Ms. Amy Gallo is a Contributing editor, Harvard Business Review. She is a writer, editor and business consultant with over twelve years experience in a wide range of industries and functions, with particular expertise in social enterprise, and healthcare. Her writing on management issues appears on Harvard Business Review and Corporate Executive Board’s CEB Views.
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Everybody complains about incompetent bosses or dysfunctional co-workers, but what about irritating direct reports? What should you do if the person you manage drives you crazy? If the behavior is a performance issue, there’s astraightforward way to address what’s irking you — but what do you do when it’s an interpersonal issue? Is it possible to be a fair boss to someone you’d avoid eating lunch with — or must you learn to like every member of your team?
What the Experts Say
Of course, your job would be a whole lot easier if you liked everyone on your team. But that’s not necessarily what’s best for you, the group, or the company. “People liking each other is not a necessary component to organizational success,” says Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist and author of The Blame Game. Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and the author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and coauthor with Huggy Rao of the forthcoming Scaling Up Excellence, agrees. According to Sutton, “there’s a list of things that make you like people and there’s a list of things that make a group effective, and there are very different things on those lists.” It’s neither possible — nor even ideal — to build a team comprised entirely of people you’d invite to a backyard barbecue. But there are real pitfalls to disliking an employee. Consciously or unconsciously, you might mismanage him or treat him unfairly and fail to see the real benefit he can deliver to your team. Here’s how to get the most out of someone you don’t like.
Don’t assume it’s a bad thing
Sure, you may grit your teeth at her lousy jokes or wince at the way he whistles at his desk, but feeling less-than-sympatico with your direct reports might not be the worst thing. “From a performance standpoint, liking the people you manage too much is a bigger problem than liking them too little,” says Sutton. The employees you gravitate toward are probably the ones who act nice, don’t deliver bad news, and flatter you. But it’s often those who provoke or challenge you that prompt new insights and help propel the group to success. “You need people who have different points of view and aren’t afraid to argue,” says Sutton. “They are the kind of people who stop the organization from doing stupid things.”
Focus on you
Still, the days can feel very long when you’re constantly dealing with someone you don’t like. It’s crucial to learn how to handle your frustration. Rather than thinking about how irritating the person is, focus on why you are reacting the way you are. “They didn’t create the button, they’re just pushing it,” says Dattner. He suggests asking yourself the following questions:
Is the problem the individual or someone they remind me of? “You can have a competent person who looks like your unkind aunt and suddenly she can do no right.”
Am I afraid of being like this person? If your direct report constantly interrupts people, for example, and you worry you do too, you may react more strongly.
Are they a member of a group that I have issue with? This question gets into a whole host of prejudices and possible legal issues, but you need to be honest with yourself about any hidden biases you may have. “Try to unpack what this person represents to you.”
“You don’t have to go into therapy to figure it out but be honest with yourself about what situations or attributes make you most irritated,” Dattner says. Once you’ve pinpointed the triggers that might be complicating your feelings, you may be able to soften or alter your reaction. Remember: it’s far easier to change your perspective than to ask someone to be a different kind of person.
Put on a good face
Everyone wants their boss to like them. Whatever your feelings for your employee, he will be highly attuned to your attitude and will presume that any disapproval or distaste has to do with his performance. The onus is on you to remain fair, impartial, and composed. “Cultivating a diplomatic poker face is important. You need to be able to come across as professional and positive,” says Dattner.
Seek out the positive
No one is 100% annoying. Yet it’s easy to see the best in your favorites and the worst in people who bother you. “Looking for some of the flaws of your stars and the redeeming attributes of the people you don’t like can help you be more balanced,” says Dattner. Search for what you like about the person. “Assume the best, focus on what they’re good at, and how they can help your team,” says Sutton. He suggests you regularly ask: Given their talents and their limits, what can they do that would be best for the team? Can the over-achiever shoulder some additional projects? Might the slow-talker’s snail-paced delivery spur the whole team to reflect more before speaking.
Keep your bias out of reviews
When someone irks you, you need to be especially vigilant about keeping your bias out of the evaluation and compensation process. Dattner recommends asking yourself: “Am I using the same standards that I use for other people?” If you find you’re having trouble being fair, Sutton suggests seeking counsel from another manager who is familiar with the employee’s work. Ask for frank feedback on whether your evaluation matches the outsider’s. You might even ask the person to play devil’s advocate, to make the case for the employee’s strong points. “Leadership is mischaracterized as a solo adventure. It’s much more of a team sport,” says Sutton.
Spend more time together
This might sound like the last thing you want to hear, but it might help to give yourself more exposure to the problem employee. Sometimes strong medicine is the most effective cure. Sutton cites studies that demonstrate how collaboration on difficult tasks tends to build affinity. “Over time, if you work together closely you may come to appreciate them,” he says. Consider staffing him to your toughest project, or asking him to serve as your right-hand person on an important initiative. Most importantly, remember to keep an open mind. “Your favorite employee today might become your least favorite tomorrow. The people you like may become untrustworthy tomorrow,” says Dattner.
Principles to Remember
Be honest with yourself — pinpoint the triggers that might be complicating your feelings
Check your bias in evaluating the employee’s performance by getting an outsider’s opinion
Keep an open mind — your perspective may change
Assume that disliking someone is a bad thing — differing points of view are critical to a team’s success
Let your distaste show — everyone wants their boss to like them
Avoid working with the person — collaborating together on a difficult task may positively alter your relationship
Case study #1: Hire “allergy shots”
Linda Abraham, the co-founder of comScores, a leading digital analytics company, established her organization on a simple premise: hire people you respect, not necessarily people you like. Since starting the business in 1999, she has intentionally brought in people she didn’t like but thought would be good for the team. “They’re almost like allergy shots for your organization,” she says.
A few years back, she hired Dan* against the wishes of other people on her team. Even during the interview process, he rubbed people the wrong way. But Linda thought he had the right skills and experience. He came from a large tech company and tended to talk a lot about scale, which many people interpreted as advocating for bureaucracy — a no-no in the start-up culture.
For the first six months, he made regular observations about one of the company’s products and how it could work better. “When I really dug into what he was trying to say, I was impressed,” Linda says. While he wasn’t diplomatic in his comments (he often described things as “dumb”), he was insightful. “We ended up scrapping the job we hired him for and had him take on the improvements he suggested,” she says.
Even in the new role, he wasn’t likable. But Linda tried to focus on the content of what he was saying rather than the way he was saying it, and she coached others to do the same. She also invested time in helping Dan understand how he was coming across and what he could do to alter his style. Eventually her attitude toward him changed. “I’ve come to like him quite a bit,” she says. “He’s ruffled more than a few feathers along the way, but he’s been promoted and has really crushed it.”
Case study #2: Keep your bias in check
Kevin Niehaus, a business manager at a large children’s hospital, inherited a team of employees when he first took on the role. One member of the group, Chris*, always rubbed him the wrong way. “He was the source of 90% of the drama in our unit,” Kevin says. “It got to the point where I would discredit his ideas because I did not like him.”
One day Chris came to Kevin upset. “He wanted to know why I didn’t trust him. I quickly realized that I had let my emotional reaction get in the way of being his manager.” Kevin decided to change his approach; he needed to be more objective. Going forward, he intentionally paused after Chris irked him and asked himself, “Would I care if this was anyone else?” Often the answer was no and he learned to let certain things go. Using Chris’s initial confrontation as a starting point, Kevin also started giving him honest feedback about his behavior, which in turn “cut down on some of the dramatics.” Over time, they were able to develop a trusting relationship where Kevin kept his emotions in check and Chris felt heard.