It would be fun/interesting if Sarah, after all these years, randomly found AAM and read this repost, and recognized herself in this discussion, and went back to the update and read all the comments, and then responded how she learned her lesson, or how Megan and the LW were completely wrong!

    2. StoneColdJaneAusten*

      Sarah sounds REALLY young to me, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she got better. Maybe I’m just an optimist.

    3. J.B.*

      I worked with a Sarah who got fired. From LinkedIn snooping it looks like she hasn’t found something else permanent and is really misrepresenting her current part time (?) contract (?) work. It’s a real shame because she was quite capable, but offensive to boss and coworkers.

    4. Uh huh*

      I’d really love to hear Sarah’s side of this, especially given the update. The story certainly could be this simple, but I have my doubts it’s the case, purely based on the various Sarahs and Meghans I’ve known and worked with.

      1. Nothing Rhymes With Purple*

        Yeah, I was thinking this. Sarah may be terrible and obstreperous, but maybe she knows that for whatever reason her ideas will never get through and her frustration boiled over.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          If the reasons are that she’s terrible and obstreperous, that’s still on her.

          I feel like we can trust the LW on this one. She admitted that Meghan isn’t perfect, so it doesn’t sound like she’s just flatly Anti-Sarah.

        2. Yorick*

          The letter said her ideas were undeveloped and her presentation of them was unpolished. That’s why they often got ignored. We shouldn’t start making up fanfiction about why Sarah was actually being mistreated.

        3. somanyquestions*

          But when her ideas were heard, she decided to demand that her boss be fired for questioning her. Sarah was everything she seemed to be.

          1. Wintermute*

            on the flip side if a boss is rejecting good ideas in favor of blatantly inferior ones (and in this case it was so big a quality difference they couldn’t live with the decision and had to go back and un-do it, that indicates this was a fairly big deal) because she didn’t like how they were presented– doesn’t that make her a bad boss who has trouble evaluating the true quality of work? That is a serious issue in a boss overseeing creative work, maybe an intractable one.

            1. Kal*

              Part of the advice was the OP doing coaching on that problem in the manager, and the update includes the OP recognising failings in how the division was set up and using the advice outside of just the situation with this particular employee. Combined with OP knowing already in the original that there were some failings on the managers part, I highly doubt that the OP just ignored that this was a problem to be addressed.

              1. Wintermute*

                that’s fair but I still can’t stomach the unreserved cheering for the fact she got fired. Look at it from her point of view. She had a vastly superior work product, was a good worker and had a bad boss. She points all of this out– and gets fired for it!

                If anything deserved firing here, it wasn’t her. Not if the company wants to turn out the higher quality product rather than the “good, but uninspired” of the original plan.

  4. Sara without an H*

    I seem to remember that there was an update to this. And Sarah turned out to be not coachable, to put it mildly.

      1. Broadway Duchess*

        The thing is, Megan is her supervisor. Sarah can’t go around acting out because she didn’t get her way. The Sarahs of the world are going to have to get on board at some point or else find a position elsewhere, which is what happened.

        1. Firecat*

          To me not coachable means – beyond hope. Never going to improve. Not viable.

          So I was responding that I don’t think Sarah is uncoachable, especially since she had showed steady improvement. However she clearly wasn’t going to improve under Meghan.

          Firing was the right call if they didn’t want to transfer her.

          1. JB*

            ‘Not coachable’ isn’t necessarily the same as ‘never going to improve ever’. Humans grow and change; sometimes they need to take certain steps on their own (like deciding to open up to the idea that they may be wrong, or realizing how to listen and take on constructive criticism) before any other person can make any impression on their behavior.

            ‘She wasn’t coachable’ means ‘she showed no ability or inclination to accept coaching on this particular vital issue at this particular critical time’, not ‘write her off as a human being, she’ll be this way forever’.

            1. Sometimes supervisor*

              Agreed. In fact, for ‘not coachable’ I would substitute ‘not coachable IN THIS SITUATION’ or ‘not coachable RIGHT NOW’ (YMMV on whether you think this is a situational one where, say, Sarah and Megan’s relationship has reached the point of being so strained that it’s going to take an OTT amount of work to get it back in the place where Sarah can actually be coached by Megan and OP or whether this is because Sarah needs to do some personal development of their own and a combination of the two).

      2. Littorally*

        She demanded the OP publicly shame Meghan and demote her. That sounds an awful lot like not coachable, period.

        1. Firecat*

          To me that sounds like someone who is way to hung up on facts and truth being important, and probably doesn’t get the whole shame element as being a natural response to publicly “setting the record straight” but I could be wrong.

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            But what other purpose would “setting the record straight” have served? Why did Sarah want it, if not because she needed *everyone* to know that she was right and her manager was wrong? And why would she need *everyone* to know that other than for shaming purposes?

            1. Firecat*

              When I was younger I honestly thought everyone would want to know who was right and wrong. I was never ashamed of being wrong, that’s how you learn, so the concept that most people are ashamed or embarrassed when they are corrected in front of other people never occured to me.

              All the way through my mid 20s I would unabashedly tell anyone if their fly was down. It didn’t matter to me if you were the dean, the professor, or my classmate you were wrong and a simple fact would help you correct it. Same with pronounciations and grammer. If you said it wrong I let you know so you can fix it. The concept that it would embarrass the other person. And that onlookers would assume it was my way of saying “look at me I’m an English speaking deity!” Never occurrd to me. Once I learned that’s how a lot of people felt I now stop and think – how might this make others feel? And what’s the outcome if I don’t speak up? Before deciding to correct someone on something. For the vast majority of things it doesn’t matter so I now let it go.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              Her second purpose would be to build on this whole thing.
              “Remember the last time you thought I was wrong? And it turned out I wasn’t. I am not wrong this time either!”

              Sarah places a high value on being right. This happens for various reasons, but I tend to think of the Sarahs of the world as very insecure people.

            3. Wintermute*

              it could be because she had her ideas trashed, and the difference in quality was, when deeply looked at, so deep that it warranted un-doing a decision, which in my experience takes some really serious quality issues. You don’t go back and change a made decision to move from a 90% idea to a 100% idea, probably not even from an 80% idea to a 120% idea, it takes a serious difference.

              If that were the case and I was put through the ringer only for them to make that decision I think I’d want it acknowledged at least, not a face-saving “oh we decided to go a different direction is all”.

          2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

            I think this is a very interesting point. You write that she is hung up on facts and truth. Yes, Sarah is. But what she is not getting from this entire thing is the purpose of a proposal. There is no right or wrong answer. There is better and there is lesser. There are no guarantees:
            If you follow Sarah’s plan, Z will result.
            If you follow Jane’s plan, Z will not result.
            What if Jane’s plan was put in place and then Covid lockdown happened and her conservative plan ended up creating a new niche in the industry?
            It would not mean that Sarah was wrong.
            Hopefully, someday she will realize that.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              It’s amazing how very little is carved in stone. Too many times there are different paths to the same spot.

          3. Dust Bunny*

            It’s totally possible to publicly set the record straight without shaming someone. Wanting Meghan flogged in public is vindictive and entirely unnecessary.

  5. Ashley*

    I would be very frank with the team in explaining why I didn’t initially pick Sarah’s proposal. Include professional but frank criticism of her presentation because Sarah needs some of her own medicine.

    1. fposte*

      But managing can’t be about giving people some of their own medicine, and using this occasion as a forum to criticize Sarah publicly isn’t appropriate.

      1. BRR*

        Yes. Even if the wording is professional, the motive is strictly personal retribution which is not how one should manage.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Agreed. It works into “Do as I say, not as I do.”
        Employees will ALWAYS check to see if the boss’ walk matches the boss’ talk.

    2. Wintermute*

      frankly, though, the boss disregarded an “objectively” far better idea because she didn’t like the way it was presented– that’s alarming, it speaks to a real problem separating ideas from people and evaluating the real quality of work.

  6. Caboose*

    Oof, until I read the update, I felt for Sarah. I wind up in situations not-infrequently where I *am* right, and I just can’t figure out how to get people to understand what I’m saying. But the nuclear option is never the way to go.

    (My strategy is to make sure I have written, timestamped proof of my concerns, and then I drop the matter entirely. That way, I look accommodating and pleasant, because I didn’t try to force people, but I also quietly have proof that I was right for when things inevitably go wrong.)

    1. Artemesia*

      I have been that person too, who sees the correct solution and watches a weaker one chosen often around extraneous concerns. But one of the things you HAVE to learn when you are in the workplace is when to fold them. I had a colleague who never seemed to realize when it was time to stop whining about a decision that was made; sometimes he was right, sometimes not, but carrying on long after it was made was irritating to all. Finally after many years of often good work, his contract was not renewed.

      1. Caboose*

        Yes, thankfully I learned this one early– I get my Cassandra tendencies from my dad, who works in the same field that I went into, and so I was able to adapt his “If you say so, dear” strategy for the workplace.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          Yeah – there’s a world of difference between making one attempt to politely point out potential problems and going crazy over the top nuclear the way Sarah ended up doing in the update to this letter. Once and letting it drop, and then working to make the other approach work is in most places okay. It I think also comes down to know your employer’s workplace culture.

        2. Office Lobster DJ*

          Ha, I’ve thought of it as being the Office Cassandra, too. Solidarity.

          It’s especially hard to know when to push and when to hang back when you’ll be the one stuck with the implementation or the inevitable clean up.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        Yeah, this.

        I’ve dug in a few times but only on things that are going to make my job, specifically, harder. We experimented with a new way of filing things that was faster and simpler, but also would create a lot of work (or, rather, not at all reduce the work) for the person finding the files later, forever. Since my boss is not the one who has to find those filed things again and I am, I pushed back on that, because I was not down with saving time now only to have to spend it repeatedly in the future every time someone wanted a file. (My new supervisors are on my side about this, but not through my influence, which I find reassuring from a professional standpoint, but I don’t need to crow about being “right”.)

        The rest? Whatever, yo. I have lots of opinions but 99% of the time I just let it go.

    2. BRR*

      I don’t think you and Sarah are remotely in the same situation though. You seem like a pleasant, reasonable person. There’s a difference between being right and having difficulty getting people to listen to you and being right and being a jerk about it. I read this letter as almost entirely being about Sarah’s attitude, not about the one main example listed.

    3. MissDisplaced*

      Yes, and it’s even more frustrating when those leaders come back and ask “why aren’t you doing X?” when they were the ones who killed or stopped X. I call it Selective Executive Amnesia.

      That literally just happened to me last week. About one year ago, I had my whole social program halted because I posted something our company does about “Widgets” and this one executive didn’t like it. I tried many times to plead my case about why the Widget program was important. Last week that same executive asked why we weren’t advertising or posting anything about “Widgets” because Widgets were suddenly a hot market. I would’ve loved to call them out, but I kept my mouth shut. It’s like, why didn’t YOU remember you didn’t like this an shut it down? Grrr! But you ‘gotta stroke the executive ego and all.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        My suggestion:
        “A year ago, management had me end our Widgets social media program. Would you like me to send you a summary of what we were doing there? If conditions have changed, we can dig into the archives and restart in X weeks.”

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          PS My suggestion uses the generic “management” instead of “YOU” just to give the forgetful exec an honorable out. Also “if conditions have changed” is another door for the same reason.

          1. MissDisplaced*

            That is a good one. It came up out of the blue after reviewing other things and I was so shocked and at a loss of what to say other than “I was told to end that social program and the content was absorbed by a more general corporate branding initiative.” This was also true, but that wasn’t why it was abruptly halted. But hey, a new CEO and suddenly Selective Executive Amnesia cases abound.

          2. CC*

            Hah, I wasn’t nearly that diplomatic. I sized and got quotes for a piece of equipment. Boss said it was too expensive, get a smaller one. I said this is how big it needs to be to work. Boss said it was too expensive, get a smaller one. I shrugged, saved the email discussion, and got a smaller one. On installation, it didn’t work; boss asked who designed this?!?!?! and I simply forwarded the saved email discussion back to him.

            My original design was then purchased, on-site retrofit modifications on a brand new installation had to be made to accommodate it because surprise! it was bigger!, it worked, and boss didn’t complain about it (that I saw) any more. Ended up costing more and delaying things. So it goes, I guess.

            I did manage to avoid actually *saying* “I told you so” though.

    4. LQ*

      I have someone on my team like this who wants “proof” of everything. For what? If she wanted to convince me just writing an (incomprehensible) document that says I was right see is not helpful. If you want to actually convince someone sometimes you have to try again in a new way. Like Sarah here wasn’t putting together a polished presentation, if what you’re doing isn’t polished and that matters (for presenting to a client it will) then you need to work with someone else to help with that or explain that you know that it’s not polished enough and are happy to work on that but you want to talk about the overall idea, or whatever else it is.

      I’ve been going back and forth with my person for nearly 3 weeks on something, I’ve twice asked her to schedule a meeting, she hasn’t because she wants everything in writing. if she’s planning to go to an auditor about it, i guess fine, but other than legally trying to destroy my career and the organization what’s the point of not wanting to try to work through it? I’ve done example after example, I’ve written it out in different ways. she just keeps saying the same thing like that’s helpful. (it’s not, it’s super murky and I’m really struggling to understand and i checked with someone else who knows details at this level and it’s still unclear.) I really think she has a point, but she’s absolutely impossible to understand for a large part of it so the good point or good idea is stuck in her head but she thinks that if she says ‘no’ that should mean what….we all stop and spend weeks trying to decipher what she’s saying?

      Who are you trying to keep this proof for? What is the point of being able to say you were the right one later?

      1. Caboose*

        The point is twofold:
        #1, I have a terrible memory. I don’t even need someone to try to convince me that I’m misremembering; I’ll just assume I’m wrong in my recollection of events. If I have written proof for myself, then I’m less likely to talk myself into believing that I was wrong all along.
        #2, If people realize that I was right last time, there’s a higher chance of them listening the next time.

        Also, for what it’s worth, I work in a field with very few subjective measures of success; either a process works or it doesn’t work. Poor communication is a huge problem, and it sounds like the issue you have with your team member is that she isn’t expressing herself well. I struggle with this sometimes, because I will notice patterns that nobody else notices, or will make logical connections that nobody else is making, and I’m not always good at figuring out the best way to explain it.

        I would never shove stuff in anyone’s face, or even mention that I was right all along (unless I’ve been repeatedly undermined, especially if there’s sexist undertones), but keeping track of my thought processes is very important for me.

        Best of luck to you with your person!

        1. LQ*

          If you wouldn’t mention that you were right all along how do you have the looping back to people realizing that you were right last time and higher chance of listening. Tracking for yourself makes sense to some extent, but I know that for me it’s also a way to get hung up on that mattering. I don’t work at a place where credit for decisions goes anywhere so I think that alters my view of this too.

      2. Alexander Graham Yell*

        Would she be open to a meeting that included a follow up email? “As discussed today, the way we’ll go forward is X because of Y and Z reasons”? If you think she might go for it, that might be something you can pitch – “We’ve been talking about this and it’s still not clear to me. Usually when things are this unclear for this long, a conversation is the best way to handle it so we can both ask questions in the moment about what specifically is unclear or to check our understanding at each step. We could hammer things out and confirm over email to make sure our understandings align so we can move forward, so I’ve booked some time on your calendar for just that reason.” Maybe?

    5. Nanani*

      I’m not sure OPs situation really had a “correct” answer. It was about which project to pursue. They had to pick one because time and resources and such, but it’s not like either was objectively right or wrong, right? “A is better than B” is not the same as “B is a mistake”. But Sarah didn’t see it that way and chose her battle poorly.

      You sound like more of a “A will fix the problem and B won’t” or “A will cause problems and B will fix an existing problem” situation. Being right in a situation like that matters a lot more.

      1. Wintermute*

        For the quality difference to be large enough to go back and un-do a decision, in what sounds like a creative field, the quality difference must be significant. Not necessarily massive, but you don’t do that to go from a 90% idea to a 100% idea, you do it when you think the existing plan would not accomplish the same objectives. Unless you’re a remarkably capricious workplace, you can’t go back for little stuff because you’d be changing course so constantly it would be chaos.

        So we can assume it was at least significant in a way that the ability to accomplish objectives or pitch to future clients would be affected.

    6. Not So NewReader*

      In some settings and with some personality types I found myself unable to effectively convey why my idea was a good idea.

      But I did see that when people raise objections there are usually patterns in how they form their objection. The longer I stayed at a job the better I got at figuring out where their talking points would be. This meant I could prepare for their specific objections better.

      I do have that part of me which is very happy to leach off other people’s brains. If someone nails an idea then I can be a little sponge just soaking up the idea and reapplying variations of that idea in other places.

      There are some (few) people who just like to argue for the sake of arguing. Time has been kind. I now remind myself that I have a husky dog at home who does the same thing. He has to be contrary just because he can. So it goes with some people also.

  7. Gwen Soul*

    I have always loved this letter as I think “I” was the Sarah on my team when it came out and it made me reflect on my attitude and make some changes and it really helped my relationship with my team and my leaser. ( I really do take a lot of the letters way trying to see both sides so I can figure out how I would handle things)

    It worked because I am a new leader (my first team ever!) now and have a very similar problem and it is super hard to deal with! There is a guy on my team who is trying to manage the team and while we are on the same page a lot of the time I am trying to figure out how to agree with him while still keeping enough authority to effectively manage.

    1. Artemesia*

      Hope you can recognize those moments when he is exerting his dominance and find ways to make clear he is not the one directing the solutions you advocate. Mind be another question for Alison here. This is a difficult situation and it is partly about impression management — what does it look like to others on your team. Is there some way to give the advice of other members visibility. If there are other strong members, cultivate them publicly and honor their input and make a point of crediting them when you make a decision they contributed to so it isn’t just ‘bossyguy’ who seems to have influence on leadership decisions. You can be the person who listens to input from the team rather than the one who ‘Bob seems to be running’.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Start with what is beyond the scope of his authority? He needs to bring things to you to authorize. When should he be doing that?
      Some of those times might be personal preference and some of those times might be set in stone by management or your arena.

      When I ran a new job, I wanted the crew to bring me samples. That wasn’t a hard and fast rule from anyone but ME. I want samples because I am responsible for how things turn out. And I said exactly that.

      Why do you “have to” agree with him? Only agree when he is correct. If he is not correct, show him why- teach him.
      And he needs to stop managing the whole team and focus on his own work. This can mean instructing the team on when they need to come directly to you vs when it is okay to simply ask each other.

      He definitely needs boundaries or you both are going to end up unhappy.

  8. L. Ron Jeremy*

    I worked at a company that had a strong belief in ‘alignment’, which meant that, although you may disagree with a decision, you and everyone else would throw your efforts into making is a successful decision.

    It was sometimes a bit bitter to realize that your dissenting opinion could prove to be a better outcome, alignment was always best for the team to move forward harmoniously.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I don’t know — I think that depends upon whether the alignment occurs before or after the decision. If they expect everyone to align behind something during early discussion process, then yes, that is groupthink. But expecting everyone to align behind the ultimate decision is just how good business is done.

        1. Decidedly Me*

          This! We have a ton of discussions about decisions and everyone has an opportunity to express their views, make their case, etc. However, once a decision has been made, it’s important that a solid front is presented.

          1. Greg*

            I tell my team, “If you think we’re making a bad decision I want to talk about it. Say whatever you need to…behind closed doors as a management team. The second that door opens I don’t want to hear any, ‘Well, this is the decision so we have to do it’s because then the team will know you aren’t on board.” Nothing submarines a new initiative faster than one of the implementing managers openly communicating they disagree with what is happening.

        2. SimplytheBest*

          Exactly. We’re having discussions about covid protocols for an upcoming important work situation. We don’t all agree, so there are lots of debates about what we should and shouldn’t be doing. But ultimately, it’s my ED’s decision and whatever she decides, I will back her, even if it’s not what I initially proposed. That’s how decision making on a team should work.

      2. LQ*

        What do you think should happen? Sabotage? If you’re every in any kind of a leadership position at a place that has to make hard choices you sometimes have to come together to move forward and you can’t just stand still. I had a brutally hard decision that still haunts me about a year ago, I had about a dozen fights with my boss over it, I had full on break down into tears and full on shouting matches, plus dozens of pages of documents. I’m honestly still not sure which of us was right. I think that maybe with hindsight I am, but I think he was likely right in the moment that that was the only decision we could make. But you better believe once it came down to it I did what needed to be done to implement it. It wasn’t something that was illegal or immoral, both options were bad in a bad situation and both would have had (and did have) unexpected consequences.

        But if every time you don’t win you cross your arms and huff that everyone getting behind the decision is just a part of group think once it’s been made you are not making good decisions. This is a really bad idea if you want to stay employed.

        If you object on a legal or moral ground, do something about it. But if you just think you were right? Don’t sabotage the work. That’s not ok. Fight before, not after.

      3. JB*

        Odd, because that’s certainly not what groupthink is.

        It’s just how a job is generally supposed to work, in fact.

        I tend to be strongly opinionated myself in the planning process for projects, but once the boss says ‘this is the plan we’re going with’, I would expect to be at least reprimanded if I didn’t put my full efforts behind it. I can THINK whatever I want about the plan, but it’s still my job to do everything required of me to execute it as well as possible, and ideally not to drag everyone down by whining about it the whole time.

        1. Kal*

          A handy key for anyone who is similarly confused:
          Expecting everyone to think a certain way about a situation = groupthink
          Expecting everyone to behave a certain way in a situation = rules of professional behavior

    1. Joy*

      I’m a public servant (in Canada). We call this “fearless advice, loyal implementation”. I.e., you should advise the powers that be to do the best possible thing, but ultimately if they choose to do something different, it’s also your job to implement that choice as well as you possibly can.

      That said it’s contextually a bit different given that TPTB are democratically elected officials. We really don’t have any legal or even, in most cases, moral right to not do what they ask us to do!

      1. LizM*

        I’m a public servant in the US, and I’ve never heard that phrase, but I like it! It lines up well with how I was trained (with the caveat that we are taught to decline to implement illegal decisions and actions).

    1. Respectfully, Pumat Sol*

      Sarah thought she had a lot more political capital to burn than she actually had and ended up with flames in her face.

    2. MCMonkeyBean*


      (At your comment, not at her firing. It sounds like firing her was definitely the right call and good for OP for being so decisive on that! But I wouldn’t laugh out loud about it, just to be clear.)

  9. Carol the happy elf*

    Absolutely this. I would take the plans, and show them side-by-side, like one of those layered loaf sandwiches.
    Plan B: “Extremely well put together. See how professionally assembled it ALREADY IS? Slapdash brilliance is not brilliance until it stops being slapdash. The only thing wrong with this is that it lacks a bit of something ‘Newer’, which I feel the client needs.”

    Plan A: “There are some good bones here, but they’ve obviously not been readied for a professional evaluation.
    I would like to see Plan A reframed in a way that makes it professional, with the weaker points addressed, so that the good parts can really shine, without the mess around the edges.
    Megan, you have more experience at this than Sarah, do you have the time to show her where to tighten up the presentation so it doesn’t look like a hot mess? If not, Sarah, could you work with Adam? He has a lot of experience making things look polished. You have some really good ideas, and sometimes, people with client experience can show you how to bring out the good ideas so the client doesn’t panic when he sees the rough draft.
    I really think Plan A has some potential, and it would be great if we can get it tidied up so the client can compare it fairly with Plan B. Looks aren’t everything, unless you’re in a beauty pageant, but if you’re in the business of making things for a client, the product can’t be distracting because it got caught in a dumpster fire.
    Sarah, can you get with (whomever you worked this with) and give it a good scrub? Otherwise, we can’t use it, which would be a shame because there’s definitely a baby in that bathwater. Somewhere.”
    (This is me, channeling my ex-mother-in-law, Cleopatra….)

    1. Carol the happy elf*

      I have never done this, but it has been done to me. I played the part of Megan, and it- confused me?
      If you take a bit of the emphasis on neatening, messy vs professional, Sarah might get the point.
      Picasso could paint realism like a dream, by the way, which many people don’t comprehend. But he had to be able to follow the rules before he could decide which ones could be broken!
      Yuck, what a place for a manager, stuck between perfect but dated, and amazing, but train wrecky.

  10. FD*

    Based on the update, it’s a pity that Sarah didn’t respond to the feedback well and instead doubled down. I hope it was the wake-up call she needed to change her behavior.

  11. Friday Nugget*

    While I think OP was right to react the way they did in the update (firing Sarah for trying to get Megan demoted), I do wonder if there should have been more emphasis on coaching Megan on how to recognize great ideas in others. Not everybody has to have ‘raw talent’, but a manager has to be able to see it in others. It doesn’t sound like Megan ever saw this, it was up to the OP. I’m guessing this wasn’t an isolated incident and Megan drove Sarah into becoming deeply dissatisfied, because Sarah could see Megan make the wrong call multiple times. If Sarah was already angry with Megan (and didn’t respect her), it must have made it difficult for her to take feedback. Between the two, I do understand firing Sarah, but I think there’s a real problem here with Megan too. I am imagining Sarah to have been very young – hopefully Sarah found a more talented manager and grew as a person in the process.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I think it’s equally likely that Megan did see Sarah’s talent but the behavior and attitude issues eventually overwhelmed her ability to be objective.

      To be clear – that shouldn’t have happened. A manager ideally should be able to rise above. But we’re all human, and honestly Sarah sounds exhausting, especially given that these attitude issues are things Megan had been actively working with Sarah around. I don’t think Megan was unable to objectively see talent so much as she got to BEC stage with this particular employee.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I tend to agree. OP could coach Megan on how to catch this stuff earlier and not let it build into a hot mess.

        But OTOH, I tend to think that newer managers have at least one or two hot messes before they get use to the sound of their own authoritative voice. I went through some stuff and then I decided that I would put my foot down earlier.
        If you catch things early on it’s less of a fight most times. It’s more of a conversation. Back to one of my favorite rules- the rule of three. You see something three times you have a pattern and it’s okay to address the pattern.
        Once is a honest mistake. Twice is a yellow flag. Three times is a one-to-one conversation. This could be a very short conversation in the middle of the work day. Or if need be it could be a scheduled sit-down more formal type of meeting.

      2. Yorick*

        Honestly, I think it’s possible that Megan could have been right (or at least not wrong) in this situation. While OP thinks they should have gone for the more creative plan, there are a lot of times that you pick the “business as usual” plan rather than the more creative plan. Maybe it’s due to feasibility within the timeline, your team’s ability to actually implement these more creative aspects, etc. It may be that Megan is a little more conservative in general, rather than that she failed to see Sarah’s good idea through it’s poor presentation.

        1. Wintermute*

          if that’s the case then Jane was 110% correct, Megan should have been demoted. the LW outright said that their brand as a company is the more creative approach. If you have a manager that is taking “safe and orthodox” when your brand is the opposite of that, they’ve got to go yesterday, before clients start getting mixed messages about what it is you’re supposed to be doing for them and before you have items in your portfolio that don’t live up to your brand image.

      1. Firecat*

        Not really. OP mentions they are coaching Meghan and even Alison pointed out the importance of making sure Meghan didn’t dismissed Sarah’s plan out of turn.

        1. Littorally*

          What makes you think that this must have happened multiple times before, in such clear situations that Meghan could be said to be making an objectively wrong call?

    2. turquoisecow*

      But did Sarah see Megan make the *wrong* call, or just not the one Sarah wanted? The first is understandably frustrating for an employee, the latter is also frustrating but not a sign of managerial incompetence.

      In either case, once the decision is made, the adult and professional thing to do is to go ahead with that plan, not continuously talk about the one that was shot down and you’re not doing.

      1. LizM*

        Exactly. There is a big difference between the “wrong” call and just “not the call I could have made.”

        If Sarah found herself constantly being overruled, it’s worth going to Meghan and asking, “What could I do to make my suggestions more appealing to you and others in leadership?” Or “I know OP is making the final decision. Is your decision final, or is there an opportunity to take both plans to her and get her guidance before we commit to Plan B?”

        She may hear that her ideas are good, but her presentation needs work. Or she may learn about some context that the leadership is considering that may not be obvious at her level. Assuming that because you have a different approach from your manager, your manager is “wrong” is a good way to end up in public battles of will that lead to emails to your grandboss that get you fired.

    3. twocents*

      LW had already admitted that Megan likely dismissed Plan A because of Sarah’s soft skills AND Sarah didn’t being forward a polished presentation and would have required more work to be usable. Which, even aside from how toxic Sarah is, could be reasonable to not move forward with a “plan.”

      1. Yorick*

        This. LW thought Megan may have dismissed Sarah’s plan because she’s difficult, but LW also admitted Sarah’s plan would have required more work to be usable. Maybe LW was trying too hard to see past Sarah’s difficult tendencies. Maybe Megan would have preferred the other plan regardless of which of her employees suggested it.

      2. Wintermute*

        dismissing good work because of a poor presentation is a demotion-worthy trait in a manager in a creative field, that would just mean Jane was absolutely correct in her assessment.

  12. Robin Ellacott*

    We had one of these, except also the things she was angry we weren’t leaping to do wouldn’t have worked. She handed in a resignation letter as were getting ready to let her go, and then was astonished that we didn’t try to talk her out of leaving.

    In fact, she told HR they weren’t doing their job professionally because they didn’t ask her what we could do to make her stay.

    (And there was HR doing a quiet happy dance when they got her letter)

    1. Mallory Janis Ian*

      Ha. We had one like that, too. A dean from another college came to speak with our interim dean about her assistant’s behavior toward his staff while he was heading up our dean search, and when our interim dean tried to speak with her assistant about it, the assistant got into a yelling match with her and shouted, “I QUiT!”, to which the interim dean immediately replied, “I ACCEPT YOUR RESIGNATION!” The assistant tried to come back to work on Monday as if nothing had happened, and THEN, when the new dean started, she sent him an email outlining all the ways that everyone else in the college was wrong, and what steps she thought he should take to do his job correctly, according to her. The new dean forwarded the email to the previous interim dean with the subject line of, “!!!!!!!!!!!!!?”

    2. Bagpuss*

      It’s interesting, isn’t it, that people can have such an inaccurate perception of their own skills and capability?

      I’ve had a couple of situations where we were basically doing the happy dance when we got someone’s resignation. One of whom did try to withdraw their resignation a few days after giving it, and was shocked to learn that we were not willing to reinstate them.

  13. Carol the happy elf*

    I just read the link.
    There have to be risks, sometimes, so the Megans need to be coached to see the good ones, but the way Sarah was operating meant she was toxic and had to go.
    A good coworker wants the rising tide to lift the entire fleet.

  14. Annie J*

    I remember when this letter first came round, I empathised more with Megan but now after having gone through something similar, i’m starting to see a little of where Sarah is coming from.
    Certainly, no one should ever be rude and dismissive towards co-workers and colleagues, but I also think there is something to be said for ambitious ideas and plans, especially when the OP ended up agreeing with her.
    Perhaps I’ve just had a lot of incompetent managers over the last few years but I really do think that Sarah had a point, though she certainly didn’t communicate it very well.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      It didn’t seem to be the case here, but sometimes “Sarah’s” are purposely brought into a company as “new blood” in an effort to try and change or things or shake things up and bring new ideas to a company. But that is near impossible if the company doesn’t want to change or you don’t have back up from your manager or senior leadership.
      My company has been doing this lately, and I can feel the frustration from those people. We already had one CFO removed after only 8 months. I often felt that way too when I started (I was brought in to change the way some things worked), but now I’m just ground down by the systems so keep my head down and keep to myself. I realized the company is incapable of change on so many levels.

    2. LQ*

      But I think there is a lot of danger in dismissing that ideas have to be communicated and you have to work with others. Assuming this wasn’t something that was one person working by themselves with no input ever, which isn’t how jobs work, especially since there is a client involved, then you need to be able to communicate about your work, you need to be able to have the ability to get to polish on your ideas.

      It’s been a hard slow lesson for me to learn, but what I tell myself is that if I only want to do LQ sized projects then I could go on being sloppy and messy and not bothering to work all that well with others. But if I want to do bigger projects then I have to learn how to do the things that come with being in a bigger project. For an LQ sized project I can pm that all in my head no problem. But once I need to have someone else do steps it’s much better if it’s written down. If I need approval for just a small me sized thing it’s fine to ask for forgiveness a lot. But once it’s millions of dollars I likely need some structure.

      Ambitious ideas and plans are only good when you have the rest of the stuff to go with them. It’s why there aren’t a lot of “idea guy” jobs, lots of people have ideas, lots of people have good ideas. Implementing them requires all those soft skills that are being dismissed.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        People do watch how we handle the smaller stuff to gauge/guesstimate how we would do with larger things.

        I hired a person to repair my wind-torn roof. I watched how he handle that transaction. He was careful with materials, he was careful on the roof and he did not charge me and arm and a leg. I invited him back when I had another problem. He handled it in the same manner. This guy was not making big bucks here but I could watch and see how he handled things.
        Years later when I got some money set to one side, I hired him to do a massive amount of repairs on my house. He had solid work for a long time. It went well. I kind of knew it would. And yeah, I did tell him that I had been watching how he handled the smaller situations. He already knew that, though. It matters how we handle the small stuff.

    3. hardlessons*

      Excellent points, Annie J. I agree completely.

      I can see where both Meghan and Sarah are coming from, but I think the blame certainly lies with Meghan for managing this very poorly. None of this should have escalated into a scenario where Sarah ended up fired, as was revealed in the update to the original post. Sarah lost her livelihood, and the employer lost an employee who was likely worth more than most, or all, of the rest of the team.

      Meghan shouldn’t have let her own ego, or that of anyone else on the team, get in the way here, and while I could be projecting, I suspect this played a large role in this. Sarah certainly didn’t handle this as diplomatically as she could have, but ruffled feathers can be smoothed quite easily by even a half-decent manager.

      1. allathian*

        Sarah doubled down and wrote a scathing email to the LW about how Megan should be demoted. That was the last straw that got her fired, and deservedly so. Sarah couldn’t take yes for an answer, and talk about a sore winner. If she’d been allowed to stay, she would’ve doubled down even more and used this one case as a reason to push back on every decision when she didn’t get her way.

      2. Sometimes supervisor*

        Sorry, but I think you’re right that you could be projecting! It may well be that Megan has let her ego get in the way a bit and that would be something for both OP and Megan to be mindful of going forward.

        But I’d argue it sounds more like SARAH’S ego got in the way here. She constantly argued that her idea was the best and then demanded a public apology and her manager be demoted for failing to recognise her idea was a diamond in the rough. It sounds like Sarah is unwilling to accept that there’s anything wrong with plan A (ie that it’s been presented in a way that isn’t selling it to Megan) so instead she’s defaulted to a ‘I can’t be wrong – Megan must be wrong’ attitude. IMO she’d have been better off calmly approaching Megan with something like ‘I’m struggling to understand why we haven’t gone with plan A – can we discuss why you’ve picked plan B so I can understand?’. I’d like to think this would have drawn Sarah’s attention to her having a good idea which was presented badly, given her ideas of how to present better next time, and perhaps even resulted in a plan C which brought together the best of plan A and plan B.

        In an ideal world, you could argue Megan should have approached Sarah, rather than the other way around, and said ‘You seem to feel very strongly about plan A. Would you like to discuss why I’ve chosen plan B instead?’. But I can also sympathise with Megan perhaps deciding she didn’t want to deal with Sarah being difficult and opting out of that (it is also possible that this is what Megan spoke to Sarah privately about but who knows).

        1. hardlessons*

          I expanded on this in a comment below and, having read the update, and having managed more than one Sarah, I suspect that Sarah has not actually been managed as well nor as kindly as she could have been here. I also think a lot more was going on than the OP knew about, or shared with us.

          I certainly don’t think that Sarah should have been fired when she was; I don’t blame OP for being sick of it, but if the company sells itself as being innovative, firing an employee with that skill set is not a great move, especially if the flaw of that employee is just the forceful personality that often comes hand in hand with that level of intellect and creativity, which is something that can be managed.

          I didn’t read the update that Sarah was wanting Meghan to be “publicly shamed” at all or for the sake of it, especially with the public sniping that was likely involved. I do suspect egos and pride were involved here, but I doubt it was all on Sarah: in similar situations I’ve found myself managing, the Megans and other team members were lashing out and feeling threatened by the skills/creativity/whatever of the Sarah in the situation beyond anything else.

          Again, YMMV, but in my own experience, Sarahs are very valuable employees. I don’t personally find Sarahs particularly difficult to manage (although I find the male Sarah variants more aggravating to manage than the females, for the most part), but they do often require a different approach to other types of employees. But this is no different to that way in which all employees in your team need different management styles or approaches. With some coaching, even a new or half-decent manager can carry this off successfully.

          When Sarahs feel valued and respected, they are also very loyal. They can also become integral and much-valued (and much-liked) members of a team. But Sarahs don’t tend to suffer fools (or bad managers) gladly, and managing them harshly and/or badly leads to this exact scenario.

          1. Yorick*

            Sarah doesn’t sound like a valuable employee. Sure, she has some talent and some good, creative ideas. But she struggles to present those ideas well, which is bad in itself and it makes me suspect she may not be able to implement them that well. She also does not work well with a team AT ALL, which is vital. I’d much rather work with somebody whose ideas and talent are fine but not world-changing.

    4. Wintermute*

      I’m in your camp, the more I read into the letter and the update, and the more I read people here– the more I become convinced it’s very plausible Sarah was correct and Megan should have been demoted.

  15. Need a WFH policy*

    I have to act like an interpreter for a few of my coworkers who for whatever reason cannot communicate with each other. One always assumes the other knows more than they could possibly know about any given situation when giving an update but leaves out details and the other takes everything the other one says in the worst possible light. It is so much fun if I don’t get to see the messages to clarify before they start going at it. I feel your pain because the first guy just usually repeats the same thing over and over without clarifying anything if I don’t step in.

  16. LizM*

    I’ve been Sarah and I’ve been Meagan, and both are hard spots to be in.

    I had a mentor give me some of the best advice I could have gotten as a Sarah – it doesn’t matter how right you are if you can’t get people to listen to you. If you fight every battle, people just get tired of listening to you, but if you make strategic decisions about what hills to die on, people will take it more seriously when you decide that it is a place to make a stand.

    And now as a manager, I’ve had to coach an employee like Sarah. He was brilliant, and probably right, but I got exhausted just seeing him come into my office full of righteous indignation. I ended up having to manage him out (luckily he saw the writing on the wall and found another position), because he ended up alienating most of the team, and had started telling off some of our stakeholders when he was suspicious of their motives, so no one was willing to work with him.

    It’s really hard getting employees like that to understand that as a manager, I’d rather have a functional team that gets it right 90% of the time (barring any catastrophic errors in the 10%), than a dysfunctional team that is right 100% of the team, but can only actually achieve 50% of the work because they’re too busy arguing with each other and other teams. And as a manager, that 10% is on me, not on them.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Whether or not you are “right” doesn’t really matter, I think. Sarah wanted Megan SQUASHED and PUNISHED to prove her superiority over her. Ugh.

      And again: sometimes you are just the wrong messenger to communicate a thing to a particular audience. Especially if you are frequently difficult and cause everyone problems.

      1. Firecat*

        That may have been her motive, but it may not have been. It sounds like a lot of there fights were public, since she mentions all the team watching to see who “wins” and that mentality is very much on Meghan since she’s the manager.

        If there was a lot of public sniping I could see a young employee thinking a public “I was actually wrong about this” meeting as important. In fact that was Alison’s original suggestion. Publicly talk about the points that were right in Sarah’s plan and express why her behavior was not.

        To our knowledge that meeting never occured however because Sarah emailed OP right after her meeting with Meghan. Since Meghan and Op were sniping we have no way of knowing how Meghan presented it. If she was very heavy handed ” you were wrong don’t think you are right just because you were right” about the whole thing I could see Sarah passively nodding and then reaching out to OP in frustration.

        1. hardlessons*


          Having also been both a Sarah and a manager of Sarahs, I suspect that Sarah has not actually been managed as well nor as kindly as she could have been here. I also doubt that Sarah was wanting Meghan to be “publicly shamed”, especially with the public sniping that was likely involved. I do suspect egos and pride were involved here, and that Meghan and other team members were possibly feeling threatened beyond anything else.

          YMMV, but in my own experience, Sarahs are very valuable employees and when they feel valued and respected, they are also very loyal. They can also become integral and much-valued members of a team. But Sarahs don’t tend to suffer fools (or bad managers) easily, and managing them harshly and/or badly leads to this exact scenario.

          I don’t personally find Sarahs difficult to manage, but they do often require a different approach to other types of employees. But this is no different to that way in which all employees in your team need different management styles or approaches, and even a half-decent manager can actually carry this off successfully.

        2. Yorick*

          I think it would be different if some time had gone by and Sarah didn’t feel like Megan had explained this to the rest of the team well and that her work had suffered somehow because of it. But even then, you don’t get to suggest to your grand-boss that they fire your boss for not liking your idea.

    2. LQ*

      Your last paragraph is really important and something I’m struggling really hard to communicate so thank you!

  17. LC*

    “You’re not wrong Walter, you’re just an a$$hole.”

    (This is rarely an appropriate to actually respond, but it’s an evergreen statement that I find myself thinking a lot.)

    1. Mallory Janis Ian*

      I’ve seen people be all apologetic when it’s finally proven that they are wrong, and then they think that they’re okay because, after all, they did apologize. But it they never stop to think that the real problem is, that they act like complete assholes every single time they think they’re right!

  18. Orange You Glad*

    I’ve read the original update so I’m aware of how this particular situation played out.

    In general though, when Sarah started to complain I would have sat her down and explained why her proposal wasn’t chosen and what she could do to improve it. If she cleaned up the presentation so it was up to the standards expected, then I would feel ok choosing it. It sounds like Sarah needed some help getting her idea presented in a professional way.

  19. Sometimes supervisor*

    I think in situations like this, the best thing to do is to move it away from any framing along the ideas of ‘this idea is the one we’re going with – so this is the right answer and the other idea is wrong’ and more towards ‘this idea is the one we’re going with – the other idea is also fine but this one sounds like it’s better suited to the situation now we’ve had a chance to evaluate it properly’ (like Alison’s script for framing to other people on the team that this wasn’t a Megan vs Sarah feud). It sounds to me like OP, Megan and Sarah have all fallen into that trap a little bit – but, given the update, especially Sarah (‘I was right and Megan was wrong! I want the whole world to know it so Megan should be demoted as punishment!’ Eeeek!).

    I think the other thing worth noting more generally, although not totally relevant to the situation OP describes, is that sometimes ideas get the go ahead because of things outside of our control/our remit. For example, my industry has a quiet period which has a cliff-edge either side (so it goes VERY busy to virtually no work for about a month to VERY busy again). During the quiet period people are encouraged to perhaps work on some pet projects that they wouldn’t otherwise have time to work on during the busy period. It takes a few cycles to get used to. I have consoled a few grads (and have been that new grad!) who are confused that their near identical chocolate teapot designs got met with ‘Sure, knock yourself out – in fact, I’ll help out’ one month and ‘Seriously? A chocolate teapot? NOW?!’ the next. Nothing about the idea has changed – it’s not right or wrong – but the situation has.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I moved away from right vs wrong ideas. I’d picked an idea for an outstanding feature of that idea. We revamped an entire work area because the new flow reduced the work from an 8 person job down to a 2 person job.
      The old plan was not “wrong”. But the new plan freed up 6 employees to work on other aspects of the same project.
      And the 2 employees found the new layout a lot less stressful. What was interesting here, was the idea came from the employees, not me.
      We do have to show people how to pick and develop the ideas that are workable.

  20. bluebox*

    I remember this letter, and its update. Having been in the OP’s shoes, I feel awful for everyone involved in this situation. No one won here.

    I’m still quite perplexed that OP’s first reaction to Sarah’s admittedly poorly-worded and thought out email (as OP talked about in the update) was to turn around and fire Sarah. No matter how much faith they had in Megan, OP really should have looked into whether or not Sarah’s feedback was on the money regarding issues that needed examining. Especially if Sarah was talented and had been responding well to coaching, and it doesn’t actually seem like anyone on the team was anything beyond a little annoyed, confused or frustrated.

    Don’t get me wrong, Sarah certainly didn’t behave the right way here! At all. But I don’t think she was baying for Megan’s blood in that email the way OP thought she was, either. If Sarah is anything like some of the talented spitfires I’ve managed, I think a young, confused and talented employee was looking for help and guidance, and was wanting to provide what she thought was helpful feedback about Megan’s poor management of this situation, because Megan herself wasn’t being helpful. It also sounds as if Sarah was perhaps being badgered, picked on or goaded by other team members, and that Megan wasn’t nipping that in the bud.

    If Sarah truly did possess the raw talent OP referred to, and had come up with the plan OP admitted that the business should have been pursuing to meet its desired image as cutting edge, she probably also possessed some sort of insight that was worthy of OP’s attention.

    In most lines of business, unless illegal activity or actual abuse is occurring, a talented employee is worth the effort of smoothing out whatever misunderstanding or bruised pride or whatever else that the good, but less talented, employees might experience. (Obviously, this must be accompanied with coaching of the talented employee as needed, with boundaries and expectations very clearly set out; it is not a free-for-all in the talented employee’s favour.) I certainly wonder if the employee who came up with Plan B was the one who set off the powder keg here.

    1. Yorick*

      There’s nothing at all in the letters to suggest Sarah was being picked on by the team. It’s not helpful to the letter writers or others trying to learn from these situations to make up things like that.

  21. Hmmm*

    I’m sure this was all very aggravating for Megan and OP, anf this is going to sound incredibly harsh, but this was managed very poorly and from the update, it sounds like they lost a very talented employee from it. I feel bad for everyone in this situation, especially Sarah. I hope she has gone on to bigger and better things than a company that markets itself as a “big ideas” place, but can’t actually handle or manage the talented employees who have those ideas.

    1. Auga*

      I don’t think it’s that simple as Sarah being “very talented”. Part of being a great employee is being able to act professionally and get on with colleagues and your line manager. Sarah raised massive red flags through all of her conduct and was not a great employee. She was also given a warning over her conduct and lack of professionalism, but she refused to listen to it and doubled down.

      Ultimately, it wasn’t Megan or the LW’s responsibility to fix Sarah’s immaturity and lack of professionalism.

      1. Hmmm*

        Look, I don’t know. I’ve seen plenty of incompetent managers and adequate but not great or brilliant employees get rid of talented people over the years, for reasons including envy, feeling threatened, and thinking that the new talented person is rude or abrasive or condescending or whatever, when they actually just have new ideas and know what they’re talking about.

        I hope this was just a case of Sarah being a toxic nightmare, and not just management thinking it was easier to get rid of Sarah than actually fix the problems she was inconveniently pointing out.

      2. Yorick*

        Megan went with Plan B and Sarah wasn’t going to do her part to make it work. I’d rather have a slightly less talented person who will actually do their job than a slightly more talented person who won’t.

        Let’s remember, OP mentioned Sarah’s “raw talent” in comparison to Megan, not the rest of the team. Sarah is a bit better at this stuff than Megan, which makes sense because Megan’s job is to manage, not do the work. But we don’t actually know that Sarah was the best on the team – and we do know that she lacked very important “soft skills” that made her bad at her job.

  22. AngryOwl*

    Through the original letter, the update, and this post, I am amazed at the lengths people will go to (and the fanfic they’ll make up/add to the situation) to defend the Sarahs.

    I hope Sarah has learned to handle these situations better and that Megan has become a more confident manager over the past few years.

  23. AngryOwl*

    Also, if you act like a jerk, then you’re not actually a competent or talented employee, and so no, people don’t have to jump through hoops to keep you.

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