I’m supposed to manage a disrespectful employee and we keep butting heads. They don’t seem to want to follow my directions and I get the feeling that they’re not giving me their attention when I’m trying to work with them. How can I manage a subordinate who doesn’t respect me?
Managing a high-performing, in-sync team at the best of times can be difficult – let alone if you have a subordinate who doesn’t respect you or who is trying to make waves in the team. If you’re finding it difficult to manage a disrespectful employee, there are a few approaches you can take to try to resolve the situation for the better.
First, keep in mind – respect has to be earned. In a perfect world, respect would be earned based on job title alone, but that’s not always the case. If you’re coming into a new role, particularly if you’ve been promoted above others or are making major changes to the dynamic of the workplace, it’s almost a given that you’ll face some resistance. That being said, respect is due in the workplace on the basis of simply the need to create an efficient and welcoming culture.
When faced with a resistant and disrespectful subordinate, the first course of action is to try to understand why there is a lack of respect. Be careful to avoid accusing anything right off the bat, as that can create an even more contentious and disrespectful situation. Consider approaching the conversation just like a typical feedback or performance discussion.
Get to know them on a personal (yet, still professional) level. What do they enjoy doing on the weekend? What’s their favorite TV show? How did they get started with the company? In this role? What challenges are they facing right now, and how can you help them meet those challenges? Show them that you’re willing to “buy in” to their life. By building a rapport with this person, it may help them lower some of their walls in order to have an open, honest, and productive conversation.
Learn about what is driving their behavior.
Are they stressed outside or inside of work? Are they feeling supported? There could be other things that you don’t see that are driving some of these actions and activities, such as family challenges or conflict in their personal life. Don’t assume they don’t respect you – it just may be manifesting itself in ways that feel like disrespect.
When you address the behavior, be specific about the behaviors and incidents, and explain that it makes you feel disrespected. Utilize “I” statements, such as “when I saw that the report was still missing, even after I asked, I felt disrespected.” Draw the attention away from accusing statements and focus on the effects of their actions.
Recognize the situation.
If you do find that the conflict isn’t something external (perhaps they don’t like you, truly don’t respect you, you’re making change, or you’re replacing someone they enjoyed working for), then recognize the change or uncomfortable situation first. Acknowledge how that might make them feel, and give them the space to work through it.
Earn their buy-in.
This step may be difficult, as there could be hurt feelings or lingering frustration, but earning their buy-in can make leaps and bounds out of baby steps. This step might include asking what changes they would like to see, getting their opinion on next steps, or by explaining the approach, your style, and your goals so that they feel that they’ve been “brought into the fold.”
From there, encourage collaboration by giving them credit and pointing out ways they could be successful in the situation. Call on their support, and clearly outline what that looks like (i.e., “I need you to respond within ‘X’ days”).
Putting next steps on paper can seem intimidating after overcoming a difficult conversation. But in order to ensure clear communication and avoid micromanaging, it’s important to document these expectations should discipline become necessary now or later. Plus, these documents will be key tools to return to in order to keep you both accountable for moving forward positively.
Sometimes, personalities just clash.
It may simply boil down to a personality conflict, and if that’s the case, that’s okay! Not everyone is expected to get along or spend time together outside of work, but they are expected to work together with respect. If it’s a personality conflict, try to refocus the conversation and goals on work-related tasks and objectives to effectively manage the disrespectful employee. Keep focused on the deliverables in front of you, and limit interaction to respectful and to-the-point conversations.
If all options have been exhausted, it’s time to escalate the situation to another supervisor or another HR professional.
As you continue to cultivate this relationship and others on your team, be fair and consistent with anyone you address – whether or not you have a constructive and positive relationship. Follow through on any promises or changes you say that you will do in order to build trust. Consistency is key in creating a fair workplace.
At the end of the day, your subordinates may not like you – and they may never like you – but at least they will see you as a fair and consistent individual. Over time, as they may see the benefits of working together with you, they will gain respect for you.
Special thanks to Terry Salo for contributing to this edition of our HR Question of the Week!
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