Getting a new job is almost always really exciting time. You’ve just accepted an offer you like, with a team you feel excited about, and your last interactions with the company have been all about benefits and how thrilled they are to have you come on board.
Which means it can be a rough reality check when you actually start the job, and you return to the real world of dealing with new tools, new expectations, and of course, new coworkers.
As a manager, you never know what kind of team you’re inheriting. And unfortunately, the team you inherit may or may not be excited that you’re there.
There is a whole history and set of expectations that you’re walking into, that you have no control over, and that can make your first weeks and months at a new job infinitely harder than they already would be.
So what happens when you join a team with a member (or members) who are difficult to work with? What happens if you have a new employee who doesn’t seem to want to work with you?
It can feel completely overwhelming on top of the many other things you have to do when you start a new job, but luckily there is a lot you can do to get this new relationship on a better track and make your new work life as awesome as you’d hoped it would be.
Talk to people who know more than you
When you’re new to a team, it always helps to get the lay of the land. While I don’t suggest you go into any conversations by saying, “Hey what’s the deal with ____? She has been so rude to me since I got here”, it can be a good idea to talk to people who have knowledge of your team about what you’re walking into.
Talk to your manager; talk to the person who had your job before you, if they’re still with the company; talk to the people on your team.
These are all good conversations to have anyways, so you can get the lay of the land for your new role and hit the ground running with work. But in the answers to these questions will probably be some valuable information about the individuals on the team you’re inheriting too.
Ask questions like:
- What are the big priorities for this team for the next 6 months?
- Are there any major roadblocks in our way from achieving those goals?
- What would it look like if this team did perfectly?
- What did the previous person in this role do really well?
- Are there any previous situations or issues I should be aware of that might still be ongoing?
You never know if the person who is being difficult applied for the job you ultimately got, or if the team just had a big failure on a recent project, or if your predecessor demoralized the team and some individuals are just having a hard time bouncing back. So this stuff is helpful to know as your begin to address any lingering issues. Being able to frame their previous experience in context can help you approach the situation more effectively and empathetically.
Talk to that person 1:1
If someone on your team is being difficult to work with, it never helps to avoid the issue or hope that they’ll just get over it. You have to address the situation head on.
Whether there was an actual argument, or you just get the sense this person doesn’t like or trust you, the most important thing you can do to improve that relationship is connect with that person 1:1.
You want to understand what motivates this person and why they do what they do. And you need to create positive interactions and position yourself as an ally to this person, and to do that you need to build trust.
While you should be doing regular 1:1 meetings with all the members of your team, take special care in meeting with a difficult new employee. There are a couple of things you can do to make this meeting go as well as possible:
- Take the meeting out of your office. Most 1:1s happen in your office, which is your turf. Even the playing field a bit by taking the meeting out of your office (where the setting is all about you being the boss) and maybe even go outside the office altogether. Getting off campus is a subtle, but effective, way of putting you both on an even footing, which you want.
- Pick them up at their desk; don’t make them come to you. When you schedule the meeting, let them know you’ll come pick them up at their desk. Coming to meet them on their turf can help further even out the power dynamics of the meeting.
- Don’t try to control the conversation. This conversation can only work if the employee is being really truthful, and you are being really receptive. This means you should speak normally; don’t use a bunch of corporate jargon or try to keep the person at arm’s length. You want to connect, which means you need to be open to whatever direction the other person may want to take it, as long as it’s constructive.
- Ask questions, listen, and don’t interrupt. Instead of explaining how you feel or what you hope to get out of the conversation, just start asking the person questions. “How is your week going so far?” “What’s been taking up most of your time at work recently?”. Once the ball is rolling, you can dive deeper into questions about goals and work preferences. Try to keep these questions short, and leave lots of open space for the person to answer. Don’t interrupt or lead them with too much buildup or explanation. Give the person plenty of room to talk, and listen carefully. If you didn’t understand something, ask a followup. If you connect with the person on something, let them know. Be empathetic.
- Be candid about yourself. If you’ve had a tense relationship, this person may not be really interested in opening up to you at first. One of the best ways to help them do that is to open up about yourself first. Talk about a failure or express sincere feelings about a recent situation. The more truthful you are, the more truthful they will be inclined to be.
- Be open to their feedback. Many times in my career, I have been surprised to learn that something I thought was awesome actually wasn’t working at all for my team. So be prepared to hear feedback and actually act on it. The point of this meeting isn’t just to make the person feel good or important; it’s to find ways for you to work better together, and that goes both ways.
- Talk about how much you value your team and their part. In order to move forward productively, this person has to want to improve the relationship and do a better job at work. In order to help them want that, talk to them about how passionate you are about the company. Talk about how important your team is to the bigger goal. And talk about how this individual’s role is critical to that success. Make it clear that you are invested in them and that you are invested in the success of the team. Help them see their part in your mutual success.
Open lines of communication and keep building positive interactions
Leadership is all about keeping everyone on the same page. As a manager, it is your job to make sure you know where you stand with your team, and that they know where they stand with you. Here are three ways to do that:
1. Ask them to help you or give you their advice
One of the best ways to build trust with someone is to ask for their help with or get their advice on something. It shows you value their knowledge, and that you trust them as an expert or guide in something you (the boss) need help with.
You can bring them in to help you troubleshoot an issue your having, or to get their advice on a situation you’re dealing with.
Even better, you can try to find ways to get their help in something you know they’ll be excited to work on. If you know from your 1:1s that they want to transition into product, for example, invite them to come take notes for you in your meeting with the product team. If they are feel really proud about how good they are at organizing/planning, ask them for ideas in planning your next team offsite.
Even simpler, sometimes you can just bring a person in to explain part of their work to you. Call them into your office and ask, “I just had a chance to check out _____, and your team did such a good job. I thought _____ was especially great – can you tell me how you came up with that?”.
Show them that you take them seriously as a professional and as an advisor. They’ll likely reciprocate the feelings of respect if they get them from you first.
2. Never take credit, always take the blame
Another great way to build trust is to publicly show this person that you are on their side. Sure, you can tell them that you’re on their side, which they may or may not believe. But if you stick up for them in front of the team or your own boss, that shows them that you are serious.
One of the best ways to do this is through the old adage, “Never take the credit; always take the blame.” Go out of your way to highlight this person’s successes publicly. Show them that you value them so much you want to share it with others.
Likewise, if they mess up, don’t throw them under the bus or mention who exactly caused the error. If an error happened on your team, it’s your fault. Show that you are willing to be the kind of leader that they can trust in good times and bad.
3. If things get tense, walk away
Occasionally, with a difficult team member, things can get heated. If this happens, don’t engage.
When people are upset, nasty things can get said. And unfortunately, it takes a lot of time to undo negativity — in fact, it takes 6 positive interactions to counteract every 1 negative interaction you have. Which means if you get to the point of a shouting match with someone, you are going to have a lot of making up to do before you can even get back on track with this person.
Instead, step away and come back later. You aren’t going to change anyone’s mind while they are angry anyways.
Let yourself cool off, and talk the issue over with outsiders. You may get a helpful perspective that lets you understand where the employee was coming from, or you may just get clarity on what parts of this situation you actually need to agree on.
The more you understand the other person, the better your relationship will be
It can be hard to want to get to know someone better when they are making it difficult for you to love your new job. But the best way to solve that difficulty is actually to get to know them better, so that you can better work with them.
When you know what drives them, what makes them upset, or what their real goals are, you can do a better job of giving them what they need and helping them want to work with you too.
And when two people want to work together, then anything is possible.