ask a boss

‘I Feel Awful About Giving a Bad Performance Review!’

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Dear Boss,

I’m a fairly new manager, promoted over a peer who was upset that she was not chosen for the job. This person seems to have a total lack of respect for my role. I’ve had to grin and bear it, and in an effort to earn her respect, I have gone out of my way to advocate for her and support her in her projects. I now realize this was a misguided tactic, and she simply does not like me.

My boss encouraged me to give a negative review to make this employee aware of behavior that was derailing her. I received coaching beforehand from an outside HR consultant. My boss has my back and assured me that I did a great job in handling the review. But it was not received well — at all. I feel terrible. Plus, afterward, the employee met another one of my direct reports for drinks. I get it — she needs to vent. But it also sucks knowing you are being bashed and hated on.

How do I get a thicker skin? I’m naturally oriented to make sure everyone feels comfortable and has their needs met, so this has been hard. Learning that not everyone is going to like you is tough, particularly when you are endeavoring to make the workplace pleasant and positive.

The rest of my staff are a joy to work with. This person creates tension, blows hot and cold, has zero self-awareness, and acts as if she’s the smartest person in every room. So why do I feel so awful? Do you have suggestions to help me get over this? 

It’s absolutely true that when you’re the boss, not everyone is going to like you. And the people who are most likely to dislike you are people who aren’t doing their jobs well because, at a minimum, their interactions with you aren’t going to be full of joy, but also because people who are struggling at work often aren’t happy with the person who holds them accountable.

In other words, this comes with the job. In particular, it comes with doing your job effectively.

And hey, that sucks. It sucks when someone doesn’t like you, and it sucks to know that someone is complaining about you over drinks.

But the measure of your success as a manager can’t be whether everyone likes you. You need to measure your success by whether you and your team are meeting your work goals. Of course, that doesn’t mean that as long as you get results you can be a jerk whom everyone hates. If you’re a jerk, over time people’s work will suffer and you won’t be able to attract or retain great employees, which means you won’t get the results you need. So, you need to be a decent person, and you need people to respect you. But if you’re doing your job well, sooner or later someone isn’t going to like you.

You’ve got to decide if you can be okay with that. If you’re going to stay in a manager role, you have to be okay with it because if you aren’t, you’ll be avoiding key parts of the job, like giving difficult feedback or making tough decisions. (And ironically, that will also lead to people disliking you, only this time, the people who don’t like you will be your high performers, who will grow frustrated if you’re not, for example, dealing with slackers on your team.)

But beyond that, I think you’re focused on the wrong things right now. You’ve got a problem employee on your team, and rather than talking with her directly about the issues, you’ve been focused on supporting her (and, I suspect, trying to make her like you). Supporting employees is great, even when they’re difficult, but that can’t be the entirety of your approach with someone who’s causing problems. I also suspect it’s revealing that your letter talked a lot about how this employee feels about you, but not about how you intend to address the problems. Do you have a plan for resolving this? (That plan can’t be that she carries on this way forever.)

The performance review was a good first step though! Instead of feeling bad about giving her a negative review, what if you looked at it as a kindness? That might sound counterintuitive, but when someone is struggling at work, being clear and direct lets them know there’s a serious problem and gives them an opportunity to turn things around. If you shy away from that conversation or sugarcoat the message, you make it more likely that the problems will continue, and that can have real consequences for that person. It can impact their future raises, project assignments, and reputation, and can even get them fired. There are real stakes here, so you owe the people who work for you directness and honesty.

That’s not to say that giving someone a negative performance review — or any kind of negative feedback, for that matter — will ever feel good. But being willing to have those conversations is a genuine service to your employees (as well as a crucial part of your job). And if you can reframe it in your mind that this is how your employees will know what they need to change to succeed, you probably won’t feel as terrible afterward.

On top of that, remember that you’re doing this for your other employees too. They’ve got a co-worker who creates tension and drama in an otherwise pleasant workplace, and they need a manager who will put a stop to that. Be that manager for them.

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 Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I Feel Awful About Giving a Bad Performance Review!’