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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.

  1. 5 Answers to “How to deal with a dismissive, disrespectful and arrogant employee?”

  2. From what little I can read between the lines, Sharon has an issue with authority and she defies it in her behaviour quite explicitly. I am beginning to believe that she thinks that you are probably not the best person fit for the Marketing Director’s role. As the team’s boss you have a lot of corporate responsibility on your head plus line management of 9 individuals. You cannot be seen as someone who is unable to perform. Therefore I suggest taking some radical steps.

    I think you are putting too much effort in explaining yourself as to why you as the department’s manager had to showcase everyone’s project etc. You need not explain this because your are entitled to it and subordinates need to understand that you have the final say in things.

    I think Sharon takes advantage of you being the gentle, nice guy/girl, trying to do the right thing and make it easy for everyone, so everyone works harmoniously. I think it is time to get rigid and demand respect, after all you’ve earned it, right?

    Sharon could be a high performer but she may be affecting the team dynamics and the culture of the team. This is probably impacting how your team looks in front of the rest of the organisation.

    Following Erika’s comments, I think it would be wise to make the conversation about her. You can do this by asking ‘smart’ questions about her. Begin the discussion by making it light-hearted about her vacation and talk about your last one. This way you you have a common playing field. Then jump straight into what is not working. Tell her that the feedback is not great from colleagues and what does she want to do about it. If she says “I try” or “it is not correct” basically falling into the VICTIM zone, then pull her out by saying “these are the things that I want you to ensure you are doing and we’ll catch up weekly to track your progress”. In the meantime liaise with HR first and update them about what is happening with this particular employee.

    Time to get assertive and take action and not let people get away with excuses. All the best.

    By Will on Jan 7, 2012

  3. Dear Finding the Balance

    Sharon is clearly angling for your job and has repeatidly disrespected you both your position of authority and you as a human being. There is only one option – you need to assert yourself and flex your muscles. Cut her off at the knees by simply putting Sharon on the less glamorous projects and on the difficult accounts. Take away her perks e.g. send other colleagues to conferences and not Sharon. Begin micro managing her work and being very knit picky – in effect show her who is boss. That being you of course.

    Hope this helps.

    By Roger on Jan 19, 2012

  4. I just stumbled upon this post. I really enjoyed reading this I myself have been at times a dismissive, disrespectful, and arrogant employee.

    A few years ago (@2010) I got into a very tense situation with a manager. To the point where he wrote me up to HR and I was almost fired. The whole experience was very traumatic. Due to the situation, I was forced to leave a job that I really enjoyed.

    And it’s only after all this time(about 2 years), that I can more objectively look back on this and see MY role in that situation.

    So this post was very helpful, b/c it made me realize all the ways that manager perceived me.

    And the post was also helpful, b/c I recognize myself in Sharon. IE, I did not respect my manager. And essentially thought I was smarter and could do the job better than him. While that may have been true, what I now realize is that regardless I needed to be respectful of his position. Clearly he was above me for a reason. And it was up to me to figure out a way to “shine” under him until in a way that either he himself wanted to promote me or I had some other opportunity come up.

    In any case, I hope the Sharon in this story can rein it is before things blow up on her. And I wish the manager luck, knowing this will not be an easy task unless Sharon can recognize she needs to adjust.

    For myself, I regret not handling things differently in so many ways. But I am trying hard to learn so not to repeat the same mistake(s) again.

    By Anon73 on Mar 2, 2012

  5. In your place I would not tolerate this at all.

    I have a zero tolerance policy towards insubordination and if one of my workers ever behaved like this towards me I would fire them immediately with no warnings or reprimands.

    I am the boss, so you do as you are told, period. I don’t care if you are smarter than me or you think you can do the job better.

    By shentino on Jun 16, 2012

  6. Part of the root cause should better be identified, when leaderships not clear and leader don’t show integrity, most employee will be disoriented and respect to the leader will be affected

    Not good in focusing all that have happenned but the management should do some corrective action and improvement on their management style & value.

    By anonym on Aug 2, 2012

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