First test of new manager – skillful handling of power struggle with key employee

Dear Joan:

Three months ago, I was hired as the manager of a small business with 50 employees. As the former manager had already departed, my office assistant was in charge of training me. I have learned that she is withholding essential procedures; has failed to keep me informed and has not contacted me when crises have arisen.  

In effect, she has become the “acting manager” while I am relegated to a figurehead. In addition, she has lodged complaints against me to the absent owner. When I spoke to owner about this, he acknowledged that he was aware of the problem but expected me to handle it.  

I have tried to gain her support and trust but have been unsuccessful. As she has worked for this company for several years and therefore has complete knowledge of the business, I have been reluctant to further alienate her. As her supervisor, I am ready to talk with her this next week, with a put-out-or-get-out” agenda. Your input is greatly appreciated. 

Answer:

Sabotage is a delicate situation to confront on many levels. You don’t want to lose the person who is undermining you because you need her expertise. You don’t want the owner to lose confidence in you and decide to keep her and fire you. You don’t know how much damage she has done with others in the company. 

With that said, here is a plan I recommend: 

1.      First develop your plan and take it to the owner to ask for his or her support.  The owner wants you to handle it and won’t like being dragged in, however, if the owner expected her to train you and she hasn’t done that, the owner needs to stand ready to reiterate that to her. You need to know that the owner is going to back you if you need to give her an ultimatum. Otherwise, she could go around you to the owner and undermine you further.  

2.      Assess the staff’s technical bench strength, in case your assistant walks out or is fired.  Have a contingency plan in place. Interestingly, people who think they are indispensable are often shocked to learn that others around them can-- and will-- step up if they leave. Include vendors and other outsiders in your assessment. For example, your IT vendor or accountant may be able to step in to help in the short term, if needed. This will help you and the owner feel less vulnerable. 

3.      Identify specific examples that illustrate her behavior.  Be ready (make notes, if that will help you) to give her specific observations, quotes, behaviors that you feel are ineffective or inappropriate. 

4.      Before you meet, analyze her motives.  For example, is she fiercely loyal to your predecessor? Does she think she should have gotten your job? Does she think you’re incompetent—or that someone else should have gotten the job? Does she see this as her big opportunity to show the owner/you how valuable and competent she is? 

Knowing her motives will help you with an approach. For example, if she wanted your job and didn’t get it, you could say, “I know you were probably disappointed that you didn’t get this job. I am willing to work with you to develop what you need to get promoted the next time an opportunity comes along, but I need you to come half-way and share the information and training I need.”  

If she feels someone else should have your job or she is loyal to her departed manager, you can say, “I realize you may resent the situation, since you really were close to your former manager, but I have this position now and I need you to work with me. It isn’t helping you to withhold information—it’s going to negatively affect you in the long run.” 

5.      she wants to stay and if she stays, what the action plan will be?bout the consequences. Will you ask her to change or leave?Be ready with consequences if the meeting doesn’t go well.  If she is defensive or resistant, you will need to be kind but firm about the consequences. Will you ask her to change or leave? Will you give her a “decision day,” to go home and think about whether or not she wants to stay and if she stays, what the action plan will be? 

6.      Give her the benefit of the doubt and don’t insinuate that she has intentionally lied or sabotaged you.  Some things are better left unspoken. Even if you believe she lied, withheld, sabotaged or even tried to get you fired, pointing out her specific behavior is enough to talk about. Don’t add your judgment about her intentions or you will lose her. 

For example, it’s one thing to say, “You didn’t tell me about…” It’s quite different if you add, “And I think you were intentionally trying to sabotage me with the management team.”  

Instead, give her the benefit of the doubt by saying, “I’m sure you were just trying to be helpful when you …but it put me in a bad position.” 

7.      Be willing to listen to things you need to change.  You may have stepped on her ego or overlooked her competence when you arrived. You may be coming across as arrogant or too quick to make changes. Ask her for her candid opinion and hear what she has to say. It will go a long way toward rebuilding your relationship. 

In the final analysis, she is either going to need to change or she is going to lose her job. She needs to understand that and be given an opportunity to make her choice.


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) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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