Tips for managers dealing with a workplace sniper

Dear Joan:

I just read your response to Dealing with the Workplace Sniper and I think that was excellent advice.  I have a very similar issue only the employee works for me.  I believe she is badmouthing me behind my back and brings down the morale on our team because she tells others how she feels about me and I believe convinces them that I am not doing a good job. 

Some days she is as friendly as can be.  Other days she is very curt in her answers to my questions.  I am unable to determine what causes her to run hot and cold. 

Any suggestions on how I can address this with her? 

Answer:

If you have an employee sniper, you need to smoke her out because a frontal attack will likely backfire.  

First, do some reconnaissance and gather a little information. Hopefully, you have a person on your staff with which you have a trusting relationship. Ask that person, “Have I done anything to offend Sally? She seems to blow hot and cold towards me and I can’t figure it out.” If the employee doesn’t want to discuss it, don’t push it. However, if any information is forthcoming, thank the person sincerely and assure the individual that you will keep your conversation confidential.  

Next, have a conversation with Sally. Without revealing the information you may have gathered, say, “Sally, I’ve noticed sometimes you are as friendly as can be and other times you give me very curt, short answers. Is there something I’m doing that is causing a problem for you?”  

Then stay quiet and try to get her to reveal any issues she has. If she says nothing, prompt her by questioning: “Is there something I could do differently? “ Is there something you think I should do less of, or more of?”  

If she does come forward with some complaints, resist the temptation to jump to your own defense or an explanation that justifies your actions. Instead, force yourself to listen and try to smoke her out. “What makes you think that?” “How does that create a negative reaction?” “Why does that bother you?”  

Only after her issues are on the table, should you attempt to discuss your actions and explain your intentions. There is a good chance that you are doing something that is perceived as problematic. Unless you hear her out, you won’t understand how you may be coming across. On the other hand, if her attitude is clearly the problem, you stand a good chance of winning her back if you listen to her without blaming or blasting her. (It’s difficult to criticize someone in authority who patiently listens to your concerns and seems truly interested in resolving them.) 

Attempt to paraphrase her comments and then agree with any part of them you can. For example, “So you think when I call on you during staff meetings, I’m trying to embarrass you? What exactly am I doing that makes you feel that way? … I can understand how you might feel that way but that was certainly not my intention. You have a lot to offer and I wanted you to share it.” 

This should clear the air and enable you to get some good feedback and make her feel listened to. If she reverts to her cold behavior, say something immediately and question her each time she does it.  

If she would rather badmouth you than speak up, you will need to take a different approach. If she doesn’t tell you what the problem is, say, “If you don’t tell me I will assume there is nothing wrong. So, I will expect that there is no reason not to be friendly and polite. But I don’t want you to have a problem and then complain to others about me, or act short toward me. I will expect that you are an adult and will let me know upfront instead of going behind my back. Can we agree on that?”  

This will set a clear expectation that sniping at you is unacceptable and that you expect her to come forward and tell you what the issue is. In the future, if she is short, stop her and ask her what the issue is immediately. If it continues, have a firmer discussion with her. Continue to smoke her out and give her no place to hide.  

In the meantime, it may also be helpful to interview each of your staff and ask them to give you some feedback on what they would like you to do more of and less of. That will blunt her efforts to undermine you and will give everyone a chance to clear the air with you. Opening yourself up and taking action on their honest feedback will improve morale and should stop her in her tracks.


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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