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How to deal with a dismissive, disrespectful and arrogant employee?

Ear iIllustration copyright 2009 Franke James

Dear Office Politics,

As a director of marketing, I manage a great team of nine in a large organization. Lately I’m experiencing some challenges from a senior member of the team (let’s call her Sharon). Based on her proven and potential ability, I have sent Sharon on a major conference, provided financial recognition for work well done, been supportive in some interpersonal issues, and given her the lead on important projects. However, considering she reports to me, her behavior towards me has increasingly felt dismissive, disrespectful and arrogant.

Some recent examples: Sharon has repeatedly shown up late for group meetings I or others have set. I’ve spoken to her about this, and she has been either apologetic or defensive, saying she feels ‘picked on’. She did not show up for two individual meetings I set with her, due to other meetings with colleagues I assume she felt were more important than me. She has not made a team presentation that all team members are expected to do after a major conference. She has accused me of trying to ‘take credit for one of her ideas’ when I mentioned I would be referring to her project in a presentation I was making. I have tried to take the high road and discussed the importance of time management, pointed out that it is my role as department manager to showcase the lead projects of my team members, and discussed the importance of treating others with respect. This has not resulted in any significant change.

I recognize that I’ve probably undermined my own authority by providing too much positive reinforcement (downplaying weaknesses and emphasizing strengths) and not enough constructive criticism, and being more informal in my manager-employee interactions (with all my team members) than I probably should be. Sharon is on a two week vacation and I want to meet with her when she returns to clarify that this behavior is not acceptable and needs to change. Any tips?

Finding the Balance

OFFICE-POLITICS ADVISER ERIKA ANDERSEN
erika andersen

Dear Finding the Balance,

I’m convinced that giving corrective feedback is one of the most challenging parts of the manager’s job. How do you let people know they need to change without making them defensive or damaging the relationship?

Fortunately, I do have some tips. And, at the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, I might also suggest that you get a copy of my book, Growing Great Employees – there’s a whole section on how to give corrective feedback that expands on the ideas I’ll share here.

Focus on behaviors

First, I’d suggest that you focus on the behaviors (late to meetings, not making a presentation after a conference, missing appointments with you) that aren’t acceptable, vs. talking about how it feels to you (dismissive, disrespectful, arrogant). It’s much easier for people to hear about behaviors that you want changed; if you tell someone they’re being “disrespectful,” it feels like you’re saying they have a character flaw – and they’ll simply become defensive and tell you all the reasons it’s not so.

Start by listening

Second – and this may be the most important – when you sit down with her, I’d recommend you start by listening. This may seem counter-intuitive, but we’ve found it extremely helpful. Here’s how this works. You ask to meet with Sharon after the vacation, letting her know you’d like to discuss the difficulties the two of you have been having lately. Then when you meet, begin the conversation by saying something like, “I want to share my point of view about how we’re working together and some things I’d like to see change – but first, I’d like to hear how you see it. From your point of view, what are you doing that’s working in our interaction, and what do you think you could be doing differently?”

Then really, really listen.

A number of things might happen: Sharon might try to deflect the whole thing by saying some version of, “What about what YOU should be doing differently?” In which case you can get it back on track by responding, “I’m happy to talk about that later, but right now, I’d like to focus on you.”

Sharon might also say, in effect, “Nothing. I’m doing everything right.” In which case, you’ll know where you’re starting from – AND you’ve given her the courtesy of listening, which is a powerful statement of respect, and tends to lower defensiveness a lot. If she does this, I’d suggest you summarize (“So, from your point of view, your interactions with me don’t need to change”) and then share your feedback. (“I see it differently. Here are three behaviours that I want you to work on changing….”)

She might also acknowledge part of her contribution to the problem, in which case you can build on what she says (e.g., “Thanks for acknowledging that – I agree. And there are two other related things I’d like to mention…”)

Sharon might also share new information – about how she sees herself, you, or the relationship between you that gives you insight into her and will help you share the feedback in a way that’s more acceptable or meaningful to her.
And, she might surprise you by giving herself the feedback – acknowledging what you’ve seen. In this particular situation, it doesn’t sound likely – but it’s possible! Then you’re in the enviable position of simply coaching her to decide how to behave differently.
In any case, the critical thing is that you listen without interrupting – really focus on understanding how she sees the situation. This will, as I mentioned, lower her defensiveness and provide you with critical insights. Then, once you’ve summarized her point of view to make sure you’re clear and to let her know you’ve heard her, you can give your feedback, making it as behavioural as possible. (You may then have to listen and summarize through a round or two of explanation and defense – do that sincerely, while staying on message when you respond.)

Finally, once she seems to have heard the message, go on to next steps. And I’d suggest that you first ask her how she’ll change, vs. telling her how to change. If she won’t respond (e.g., “I don’t know what you want from me,”) then you can say what you’d like and get her agreement – but it’s preferable if the suggestions come from her; she’s likely feel more ownership of the action plan if she says it.
And the ‘next steps’ should also include an agreement to check in at some defined point (2-4 weeks away) to see how things are going. This will help to make it clear to her that you’re serious about requiring change.

Overall, if your approach is respectful, practical, hopeful and firm, you’ll have the highest likelihood of success. It also helps if your mindset going in is “I’m Sharon’s boss; it’s perfectly legitimate for me to require these behaviors.” Then you’ll be less likely to be apologetic or unclear.

Hope this helps – keep us posted! Thanks for writing to OfficePolitics.com.

Warmly,

Erika Andersen, Author

Being Strategic book cover

Erika Andersen is the author of BEING STRATEGIC (May 2009). Talk of strategy abounds in business — but moving from thinking strategically to acting strategically is an enormous leap. BEING STRATEGIC is a roadmap for consistently making choices that best move you toward your desired future. What’s more, it explains why being strategic is worth the time and effort required, what’s involved, and how to do it. The book explains the core skills and practices needed at each point of being strategic and provides simple models, real-life examples and self-directed activities for learning and applying them.

Erika Andersen is founder of Proteus International, where she has served as consultant and adviser to CEO’s and top executives around the world. She is the also the author of Growing Great Employees, published by Portfolio in 2006.

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  1. 23 Answers to “How to deal with a dismissive, disrespectful and arrogant employee?”

  2. Erika
    I think your opinion seems very biased from a managers point of view. What you seem to have said it to appear to understand but not really understand and still take the same approach of changing the employees behaviour. You haven’t mentioned that the employee may be behaving in that manner because of the manager. Manager’s seem to think they are on some pedestal and always right. Lets face it, not all managers are so because they should be but often because they are in the right place at the right time with no other choice for the organisation – particularly government. It seems as though your tactics corner the employee into changing without the manager thinking that it is maybe themselves that need to change also!!!

    By Jacqueline on Sep 17, 2009

  3. Can anyone help me? What can a potential supervisor do to develope interpersonal, conceptual and political competencies?

    By Stanley on Oct 5, 2009

  4. Jacqueline, I don’t think Erika is biased. The manager needs to clarify expectations, such as arriving on time and attending meetings. That’s the manager’s job. By putting the expectations on the table, the employee can discuss if, indeed, those expectations are wrong or out of reach.

    At the end of the day, every employee’s job description (IMO) is “make your manager look good”. Managers don’t think they’re always right or on a pedestal, but they have a job description and goals and their own manager to report to.

    By RG on Oct 8, 2009

  5. Asking for a meeting to discuss Sharon’s difficulties is asking for a bad outcome; an air of accusation before the discussion even begins. Don’t focus on Sharon’s bad behaviour, like a teacher reprimanding a recalcitrant pupil. Remember that attempting to modify weaknesses is a costly strategy. Focus on strengths, and first listen to what the other person has to say.

    Instead, invite Sharon to a debriefing meeting. Much better yet, schedule a debriefing meeting for the whole department.

    The purpose of a debriefing meeting is to review a project/department with a view to acknowledging what went/is wrong, what went/is right and initiating written action plans for improvement that all participants have had a role in formulating.

    During a debriefing meeting, rank is left at the door. The purpose is to allow everyone from all levels to have a frank, open, two-way discussion about what is working and what is not working, without fear or recrimination. What is discussed stays in the room. No participant should ever be surprised by something that was discussed subsequently appearing on his/her annual performance review.

    That way, you can make it clear that excellent time management will greatly benefit the department, without ever individually confronting and alienating Sharon. An action item could be a written code of conduct for the department, including, in your case, a couple of items: (1) All meetings start on time. Those who fail to arrive on time are not allowed in (I have experienced this rule; it worked very well; no one was ever late for a meeting, as the consequences were too great.) (2) It is the department manager’s role to showcase projects, with full citation for the originator of ideas.

    By Jacquie on Oct 10, 2009

  6. Dear Finding the Balance,

    Erika has suggested the couching method to deal with the problem. This could be very effective in many occassions.

    What I suggest you also do is you need to find (or create) opportunities to tell Sharon that you are the one who will assess her performance at the end and you directly or indirectly will determine her salary increment, bonus and promotion. You can do the following to get the message across.

    Make it a habit that at the beginning of a project (or beginning of the year), you call formal meeting with each of your members (including Sharon) to agree on their performance objectives. The objectives should consist of business performance and individual performance. Individual performance may include leadership, management, communication, teamworking, innovation, relationship or whatever key personal characteristics that are important to the success of your function. You also agree with them your expectations and please provide very specific target deliverables, for instance, timely submission of reports / presentations etc.

    Hope this helps. All the best to you.

    Thank you

    Regards
    Edward

    By Edward on Oct 11, 2009

  7. Contrary to popular belief; rude/impatient people are typically good at “something”. The challenge for managers are to look for that “something” which the person can excel and simply stay out of the way.

    I agree with the first comment. Sometimes it is the manager’s fault. However, as a manager; the channel of communication is highly important to explain “WHY” a task is required. Most of the time, there’s just not enough time. Leading to mis communication.

    Then there’s the “THINKING INSIDE THE BOX” characters. Folks that simply refuses to do any tasks beyond what is defined in their job scope or current employment. As well as suffer from mental conditions such as Borderline Personality Disorders.

    You can easily spot them from emotional overdramatizion or semi-violent behaviour or cussing when things do not go their way. THe same sickness applies both ways, so I am not taking sides here.

    As a manager, think it through; if you cannot handle the staff, then by all means; transfer them away. The company’s bottom line within this economic climate is too harsh too much time on any one resource.

    If you happen to KNOW the kind of scenarios that the difficult employee can excel. Then by all means try your best to create that scenario because it will be worth it.

    Profitable employees are hard to find. Difficult ones are a dime in a dozen.

    By Dr. Kervokian on Oct 15, 2009

  8. Wow – it is amazing to see the spectrum of responses. I have faced this exact situation and believe Erika’s response is spot on.

    I would not for a minute hold a group meeting to address an individual issue. Time is too precious. I would also not be too excited about transferring an employee (even a talented employee) who was not OK for my own team. The old saying that one bad apple can ruin the entire bushel is very true.

    The best approach (my opinion) is to meet one on one (neutral setting is preferred) and then ask them to explain what is going on. It is important as the boss to take the high road and not take offence as long as the communication is respectful.

    When the conversation switches to the boss’s response it is very important to be clear and to the point. Focus on the problems and the business impact these problems are generating. Do not debate or compromise on right and wrong.

    Regards,
    Jamey

    By Jamey on Oct 20, 2009

  9. The “make your manager look good” cliche has always bothered me. Taking such a thing on as a job duty seems at odds with the ideas of both integrity and dignity.

    Guess that’s why I’m a contractor now.

    When I managed people, I saw it as MY job to extract from each report their highest potential contribution for the organization via the best use of his or her talents.

    Perhaps at some point in the past, these dysfunctional hierarchical relationships served some purpose. At this point, if a manager truly expects to be “made to look good” by subordinates, I think she either lacks enough real work or has an ego problem that ought to be resolved in therapy not in abusive power dynamics.

    By Barbara Saunders on Nov 1, 2009

  10. There are many good suggestions from everyone here. I’m wondering if Finding the Balance has thought about physical health reasons. The fact that Sharon has many years with the company and has only recently had these issues makes me wonder if she may be going through menopause or beginning Alzheimer’s. I worked for a woman who could be wonderful one day and a tyrant the next. She was going through menopause. We usually went by the rule, if she speaks when you come in, she’ll be in a good mood, if not, no one really chats much that day. I also worked with a brilliant man who knew everything about the company. He began forgetting things and he became withdrawn and angry because he couldn’t cope with literally losing his mind. It was really sad, because he was always the go to person. You can’t directly ask these things, but given your rapport with Sharon, perhaps you can show her that she still has a friend in you. Maybe tackle one thing at a time, like lateness. Tell her that she is usually very punctual and ask if something has changed to cause her recent lateness. I would address her privately. If she feels that her job is not presently in danger, but could be if she doesn’t correct this, you may have opened the door for her to communicate what is going on. Hope things work out for both of you.

    Terri

    By Terri R on Dec 10, 2009

  11. I think that the answers that were given by erika is very bias.

    As a manager, jumping to conclusion that an employee is dismissive, disrespectful, arrogant just by the event of being late, missing appointments is really a result from lack of understanding.

    From the starting of the question, “finding the balance” already have a presumption that the employee is the main problem using massive words like dismissive, disrespectful and arrogant without looking further to the cause of why the employee is late.

    It is really a normal phenomena in office when the capability of a senior employee is becoming a threat to the manager. The later will start to pacify themselves that the senior employee is full of themselves, arrogant and disrespectful towards them just to make sure their ego is filled up enough to claim the credit.

    At the same time, the manager will pour more work to the senior and using the term such as giving chance for them to perform and sometimes provide some verbal or financial recognition feeling that it is their God given rights as a superior to delegate most of the work to others.

    Inexperience manager always falls into this trap when they are first given the power to manage. Always remember that no matter how experience we are, the senior member of the organization is the most important member that keep the performance at its best.

    Giving more respect to the senior is a must as the person is the key in a managers success. A managers ability to openly discuss and respect his/her employee will result in a better bond in a team.

    Jumping into fast conclusion of an employee characters is also a major mistake. A person is late because she has reasons. Nobody wants to be late. I believe a senior employee she is always busy with a lot of task. Making sure her task is finish is her main priority. That ‘s why she got a proven record as the manager stated.

    By James on Jan 29, 2010

  12. Just fire her! Wasting time and resources on people such as this is just stupid.

    By Scott on Feb 10, 2010

  13. As a manager, maybe you need to understand your employees more. Are you threatened by your employee? Have you thought about team building exercises?

    By John on May 25, 2010

  14. Thanks Erika! I know you weren’t responding to my specific situation, but this is the best advice I’ve found so far. Most of what I have read has been very vague, so it is nice to read a concrete plan of action.

    By Andrea on Jan 6, 2011

  15. Agree with Scott. Why waste time on these people and hesitate from firing them? If “Finding the Balance” feels that the employee is being disrespectful and not fulfilling basic levels of professionalism, then that is a very serious issue. Like it or not, he or she is the manager, and has responsibilities to someone else. Sharon works for “Finding the Balance”, not visa versa. Guess Sharon is from Gen-TheWorldOwesMe, and doesn’t quite get this yet. Employees should be working to support their superiors to their very best capabilities. Even fill in the gaps of their managers weaknesses. If they don’t like it, then they need to be self-employed, or try somewhere else.

    By Carl on Feb 3, 2011

  16. I am reading these comments and it sounds a lot like what I am going through at this time. I have an employee working for me that not only thinks they could run the department better she has no problem with stating it to other employees… at least the ones they have not forced away. I ave asked around the company and over 75% of the employees say they feel as though she is an adversary instead of some one there to help. I am a new manager and I know that I have done things wrong. Any ideas as to what I could do to turn this situation around, Asve her job? SHe is dis-respectful, she writes E-mails to other employees making statements like ” I sent this to my boss and he hasn’t responded, but I am just checking up on this items progress”. Rather than doing the thing I asked her to do she attempts to undermine my position. I have never talked down to her… she hurt her self 5 months ago at home so she cannot do the initial job I hired her for…. yet she still feels as though she knows more than everyone else… Any ideas?

    By Bryon Bowen on Feb 18, 2011

  17. I also have a problem with an employee who just continually gives me attitude and thinks everyone else is a b*tch or an a**hole because they’ve asked her to do something she’s not happy to do.

    We’re currently going through a consultation period, which means that, at the end of it, a bunch of people will be made redundant, but she doesn’t seem to recognise that, unless she proves that she can do the job and get on with everyone, she’ll be gone. I don’t like using threats and any time I do try to ask her what’s wrong, she’ll either burst into tears and say “Nothing!” or she’ll just look at me as though she’s about to smack me in the mouth and say “Nothing!”. Sadly, I’m only her line manager and, with the way my job is set up, I have no “power” to do anything about it, so have to rely on my bosses, who are so caught up in their own jobs, they don’t have time. All I can do is talk and try and exert some sort of authority, but how?? Any ideas?

    By Peasimo on Apr 12, 2011

  18. i have to thank you all guys for the great inputs you have made on this article because i am a senior manager for three months now and am 35 years of age. I am the Head of Prison, managing people who most of them fyfteen (15) years my senior. Most of the days things work ok, but I think employees are getting used to me and I can feel it in the manner they address me and everytime i have to run after them for the reports that are not given back to me or the work that is not done. In this short period i have discovered that my three manager, who are working directly under me are not really the people i can trust in because they do the work to please me. Most of the times i find them doing other things and neglecting their work. they have their cligues and each is making it difficult for another to work. this morning i had a diagreement with one of them for correcting his opinions infront of juniors, but i felt i needed to provide direction for everyone. i could not have allowed the othe officials to regard his opinion to be a true reflection of the policies and laws of my deaprtment.

    iafter i read this document and your opinion, i feel relieved that i really am not alone in this and that i was not really wrong. some of you have actually suggested what i did to try and resolve the matter. yes, there are other things i have learned also, but i’m really greatful for this document Erica.

    one other thing i think we have forgotten to touch base on is the assessment of the relationships we establish we the workers. the closer you are on a personal level the more diffucult or uncomfortable it may be for one to manage the situation. so, please be a manager at work and nothing more than that. this applies to managers with family members, relatives and friends working under their supervision.

    By Mookgwane Audrey wa Sebati on May 11, 2011

  19. Sadly this is quite a common problem and could be a problem on the Managers side. No one likes to be unpopular but to lead sometimes you have to be. This is the hardest lesson to learn but it is so important. When you are scared of being disliked you tend not to nip problems in the bud and things can escalate. Staff lose respect. My advise is set standards and allow no exceptions to rules that are in place. Staff know where they stand and where the line is drawn. You can then concentrate on what is important.
    Good Luck to you all!

    By rachel on Jun 11, 2011

  20. I think that most of the responses here have something to be listened to. I agree that by positive reinforcement you can get the most out of someone who just needed a little reassurance that their input is valued and respected, generally this all most people want. I also believe, though, that some people have issues that transcend what is going on in a work environment and are much more ingrained in their personality, their past work experiences and their outlook on life in general. If the former is the case then you can forge positive change together by simply affording that person a little more time to hear their ideas and decide upon a plan of action to put them in place. However I have recently experienced the latter and despite encouragement, increasing responsibility and reward in areas they themselves have expressed an interest, have found that my efforts were counter productive. Instead of this person becoming a more productive member of the team, they have seen this extra attention as a green light to demand even more attention, usually through unacceptable behaviour. So the question really comes down to a simple ratio of time spent appeasing/making an extra effort, verses how much value they add to your establishment. If the result is that your efforts are not worth it then you have to reassess whether this person is, in fact, of value to you and consider finding a replacement. If you are just a line manager, pass on your findings to your senior. If you are in charge of making the decisions, then decide.

    By Jane on Oct 4, 2011

  21. These comments certainly are all over the map. I am a manager finding myself in a similar situation. My predecessor had hired an experienced employee shortly before I took over. This employee may be older and have more advanced education than I, but he has much less experience in our field. Several of his peers and I have tried to mentor and coach him on how to be more effective, but he’s very resistant to feedback. Talking with him about this has elicited comments along the lines of the people he works with are beneath him and there’s nothing he needs to learn.

    The most visible behavioral issue has been consistent tardiness and filling out inaccurate timecards. When this issue is brought up, he claims we are mistaken or that he was working from home.

    Continuing to research ideas on dealing with him have brought me here. I like the ideas on asking for his feedback to see if I can tease more clues out of him on why he behaves the way he does. I believe he is simply in a wrong position that’s not a good match for his skills, but his ego doesn’t allow him to admit this (hence the resistance to coaching) and he doesn’t like the work (hence the poor attendance). It just isn’t easy to discuss these things without the conversation turning bitter.

    One commenter says “just fire them, this isn’t worth so much wasted time!” Frankly, I agree, but I’m not in a position to make that call based on the way the organization is set up.

    By Joe on Oct 24, 2011

  22. Lots of great advice, from different points of view. Finding The Balance has a serious problem on his/her hands. an employees disrespect and rudeness cannot be a defensive view of a manager who feels threatened: both are unecceptable and should be repramanded according to the guidelines of the company’s HR department. Employees like Sharon do not hear reasoning, it’s either their way or no way, and in the case of a top producer, the manager is, more often than not, against the ropes, unless the organization is willing to back him/her up.
    Good luck Finding The Balance. I would like to know the outcome of the Sharon issue.
    Steve B

    By Steve B on Nov 7, 2011

  23. If the situation is a little bit more complicated where the subordinates behavior is not tolerable and the manager doesn’t have authority to fire her? and the manager’s managers are playing divide an rule? One solution comes to mind is to look for a new job altogether and never accept responsibility without proper authority, if anyone has any idea how to defeat divide & rule tactic, let me know…

    By Tanim Ahmed on Nov 25, 2011

  24. sounds like before you take place in the “listening” part that you’ve already made up your minds about what you think. Even though you are a “manager” managers really do have favoritism and do pick on people; are threatened by “underlyings” and are dismissive themselves.

    By Irene on Jan 9, 2012

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