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‘My Employee Sent a Rude Message About Me – to Me!’

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A reader writes:

I have an employee who was my first hire as a new manager — Jane. I have built a department from the ground up through hard work and promotions, and Jane has been with me a good majority of the time. I considered her a friend. I recently inherited another employee from a different department — Mary. I received feedback that Mary felt coming to my area was a demotion, but I’ve worked hard to form what I thought was a good team environment. We have a highly visible job that’s stressful and can be tedious. We were working well together (I thought) and recently I have done team-building activities (which I’ve paid for out of pocket), and I also went to bat for them both to receive a bonus from our senior executive and the CEO. I’m not looking for a pat on the back, just trying to demonstrate my loyalty to them and that I strive to create a positive environment.

Today, I caught Jane sending an IM to Mary making fun of me, complaining about an instruction I’d given her, and had a tone of “OMG, she’s annoying.” I know this because she accidentally sent it to me, not to Mary. I responded that I think her message was intended for Mary and not for me, to which she tried to dance around the subject.

In addition to feeling totally blindsided, I’m hurt and embarrassed. I understand managers get talked about, but how do I move forward in a professional way, and not hold a grudge? They both do good work, so I don’t want my hurt feelings to impact how I review them. However, I’m struggling to view them as I did before, because their behavior is unacceptable. Jane doesn’t seem too upset by this. Maybe she isn’t, or maybe she’s sticking to her story that she truly meant to send her message to me … but she didn’t, I’m positive.

Maybe I created an environment that was too friendly and maybe I tried to be too cool? Thanks in advance for any help.

Even the best managers get vented about sometimes. When you have power over other people, you’re sometimes going to make decisions that they disagree with, or have habits that are at least mildly annoying. Because of that, sometimes people are going to blow off steam about you, even if they like working for you overall. It’s an uncomfortable reality to live with, but it’s the nature of being a boss.

So your goal can’t be “Mary and Jane never say a critical word about me.” You’re actually better off assuming that the people you manage will have their own private critiques of you, so that you can be thoughtful about what those might be and consider whether there’s anything you should change about your style in response. There might not be anything you should change; sometimes a good manager needs to do things that will annoy people, and you can’t not do those things just because your staff doesn’t like it. But sometimes this type of reflection can nudge you into changing how you operate, or more explicitly explaining to people why you’re doing something a particular way.

That said, it’s also possible that the IM Jane sent you was a glimpse of something that goes beyond the occasional letting-off-steam and is more entrenched, more toxic, and more worrisome than typical frustrations.

One option is to just ask Jane about it during your next one-on-one conversation. You could say, “I wanted to ask you about the IM you sent me about the X project. It sounds like you were pretty frustrated by my instruction to do Y. I’d asked for Y because ___. It sounds like that wasn’t clear, and I wonder if you feel like it would be helpful to have more context when I ask you to make changes, or whether there’s something else going on that you’d like me to handle differently.”

You can have this conversation without debating whom the IM was really intended for, since that’s likely to embarrass her or put her on the defensive. Instead, skip right over that and go to “Is there something you want me to do differently?” Even if her answer to that is “No,” you’ll be communicating that you’re open to feedback and concerned about her perspective — which is helpful for her to hear. And who knows, maybe she’ll take this as an opening to bring up concerns.

In fact, you could take this even further and use it as an opportunity to solicit feedback from both Jane and Mary (individually) about how things are going overall and whether there are things they think you could do differently to make your team more effective. If you approach that conversation with sincerity — and if you’ve created an environment where they can feel comfortable giving you real answers — it’s possible that you’ll learn really useful things. You might get insight that helps you understand why Jane was sending a frustrated IM. Or you might learn that Jane and/or Mary are out of sync with how you want your staff members to approach their work, and be able to figure out whether there’s a way to correct that. Who knows what else you might learn — there are all kinds of discoveries you could make here. This is a useful conversation to have no matter what, but that IM in particular might be a sign that you need a better understanding of how they’re experiencing their work and your management, and whether there are adjustments that either side here should be making.

One other thing! I think seeing that message probably stung more because of the personal relationships here. You say you considered Jane a friend, and no one wants to see a friend talking behind their back. It hurts — it feels like a betrayal. But while you’re managing Jane, she really can’t be a friend. You can have warm, collegial, friendly relationships with the people you manage, but they can’t be true friends because the power dynamics prohibit that. You need to be able to objectively judge their work, give impartial feedback, and make decisions that could affect their livelihoods. They need to be able to trust that you’re not letting personal feelings influence how you manage them — and to vent about you sometimes too.

While it was certainly kind of you to pay for work activities with your own money, it sounds like doing that set you up to expect a certain level of gratitude in return. But for Mary and Jane it was a work engagement, even if the activity itself was fun. I think you’re all likely to be happier in the long run if you, as the boss, reset your expectations about the type of relationship you can and should have with the people you manage. Again, being warm and friendly is great. You should aim for warm! Just don’t expect your employees to go beyond being reasonably warm and doing a good job in return.

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‘My Employee Sent a Rude Message About Me – to Me!’