Ask a Boss: How Do I Shut Up a Mansplainer?

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Dear Boss,

I’ve been at my company for five years, in various roles with increasing responsibility. A few months ago, I was promoted to train the rest of a team that I was formerly a member of, with responsibility for both onboarding and continuing education (we’re in a medical field where there is a steady stream of new information we need to be well-versed in). I’m a woman in my mid-30s and my team has been fantastic about supporting me as I enter this new managerial role (I do not have direct reports, but I manage the function).

The person who was hired to replace me, Fergus, is in his late 60s and has never worked in this area of medicine before. He’s done the equivalent job at other companies, so there are obvious parallels that qualify him for the job, assuming he completes his training at my direction. He is extremely bright and eager, and reports to Jane, who is my peer. During the interview process, I expressed concern that I hadn’t been able to get a word in edgewise with Fergus when I interviewed him, and that I felt he might not be a good fit with the customers I used to work with. But we needed to backfill the position and so he was hired.

At a recent training meeting, Fergus began instructing other team members on aspects of the disease we specialize in. He repeated the last few words of my sentences to appear as though he was agreeing with me, and offered his opinions frequently — including many that were simply not accurate. Jane gave Fergus frequent indications that he needed to back off, including putting up her hand to signal “stop.” Toward the middle of the day, I was raising a point about my company’s experience with a particular aspect of treatment, and Fergus began to talk over me. I put up my hand and asked him to hold on, and he began to speak louder. I finally said, “Fergus, I’m in the middle of a sentence and I intend to get to the end of it — you need to wait.” Fergus talked even more loudly and then finally blurted out in exasperation that he was “just trying to learn!” He spent the rest of the afternoon sulking.

After the meeting, I spoke to Jane and she said that she was very happy with how I handled Fergus, but I’ve been troubled by the situation ever since. Several members of the team have commented to me that they find his behavior to be inappropriate and irritating.

I’m at a loss. Fergus cannot continue to talk over me and others and give misinformation. In the weeks leading up to this meeting, Jane had several conversations with him about the importance of listening and learning during onboarding, given that he’s tried to jump ahead in the program several times. I’m troubled to think that my age and gender could underlie his disrespect for me and his manager, and I’m sick that he’s going to be handling my old customers. I’m concerned about how to handle him given that I’m not his manager, I’m concerned about his impact on team dynamics, and I’m concerned that he might implicate me as the cause for his turbulent onboarding process. How should I proceed?

Oh, Fergus.

It’s always interesting to see someone do this in an effort to seem important to others without realizing that they end up looking bad instead — there’s a bizarre lack of self-awareness about how other people see them.

And Fergus sounds like a pretty extreme offender, if he’s able to keep going in the face of his boss telling him directly to stop. The sulking after finally being successfully shut down is a nice touch too.

But the good news here is that Fergus’s manager sounds like she’s seeing things exactly as you’re seeing them. And more good news is that she doesn’t sound shy about addressing it. Putting up her hand to signal “stop” and frequently nudging him to back off are excellent signs that she’s comfortable being assertive and that she’s not going to roll over and let Fergus steamroll over people.

Given that, I would focus on doing three things.

First, continue asserting yourself with Fergus exactly as you’ve been doing. Telling him to wait, refusing to let him talk over you, and telling him that he can’t interrupt you are all exactly what you should be doing. Keep doing those things. And keep in mind that because dealing with a Fergus can be exhausting, at times it may feel tempting to give him more leeway, just so you’re not constantly having to battle with him. Try not to give into that temptation, because if you don’t hold the line, you risk reinforcing his worst tendencies.

Second, consider addressing the big picture with him, especially in the context of explaining what you need from him as part of his training. For example, you could say, “Fergus, I’ve noticed that you frequently interrupt or try to talk over me when I’m speaking. I need you to let me finish before interjecting. I also hope you’ll take advantage of the knowledge that I and others here have about this program, since it’s going to be essential to you performing well in your role.” And if that sounds a little heavy-handed to say to someone you don’t manage, know that it’s not. You’re senior to him, you’re training him for the job you used to hold, and he’s being obnoxious.

Third, at some point it might make sense for you to nudge Jane to take more action. It’s really good that she’s dealing with Fergus in the moment and that she’s talked with him about the importance of listening, but there’s a point where more action than that will be needed. If this goes on for much longer, your role may be to say to Jane, “Hey, I have grave concerns about Fergus at this point. He’s not been receptive to coaching, he doesn’t listen, he’s coming across as arrogant, and he’s irritating people. I’m concerned about how he’s going to interact with my old clients. Are you sure that he’s the right fit for the role?” (If you feel awkward about that, keep in mind that as the person training him to fill your old role, you have standing to raise that question.)

One last thing, too. You wrote that you’re troubled to think that your age and gender could underlie Fergus’s disrespect for you. And they very well could! In fact, I’m curious to know whether he works with any men close to his age and, if so, whether he behaves any differently with them. But that’s more of a point of interest than something that should change how you approach the situation. The beauty of being in a position of seniority to Fergus (and with some power over him too, since you’re training him and thus well-positioned to relay concerns to his boss) is that you can decide that you don’t give a crap what he thinks about your gender or your age. Regardless of how he might feel and regardless of his level of respect for younger women at work, you can require him to stop interrupting and talking over you, you can tell him to stop and/or correct him when he’s talking about something he doesn’t know anything about, and you can assert your expertise and knowledge over his when you need to. (Of course, to some extent this relies on being in a workplace that supports you in doing those things and that doesn’t coddle Fergus types, but it sounds like you’re probably in one of those.) Having to do those things repeatedly can be exhausting — which is why you should be prepared to call the question with Jane about whether Fergus should stay on — but it can also be pretty gratifying when you’re confident in your authority to enforce and act on those boundaries.

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Ask a Boss: How Do I Shut Up a Mansplainer?