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My old-supervisor answers to me now…

handwritten trash modification by franke james; Licensed ©iStockphoto.com/Sharon Dominick
Dear Office-Politics,

Greetings! I have quite the dilemma, though most people think it would be a dream. My old-supervisor answers to me now.

To make a long story short, the position of network manager was created, and the network supervisor thought he was going to get it. Unfortunately for him, he was written up too many times and was not able to apply for the position. I fortunately was able to apply, and due to my past experience and hard work, won the position.

My dilemma is…. I feel uncomfortable around this individual, given his past history and the fact he was my boss at one point. I am sure he harbors ill feelings towards me as well, unable to accept he was passed over for promotion due to his own misdeeds (yes HR has talked to him and everyone about him). How do I go about managing this individual? Is it possible to coach this person? He fits the profile of author Robert Sutton’s definition of an Asshole: he drains everyone he deals with.

My old peers have accepted me as manager, but I feel resistance from him and like he is being territorial. Being new to this position, having been ‘test driven’ for 4 weeks, I’m still waiting for the official announcement, even though I have been told by upper management that I have the position. How should I approach this situation? I do not want to be a commander this early as it could hurt my relationship with my old peers (besides the announcement not being made yet), but I’m afraid he may force me into it.

New Boss

franke james

Dear Good guy (New Boss),

Congratulations on your promotion! Nice to see that the ‘good guy’ got promoted. But as you point out in your letter, it does pose some complications. To help answer your letter I’ve pulled in Robert Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule.

The question is: How do you treat an ex-boss (we’ll call him Eddie) that was a jerk to you and everyone else?

A swift kick
Image of  Robert Sutton A normal human response would be to give Eddie a swift kick. But while it might feel really good to kick him when he’s down, you run the risk of looking like a bigger jerk to your peers and the management above you. And why risk that? Eddie could be history very soon. Ultimately you may decide to fire him, but get all your ducks in a row first. You don’t want him seeking compensation for wrongful dismissal.

Let’s try to figure out a path that treats Eddie with the dignity that any human being deserves – but also shows that you are calling the shots now. Clearly if you treat this guy like dirt before your promotion is announced, it could jeopardize your promotion and your reputation. You don’t want to appear to be ruled by emotion or to be seeking revenge.

Just the facts Ma’am
What are the facts? Eddie is dangerous to you. He can be a divisive element on your team. He can cause you all sorts of trouble, from undermining your management efforts, to sabotage. In my opinion you need to neutralize Eddie’s power and demonstrate to your team that you are the leader now.

Sutton agrees and suggests, “You may have a new problem now that you are becoming his boss – watch out for the “kick down, kiss-up syndrome.” You may believe that your coaching is helping, when in fact, the jerk may just be showing you his (fake) good side and is spewing his nastiness at co-workers and subordinates.”

What type of leader do you want to be?
As a leader, your best bet is to appear fair, even-handed and in control of your emotions. Yes, Eddie is a first-class jerk, but you are a bigger man and you are an expert Office-Politician. You are willing to give him a chance to be a productive member on your team. The message you want to send to your staff is that everyone makes mistakes, but you will not stomp on people for making mistakes, and you don’t hold grudges.

Remember, in every interaction with this guy, your staff is actually looking at you and judging you. Do you want them thinking, “Geez, Eddie was a jerk. But my new boss is a bigger jerk. Gosh if I make a mistake he’s going to hammer me…” One of the most common mistakes business leaders make is to condemn employees who make mistakes. I believe in the philosophy that if you aren’t making a few bloopers you’re not trying very hard.


Step One: Show compassion
The last thing most people want to do is show compassion to a jerk. But it can give you valuable insights, and make you a much more skillful — and powerful — Office-Politics player.

Put yourself in Eddie’s shoes and think about the situation from his perspective. There are many factors at work here — but I’m sure he feels ripped off and envious. He may even be seeking revenge… You can’t do much about that except keep your eyes peeled. Eddie has to adjust to the new reality: You are his supervisor now. He takes orders from you. Do not feed the fire by being rude to him. Showing respect to him may ease the tension a bit (even if he is rude to you, your staff will admire your disciplined restraint).

Step Two: Find a safe place for him
Eddie needs to rebuild his self-esteem. He’s been shot down in flames and is badly wounded. Try to find a safe place for him on the team (where he can’t do too much damage) that shows your staff that he is still useful — but that you are calling the shots now.

Step Three: Lay out the Game rules
Lay out the Game rules. We recommend laying out processes and procedures very clearly for the entire team. As you are just appointed you may not even know what they are. Try to imagine yourself as the ideal leader. What would you say? What would you do? Where could things go wrong? Your staff wants direction from you. Step up to the plate and give it to them. Eddie has gotten in trouble in the past because he did not follow the rules. So be sure that you show your leadership skills by laying out the playing rules.

Step Four: Ten Ways to Kick Butt
Be creative and fun in outlining your game rules, e.g. Ten Ways to Kick Butt (or whatever is appropriate in your culture). They can be a powerful motivational tool as well as a disciplinary tool. If anyone breaks the rules it will be easier for you to call them on it — and decide whether to cut them from the team or what penalty they will face. (Take a look at Erika Andersen’s book Growing Great Employees for some coaching tips.)

But can this jerk be coached?
Sutton offered this advice: “Can this jerk be coached? Your note suggests to me that he has already had many warnings and feedback about his behavior, and if I am reading between the lines correctly, he is a certified asshole in a workplace where this is the exception rather than the rule. So, although you might try to coach him and give him another chance — by setting specific goals with him about how he plans to change his behavior – I would not give him too many more chances as it sounds to me like he has already had a lot.”

Step Five: Sutton’s Bottom-line advice is:

Image of  delete key from Robert Sutton book

Sutton goes on to ask, “Will this ex-boss undermine your ability to lead your new group? Will he be seen as a negative force in other ways? If so, then pushing the “delete button” might be the best thing for both you and your group. As I talk about in The No Asshole Rule, too often, companies put up with such nastiness too long, and I wonder if this is one of those cases.”

You are the leader now — so lead!
In closing I’d say — Appreciate the fact that you are stepping into a leadership role. You will have power over others. How you exercise that power will determine the trajectory of your career – and whether you are viewed as a talented leader or a jerk. Good luck! Thanks for writing to OfficePolitics.com.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game


My thanks to Robert Sutton for contributing to this letter.

Here’s a brief bio on Robert:

Robert Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule, is a Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. He studies innovation, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and most recently, workplace assholes. He works with organizations and managers of all kinds, from People magazine, to Procter & Gamble, to National Football League executives. He has published over 150 articles, in places ranging from peer-reviewed journals, to the Harvard Business Review, to Esquire magazine. His books include Weird Ideas That Work: 11 ½ Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Firms Turn Knowledge into Action (with Jeffrey Pfeffer), and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management (also with Jeffrey Pfeffer). His new book is the national bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. He is a Fellow at IDEO and a member of the Institute for the Future’s board of directors. And especially dear to his heart is the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, which everyone calls “the Stanford d.school.”


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

  1. 8 Answers to “My old-supervisor answers to me now…”

  2. Trackback: Bob Sutton’s blog:

    “This fellow is in a pretty complex situation. My take was that his former boss had been given plenty of chances and perhaps it was time to push the delete button, But Franke offered a more sophisticated and forgiving approach, and in re-reading the letter, I think she is right. You can see Franke’s wise answer here.”

    By Trackback on Nov 1, 2007

  3. The situation may be “pretty complex,” but the solutions are the same ones that are always open to supervisors.

    Start with the expectations chat. It’s your job as the boss to lay out clear and reasonable expectations and check to see if they are understood. With the expectations, you need to describe the consequences: positive for the right behavior and acceptable or better performance, negative for anything else.

    Then you need to follow up. You will probably need to have what I call a “Transitional” chat where you say something like, “You’re doing this. If you keep it up I will document it and here are the consequences of continuing.”

    Then you will have to follow up and probably document. If your ex-boss sees the light, fine. If not you’re giving him the opportunity to do so and building your file of documentation if he does not.

    By Wally Bock on Nov 4, 2007

  4. Feedback from Good guy (New Boss)

    My promotion has been announced so I’m official. Right now I have Eddie working on things that are individual items. Basically things that he can do on his own to get him used to working again, and to isolate him from the team. I know I probably shouldn’t isolate him from the team, but I want minimize any damage he might do to the team, plus I want him to prove himself, not only to himself, but to the team and myself as well. I let Eddie work on the projects he deems important, but I prioritize the projects, approve any expenditures, and set the general direction. I want him to get used to taking orders and not giving them.

    Eddie has already gotten into some minor trouble by not following written instructions, and he has apologized for this… I noticed during this exchange that his body language was interesting, he naturally had his arms crossed suggesting he was defense, or perhaps closed off, but he was leaning back in his chair, which suggested to me he was unreceptive. I thought it interesting enough to note.

    I have invited Eddie to go with another senior person to an outside event, as I felt they both would get the most from it (and have stated it to him). This is an attempt to follow your advice about saving face for him, and showing him I feel he is an important contributor, as I will not be going since he will get more out of it. Lately Eddie’s tone and demeanor around me have been civil and productive, though he still acts superior in a know-it-all fashion, which I have gotten used to ignoring, or by not taking the bait.

    I took the liberty of picking up and reading The No Asshole Rule, and have passed it on to my immediate manager, the deputy director. Having also shown this correspondence to the both my immediate directors, I wanted to make clear to them that I am making a clear effort to understand, coach, work with, and salvage Eddie. The general consensus from up above is he has overstayed his welcome and should look for employment elsewhere. Eddie is on probation right now due to another complaint where his behavior embarrassed someone from our corporate office, I have been told that he is on permanent probation, where one more misdeed and he is gone, whether it happens tomorrow or a year from now. So my political base right now is solid, and I do not think he can damage that in the immediate future, but I do not think I have the power to fire him.

    Having heard of attempts by Eddie to use the kick down, kiss-up syndrome, I’m lucky that my team members and the rest of the staff in our department know better then to believe him, and have confided in me that he has tried this on occasion. I have also noticed that he tries to go around me to my manager, and to the manager of the entire group. Eddie has also tried the “do not forget to do this” game as well, mentioning items he had dropped the ball on, and making them seem like a priority in front of other people. Last week, it was “well I told you to do that when I was in charge”, which were obvious attempts to try and undermine my work credibility, and boost his. I’m happy to say this did not last long, when again nobody took the bait.

    On a side note, the favorite victim of Eddie’s harassment has made a miraculous recovery. This poor individual, that we will call Harry, is actually happy to come to work again. Harry used to be very nervous, miss work a lot, and had actually developed some nervous ticks. Harry would stutter and would blink very rapidly. No doubt this poor guy was missing work going to the doctor and/or interviewing. Harry is very intelligent and hard working; he just needed some coaching and support to excel. This demonstrates exactly what Bob Sutton was trying to get across when he wrote about the unseen cost of keeping an asshole.

    Being a manager once before did little to prepare me for this situation since usually your old supervisors are usually gone from the group when you take over, but it is very reassuring to receive advice from experts, and to get some new ideas and perspectives as well. I’m not sure how this Eddie situation is going to pan out, but rest assured I will not let it negatively impact the team, especially with the support I am getting, and the Office-Politics team in my corner.

    Many Thanks!

    By Letter writer on Nov 5, 2007

  5. More feedback from Good guy (New Boss)

    Recently Eddie was working on one of his projects, and once again turned some things off he shouldn’t have. Another engineer (call him Neil) and I, responded to the issues Eddie had created. We had no idea what was going on, until we remoted into the particular device Eddie was working on. Right at that exact moment, Eddie bursts onto the scene and starts trying to dress me down in front of Neil, by yelling. To his surprise I yelled back at him. Maybe not the best thing to do, but he caught me off guard. He did apologize to me, and seems to be making an effort to be extra nice to me, but is this a ploy since he knows I’m not going to put up with his antics or perhaps he realizes that I can write him up and boot him now (at least while the incident is still fresh).

    Another day, Eddie and I got called in to work, and Eddie brought up that he was in the middle of writing a flame email in response to one of my emails to him about a project document he was to update, when the link went down, and perhaps it was a higher power trying to tell him something. On a side note, Eddie has begun to verbally bait people into bashing Harry once again, luckily most people do not take this bait.

    My question, do I accept the apology??? Is it sincere, or do I finally give this guy the boot???

    By Letter writer on Nov 21, 2007

  6. Reply by Franke James:

    It sounds like the writing is on the wall for Eddie — he just can’t read.

    You should seek a legal opinion before you fire him to protect both yourself and your company. Be very careful what you say as he may try to use it against you.

    Eddie is very clever and resourceful. My suggestion is to prepare your ‘case’ very well if you’re going to try to get him fired. Make sure you have everything nailed down, and that you’ve anticipated his defensive moves. You don’t want Eddie to squirm out of this — or drag the company through a wrongful dismissal.

    The safest route for you is to take your ‘case’ to senior management, explain what you think is best for the company, and get their authorization in writing that Eddie is being fired/ or that you have the authority to fire him. If Eddie files a lawsuit against your company, you will want to be able to prove you had full authority and the company backing to fire him.

    Let me know how it goes.

    Good luck.

    By Franke James on Nov 21, 2007

  7. Feedback from Good guy (New Boss)

    Well, Eddie is gone. HR finally gave us their blessing. I did not have to fire him, the Site Director did the deed. He still has some equipment that belongs to the client, and we are packing up his office. Hopefully the exchange will be peaceful. Just in case the doors will be locked as a precaution, the key combinations have been changed, and the building maintenance personnel have been alerted.

    By Letter writer on Nov 21, 2007

  8. If Eddie is an egocentric jerk, simply put him aside on some nothing-to-do projects, do not invite him to meetings until the last minute and say “oh, miss you in the to: list, please join”, and set him up for some embarassment moments during meetings when you ask him suddenly to answer a few questions that you know he can’t answer. With self esteem, this kid will resign on his own, save you some work.

    If he is a trouble maker but has no self esteem at all, give him simultaneously a few sizable, high-sounding-nothing projects (make up a few if you don’t have any), blow up the balloon to a few key mgt staff and tell them that Eddie is doing the job right now & will prepare his proposal. Give Eddie this great time to show off, but set a relatively straight timeline. Let him lead, but don’t give him direct support. Let him do the presentation, but check against his materials before hand. Reason for all these: set him up for opportunities to gain a few points back (if he cares / can) and a small chance to come-back (which you should monitor closely to make it impossible). With the straight timeline & pressure to perform, Eddie will either become a highflyer of your team (which you win coz’ once you become leader, even jerk performs) or he will commit suicide politically if he does a lousy job.


    By Bad Guy on Sep 3, 2008

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