Be fair but firm with employee

Dear Joan:
I am writing in regard to a supervisor-subordinate problem I am having at work. I was recently promoted to a management position. The department which I manage currently has seventeen employees. The problem I am having involves one particular individual (whom I will call Ellen). Ellen doesn't like me being her supervisor. I think she feels she should have gotten the promotion. As a result, I am having a problem establishing a working relationship with her.

Ellen is a person who opposes any type of change. She has been with the company for sixteen years and has established a daily schedule and routine that she finds difficult to modify or change. As a result, when I institute changes, or ask her to do something that interferes with her daily routine, she will complain or resist. Also, she tries to get the other people in the department to resist changes with her.

Ellen was accustomed to being very loosely managed and doing things the way she thought they should be done. Now, because changes are being made and Ellen is being told what to do, which she is not used to, she is resisting. I am looking for some advice on how to best handle this situation.

Ask yourself several questions before you take any action:

1.      Of all the changes you want Ellen to make, which ones are absolutely necessary?

You may have tried to force too much too fast. Since she feels she should have gotten your job she will resist you at any opportunity. As a new boss, it's important to introduce only those changes, which are important and mandatory. The rest can come later.

Telling her she needs to change won't be enough. She needs to understand why the change is necessary. It's very important to get her input on any changes you make. Even if she disagrees with the change, you need to ask her why she thinks it won't work and what she would recommend as an alternative. If she digs her heels in on an issue that you feel is critical, ask her to "test it for three weeks" and then check with her frequently to see how it is working, so she can't sabotage it.

If there is any hope of salvaging the relationship, she must feel respected and valued. You must allow her to save face whenever possible and asking her to "test" things and asking for her opinion will go a long way toward building that foundation of mutual respect.

2.      If Ellen continues to resist you, would you be willing to fire her? Would your boss support your decision?

The question is, how will her resistance affect the quality and quantity of her work and how will it negatively affect her peers and customers-both internal and external?

Begin to document every significant conversation you have with her. If she doesn't follow through on needed changes write up a summary of the situation and the action plan that you both have discussed and give it to her, so she knows you are serious. Put these in her file.

The keys are: show empathy but be firm in your requests; get her input and explain why something must change; discuss how to do it differently; explain the consequences of not changing (including her possible discipline or termination).

If she continues to resist you in spite of repeated discussions, you will have the grounds and the documentation to terminate her.

3.      Does Ellen have enough influence to turn other employees against you?

She must be pretty bruised and bitter about not getting your job. She's still trying to get the troops to follow her. If she gets some supporters, it could cause large scale resistance to changes.

It's important for you to meet with your new team at least every week, so you are able to build rapport and get their input on changes. You would be smart to let them work on coming up with solutions to their own problems in these meetings. If they have the ability to give input and to have some control over their work, they will support you.

4.      If Ellen doesn't change, will it negatively affect the internal or external customers or other employees? (Do they have to "work around" her?)

Even if her quality and quantity of work is satisfactory, if she negatively affects others around her, it may be significant enough for disciplinary action or termination. Document the impact on the work and the morale.

Explain to her that if you allow her to refuse changes, you can't ask anyone else to make any changes either and chaos will prevail. That is insubordinate behavior and won't be acceptable.

A blend of empathy, praise, asking for her opinion and firm, consistent pressure to change should bring her around. If she refuses, she will be making the decision to terminate herself.

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,, or 
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