CHAPTER 17

How to Manage Someone You Don’t Like

by Amy Gallo

Everybody complains about incompetent bosses or dysfunctional coworkers, but what about irritating direct reports? What should you do if the person you manage drives you up a wall? If the behavior is a performance issue, there’s a straightforward way to address what’s irking you, but what do you do when it’s an interpersonal issue? Is it possible to be a fair boss to someone you’d avoid eating lunch with, or must you learn to like every member of your team?

What the Experts Say

Of course, your job would be a whole lot easier if you liked everyone on your team. But that’s not necessarily what’s best for you, the group, or the company. “People liking each other is not a necessary component to organizational success,” says Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist and the author of The Blame Game. Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and the author of Good Boss, Bad Boss, agrees. According to Sutton, “There’s a list of things that make you like people and there’s a list of things that make a group effective, and there are very different things on those lists.” It’s neither possible nor even ideal to build a team composed entirely of people you’d invite to a backyard barbecue. But there are real pitfalls to disliking an employee. Consciously or unconsciously, you might mismanage him or treat him unfairly and fail to see the real benefit he can deliver to your team. Here’s how to get the most out of someone you don’t like.

Don’t assume it’s a bad thing

Sure, you may grit your teeth at her lousy jokes or wince at the way he whistles at his desk, but feeling less-than-simpatico with your direct reports might not be the worst thing. “From a performance standpoint, liking the people you manage too much is a bigger problem than liking them too little,” says Sutton. The employees you gravitate toward are probably the ones who act nice, don’t deliver bad news, and flatter you. But it’s often those who provoke or challenge you that prompt new insights and help propel the group to success. “You need people who have different points of view and aren’t afraid to argue,” says Sutton. “They are the kind of people who stop the organization from doing stupid things.”

Focus on you

Still, the days can feel very long when you’re constantly dealing with someone you don’t like. It’s crucial to learn how to handle your frustration. Rather than thinking about how irritating the person is, focus on why you are reacting the way you are. “They didn’t create the button; they’re just pushing it,” says Dattner. He suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the problem the individual or someone they remind me of? “You can have a competent person who looks like your unkind aunt and suddenly she can do no right.”
  • Am I afraid of being like this person? If your direct report constantly interrupts people, for example, and you worry you do too, you may react more strongly.
  • Are they a member of a group that I have issues with? This question gets into a whole host of prejudices and possible legal issues, but you need to be honest with yourself about any hidden biases you may have. “Try to unpack what this person represents to you.”

“You don’t have to go into therapy to figure it out, but be honest with yourself about what situations or attributes make you most irritated,” Dattner says. Once you’ve pinpointed the triggers that might be complicating your feelings, you may be able to soften or alter your reaction. Remember: It’s far easier to change your perspective than to ask someone to be a different kind of person.

Put on a good face

Everyone wants their boss to like them. Whatever your feelings for your employee, he will be highly attuned to your attitude and will presume that any disapproval or distaste has to do with his performance. The onus is on you to remain fair, impartial, and composed. “Cultivating a diplomatic poker face is important. You need to be able to come across as professional and positive,” says Dattner.

Seek out the positive

No one is 100% annoying. Yet it’s easy to see the best in your favorites and the worst in people who bother you. “Looking for some of the flaws of your stars and the redeeming attributes of the people you don’t like can help you be more balanced,” says Dattner. Search for what you like about the person. “Assume the best, focus on what they’re good at and how they can help your team,” says Sutton. He suggests you regularly ask: “Given their talents and their limits, what can they do that would be best for the team? Can the overachiever shoulder some additional projects? Might the slow talker’s snail-paced delivery spur the whole team to reflect more before speaking?”

Keep your bias out of reviews

When someone irks you, you need to be especially vigilant about keeping your bias out of the evaluation and compensation process. Dattner recommends asking your self: “Am I using the same standards that I use for other people?” If you find you’re having trouble being fair, Sutton suggests seeking counsel from another manager who is familiar with the employee’s work. Ask for frank feedback on whether your evaluation matches the outsider’s. You might even ask the person to play devil’s advocate, to make the case for the employee’s strong points. “Leadership is mischaracterized as a solo adventure. It’s much more of a team sport,” says Sutton.

Spend more time together

This might sound like the last thing you want to hear, but it might help to give yourself more exposure to the problem employee. Sometimes strong medicine is the most effective cure. Sutton cites studies that demonstrate how collaboration on difficult tasks tends to build affinity. “Over time, if you work together closely, you may come to appreciate them,” he says. Consider staffing him to your toughest project, or asking him to serve as your right-hand person on an important initiative. Most important, remember to keep an open mind. “Your favorite employee today might become your least favorite tomorrow. The people you like may become untrustworthy tomorrow,” says Dattner.

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Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017) and the forthcoming Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People). She writes and speaks about workplace dynamics. Follow her on Twitter @ amyegallo.


Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, August 29, 2013 (product #H00B60).

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