A few years ago, I managed a long-term project that my co-worker, Jane, was working on. Jane was tricky to work with. In terms of technical skill, she did a few things exceptionally well, but her overall performance was slightly below what I would have expected from somebody with her experience. But it was her soft skills which made her really difficult to work with — she missed deadlines, made careless mistakes, would sulk or throw tantrums if given negative feedback, and would simply not do tasks that she didn’t want to do.
We haven’t had any contact since I left the company. But, after a “you must have worked with Jane when you were at X — isn’t she amazing!?” conversation with an acquaintance, I looked her up and discovered she’s doing really well! She’s landed jobs and projects that I would have loved to have worked on.
I know I should say “good for her” and move on. I also know that anything could have happened in the intervening period to explain her career turnaround. But it’s completely thrown how I view myself.
If I’m honest, I was far from perfect when I worked with Jane. Our mutual line manager, Lydia, was micromanaging the project we were working on. Think things like reassigning Jane to high-stakes tasks she’d previously struggled with “because she’ll only learn if she’s given opportunities,” but not letting me reorganize my own work so I could supervise Jane — and then flipping out at me 24 hours later when Jane messed up. She also went back and forth between “I’ll handle Jane’s performance” (and then seemingly not doing anything) and “It’s your project — if you have a problem with Jane’s work, you deal with it.”
At the time, I felt I remained professional. With hindsight, I must admit I did not do a great job at hiding my frustration. I don’t recall anything too extreme, but I think I came across as grouchy and curt. This could have hardly helped Jane’s performance. (And, in defense of Lydia, the “I know you’d like Jane to do X, but I was thinking Y because of Z” cases I was putting forward, which I thought sounded levelheaded at the time, were probably coming across as just whiny by the end!) I’d framed this to myself as, “Sure, it wasn’t my finest hour, but Jane (not to mention Lydia) was a nightmare.” But given Jane’s subsequent successes, the narrative is now, “Jane’s a superstar and I must have really handled the situation terribly to get such a bad performance out of her.”
Should a good manager be able to manage anybody regardless of the situation? Is it possible for a decent manager and a decent worker to just not work well together?
No, a good manager won’t be able to manage absolutely anybody regardless of the circumstances. Some people are the wrong fit for the role they’re in. Some people are dealing with personal stressors that make them a mess at work. Some people have serious issues with authority or work in general, or anger issues, or an inability to take feedback, or terrible communication skills, or all sorts of other things that can end up being prohibitive for a particular role. A manager should be able to manage the situation — meaning giving feedback, coaching, and opportunities to improve, and then moving the person out of the job if that doesn’t work — but there are times when managing well will mean recognizing that you need a different person in the role.
You didn’t have that power because you weren’t Jane’s manager. And trying to get good work out of someone who’s not producing it when you’re not empowered to hold them accountable is a really hard spot to be in. When that happens, the first step is of course to talk with them directly, but if that doesn’t solve the problem, the only next step available to you is to escalate it to their manager. But when you tried to seek help from Lydia, she mostly neglected to act (and when she did act, it sounds like it made the situation worse).
Now, is it possible that you could have managed the situation better, either with Jane herself or with Lydia? Sure! Without knowing all the details, I can’t say whether there were more effective approaches you could have tried. But the fact that you were unable to get good work out of someone who sulked, threw tantrums, and stopped working entirely is not itself an indicator that you messed up. Someone who behaves that way is inherently a significant part of the problem, even if there were things you could have done better.
Lydia’s behavior, too, makes it seem like you were in an impossible position. She refused to manage Jane in any real way, blamed you for her errors, and regularly contradicted her own plans for how to proceed. So, again, maybe you could have done something better, but Jane and Lydia were both capital-P Problems that you didn’t have the authority to do anything about.
You also asked if it’s possible for a decent manager and a decent worker to just not work well together. That’s possible! But Jane doesn’t sound like she was a decent worker at the time, given the tantrums and the sulking. A good employee might have one slipup like that, maybe — and then they’d be mortified and ensure it never happened again. Jane kept sulking, kept throwing tantrums, and kept refusing to do work. Those aren’t the actions of a good employee or colleague.
Your discovery that Jane has gone on to have a successful career doesn’t negate any of that or indicate you were the problem. For all we know, Jane was struggling with mental-health issues that she’s since effectively treated — or physical-health issues, a bad marriage, or a family situation that impacted how she showed up at work. Or maybe she had a wake-up call in a later job — a manager who called her on her behavior or a firing or who knows what. Maybe she just matured; that happens! (I’d guess that people who knew me at some of my early jobs wouldn’t recognize work-me now.)
It’s possible that if you and Jane worked together now, things would go very differently. It’s also possible that Jane is mortified by how things went down years ago and recognizes her own role in what happened!
All that said, it’s always useful to reflect on whether there were better ways to handle situations from your past. Maybe looking back on it now, you’re able to spot things you could’ve approached more effectively. From your mention that you could have done a better job managing your frustration, it sounds like having some distance is already revealing some of them to you!
But I don’t think you should take your struggles with Jane or her success now as indictments of your own work. It sounds like you were in an impossible situation, charged with getting things done without the authority to make them happen, and with a manager who wasn’t doing her job, and that’s in no way a failing on your part.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.