How To Handle A Subordinate Who Criticizes Me?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about one subordinate who criticizes her boss: She will make fun of something about me, entertaining the others, and seems to find it all very amusing.

I supervise a group of women who get along well with each other. I have learned that one of them often makes negative remarks about me. She will often instigate this dialogue by asking one of her co-workers what they thought of an email I sent to the group and put a negative spin on things.

She will make fun of something about me, entertaining the others, and seems to find it all very amusing. She had a few problems in years past, but has corrected those. She is an average employee, but I have given her bonuses for good work and several thank you notes.I have other work to do besides supervising these employees but I do help them out now and then when help is needed with work.I want to address this with her but am not sure of the best way to go about doing so. She is very popular with her coworkers and I don’t want to alienate them. How do I target her behavior without appearing to target her?

Signed, Frustrated

Dear Frustrated:

It seems to me you have three main options and some off-shoots of those that might be helpful. I don’t live in your work-world of course, so some options may not be applied the same, but at least thinking about them will give you a place to start.First, I think you need to consider why you care about this situation. I’m not saying you shouldn’t care, just saying it is good to get a handle on why you care. If it seems work is being affected by it, there are obvious reasons to care. If you feel you are being lied about and it affects your reputation, that is also a major concern.

If it hurts your feelings to think this one person is making fun of you and others are joining in, that is another situation but still something that concerns you and that perhaps you might want to take on as an issue. Next is this; and I think it is crucial for situations like this: What do you want as the final outcome?

What would be much worse for you? I can almost answer that: You want to know that you are not being mocked, mimicked or having your emails or other work made fun of or given negative motivations by others. You want to be treated with respect because you are viewed with respect. What you don’t want is to have this become a line in a dirt and have people say you can’t take a joke, you pick on people who say the slightest thing about you and you are out to get someone who is well liked, because you are jealous of her popularity. That latter result is certainly possible! Shudder!

The final thing is this: Witty people will nearly always make fun of bosses; we are perfect targets! They can’t very well make fun of coworkers who are standing right there, but bosses are fair game any time of year! People in general will mock, complain about or question bosses when they aren’t around, simply because there is a dislike of authority in most of us. I have said some really cutting things about bosses I actually liked very much! It was just blah-blah-blah talk to get a laugh. I’m sorry to say I did it, but I did.

So, that brings us to these options:

1. You could do nothing in the way of confrontation about it. As you well know, you will never be successful at stopping it anyway, so talking to everyone will only result in more conversation about you. And you KNOW there will be a lot of talk if you even mention it. If you don’t say anything it may die down eventually, or it may change as conditions at work change.

2. You could talk to everyone about the need for team unity. But it sounds like the team is united! So, that leaves you with advising them to not be disloyal to you; and you will never be able to get loyalty that way. However, talking to all of them might make them realize how negative their actions have been.

3. You could talk to the one employee who is leading all of the comments; if you know she is the only one doing it. Unless you have heard it, you don’t know that; and she knows you don’t know that. So, her first remark will likely be to say she didn’t start it, or she isn’t the only one so why are you talking to her, and she only said what others were thinking and so forth and so on.WHAT you say when you talk to her is also a key issue. You can be stern and tell her it is insubordinate and disruptive, you can be questioning and logical and ask her if there is something that she wants to talk to you about and that you can clarify for her to avoid her talking behind your back about it, you can appeal to her conscience and tell her that it is as hurtful to you for her to make fun of you as it would be to her if you made fun of her. You could tell her you understand bosses are natural targets, but you feel like nothing you have done positively matters if you are going to be ridiculed no matter what you try to do. I have done all of those three options in my lifetime and they all worked for the situations in which I did them. But I have seen them fail badly for others, from the viewpoint of not making anything better and actually making it worse.

Here is a mix of options, and it is what I would do: I would let it go right now unless I could point to harm or if what she is saying or doing is truly mean or purposely untruthful. If what she is doing is questioning your decisions, making fun of how you manage things or finding your flaws and mocking them, you will be better advised to focus on how to reduce or eliminate the objects of mockery rather than stopping her remarks. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have a plan of action and start it immediately. Here is what I would do:

1. Talk to your own manager about it and tell her or him about what you intend to do, so he (I’ll stick with “he”) knows of your concerns and also knows your plan, in case something comes up about it. You would want your subordinates to let you know about issues, and he will feel the same way if something were to be said later. I would approach it as though it is not a matter of grave concern but something you have a plan for and simply want his input on. I assume you have a manager…if not, consider talking to someone else who could be a resource.

2. Keep the approach, in all your conversations that you want to have a strong team but you realize there is some human nature issues involved, and you don’t want to over-react. Give some examples if you have them, to ensure you are on the right track. You may wish to ask if the person you talk to has a perspective about you and your work that he or she would like to share. Be accepting of whatever they tell you.You may also want their input about the things being made fun of by the employee. As tough as it is to accept, perhaps there is some truth in some aspect of the criticism or mockery. Ask about that.Perhaps there are some things that would reduce or prevent providing the person with ammunition. Or, it could be you might see a way to have a rumor control announcement now and then to alleviate water cooler gossip or complaints.

3. Focus your attention on two areas: 1.) Gaining additional positive influence with the entire team, so they are less likely to support joking behavior about you or if they do it, so it is diluted with respect and liking. 2.) Interacting more than ever with the one employee, so two things are accomplished: You can get her viewpoints about issues and perhaps build a better relationship and you can be seen to have positive, professional interactions with her which will make her seem petty if she continues much of her behavior.You say she is mediocre in some of her work and your corrective actions will have to continue in that area. But, you will want to make sure it is done in an objective way and designed to improve work not to punish her. On the other hand, keep the adage in mind: “We don’t own your attitude but your paycheck rents your behavior.” She may not admire you or even respect you, but she cannot be overtly rude or hostile to you. You will have to decide, with input from your own manager, when the employee has stepped over the line. But do remember this; there is a different standard for what is discourteous when talking about coworkers vs. talking about bosses. Sadly, it is just expected that there will be a certain amount of taking shots at bosses.

4. I am not presuming to tell you what work you need to do, or to imply that you are not aware of what your work should be. So, I hope you won’t view these remarks in that way.An active manager must be active in ways that do not involve pitching in to help now and then. That is a good thing, but doesn’t establish you as influential. We only gain influence in these ways:Being credible Being dependable Being valuable Being visible We can never achieve influence by email or through now and then contact. People need to see us as essential to their work lives. They also need to hear us listen to them. We need to engage in significant talk as well as small talk. But the main thing is to be active in their lives. I know as a manager you have other duties, but if you want to have an impact on this issue, you will need to start scheduling time to see everyone as a group and individually as often as is practical.I don’t encourage people to make small talk or come up with phony topics to talk about. But almost everyone has an opinion about work issues.

Make linking with you almost as valuable as linking with the jokester. It may never be quite as valuable, but at least it can be valuable in its own way. What do people get from being close to you, loyal to you, talking positively with you? If people don’t get good feelings from you or something that helps them in some way, they will never stand up for you to anyone, or reduce their laughter somewhat, or present another viewpoint. Why should they? I don’t meant this to be manipulative, but it is a truism that people need to feel a slight sense of obligation to us, if we really want them to be loyal to us.

The obligation doesn’t have to be about work, it could be that we laugh with them, encourage them, make them feel good about themselves, commend them or just talk to them; but they need to get that from us.I often use the concept of making disciples, as I train about this. What we want is to have such an impact that people we manage want to be more like us in at least some ways. I regret the times I was a very, very good manager of the processes, but had very little impact in the lives of the people. I wish I could do it over, because it is so much clearer to me now! I fortunately had the opportunity in future work, but those earlier people will never get to see me that way. And, it would have been so easy to do, if only I had focused on it as simply part of my work.I am assuming you are a nice person who has done good things with and for others. I have managed managers and supervisors who were diabolically mean, or who were cold and indifferent, aloof or arrogant, or shy and retiring to the point of not interacting at all. I hope you are not any of those things! If you are, you will have to make many, many changes on your own. But, if you are not, you likely only need to smile with confidence and accept that it is actually a form of flattery that you are important enough to be targeted!I hope these thoughts help you as you develop a plan of action. I would be interested in how things work out, and if you have the time to do so, I hope you will keep me informed. Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.