Subordinate Trying to Control Me

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a subordinate: He continually calls me whilst I am at home, to discuss issues that ‘couldn’t wait’, when in my opinion, they could have.  I ultimately feel that he thinks he could do my job better, and intends to do so, one way or another.

I only use the word subordinate as this person reports to me at work. I employed this person for his extensive knowledge base and good experience for the role, having been in my role in a previous company. He’s a nice person, friendly, and fun to spend time with, as well as being good at his job. So far in his role, he has come to me about issues he is having with other employees, and has had an issue with all of them, except me (that he has expressed).

As I am his manager, and he works a different shift to me, we don’t see each other very often and communicate by way of email. I have instructed him to only call me out of working hours if it is absolutely necessary as having a pressured and stressful job life, I need the counteract of a chilled out home life. Despite knowing this, he continually calls me whilst I am at home, to discuss issues that ‘couldn’t wait’, when in my opinion, they could have. When I explained to him the importance of not disturbing me unless he absolutely needed to, he informed me that this made me less approachable, and was ‘part of the territory’, and that maybe I needed to manage my expectations. During conversations, he constantly refers to when he had my job role, and tries to advise me on matters.

I have given a very clear message that I am the manager, and he should concern himself with his own role before worrying about mine. He seems to accept this, until situations where he feel his knowledge of management is better than my own, attempts to intervene, and then acts childishly once reprimanded. He has suggested that most of the staff in our department are either incapable of their jobs, or are untrustworthy, and has a different person to blame for this every time we speak. I ultimately feel that he thinks he could do my job better, and intends to do so, one way or another. I think he is playing games, attempting to make me not trust our colleagues, and calling me whilst at home in an attempt to either control me, or wear me down to the point where I don’t care any more.

I was reluctant at first to believe that he would do such a thing and thought that it was my own insecurities playing tricks with my mind, until we had a conversation whereby I had questioned him on something, and the discussion turned from being a conversation into an accusation of my own incompetentence.

I acted defensively to this, and another colleague who was present at the time later congratulated me for managing to remain calm whilst he acted in this manner. When I questioned her further, she informed me that she thought that this man was playing a game with everybody in our team, and clearly wanted my job. She remarked that he knew how to play with my mind and had clearly known which buttons to push to illicit such a response as the defensive one I had retaliated with. Now I’m extremely confused. I had not discussed any of my thoughts to anybody, and to then have somebody confirm all that I had been thinking without prompt, I’m left wondering what to do. Am I correct, or am I just insecure? I need guidance please.

Signed, Frustrated and Not Sure What To Do Next

Dear Frustrated and Not Sure What To Do Next:

I felt frustrated on your behalf after reading your letter. It’s clear that this is a problem situation that needs to be corrected immediately. And, as you likely know or sense, the first place to start is with yourself and your comfort level with the role of having a subordinate and managing his or her behavior and performance. Microsoft is not known for being old-school, but their organization charts all have three options: Subordinates, Coworkers and Assistants. If he is a peer of yours and you have no authority over him, he’s a coworker. If you’re ultimately responsible for the work he and the team does, he’s a subordinate. You may not say that all the time in regular conversations, but you do need to accept that it is true from an organizational viewpoint and from the viewpoint of liability and responsibility. You can bet that from the perspective of those who are observing the situation, many people are wondering when you are going to react more strongly within your role–because they know he is a subordinate.Here’s another way to look at it. If you have a higher level manager, and I’m sure you do, would you behave toward him or her as this employee has behaved with you? If you did, would your manager allow it to continue? That will remind you that your expectations are not unreasonable and neither are your feelings. On the other hand, if your manager let you talk down to him, scold him, bother him at home unnecessarily and complain about others all the time, it probably would be a habit you would continue. It’s rather fun to manage your own manager!

Think if we could require employees to wear signs to clarify things. “I am the way I am because my manager lets me be this way.” “I act like I do because my manager knows it and doesn’t do anything about it.” “I am a product of my manager’s style.”When it’s put that way it’s a good reminder of what we all know: The behavior and performance of subordinates is the responsibility of the manager. If your subordinate had wanted to continue to be a manager he could have stayed in his former job, but instead he came to work knowing he reported to you. Look at his job description if there is any question about that!

If you establish more clearly your respective roles and fulfill your role consistently, it will take care of almost everything else that is bothering you.I can understand it is difficult when it’s someone you want to like and who you want to have like you. But, if you don’t guide him to his correct placement in the team, you’ll end up disliking him and he’ll lose respect for you, so the situation will be bad anyway.

The following are suggestions that you can adapt to your organization and the culture of the team as well as your style. I hope you won’t adapt them to the point that things continue as they are going now, because they’ll only get worse.

1. Talk to your manager or to whomever you report and let him know of your situation and your plans. Approach that conversation confidently and explain your plan of action then ask for input. Your manager should be kept aware of things of this nature. Also, if you need to escalate your actions further, you’ll need your manager’s support. You should know right now what he is thinking about the situation and your actions. Speaking with your manager will also require you to have plans for what you will do if the employee continues his behavior.

How far are you willing to go? If you don’t intend to go as far as necessary, from mild redirection, to stronger guidance, to strong direction, to organizational sanctions, to dismissal, you won’t get the change you want. Hopefully mild redirection and stronger guidance is all that will be needed. But, if more is needed you have to be prepared to warn the employee of what might happen, then do it if needed. If you never will, no matter what, accept that and realize that you probably won’t be able to bring about lasting change unless he is fully cooperative all the time. If you have an HR section talk to them about your plans and ensure you handle it the correct way.

2. You will probably find it easiest to simply start over in your mind. I don’t know how long the employee has worked there, but it’s never too late to establish a new game plan. That happens in many jobs when there is a new manager. Essentially, you’re going to be a new manager for him and he’s going to start behaving and performing as is appropriate for his position in the organization, which will apparently be a new concept for him! Your situation has been going on for a bit I gather, so you’ve waited awhile already.

Doing it this way will probably help you achieve your goals easier. Otherwise you’ll feel that you have to have a closed door corrective interview with him and you know you would dread that–anyone would! By starting over, you can use a friendly, coaching approach, which is much better than the closed-door counseling mode.

3. Speaking of goals: What are they for this employee and you and the team? You know you don’t like what is happening now, but do you know exactly what you would prefer instead? I often refer to “The Instead Factor”. When an employee is doing something that isn’t optimal, there is something he should be doing instead. What is that something? Be able to describe what tone of voice you want to hear from all employees, what conversations you want them to have about each other, what you want them to do if they have a complaint about one another, how you want them to make judgments about when to call you. Would you want every employee acting like this employee? If not, restore this employee to the team–or ensure he realizes he’s part of it not apart from it.While you’re at it, consider what you can be doing “instead” of what you have done.

When he calls you at home, what will you do instead of what you have been doing? When he criticizes others, what will you do instead of what you’ve done? When he criticizes you as though he is your manager, what will you do instead of what you’ve done so far?One way to consider it is this: If you were being video-taped and your job was in the balance based on how well you handled a problem with a subordinate, how do you think you’d be expected to handle it? How is that different from what you’ve done? What should you do instead?

4. Make a few notes to yourself and keep them at your desk, as a reminder to stay consistent and not to let things slide. Most managers–and the rest of us–think of better things to say a few hours after a conversation! You can avoid that by keeping a few key reminders handy.

5. Having said all of that, spend some time considering the totality of the situation as it relates to this employee and others. It bothers me that you do not seem to at least visit other shifts regularly, even though you may not be required to do so.A manager can’t manage unless he or she is on-site at least now and then. It may be that he sees problems on his shift that you do not see. He may feel frustrated over what he perceives as weakness and inattentiveness on your part. As he says, staying aware, even though it adds to your pressure, is part of the territory. You may need to set aside two or three days a month to flex your schedule for a few hours at the beginning or end of the other shift. But, you should be on-site now and then if there is work and employees that are your responsibility. That would be a great time to huddle or meet briefly with all employees and build a sense of teamwork that is part of the larger picture of the section and the organization instead of being isolated on that shift.Even the colleague who was supportive of you may not entirely be doing you a favor by acting as though the subordinate employee is completely wrong. It may be that there have been some gaps you have not noticed or not taken action about and others would prefer that you stay inactive–but the former manager elsewhere, now your subordinate, is noticing them.I want to share a real story with you. About two years ago I talked to a new manager who said one of his first actions was going to be dealing with an employee who other employees said was excessive in her demands. They said she was demeaning to them in the way she nagged them about everything and that she had destroyed the enjoyment of the team about work. Knowing human nature and workplaces pretty well, I suggested he investigate before he accepted the story of the employees.

He said surely not all of them would be making things up, especially the guy who said he had been offered a lot of jobs elsewhere but he wanted to work at that company. Several other managers said great things about the employee, but the other employees said she lied about them to look good to the managers. The new manager, in his hero mode certainly wasn’t going to put up with that! He met with her and clearly and bluntly told her that he would not tolerate dissension, tearing down other employees and harming the team, just because she wanted to boss everyone. He went through all the complaints about her and said she had better change or he would have to take more severe action. She looked shocked and hurt and said very little except to quietly tell him that he would find out his error and she wished he would have investigated before he talked to her that way.

It only took the manager about a month to realize he had been wrong. He looked at the complained-about emails and they were all courteous and pointed out genuinely serious errors. The employee who said he had other job offers was not competent at this work, arrived late and left early. The others were slip-shod and missed one deadline after another. He realized he had been terribly mistaken. His only strong, capable and committed employee was the one he had talked to so harshly! To his credit, the new manager apologized to her and told her that if she would trust him to manage the work correctly, he would promise her she could concentrate on her own tasks and give up the reins of unpaid manager. He told her to let him know when some aspect of the work of others was interfering with her ability to get the work done or if she thought there was a serious error being made. Otherwise, he wanted her to focus on her work alone. He gave those last instructions to all the others, so he could document that he was equitable about it. Eventually, two employees were placed on Warning status before they improved and one employee quit to avoid being moved out. As for the “problem employee”, it’s now been almost two years and he is championing her for a management position and singing her praises.

That whole story was to say, your subordinate’s talk about coworkers may be truthful even though his behavior to you is not what you want. Or, both may be problems. You need to investigate to find out. I believe in evidence-based management when it comes to dealing with employees. You need to have all the facts and not rely on self-reporting by either them or him.

6. Handle each situation the way you wish you would have handled it the first time.•When the employee calls you at home, make it the first time he has done such a thing. Determine what the call is about and if it isn’t urgent don’t continue to talk. Don’t argue with him about it, just state why this was an unnecessary call and what you want him to do instead next time, then say goodbye. “Bill, I’m glad you’re concerned, but this information about the vendors could have waited until I got to work. Write it in an email and send it to me so I can read it tomorrow. OK?” Don’t have any further conversation, insist that he write you an email, then close the conversation as soon as possible.If he says it’s important now, you can say the appropriate thing. “No, this is one of those calls that could wait because it doesn’t require me to take action right now. When I get to work tomorrow I’ll look at the email you send me and if there’s a question I’ll send you a text message about it.” If he starts to talk again, say (perhaps with a smile in your voice, since this is your “first-time” conversation), “Bill, stop! I won’t call YOU at home unnecessarily and I don’t want you to do that to me. So, send me an email. Goodbye now.”The next time he does it, tell him the same thing, only add something like, “I’ll repeat what I told you last time. I don’t want to be called at home unless there is something so serious that I have to come there to deal with it immediately. This isn’t one of those times. So, keep that in mind and don’t call me at home again. I’m interested in you and your work, but I can’t and won’t take calls at home. So, don’t do this anymore.”

If he does it again: “I’m going to come by work during your shift tomorrow night because I want to talk to you about the problem of you calling me at home. Plan on meeting with me for about an hour.” Just say it with confidence and say no more. If he wants to talk about it, say, “No, we’re not going to talk about it over the phone now. I’m at home and I’m not working. Be ready to talk to me tomorrow about it.”

Then, flex your schedule or stay after your regular shift and meet with him to talk to him again and document the conversation by sending him a follow-up email reiterating your directions about calling you. The next time, move to the next level the HR has advised you about. Never go back to the old way of doing things. That will be: One friendly comment, one direct reminder and one corrective interview. That’s enough! Even if you’ve already done those things, if you haven’t documented them, do them again. It won’t hurt and it will allow you to know in your heart that you’ve done it the right way.•When the employee tells you negative things about other employees, ask him to send you an email about it, so you’ll have all the facts. Remember, he may be telling you the truth. If he doesn’t want to do that, just advise him to keep doing his own work well and you’ll watch for concerns about the work of others.If you think he’s merely trying to make them look bad, stop him. “I’m not seeing that Bill. The Director and I are happy with Jan’s work. If there’s something going on that is truly serious that you have proof about, send me an email so I’ll have all the information. But, I think we’ll do better as a whole if you just focus on your work, which is certainly excellent, and I’ll monitor what’s happening with everyone”You may need to be more blunt, even though you might use a mild tone or a friendly demeanor. “Bill, I think you’re still in the management mode from your last job. The Director and I are happy with Jan’s work right now. So, focus on your work, which is excellent, and I’ll monitor what’s happening with everyone.”Sometimes having a line to repeat like a broken record is helpful. “Focus on your work, which as I said, is excellent, and I’ll monitor what’s happening with everyone.”•Be prepared for what you will do if he says something that sounds as if he is chiding you or telling you how to do your work as a manager. First, try to separate the message from the way it is said. For example, if his message is accurate, but his tone and demeanor is corrective like a manager to a subordinate, bring it to his attention.

That’s one of the things many managers don’t do–they don’t acknowledge how someone is making them feel or how something sounds to them. But, that’s important, just as it would be important if he made customers or clients feel as though he was reprimanding them. “Bill! My goodness, you just said that as though you’re my Director! If you have a suggestion, that’s one thing, but take the reprimanding tone out of your voice, please and don’t use it to me again.”If he doesn’t and his behavior continues, you can be more direct and more directive–“Bill, I’ve asked you and I’ve tried to guide you, now I’m directing you, do not do this again or I’ll have to talk to HR about options. You’re too good at your work to put yourself in that situation.”Sounds a bit tough, doesn’t it? It is, but it’s not rude or inappropriate. It’s direct and honest. He shouldn’t be reprimanding you or others and he shouldn’t be questioning your style or decisions in a tone that is disapproving.

What you do may not be his way, but—I’ll remind you again—he made the decision when he came to work there that he would be giving up the manager role and having another role. You apparently have been successful in your career, so trust yourself and keep working to improve on your own, not because of him alone.One of the best things any manager can say, if he or she really wants to make a difference in behavior or performance is, “Don’t do that again.” And, “That’s exactly the right way to do things.”I know this has been a long message, but I want you to know that you can easily take a different approach and it won’t be excessive. You’ll feel better and if the employee is “a nice person, friendly, and fun to spend time with, as well as being good at his job”, he’ll understand what you’re doing and why–and he’ll change his behavior. Work will be a lot less stressful and more enjoyable for both of you!Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

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.