Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

When Someone You Supervise Loses That Lovin’ Feeling Toward You

I received an email from a supervisor this morning, wanting to know how to handle a situation where someone she supervises is treating her very coolly because she had to say no to a request.  The employee isn’t saying anything obvious, just shutting down any friendly interaction.

The signs are obvious:

She won’t make eye contact unless forced to; she gets quiet when the supervisor walks into the area; she answers questions as briefly as possible; she seems withdrawn in general.  

This office is a small one and tense feelings are obvious, so people were asking both her and the employee what was going on. Some supervisors wouldn’t care, but this one did because she knows how something like that can grow to the point that eventually a barrier is raised that never comes down.

 The most common response to such actions is to give the employee the cold shoulder right back. Why be nice if they want to act like a child, right? Another response is to laugh about it as though you not only don’t care, but you actually think it’s funny: “Did you see Stella turn her back on me today? I walked around to the other side and she turned again. I almost did it a few more times just to watch her swivel in her chair!” Some supervisors will set up the employee to force them to be rude, just to show others how petulant the employee is acting. A few will talk to the employee about it, to try to explain their actions and get the employees to see their viewpoint. Some might tell the employee to stop sulking, or they will direct improved behavior in some other way.

 The best response, like most “best” responses, is the one that works for the people and the setting–and those things vary.  However, generally the best solution to this and other conflict situations is to ask yourself, “What do I want as a final result?”

I doubt that any supervisor wants a permanent barrier between himself or herself and an employee, especially over a relatively small matter. Most supervisors would want the relationship to be comfortable again, with the office back to normal and not focused on this conflict. That eliminates the options of a return cold shoulder, making fun of the situation or setting up the employee in some way.

 On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to go to an employee in a supplicant mode to ask them to understand your motives and be nice to you again. (I’ve heard supervisors almost beg in that way!) Nor is it likely to get good results to brusquely tell an employee to straighten up and act right. That doesn’t improve working relationships, it just shows who has authority. Some employees might realize they’ve overstepped their boundaries and would change their behavior, but some employees would be antagonized even further.

Some general guidelines that seem to help in these situations:

1. Don’t let communications lapse. (I used to think letting the supervisor and the employee have some breathing room was a good idea, but I’ve repeatedly seen negative results from that) You don’t have to force conversation, just ensure that you don’t diminish the level of communication you would normally have. If possible, try to increase it somewhat. If you aren’t communicating, the employee has time to brood, talk to others, say negative things he or she will regret, and increase their sense of ill-treatment from you. If you are in and out of their work area, talking, asking questions and listening to their answers, you will help them keep moving forward with work. Be sensitive to how they feel about whatever issue caused the problem, but keep focused on work.

2. Don’t let the cool treatment go on for more than a day or two at the maximum. It’s probably too much to expect that an employee will bounce back in an hour or two. However, after a day or so, the employee’s professionalism and/or maturity should help them move past the situation that caused them to be upset. If that isn’t happening, meet with the employee, in your area or the employee’s work area, and use a direct but not angry approach. Have a conversation with a concerned tone of voice, in which you say what you’ve noticed and why it’s a problem: “Chris, since Tuesday, you’ve acted different than usual–not talking, not making eye contact, not responding when I talk to you. It takes everyone’s focus off work and puts it on the tense situation. Is this a result of the discussion about you going to the conference?” (If you ask what’s the matter you probably won’t get the answer anyway, so you might as well be direct!)

3. Listen with interest not irritation. If Chris denies acting differently, you will have brought the situation to his attention. If he admits he’s frustrated and angry, you have that to work with. If he says his actions have been caused by something else, you can discuss that.

One supervisor told me that he really works to apply the Golden Rule at this point, knowing that he would probably want to try to present his own views again, if he was the employee.  So, if an employee starts rehashing an argument, he listens, then reminds the employee that the decision wasn’t made lightly and the issue has been decided. He said many employees have smiled ruefully and told him they figured it was worth a try!

4. Briefly acknowledge whatever the employee states is the cause of his or her behavior–maybe something as brief as, “I thought that might be it.”  The employee may make-up something to account for the actions, but that’s OK, if it will get you to a better situation.  Then, be clear about what behavior is appropriate: “Well, Chris, when one person acts angry or upset it has an affect on everyone, and makes it hard to talk to you about work or anything else. I want you and I to be able to talk comfortably. Can we get back to that now?”

There are probably better ways to say it than that–that’s just a way that worked for me on occasion, so I’m using it as an example. The point is to be honest, direct and clear about your wishes, but without sounding angry yourself. If you’re asking the employee to act professionally, you should do the same.

5. Continue your normal communications with everyone, including with that employee. You probably won’t need to mention the situation again, just keep going on with work as usual.

6. Let the other employees see that things are better. Look for ways to show that communications are comfortable again. Most employee are glad when things are back to normal.

The key to handling tense situations is to have a relationship of trust going into it. You can’t have a short conversation that works well, if you’ve never talked to the employee personally before. You won’t get a good response if the employee knows you’ve been bad-mouthing him or her. You won’t be successful at keeping the lines of communication open if no one trusts you or believes you.

 The next time you have a situation where the actions of someone toward you are frustrating, irritating or concern you, ask yourself what you want to see as a final positive result, then work toward that.

January 11th, 2008 Posted by | Supervision and Management | no comments

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