how do I manage an employee who’s terrified of me?

A reader writes:

I’m a relatively senior manager who just moved to a new location within my organization, and have been having one-on-one meetings with some key team members as I try to get a handle on how this new location works.

One of these team members, Tasha, is clearly terrified of me.

Tasha is friends with a former direct report of mine from my previous location, Sarah. They do the same job, and I know they speak often. I went into my previous location knowing that Sarah wasn’t great at her job, but during my time there another employee came to me with overwhelming and convincing documentation of a number of incidents that, in a more functional organization, would probably have led to her immediate dismissal. I looped in my boss and HR, HR started an investigation … and then HR completely dropped the ball on it and nothing substantive happened.

Sarah is still employed by my organization, and understandably the last annual review I did for her was … not great. The issues had been documented, but she had denied everything despite a fair amount of evidence. In the meeting she had some heated things to say about me, my management style, and my treatment of her. There are certainly things that I could have handled better, but the review was fair and nothing in it should have come as a surprise to her.

But she has clearly been talking to Tasha, who clearly thinks that I’m a vindictive tyrant who will lash out unpredictably and who will stab her in the back at the first opportunity. The one-on-one meeting I had with Tasha was painful. Her voice was shaking at times when she spoke, and there were times when she almost seemed to be pleading with me to give her a chance.

In the moment I think I handled it okay; the manager I replaced gave me a heads-up that Tasha was very nervous about me taking over. I asked her opinion on some issues, and she pointed out a problem that I think I’m going to be able to solve for her relatively quickly. The conversation ended better than it started, and I’m hoping to be able to reinforce that in further interactions.

But also I know from conversations with her former manager that there are some performance issues with Tasha that I’m likely going to have to address soon, and I’m worried that any sort of criticism is just going to send her back into that spiral of anxiety. How can I effectively manage someone who is predisposed to thinking I’m an ogre?

The most convincing thing you’ll be able to do is to show Tasha through your actions that you’re not the ogre she fears you are. That takes time, though.

Meanwhile, there are some things that might help nudge her in that direction:

* Ask for her feedback on things and show appreciation when she gives it.
* Look for things to give her genuine praise for.
* Solve problems/remove roadblocks for her so she can do her work more easily (as you’re already doing).
* Ask if she has goals you can help her meet and then take clear actions to help (for example, if she’s interested in getting experience doing X, see if you can find ways to help her get that).
* Be understanding if/when she needs flexibility (and the other side of that: encourage her to take time off if you notice she’s not doing it).
* Make a point of being generally warm and thoughtful.

If you’re thinking, “Well, that’s all just being a good manager” … yes! This is stuff you should be doing with everyone you manage. But managers don’t always do it all. Make sure you are (with everyone). Obviously it’s worth doing for its own sake, but it’ll also counter whatever perceptions of you that Tasha picked up from Sarah.

She won’t trust it at first, of course. (And you probably won’t get honest answers to questions about her goals, given how fearful she is of you right now.) But keep doing it consistently and eventually she’s going to realize that what Sarah told her and what she’s seeing first-hand aren’t lining up.

Also, when you need to address those performance issues with her, talk to her about how you handle feedback and performance issues generally so you’re conveying that this isn’t a prelude to trying to fire her (assuming it’s not). For example, you could say, “Since we’re still getting to know each other, I want to explain how I handle work issues and what support you can expect from me, and how you’ll know if you’re making the progress we want.” Or hell, if she’s looking obviously terrified, you could even say, “You look really worried right now, so I want to explain how I handle…” You should also try to put the performance issue in the context of her larger performance, if that feels like it will help — “I’m really happy with your work overall and while this is something you need to work on, from what I’ve seen so far I’m confident you’ll be able to do it,” or whatever you can say that’s genuine. (And again, this is stuff you should do all the time, not just with Tasha. But it’s especially important here.)

If you do all this and a few months from now she still seems terrified of you, it might be worth naming that (in a conversation that will no doubt terrify her further but might help in the long run). At that point you might even consider saying, “I know you’ve worked closely with Sarah and she might have told you I’m tough to work for. I want to respect her privacy, but I do want to say that sometimes — not always, but sometimes — there can be more to a story than what someone tells their coworkers, and I hope I’ll be able to earn your trust over time as you see how I work with you and others.”

From there, I’d trust that at some point Tasha’s own perceptions are going to outweigh what she heard from Sarah.

{ 132 comments… read them below }

  1. Thordak The Cinder King*

    Actions always speak louder than words. I can remember many times in my career where what I had been told about a coworker proved to be inaccurate once I got to know them for myself.

    1. Ama*

      Oh goodness, yes. My case was extreme, but I started a job once where the boss told me on my very first day that the two other coworkers in my department “will try to sabotage you.” This was very, very far from the truth — it turned out boss resented that the other two were friends outside of work and was trying to get me to be on her “side.” Thankfully boss quit about ten months after I started (that’s a whole story in and of itself) and I ended up building cordial relationships with both coworkers.

    2. Sabine the Very Mean*

      I’ve been that person and I’m, like, crazy nice! (Sabine is my cat) I would hear that someone was telling newbies to avoid me lest they be 86ed, I guess. I do have a Resting Witch Face that could stop a mugger in his tracks (and has!), though. So I guess that’s why. It really sucks.

    3. Reluctant Mezzo*

      I was told about a certain co-worker that she was grumpy and nonresponsive, and then I realized who was saying that, and I immediately felt sorry for the co-worker. (we got along just fine and saved each other’s rear ends on a fairly regular basis during month-end).

  2. Littorally*

    The compliment sandwich can be overrated, but this is a scenario in which I think it’s useful. Especially the last layer of the sandwich; anytime you’re giving her correction, make sure you’re finishing the conversation positively, so that she doesn’t walk away with the last taste in her mouth being sour.

    1. ferrina*

      I don’t trust the sandwich, and I inherently distrust anyone who uses the sandwich. Mostly because IME that the folks that use it the most are uncomfortable having real feedback conversations, so it’s impossible to gauge how bit a deal something really is.

      My advice is to treat feedback as normal, and give both positive and negative on a regular cadence. I go for a quick “Hey, looks like X hasn’t been done. Can you take care of it now, and make sure you do it weekly going forward? Thanks.” I’m also very quick to share praise- “Love this layout! That looks fantastic.”

      1. Cordelia Sasquatch*

        This is so interesting to me, because when I was in art school this was very much how we learned to give feedbacks in a critique. I think it was based on the idea that you can address a design that isn’t working well by starting with some info about what is working (keep this as a scaffolding on which to hang your updates), then addressing the biggest problem (i.e. the major changes to make), but then giving them something positive to wrap up with, like “if you make x major changes, and use y good thing you started with, I think that will create a much more readable layout.”
        This is a compliment sandwich, but it doesn’t seem disingenuous to me. If you can’t do this with a project in progress, it may come across as though the person needs to start over entirely, which often isn’t ideal or possible.
        Granted, if all feedback you give is delivered this way, that’s a little much – if someone is blowing every deadline, you don’t need to soften feedback on that with a compliment on either side, but I think for work-product feedback (especially creative work) it’s actually a very useful structure.
        When your supervisor gives you feedback on work product, do you find it problematic for them to tell you what’s working, as well as what needs changing? Or does that no longer feel like a compliment sandwich to you? I’m a relatively new manager and want to make sure my “design crit compliment sandwich” isn’t coming across as dodging “hard conversations,” so I’d love to hear what you think.

        1. Fikly*

          Well, what you’ve described is exactly why it’s disingenuous. Because many, many people were taught to give criticism this way, and taught to think of two nice things to say before and after, regardless of whether or not there were actually two nice things to say. So because this is such a common technique, people know the two nice things cannot be trusted to actually be true, and that they are very often being said only because they are part of the template around the criticism that actually is the point of the conversation.

          A compliment sandwich is manipulative, most everyone knows that it’s manipulative because they’ve been taught how to do it, and it’s rare to find someone who appreciates – never mind trusts – being manipulated.

          1. Mid*

            I think this is a rather adversarial way to think of things. No one should be lying or making up things to create the compliment sandwich, they should be actual things that are being done correctly, and used to highlight what is going right and not just what is going wrong. In a work context, it would be like “you had excellent content on your presentation, but the public speaking skills could use some work, though you ended really well with your Q&A session.” None of that is disingenuous, or it shouldn’t be anyway. It’s not manipulative to give feedback to someone either.

            1. Ampersand*

              Ah, I think this assumes all things being communicated are equal and are fairly low stakes. The example you gave seems like how it should be used but isn’t—for minor feedback, not “here’s why we’re putting you on a PIP”- level conversations. When it’s used for big, important conversations all anyone hears is the negative, and the positive feedback sounds disingenuous.

          2. JSPA*

            If the compliments are legitimate, heartfelt and substantive… it’s usually fine. If they’re, “you are very brave to combine stripes and checks that way,” or “I like the fringe on the socks,” then its clearly shit in the firm of a sandwich.

        2. MigraineMonth*

          I’m not ferrina, but it sounds like you’re doing something slightly different than a compliment sandwich. I think of a compliment sandwich as “I like A, B needs to be redone, and I love C.”

          It sounds like you’re putting things in perspective, such as “I like A, but B needs to be redone. After you’ve redone B, I think it’s going to be a great product, especially with how well you did C.”

          Presumably, if there were more serious concerns, the perspective part would acknowledge that: “You did A correctly, but once again you need to redo B. Here are the things you need to do to check that you’re doing B correctly, and I really need to see an improvement in B over the next few months or we’ll have a conversation about whether this is the right job for you.

          1. Littorally*

            How’s that different from a sandwich, really? It’s just got some connective tissue in it.

            1. JSPA*

              Hmmm… hard to dissect, but it is better then most.

              Maybe because it explicitly hands them control and agency?

              Maybe because it explicitly says, this is not only fixable to minimum standards, but potentially thoroughly excellent?

              Maybe because the connections suggest one gave actual thought about the overall, instead of slapping random complements on complaint, in the name of calling it a sandwich?

              We’ve had a loooong thread on why the sandwich doesn’t work for many people (and I’m one of them). But the version(s) with causality and consequences, would.

          2. BatManDan*

            The “corrective sandwich” is a fundamentally flawed approach to communication. It sounds nice in theory, but doesn’t get the required results in practice (like so, so much of the world, sadly). The root cause of the failure is that people start to flinch when you praise them, because they expect a correction to come immediately after. (The way to avoid this is simply start with the criticism, and then move to praise.) The problem with shielding criticism by coupling it with praise, is that creates situations where people miss how important it is to make changes or improvements. Their own minds play UP the praise and play DOWN the criticism, and then the manager ends up frustrated and the employee ends up surprised when they are fired. (This from someone that was a firm believer in the “sandwich,” until I read the research.)

        3. ferrina*

          No, I def don’t have a problem for them to tell me what’s working! I love compliments :D
          The key is to be genuine. Most genuine feedback won’t follow a strict sandwich format- it tends to be organized by timeline or topic or such. And the proportion of positive to negative will vary based on the work/quality.

          The problem with the sandwich is that it tries to control emotional responses through a formula. I often see it taught as “if you give a good thing before a bad, it helps them feel good about themselves!” But feedback is more than a conversation- it’s a culture. It’s an attitude that feedback isn’t about judgement, it’s about growth (and that attitude needs to come from the top). There’s days when my boss gives me all positive feedback, and days when it’s mostly negative. It all balances out because my boss is as open with her positive feedback as with her negative, and her “negative” feedback is always critiques about the work and how to make it stronger, not about me as a person. That can be a really tough delivery to master, especially when you’re critiquing soft skills. But my boss knows my strengths and leverages them, gives me support and praises me when I do well. I know that she wants me to succeed in this role, and that she’s staked part of her success on my success- that’s how much she believes in me. And that gives me a lot of confidence and appreciation for her, and a lot of trust in her decisions and feedback.

          1. Sasha*

            I think the idea of the shit sandwich is that it prompts you to find two positive things to say, rather than just launching into a litany of criticisms. It is aimed at people who are just starting out at giving feedback and are terrible at it!

            Structured feedback, starting with something positive to put the recipient at ease, going through what needs improvement and how to achieve this, and bringing it all back together at the end for a positive summing up with action points, is the advanced version. If you are giving feedback regularly, of course that’s what you should aim for.

            The shit sandwich method was taught to me as an 18 yr old scuba diving instructor and lifeguard, and to my brother as a ski instructor. To avoid students getting feedback like “wow your parallel turns are terrible!” Not for anyone in a senior management position.

            1. mostly anon*

              The thing is, this technique has been driven into the ground already, so “starting with something positive to put the recipient at ease” usually just signals that a fearful manager wants to say something negative, warranted or not.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                Right. They forget the compliment as soon as the sentence is finished. They know what is coming.

                1. yala*

                  Alternatively, they hear more good things than bad, and figure “oh, ok, doing mostly fine then.”

            2. ferrina*

              exactly. I also learned this as a teenager. This is often a technique taught to folks that are young and inexperienced, where their manager doesn’t have enough time to train. But a compliment sandwich isn’t a substitute for thoughtful, genuine leadership and feedback. When managers try to hide behind sandwiches instead of reflecting on what makes good communication, that’s going to leave a bad taste.

            3. Yorick*

              This also doesn’t work if there’s nothing particularly good about the work to praise. If the positive and negatives are pretty equal, this can be a decent structure for the feedback. But if the work overall needs a lot of improvement, it’s gonna make things worse if you say “I like the font you chose for this essay” first.

          2. Cordelia Sasquatch*

            This all makes sense as a holistic approach to management. Thank you for the thoughtful feedback. Tbh, I don’t think I ever considered applying the compliment sandwich to every interaction, for reasons you outline above, but it gave me pause to think that some people think it’s always disingenuous to pair positives and negatives in the same interaction.
            If I couldn’t tell the creative folks on my team what was working well with a design that did still need help, I feel like I’d be doing them a disservice. Of course there are pieces that merely require “wow! That’s great, here’s a list of things that are rad, no other notes!” But more often it’s a give and take, and there’s always something that can be tweaked, so if a piece provokes both reactions, it would be tough to think “well, if I tell them both what needs help and what’s working, they won’t trust the compliment, and then they won’t trust anything I say.”
            For specific work product it seems like it seems like letting people know the good with the bad is still a relatively trustworthy approach. Thanks y’all.

            1. ferrina*

              Thanks for asking! Based on your communication here, I’m not worried about your communication. Your tone (at least in your AAM comments) is genuine and collaborative, and it sounds like you’ve used the sandwich to evolve your communication, not replace your communication.

        4. Dawn*

          When the idea of the compliment sandwich was first floated, it was a good one.

          But now that it’s been adopted as basically a scripted training method, it’s inherently disingenuous whether or not you mean it to be.

          To put this in perspective:

          When they were first invented, business hold systems had no sound. This caused a LOT of disconnects. So they added music, which was better, but still caused disconnects. What ameliorated it was the inclusion of a human voice saying things like “Thank you for holding, your call is important to us.”

          Do you BELIEVE that your call is actually important to them nowadays? No, because it’s just a thing you hear when you’re on hold with ANY company, some of which very clearly DON’T care. But once upon a time, people took it as genuine.

          That’s the compliment sandwich nowadays. Mostly what it says is, “I went to an uninspired business school and learned a default way to have feedback conversations which I am now uncritically employing with you and everyone” and suggests that the manager doesn’t really SEE YOU, the employee.

      2. Linda*

        Yeah a compliment sandwich reminds me of how I used to try and avoid telling my parents about bad test grades. “I got an A in history, a 75 on the math test, and an A- in Spanish”. Definitely feels sneaky and I want adults to have more fortitude than middle school me.

      3. Happily Retired*

        I know it’s been overused, and used dishonestly, but I don’t think it’s the worst thing ever for a terrified employee like Tasha.

      4. quill*

        I think there’s a time and set of circumstances where the compliment sandwich is more applicable than general office work, and it’s when doing creative critique. Because things like “hey, you forgot to include alpaca wool sales numbers in the report” are objective, but creating an artistic product is not… and often the person making the final decisions does not have much grounding in the technical aspects of art.

        For example, in a creative writing workshop you can easily compliment sandwich your way to not having drama because you didn’t like, say, your neighbor’s werewolf erotica, by saying “I really liked the way you described (not the sex scene), and I think you could take some of that type of pacing and perspective and improve (the sex scene.)” In that case, no one is anyone else’s boss and people are more likely to be trading work (revision, for example) or making connections than they are to be creating a final product together.

        Whereas when it comes to the alpaca wool sales numbers it’s much easier to say hey, remember that we’re doing those with the yarn report now, they’re not separate anymore.

        1. Dawn*

          I’m not sure you COULD pay me enough to test read my neighbour’s werewolf erotica, and I otherwise read werewolf erotica in my spare time.

          Friends don’t let friends read their amateur werewolf erotica.

      5. Yellow Flotsam*

        I’m with you on this. Whenever I hear it the only thing that feels relevant is the middle. I know you’re only saying something “nice” because you’ve been told to, not because you actually wanted to compliment me.

        And for me – it completely ruins the complement. For a moment I feel good about something, and then I realise it’s just the introduction to being told I stuck, not actually a genuine complement.

        If you want to tell me I need to fix something just tell me without the games.

    2. Anonym*

      Yeah, in this case it would be more reaffirming the context for any constructive feedback. Like, we’ve covered what I need you to work on, but the big picture of your performance is good.

    3. Paul Pearson*

      I’m super leery of the compliment sandwich. I think it’s left me unable to take a compliment or trust any kind of praise. I assume any compliment is just a Trojan horse to sneak in an attack (or an unreasonable demand). I get super defensive and wary and embarrassed when people praise me now which is really hard to work through

    4. mlem*

      The sandwich is often seen as manipulative (which in many cases it is), so it should be used only with caution.

      The other day, I saw mention of a teaching technique that might be adaptable. The person describing it either learned or used it in a martial arts setting and described as something like “good, now”. “That was a good punch; now let’s work on your stance.” The idea was not to devalue praise by following it with “but” + criticism. It really does sound supportive (and collaborative).

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I had a college professor who was the stone-cold master of this. He was absolutely brilliant. He could start with any student’s most harebrained, didn’t-do-the-homework reply and gently squeeze out a reasonable answer. His class was one of the best I took and it wasn’t even a subject I liked (I felt like I should take it to branch out).

      2. ferrina*

        I think it depends on the point of the feedback. If the point is to teach, this is fabulous!

        But there can come a time when the feedback becomes a warning. “You’re not doing as well as you need to” is an important message that employees need to hear. I’ve had to have conversations about expectations- it’s not okay to completely blow past a deadline without any acknowledgement. Those conversations shouldn’t start with a compliment, because that would be disingenuous.
        If you can’t start with a compliment, start with a question. “You said you’d have the report on my desk by 4pm, and you still haven’t delivered it. What’s going on?”, said in a gentle way (tailor delivery based on individual). Then listen. Then state what you need them to do. These can be tough, but the more you can be calm and balanced and not try to sugar coat it, the better.

        1. Highland Kuh*

          I love the idea of asking–but only if you’re going to listen to what’s being said.

          So, last Thursday, my boss had a talk with me about the rate of silly mistakes in work I’m responsible for. And it’s true, there’s definitely errors, and I need to shape up. But I needed something too–advice on prioritization, permission to say ‘you’re not getting trivial unrelated admin task right now, I need to concentrate on this’ and for my managers to actually check my work when they’re checking my work–they’d been letting things get into the field with those errors, too.

          And my boss listened, and heard this, and I have a feeling I’m going to improve my accuracy. And it was a Good Conversation. But I can imagine the world in which it was not, so very easily.

          1. Dawn*

            Oof, that feedback loop where you don’t know that you’re making mistakes, or what mistakes you’re making, until it’s already causing problems because nobody else is putting eyes on it until it goes live.

            There’s a reason professional writers with decades of experience still have editors and test readers.

    5. Florida Fan 15*

      My problem with the compliment sandwich (and this is clearly just my experience at my current job, not necessarily represenatative of anything) is that compliments are never given except when there’s a problem in the middle. Sometimes it’d be nice to hear “Good job on X.” and have that be the full message. But when you know it’s ALWAYS going to be followed by “But here’s what you did wrong…”, it takes all the positive out of the compliment. Kind of a Charlie Brown and the football situation. Don’t lead me on, just yank it away from the get go.

    6. Stopgap*

      Tasha’s already scared of LW. You want her to assume that any compliment is a disingenuous prelude to criticism?

  3. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

    Agreed actions speak louder than words. I have had many supervisors give me empty promises in the past in the name of “relationship building”. I have a new manager who flat out lied about the balls they dropped in their first month on the job, balls that created a lot more work for those that they supervise. Guess who isn’t trusted right now? Conversely when I have had a boss admit that something slipped their mind but then follow up to make sure it gets done. That’s fine, we are all human and make mistakes. You want to show all of your staff that you are fair and respect your staff. This will also help to counteract anything that Sarah may say in an effort to discredit you.

    1. Gatomon*

      Kind of a tangent, but I really appreciate when management is honest about letting something slip or making a mistake. It makes me more comfortable to admit when I’ve done the same, as an anxious person, and it really helps me trust them a lot more.

      I try to be honest about things with my coworkers and even customers (to an extent, I’ll tell a customer I made a mistake/misunderstood if it was truly just me, but I don’t throw coworkers or the company under the bus) to encourage other people to feel like it’s okay when it happens to them. I find a simple “this happened, I apologize, here’s what I will do to fix it/prevent it from happening again” goes a really long way to building trust, which is critical for collaboration.

      1. AsPerElaine*

        Same. One of the things that I really like about my current team is that managers will own up to when they make mistakes or caused a problem.

        1. allathian*

          Yes, this is one of the things that I really appreciate in my current manager. She’s very busy, and sometimes things will slip through the cracks. But she always owns up to her mistakes and she’d never blame anyone else for them.

  4. Also Tasha*

    As someone with a relatively uncommon name, I’m not used to seeing it be used as a generic name for anonymity in a story. I have a new level of respect for all the Johns, Janes, Sarahs, and Sams of the world.

    1. Anonym*

      That’s so interesting. I never thought about it before, but I’ve known a lot of Tashas. Far more than Janes, Sarahs and Sams at least. (Plenty of Johns, though.) You’re in good company. They’ve all been pretty awesome. :)

    2. Salt*

      HaHa! There was an AAM a few months back where the MEAN BOSS in the letter shared my not-too-common name and yes, it was weird because I kept hoping A) any fellow friends who read AAM didn’t suspect one of my employees of writing in revealing an awful side of me I’d kept hidden) and B) I wanted to clear my ‘name.’ This ‘myname’ person is giving us a bad reputation! Let me have a word with them….
      Strange indeed.

      1. Emmy Noether*

        I think this is a normal reaction! I have a very uncommon name, and someone has spontaneously told me about personally knowing only one other person of that name and that she sucked. The most publicly well-known representatives of my name aren’t great either, and I’m sort of mad at them for dragging MY name through the mud.

        People form associations with names, and for common names, they sort of statistically even out to neutral, but for uncommon names, that one mean kid from kindergarten can cause subconcious prejudice against a name for their classmate’s whole lives, so it’s important the other [Emmys] don’t let the side down!

        1. Zoe Karvounopsina*

          I have an uncommon name, which, though very common in an Eastern European country, is also the equivalent of Gertrude, given to women 60 years older than me at least, so I have only met one possible-name sharer, and other than that it’s historical figures.

          And a French stud horse.

      1. allathian*

        Mine as well. Although I’ve known more than one person who uses it as a nickname for Natasha, we’ve been introducing our son to Trek and we started with TNG, so that association was more recent.

    3. even more anonymous*

      I once sent in a question mentioning my (wonderful) supervisor, actually IRL named Jane, and felt I had to come up with a *different* generic pseudonym for her!

  5. animaniactoo*

    I think even at this point it would be useful to say something like: “Generally, in a situation like this, I find that people have heard things about each other which don’t always match up with their own perception. I think a lot of that is because different people react differently to similar situations or things, and I want to be clear that as far as I am concerned, I am approaching all of this with an open mind, and I’d like to ask that you do the same, as much as possible.”

    And then slow and steady is gonna get that over the line if it’s possible to do.

    1. Paul Pearson*

      this, I think where there’s any chance of awkward miscommunication it’s nice to pull it all out in the open and spell it out.

  6. 3lla*

    Can I also recommend that when the time comes for you to go over things Tasha has done that need improvement, you let her know a couple hours ahead of time that you’d like to meet at 2pm to discuss needed improvements to X. Being blindsided by negative feedback when you’re already scared makes everything so much worse.

    1. Wisteria*

      And involve Tasha in the improvement planning. Don’t just dictate a bunch of changes. Ask for her perspective and make her an architect of the plan.

    2. I'm Just Here for the Cake*

      I would be cautious with doing this, actually. If my boss told me our meeting a few hours from now is about needed improvements, my anxious self would be convinced I was being fired or freaked out I had done something seriously wrong.

      1. Clorinda*

        You’d have to be very clear in the invitation or maybe keep the written invitation bland and uninformative but follow up with a verbal clarification. “Just a heads-up to let you know we’re going to be talking about X process in the meeting to lay out ways to make it work better. I don’t want you to worry about it, you’re not in trouble, we just need to work on ways to make this X better.”

      2. 3lla*

        When this has happened to me, being sprung into a meeting about what I was doing wrong with no time to prepare was horrible for my diagnosed, clinical anxiety. With time to prepare in another instance, I was able to use my coping skills in advance and therefore actually participate in the meeting.

      3. Wisteria*

        Managers cannot be expected to manage every employee’s emotional reactions, especially those with clinically diagnosed neurodivergences like anxiety. A head’s up that the meeting is about improvements allows people to go in with some forewarning so that they are not blindsided in the meeting. It also gives them a head’s up that they will need to use their self-soothing exercises and tools for this meeting.

    3. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Oh noooo nonononono that kind of anticipation is 100x worse. Maybe a few minutes but not a few hours.

    4. ferrina*

      Don’t do an Improvement Meeting! Just listing all the things someone does wrong is awful and disheartening. It can also quickly overwhelm the brain so the person can’t process what you’re saying (no matter how badly they want to). The only time for this is when you are putting them on a PIP (and in that case the PIP should be detailed enough that it covers everything they needed to know from the meeting).

      You should be giving informal feedback on a regular cadence so Tasha knows where she stands already. Your informal feedback should include positive and negative feedback, so she knows both what she’s good at and what can use improvement. See how quickly she learns and adjusts based on casual feedback.

      When you need to have a longer conversation about improvements, the first positioning should be as a collaboration. “I noticed that you’re producing less embroidered hedgehogs than what our production metrics should be. I’d like to get you up to 10 hedgehogs per week- let’s talk about how I can help you get to that goal.” Then give her tangible options on how you can support her- should you set up a training with someone who can give her tips/tricks? (I’d avoid training her yourself, since she’s scared of you).

    5. The Other Dawn*

      I think you’d get mixed results with this depending who the person is. Some people might approciate that time to prepare, while others wouldn’t want to have all that time to think and worry about what’s going to be said.

      I’ve had someone who was so incredibly anxious because I scheduled a short meeting for the following afternoon that she came over to my desk and demanded to meet right then and there because she was worried she was losing her job. It wasn’t performance related at all. It was just a routine thing (a procedure change, which was indicted in the invite), but we needed to meet to talk through the details rather than just email back and forth about it. Getting an email to meet in a couple hours about needed performance improvements would have sent her into a huge anxiety spiral complete with crying fits in the bathroom.

      Some on my current team would appreciate the heads-up and time to prepare, while one would not and would be a ball of anxiety. And a couple others would be like, “Meh, stop by anytime and just give it to me straight” (I’m in this camp).

    6. What She Said*

      This would freak me out as well. I prefer “check ins”. My boss and I do them weekly. Go over things we need to be working on and any changes they’d like to see occur in this meeting. It’s a standing meeting and it’s not specific to one project. Takes the pressure off. Sometimes if we have nothing new to add then we skip that week’s meeting. Since boss here is new they could start out weekly and then move to ever other week as needed.

      1. rosyglasses*

        Weekly automated check-ins and weekly/biweekly 1:1 meetings are what we do and it does exactly this and has helped the team build really solid relationships (from what I can observe) with their supervisors so that when something comes up on either side, there is enough report and grace that can be extended either way. If you only talk to folks when there are performance issues (or even to express gratitude/congrats/positive feedback) then you’re not building enough of a foundation to address the tricky situations.

        1. Theon, Theon, it rhymes with neon*

          Agreed. We have weekly 1:1s on our team, plus 1:1 standups at least biweekly, and we’ve also started doing “project review” on selected larger projects. For the project review, that’s more of a formal document. The way we’ve handled it so far (we’ve only done a couple, so we may go through some more iterations):

          Management puts together a document with feedback in three sections:

          1. Things Employee did great on, i.e., things they already know how to do well, and Manager just wants to say “Keep up the good work.”

          2. Things for Employee to keep doing, i.e., ways in which Manager sees Employee acting on feedback they’ve been given in the past.

          3. Growth opportunities, i.e., things we learned that we want to do differently next time. This section is broken into two parts: things Employee can do differently in the future, and things Manager can do differently in the future.

          The document is shared with the employee the morning of the day on which the meeting is held.

          Manager and Employee go over the document in a meeting.

          So far, we’ve gotten positive feedback on:

          – Including the manager in the growth opportunities section. The idea is to convey that we’re all learning together as a team, it’s not like a teacher giving a student a grade where feedback only flows from the top down. This works here because managers are hands-on and actually do get learning opportunities from projects, and are seen trying to act on them.

          – Giving the document in advance, so there are no surprises.

          – Giving the document the same day, so there’s time to think about it, but no one will lose sleep over reading something as more negative than it’s meant.

          – Beginning with the positive feedback and then progressing into more constructive criticism.

          – Not doing the compliment sandwich.

          We’ve gotten some constructive feedback on:

          – More than 2 hours’ advance notice is good, in case Employee has meetings or is otherwise busy between when the document is shared and when the meeting takes place.

          – If more than one manager is present, make sure they’re all talking and engaged. It feels more oppressive if one manager can be interpreted as silently scrutinizing Employee.

          1. Wisteria*

            So far, we’ve gotten positive feedback on:
            – Not doing the compliment sandwich.

            Curious—have you gotten suggestions on what to do instead? I’ve heard some different other techniques, so I’m just wondering if people are saying “hey, so glad you did X” or just saying “hey, so glad you aren’t compliment sandwiching us!”

            1. Theon, Theon, it rhymes with neon*

              The person who specifically gave the “thank you for not doing the compliment sandwich” feedback also said that putting the positive feedback at the beginning was a good thing. They said what they *didn’t* want was, “But don’t worry, you’re doing great!” interjected into the constructive criticism: just tell them what they need to do differently and why, and trust them to do it if the reasoning makes sense.

              They also acknowledged that this varies: some people really need the compliment sandwich. Some people, like that person, and me, and various other people in this comment section, are allergic to it.


          2. Xaraja*

            I have two meetings with my boss and grandboss (together) every week. But I schedule them and they are working meetings – we go over projects or roadblocks. This afternoon we spent 30 minutes working out a SQL query for a unique need on a large table that I needed. I know these probably aren’t quite the same as what people have in mind for the one on ones, but it really does help to have focused time to work out issues with my projects and get any adjusted priorities from my grandboss which happens sometimes. So I really like this arrangement. I don’t know if it would work for very many other situations, though.

          3. londonedit*

            This is how we do our annual appraisals. Employees are given a form to fill in – the first question is whether your job description is up to date, and then the next sections ask you to pull out the areas of your job description where you’re excelling, the areas where you’re showing solid competency, and the areas where you might need support or training in order to pull them up to the ‘solid competency’ level. There’s no ‘what went wrong’ or ‘where are you failing’, it’s all what are you really good at, what are you solidly good at, and how can we help with anything you’re not quite so confident about.

            1. Theon, Theon, it rhymes with neon*

              We also do something like that, but quarterly (or at least that’s the goal): the idea of these assessments isn’t for feedback to flow in one direction, top down from management, but for a collaboration to take place. The process begins with the employee self-assessing their strengths and weaknesses and _their interests_. Then the manager has a conversation with them about how to find projects that align the company’s business needs with the employee’s interests as much as possible (recognizing that there won’t always be overlap).

              Having the conversation this way also allows managers to introduce their own opinions on how they’d like to see employees improve. They can use phrasing like “So what would make it easier for you to do more of X?” This approach is lower pressure on both managers and employees, and makes potentially awkward conversations that get procrastinated on happen sooner! Many issues get solved easily at this stage, just by presenting them as a collaboration, and this approach means not every piece of feedback has to start with a manager giving criticism. If you can find out what an obstacle is and clear it out of the way, your report doesn’t even need to know you were silently unhappy!

              Only once something doesn’t get solved at the “What can we do to make X easier?” stage does the conversation need to escalate to, “The company really needs you to do X better; that’s not optional.”

    7. JSPA*

      That could well have my resignation on the desk in 1:59, if I were her, and terrified.

      At least call it something like “to work with you through some significant tweaks to our X process”– things will be changing, what you were doing for prior manager, which may have been what prior manager expected, will change a bit… that’s the supportive, non- adversarial take.

      (Even things that are objectively wrong may have been within the error tolerance of previous manager! Very few roles intrinsically have true zero tolerance for errors! “No mistakes ever, by sheer force of will” isn’t a reasonable ask, for most roles!)

      1. Allonge*

        Sorry to be cynical about this but if Tasha resigns, that too solves theis entire problem neatly.

        I am NOT recommending going for this and I don’t think 3lla was either – but there are limits to how anyone, even a manager can manage someone else’s anxiety and it might be better for Tasha to start at a new place wihtout a terror of her boss if she is at this level.

  7. Calamity Janine*

    honestly, it may also be worth considering letting her pair up with another employee that you have a good relationship with, too. sure, it might be too much of a soft touch, but if you can spin the performance issues as “let’s figure out something i can do for you to help you, so it’s you and me against a problem” instead of “you did bad”, it might go a long way. a focus on resources to help her succeed, training or retraining, even a mentor to help her out. plus if the terrified employee can have a mentor to listen to who you get along well with, she’ll more clearly figure out that there are two things in conflict here, instead of taking her friend’s word as gospel – the mentor will be able to provide additional evidence, and will be someone she can speak to candidly and get a candid answer back (“but aren’t you worried that the boss will flip out and…?” “wait, what? no, she’s never done anything like that, tasha.”)

    but really the solution is to just, as stated, keep on being a good manager. she’ll figure out what’s up. but it’s one of those things where it will happen slow, and you have to show instead of tell. that’s when she’ll be able to take her lived experiences and compare them to what her friend is telling her and find that those two things don’t line up.

    just definitely heed alison’s advice that you have to treat everyone in this manner. if you lavish her with too much special attention, that will just smell even more fishy, and she’ll be anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    …quite frankly, i would also lowkey expect that as you look to the long game, there will come a day when tasha’s opinion of you suddenly seems to switch. aaaaand that’s going to be when tasha realizes her bff is being a bit of a jerk, and has set tasha in the sights of jerkitude. sometimes a jerk is gonna be a jerk, and then sarah’s credibility will be slowly worn away by her own actions, likely until the erosion kicks off a veritable landslide. then sarah will move on, singing a tale of woe to all and sundry about how her friend tasha utterly betrayed her and stabbed her in the back and tasha is, in fact, the biggest meanie poo-poo head ever. tasha will know that tasha tried to do something incredibly reasonable. tasha will then sit down and reevaluate other things she took sarah’s word on. and tasha will suddenly stop being quite so scared of you.

    is that super likely? who knows, honestly. i just know that i’ve been tasha listening to sarah a couple of times in social situations, and i know how it all ends lol

    1. Very Social*

      Oh, I think partnering, as far as possible, Tasha with another employee who has a good relationship with the OP, is a great idea.

      This doesn’t directly relate, but I’m reminded of a few years ago in a company reorganization, being put under a new boss. I didn’t know much about her, though we’d both been with the company for a few years. Another employee newly placed under her warned me that New Boss was a micromanager. Well, I kept that in mind but didn’t freak out or act defensive… and New Boss turned out to be the best boss I’ve ever had, the only one at that company (and there had been several) who I felt really understood what my team did, cared about it, and went to bat for us. Not as hands-off as previous bosses had been, but not a micromanager either. And from things that other employee said later, I know she really appreciated New Boss, too. I don’t know that this has any applicability for the OP, but I really wish I could tell Tasha this story!

  8. Essentially Cheesy*

    Maybe Tasha (or everyone) needs a clean slate start? In my younger days, if I were constantly worried about the status of my job, whether I realized I deserved it or not …. I might have acted like her. Maybe it’s a good idea to have a nice big happy meeting about wiping the slate clean, having a fresh start, let’s get off on a better foot because we value you and we all want to have a good relationship .. kind of thing?

    But really if you think Tasha is beyond help .. maybe it’s really time to move forward and start with a clean slate.

    Sarah sounds like a trouble maker in this whole situation …

  9. Lex*

    “I want to respect her privacy, but I do want to say that sometimes — not always, but sometimes — there can be more to a story than what someone tells their coworkers,”

    This is such a graceful way to acknowledge gossip without it seeming threatening or like you’re contributing to said gossip. I’m saving this for later.

  10. Fizzyfuzzy*

    I’d also suggest OP take a really hard look at their management style and how the situation played out. It seems like they did their best in a tough spot, but it also sounds like there are broader organizational issues. I once had a boss who would hyper focus on one employee at a time as the scapegoat when a lot of what wasn’t working had more to do with a bad overall organizational challenge.

    1. Skytext*

      It doesn’t seem to me that this is the situation here (or at OP’s former location as I think you are referring to.). It doesn’t sound like OP scapegoated Sarah. She had heard there was some performance issues with Sarah, but seemed confident she could handle it. It was a different employee who came to OP with overwhelming evidence of Sarah’s wrongdoing. She then looped in her boss and HR, and let them handle it. Doesn’t sound AT ALL like she was vindictively targeting Sarah. And just by the fact that she is writing in for the best advice on how yo help Tasha days she is a thoughtful, empathic person. If she was an ogre, she would enjoy Tasha’s terror.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Hmm. I was also thinking that there are broader organizational issues but that they were that HR chickened out on cutting loose a weak employee, who is now poisoning the LW’s well.

      There may be only so much the LW can do if Sarah is vindictive and Tasha is afraid of her own shadow.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        I have the same read you do, but I think whenever a situation goes badly it’s always useful as a manager to reflect and see if there are things you could have done differently or a way you can prevent similar issues in the future. The answer might just be that it was a crappy situation, but I don’t think introspection is the wrong approach.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          I mean, of course it’s always good to check in on your own handling of a situation, but sometimes you’re not the problem.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Yeah, I think that got lost here somehow. HR is not backing up OP. OP, I think you need to have a long talk with your own boss as it appears you are getting undermined.

        1. yala*

          I mean, there could be a reason why HR chose not to let Sarah go. Is Sarah doing better under a different manager? It could be that HR saw that Sarah and OP were incompatible together, but that Sarah wasn’t beyond hope for the organization itself. Sometimes after a lot of drama, it’s hard for either party to treat each other objectively.

        2. OP*

          Our HR department was absolutely the thing that tipped us over from being a mildly dysfunctional organization to being a barely able to function organization. There have been extensive personnel changes in HR over the past few months (the situation with Sarah that was dropped was earlier this year) and things seem to be on an upward trajectory there. I see how it could be interpreted as intentional undermining, but it was definitely plain old incompetence. That said, this past year has been an intense lesson for me in how an ineffective HR department can torpedo an entire organization.

  11. Solstice*

    My number one tip here: never-ever-ever start with a ‘hey, can we talk’ or ‘come by my office so we can chat later’. Always be as specific as possible, that’s going to help ease anxiety.

    “I’d love to give you some feedback on how you shaped that teapot handle, so we can get a more graceful curve in the future. Do you have time later?” or “You seemed to struggle with shaping the spout last time. Would you like to go over some strategies for that?”

    And do be open with sincere positive feedback when you can. A lot of us are used to only hearing from our bosses when there’s a problem.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I like doing this in the moment and avoiding the whole meeting thing all together. OP if her work does improve based on your advice you will gain ground.

      1. allathian*

        Meetings are pretty inevitable when we’re still mostly WFH, and even when we aren’t, our manager is in a different office, and we only see her in person about twice a year. I detest unscheduled calls, so standing meetings work far better for me. YMMV. But then, in my job, instant feedback is very rarely needed. Besides, my manager isn’t qualified to give feedback on my work product (I’m a translator, and she’s not fluent in my target languages).

    2. allathian*

      Something like that. Although I admit that I’d hate it if my manager expressed a request as a question. “You seemed to struggle with shaping the spout last time and we need to go over some strategies for that.” Don’t soft-pedal, give me clarity. But this is because I’m in a senior enough position that I can actually sometimes say no to my manager, when one of her suggestions isn’t working for me.

      Obviously I don’t refuse to do straight requests, although when she started, some were completely unreasonable at first, and then I was able to push back a bit (I’ve had this job for 15 years, so I know what is and isn’t realistic or possible). Although now that she understands our workload and capacity better, we haven’t had any of those in a long time.
      That said, if we get unreasonable requests from elsewhere in the organization, she has our backs, and we can always defer to her authority when we very occasionally (once or twice a year) have to refuse completely unreasonable requests.

      I also like it that we have monthly 1:1s and weekly team meetings with our manager. This means that we don’t only hear from her when there’s a problem.

    3. Lily Rowan*

      When I had a team member who was clearly scared of negative feedback, I started using the word “feedback” for positive feedback as well, just to take some of the pressure off the word. So I would say I had some feedback on how she shaped the handle — it was great! I could see her progress! Etc.

  12. mostly anon*

    Dealing with a new manager myself and while I’m not terrified, I am wary. This person was hired to replace an absolute ogre, but is also turning out to have her own issues. Having witnessed the way she dealt with a very troubled employee and also witnessed the snark behind this employee’s back, I now wonder what she says behind my back (to the one direct report she has singled out for constant attention and praise, not to mention embarking on what looks like a romance).
    New manager also spoiled her entrance by insisting on adding to my workload for her own convenience while trying to convince me the extra work was somehow necessary, and reassuring me that her job is to make my job easier.
    OP should make sure they aren’t ignoring things like this when dealing with Tasha. Actions do speak louder than words.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I think OP’s writing in indicates a level of concerns light years ahead of your current nightmare of a situation, so that is a plus. And I’m sorry you are in that situation!
      (Although AAM has posted some doozies of oblivious people writing in for help with “how do I make this person see that I am completely right and they are completely wrong?” )

  13. Eldritch Office Worker*

    The degree of Tasha’s reaction is something I’m getting hung up on. She sounds absolutely terrified of you, almost debilitatingly so. That makes me really concerned about how much stake she puts in gossip and her general confidence in the workplace.

    I know you already think you’ll have to have corrective conversations with her but I also suggest that more general workplace coaching might be in order.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, right now I’m thinking of a former coworker of mine who was a nice person but generally did not have a lot of confidence or discernment, which made her hard to work with–she was always trusting the wrong people and not following through on legitimate and appropriately-delivered advice from her supervisors because her work “friends” convinced her she shouldn’t and everyone was out to get her. But her work friends were pot-stirrers and were often in trouble for their own, also legitimate reasons. Nobody was out to get anyone. Coworker wasn’t a pot-stirrer and would have done a lot better at work if she’d listened to the right people.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        This is what I was coming to say. Tasha may be a natural born follower and Sarah has that quality that draws people to her. A bad combination. Like if Sarah left, Tasha would be a much more independent thinker. Or if Tasha left, Sarah might leave without an audience/partner.
        I’ve actually seen the latter. One would think that without an audience or whatever, Sarah would slide into functionality, but it turns out, with nobody to control, they (my coworker) went somewhere else.

    2. PollyQ*

      Yep, Tasha didn’t ask for advice, but if she had, I’d be mighty inclined to grab her and say, “Suck it up! Fake it til you make it! Never let them see you sweat!!!” I mean, obviously if you’re insecure about your livelihood, you’re going to be nervous or maybe even scared, and that’s understandable. But there’s zero upside to letting it show this badly, and with some bosses, it could even turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d also point out to her that no matter what Sarah says, she actually got to keep her job, so evidence shows that people don’t just get canned at a moment’s notice at that workplace.

      As with the “Am I in trouble?” letter from a week or so ago, I’m left feeling that part of professional demeanor is putting on enough of a confident facade, whether your feel it or not, and not making people do the emotional labor of propping you up.

    3. NoIWontFixYourComputer*

      Interesting point. I’m wondering if Tasha is suffering from Imposter Syndrome, as well as from Sarah’s gossip?

  14. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

    Do you have a form/agenda for your 1 X 1’s? At OldJob I’d have to fill one out and send it to my boss prior to our meeting. It would have a spot for goals/projects and things that were going well and things that could be improved. We’d talk through them every time we met. If it’s on a form and you talk about it regularly and give her the opportunity to self disclose, that might ease her into the conversation and she might feel more comfortable knowing what topics will be discussed a head of time. (Made year end reviews easier too so I could look back on what I did all year)

    1. Saucy*

      My new team leader does this, she sends through an agenda with her parts filled out and asks me to fill in any parts I want to.

      I first thought it was a slightly annoying extra task but I absolutely love it now and will be bringing it to future team leaders. It’s super helpful for accountability in both directions.

  15. Language Lover*

    But also I know from conversations with her former manager that there are some performance issues with Tasha that I’m likely going to have to address soon.

    My recommendation is to try to put this knowledge on the back burner and pretend that you are coming in as fresh as possible. It’s interesting that you’re afraid of what she’s hearing about you from Sarah. Meanwhile, this sentence makes it sound like you’re putting a lot of weight on secondhand information about Tasha from a previous manager. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a little knowledge about a new employee’s personality or skillset Sometimes it’s not. Your managing relationship might be completely different from the one she had with her previous manager just as you hope she’ll be a better employee than Sarah.

    And I’d stress that in your communication with her. Tell her that there may be things you need her to do that her previous manager did not and let her know that she might be able to ask things of you that she couldn’t get from her previous manager. That way it’s about a partnership even though you call the shots.

    Set it up as you exploring each other instead of centering her flaws as presented by her last manager.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      It really depends on the context of the performance issues. Hearing from a fellow manager that there are performance issues that need to be addressed can be very different than hearing from a peer that someone is a jerk. One is highly subjective, but performance issues often have some kind of metric that’s not being met which makes it more likely that the experience will be consistent from one person to the other. If it’s just “Tasha has poor soft skills” yeah that’s totally something to wait and get your own grasp on. But if it’s “Tasha consistently forgets to proofread her documents and her teapot handles get glued on backwards” that’s a more objective issue.

      1. Language Lover*

        Sure. But I’d still recommend waiting to observe the issues first hand as much as it’s feasibly possible. For instance, in your proofreading scenario, perhaps she forgets to add proper punctuation in emails to you. For many people who like to dissect grammar all day, this would be huge. But for others, it wouldn’t matter as long as more public writing is accurate.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      There are some issues that can be cleared up when other issues are cleared up.

      Let’s say a report has to be signed and dated. She doesn’t do either. So you can point to the report, “I really need these reports with your signature. And you can use the signature to remind yourself to put the date here.” I am fan of using memory triggers and using one problem to solve a tangent issue.

  16. kiki*

    I want to upvote Alison’s advice about how to address and handle performance concerns. Right now, Tasha is afraid that any performance mistake is going to mean something cataclysmic – a terrible review, firing, etc. If you address the performance reviews clearly, calmly, and kindly, she’ll probably be relieved! As an anxious person, anticipation of managers dealing with performance concerns is often more anxiety-inducing than when you hear the concern.

  17. Sara without an H*

    Hi, OP — I have some experience managing the Truly Terrified, as well as coming in to clean up after bad managers. You can do this, but it will take time. More time than you think.

    Alison’s advice is good. I’d also recommend scheduling regular 1:1s with Tasha. Ask her to give you an agenda for each meeting. Given her nervousness, there’s real danger that your meetings will turn one-sided, where you try to pump her to talk and she clams up. Ask her for an agenda so that you get to the issues she’s interested in. You won’t get anything earth-shaking in the early stages, but you’ll start showing her that it’s okay to bring issues to you. Be sure any questions you ask her are open-ended.

    Be very mindful of your body language, word choice, and tone of voice. Remember, reports watch supervisors much harder than supervisors watch reports. Tasha’s fear of you will make her over-interpret any signs of tension and/or throwaway remarks. If you think out loud, find somewhere else to do it. (Yes, I learned all this the hard way.)

    Other than that, do pretty much as Alison described in her reply to your question, but give it time. Remember, Tasha has been told by someone she trusts that you are mean and unpredictable. It will take more than a couple of months to convince her that you’re actually a good manager who wants her to succeed.

    1. Stinky kitty*

      Alison is right. Actions will speak so much louder than words. What you say to to change Tashas impression of you are just words. Words can be cheap. Actions to show that you’re not the evil boss will, over time, show your true nature. Consistent actions that match those words will show if what Sarah says is true or not.
      Case in point- when my wife and I met for the first time, she was afraid of me. I mean, wouldn’t talk to me,ride next to me in a car, wouldn’t sit on the same side of a booth in a restaurant in full public view scared of me. I was one of those weird, goth kids with dyed hair wearing black leather, and she…had never seen anyone like me,much less met them. But, over time, she got to know me and understand that I’m just a goofy, fun loving guy that just happens to look scary. And now, here we are 20 years layer, happily married and in love.

  18. Twill*

    Nothing to add – just came here to say I am suddenly craving a sandwich. I see a deli in my immediate future.

  19. Dawn*

    This sort of ties into what Alison already says, but I would also say that rather than jump right into “addressing performance issues,” I’d sit down with her and say something like, “Since I’m new to the department, I don’t know what might be causing these issues that I’m seeing. Is there anything that I can do which would help clear the roadblocks to your performance in X and Y area?” and give her a chance to either let you know that, yes, actually there is an outside issue impacting her performance there, or come to the realization herself that she needs to improve in those areas, and let her have some time with that while you get settled in.

    I don’t think that jumping almost straight into a “performance issues” conversation is going to disabuse Tasha of her image of you; let her know that you’re open to the idea that these issues might not be something she is doing and that if that’s the case you’re willing to work to clear the challenges from her path. Seeing – and having some time to absorb – that you’re willing to work WITH her rather than working ON her is going to go a long way.

  20. Sparkles McFadden*

    Actions truly do speak louder than words. Just be a good manager and it will all work out. Just treat the employee as you would any other direct report. Maybe just try to look for places where you can legitimately give positive feedback until she gets more comfortable with you.

    I transferred into a position where I was replacing a problem manager and inheriting his staff. The week before I was set to start, one of those staff members went around the company in a state of panic, begging people to apply for the position so he wouldn’t have to work for “that horrible monster.” On Friday of that week, this guy declared that he would quit if management hired me. Management said “OK, you don’t work here anymore” but they contacted me and asked why this guy was so intensely afraid of reporting to me. I had to say “I have no idea. I barely know who he is and have never interacted with him.” The departing guy did a great job of scaring the rest of the staff. They were convinced I was there to fire them all. I just did the management job as Alison outlined in her response and everyone was totally fine after the first month. The senior staff member eventually asked “What was his problem with you?” I truly did not know and I never found out what that was all about.

  21. Banana*

    I have a Sarah. I don’t have a Tasha, but Sarah is a talker and has a lot of coworkers. I am lucky enough to collaborate with Sarah’s new group frequently, and make a point of being warm, friendly, and approachable with her colleagues. I have also hired from her team since then, and a bunch of my former employees have trickled over to Sarah’s team as time has gone on, including several who brought forward issues with Sarah’s performance. I have never specifically set the record straight on what happened with Sarah, with anyone but Sarah herself, HR, my chain of command at the time, and the manager who Sarah moved to after me, but I’m pretty sure nobody’s taking Sarah’s opinion of me without a large grain of salt. Time helps!

    HR didn’t drop the ball on me – I hired my Sarah as a transfer from another team, they didn’t bother to actually manage her and just gave her glowing reviews. When I hired her, I found that she couldn’t take feedback well, habitually procrastinated on tasks she didn’t like to the point of causing crises (plural), and was willing to lie to me rather than admit a mistake. Because she didn’t have a track record of issues before she worked for me, HR arranged to transfer her back to her old team and chalked it up to a bad fit. She’s still there three years later.

  22. Dances with Spindles*

    As much as I dislike telling people (or being told!) to smile, expression can do a LOT to allay fears and create a warm, favorable impression. Routinely greeting employees (including Tasha) with a friendly smile takes very little effort and can really pay off in terms of how you’re perceived. Hopefully, once Tasha’s had positive, encouraging one-to-one discussions with you, she’ll form her own good impression of how you are as a manager. (And with a little more experience, she’ll learn to reserve judgment when a colleague tries to paint a manager as an ogre!)

    1. JustaTech*

      Yes to this! Be aware of both your language and your body language. My husband tends to be quiet and reserved, and as a boss this sometimes reads as either disinterested or irritated, which is not helpful when you’re trying to help an employee through a challenging project.
      When he asked me for advice on how to deal with one of his reports who was clearly very anxious I said “you need to smile more and use more emojis in your writing, because from everything you’ve described this person is in a place where they are going to view everything negatively and you’re not going to be able to coach them out of that if they’re terrified of you.”
      It’s not about coddling your report, it’s about meeting them where they are and avoiding the obvious triggers you’ve identified.
      (That report ended up leaving, but with a very good impression of my husband as a manager and was grateful he helped them identify why they weren’t thriving in that position.)

  23. Fluttervale*

    I always lead performance conversations by addressing that I don’t know someone isn’t doing something properly until they do it wrong, and it’s MY fault that I did not train them correctly on how I wanted it. I don’t want people freaking out about their performance issues, because no one is perfect. It’s on the leader/boss to teach them how to do the job correctly, and if they’re not doing it correctly, that’s the boss’s fault.

    I also had an employee that completely lacked self confidence after a lifetime of abusive relationships. I ended up addressing that directly — that the employee had great instincts but was always second guessing themself, so they would assume that their first thought was wrong and find something completely different. First thought was usually right, so when I addressed the issue I really talked about confidence and asked them to just do the first thing they thought was right. Sometimes as a leader you have to find the pattern in the performance issue and address that, not the actual problem.

    People don’t want to go to work and do a bad job. They want the tools and support to do the job correctly, every day. They want feedback, but you can’t just tell them they’ve done something wrong, you have to support them and figure out why they’re doing it wrong and what they can do to get it right. That’s why people are put in charge and managers are created, to help others do their jobs better.

  24. Prefer my pets*

    I still hope every year for an update on the linked (and very relevant!) letter about the incoming potential nightmare boss. Two sides of the coin

  25. OP*

    Thanks, everyone for your input. I wrote that letter the night after my one-on-one with Tasha, and I was pretty worried about how things would play out moving forward. Since then, I’ve interacted with her a lot, and haven’t seen the kind of extreme nervousness she was displaying in that meeting again. I am quite certain that she doesn’t trust me, and that will take some time, but we seem to be working together functionally. I have had the experience of going into a new situation to replace a legitimately abusive boss, and a lot of the skills I learned in that transition have helpfully applied here. I didn’t mention this in the letter, but I’m actually Tasha’s grandboss – this move was actually a promotion for me – but the manager position between us is currently vacant so I’m taking on many of those duties in a way I wouldn’t otherwise. Hopefully in a couple of months she’ll trust me more AND we’ll have an additional buffer between us.

  26. Purrscilla*

    I had a boss who once said to me that I seemed afraid of him – and I hadn’t been, but after that conversation I was. It felt similar to being told to “calm down”, which always does the opposite. (There were other issues, but still.)

  27. Howie*

    OP, you need to make your own judgment on if Tasha has “performance issues”. Another manager’s opinion is irrelevant. Performance issues are very rarely about the person not having the ability, and usually about the work environment, inadequate training, instruction and support, and just generally bad management, etc.

    Good managers basically never need to give negative performance reviews, put people on PIPs, etc, because they’ve discussed the issues early and genuinely helped the person improve. If your coaching isn’t working, you need to adjust your management style and check that your expectations are both realistic and measurable. You also need to check that the supposed problems or issues are actually real, and even if they are, are they severe enough to warrant this level of response? (The answer is usually no.)

  28. Aerin*

    Late to this, but I still carry some baggage that “management wants to talk to me” = “I’m fired” even though I’ve been with this org for over a decade. So recently when my Big Boss had some serious feedback for me (serious meaning it was a major and potentially fraught issue that I’d handled okay but not great), he prefaced it by saying “Feedback is a gift, we know you’ve been working really hard in this role and we really want to give you the tools you need to continue to succeed, this would be a tough situation for anyone,” etc. etc. Without that, I probably would have been waiting for the axe to drop and to be told that I was getting removed from the role or formally disciplined or something. Knowing those outcomes weren’t on the table was genuinely reassuring.

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