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How Should I Manage A Resentful Colleague?

Dear Ron,
As part of a company re-organization, my boss has told me that one of my colleagues, who has been here several years longer than me, will soon be reporting to me instead of directly to her. I know that my colleague is not going to like it, but when I told my boss this, she simply said it was something I had to figure out and make work myself. How can I make the best of this situation?
The first thing you should do is a sort of gut check to lay out how you expect things to work and how this new reporting structure reflects your role and the confidence your boss has in you. Managing people who are older and potentially more experienced than you can be intimidating at first, but it's a situation that's likely to recur in your career as you progress, so that's a critical part of your development.

Then you want to come up with a detailed plan for what this colleague of yours will be doing, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how you can help her to perform. You should present this plan to your boss so she knows exactly how you plan to approach the situation and what the expectations are. The fact that your boss has not given you more initial support is troublesome, but you can try to get around that by presenting her with a detailed plan for her to sign off on.

Once you've got your boss's buy-in, you should have a detailed conversation with your colleague - you want to find out her understanding of the situation and what she feels it means for her career there, as well as how she's experiencing the decision at a more emotional level. As a manager in this situation, you want to particularly tune in to your colleague's emotional response, as well as to the nuts-and-bolts of how the new structure will work.

If your colleague doesn't appear to know why the change has been made, you should try to get more information from your boss -- and from this colleague's personnel file, which presumably you would have access to now -- and find out what this person needs to work on. Performance could be an issue, or she could have had conflicts with certain key people at your company. If it's the latter, you certainly want to be aware of this fact because you don't want those conflicts to continue since they may now impact you. If you can pinpoint what your colleague needs to work on, then you're in a more straightforward manager's role of trying to find opportunities for her to do well. You have to assume this person is an asset in some way, or otherwise she wouldn't be kept. So you have to define what this person's essential assets are, as well as what are her critical liabilities.

With respect to your colleague's emotional response, if she feels somewhat disappointed but is generally accepting of the move since it means the preservation of her job, that's the most manageable situation. In this case, you just want to really help this person perform well and to their potential. If, however, this person regards the move as a humiliating demotion, they're likely to be resentful of you and not be motivated to work hard for you. The best way to deal with this situation is to develop a detailed list of expectations and objectives for this person to meet, get your boss's explicit approval of them, and secure your colleague's agreement to meet them. You need to feel confident that these are reasonable expectations to meet, and that any variance from them will put that person's job in jeopardy, or else you could be facing a long and unpleasant period of counter-productive or insubordinate behavior from this person. While you can and probably should acknowledge the emotional defeat this person is experiencing, one key to getting results here is to always discuss these goals and expectations in neutral terms and to never let these talks get personal.

This is a fairly knotty problem, but as I said, it's something you'll likely have to deal with multiple times in your career. And on the plus side, if you can succeed in turning around this person's performance and increasing their contributions to your group, well, that's a big feather in your cap. Good luck.

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