Employee's sudden attitude change signals underlying problem

Dear Joan:
I work at a small software company (total 10 people). There are four administrative workers (all female) including myself and the boss’s wife. One of the two other co-workers is my sister-in-law and the fourth person is the newest person. I have worked at this company for five years and earned an enormous amount of trust, respect and raises. The company owner and the owner’s wife are like my extended family and they consider me as a valuable employee. 

The person I am concerned about is the newest person we hired eighteen months ago. I was involved in the interview process along with the boss’ wife and I quite liked this person and I still do. I trained her, but eight months later, I had to go on my maternity leave for three months. When I came back and found myself back into the supervisory role, I felt lots of tension from her. 

For example, she would not give me her eye contact while I talk to her about work-related issues. When I ask for her input/opinion, she would say “Whatever. I trust you.” She would be very chatty with everyone else in the company except for me. I often strike up a conversation with her, only to get very short, blunt responses—unlike her friendlier behavior towards others. I tried getting myself involved in a group conversation, and tried to be very friendly towards her, but the feeling I get is that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. 

This is difficult because the whole company is like a family and we all work very closely together. Her attitude has been bothering me but since she does her job well, and doesn’t gossip (at least I don’t think so), I just have no basis to approach her or confront her. Just this morning, I asked her if she had received all the faxes and she stared at me and nodded very slowly (no words) with rolling of her eyes as if she were saying, “Isn’t that obvious and do you have to ask?” 

Once I sent her an e-mail with work-related issues and added a little comment that I feel tension between us so feel free to come and talk to me. She never responded or mentioned it. I asked her if she received my e-mail and she said, “I didn’t feel it required a response.” 

To tell the truth, I would be willing to let this go, if our company was much bigger, and if I didn’t have to work so closely with her. The reality is that not everyone will like me and I’m fine with that. I think a part of the reason she resents me is that she doesn’t see me as her supervisor. Understandably, her job is as important as mine and she does not have to report to me all the time. Nevertheless, I am her supervisor and expect common courtesy and respect from her but I’m just not getting that. What should I do? I am just about done being Ms. Nice and ready to confront her to work out any kinks with her. 

Perhaps she feels like a pony that has broken out of her stable and has been running with the thoroughbreds for the last three months. When you returned, it represented being dragged back inside the fence. Your hunch may be correct—she resents having that saddle back on. 

Several factors substantiate that this is her problem, but you shouldn’t ignore the possibility that you may have inadvertently done something to cause her resentment. 

For example, you appear to be a valued employee and a good supervisor. Your employers trust you and have rewarded you. You have gone out of your way to gently discover what is bothering your employee, because you care about her and want the work environment to be harmonious. And I agree with your belief that you don’t have to be liked to be effective. 

Nevertheless, her sudden coolness and obvious attitude change signals that something changed while you were gone. If you confront her directly about not wanting to report to you, she will deny it, since it’s an embarrassing thing to admit to. However, some of her behavior is indeed disrespectful and discourteous. 

Since you have such a good relationship with the owner’s wife and your sister-in-law, you may want to approach them individually and describe the change in behavior and ask them if they can shed any light on the reason. Ask if there was anything you may have done to cause such a reaction. If they offer no insight, it’s probably safe to assume she resents being supervised once again. 

But the fact remains that she does report to you now and her behavior is inappropriate. The next time she displays an obvious sign of resentment, call her into a private area immediately. Say, “Just now, when I asked you a simple question, you rolled your eyes and gave me a look as if to say, ‘Isn’t that obvious?’ It is an example of many similar behaviors you’ve demonstrated towards me since I returned from maternity leave. What’s behind the change?” If she dodges your question and gives a short, blunt reply, say, “That kind of answer is exactly what I’m referring to. In this office, it’s important that we act like a team and respect each other enough to get the job done. You don’t have to like me but I do expect courtesy and respect. 

You are a good performer and I give you plenty of independence as a result. If there is something I’ve done that has angered you, I expect you’ll be professional and tell me, so I can change it. If you have nothing to tell me, and since this behavior started when I returned from leave, I’ll have to assume you simply resent having to report to me after being on your own for three months. At a minimum, we all need to make an effort to be friendly in this office.” 

If you can draw her out, you will have a chance to resolve this, but she needs to own up to her feelings. But if she doesn’t, speak to the owner’s wife and collaborate on a strategy. In a barrel that small, a rotten apple will start to spoil the bunch.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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