Ask Women in Product: How do you deal with disrespectful direct reports?

Alice Little offers practical advice for dealing with direct reports who are disrespectful.

Image by DIANA TSVIRUK at Twenty20

This week’s question: How do you deal with direct reports who are disrespectful (e.g., answers questions with an attitude)? This is not a gender issue because the direct report is also a woman, and I have seen the same behavior from her with other senior managers (both male and female).

Disrespect is a surprisingly common issue in the workplace, whether between a manager and her direct reports or between co-workers. It’s also a super tricky one to solve: one person’s attitude is another person’s personality. The key thing when dealing with disrespect is communication: both from and to your disrespectful report.

First: Listen

A good friend of mine is a teacher at a rough, inner-city high school. During one lesson, the kids in her class were behaving terribly. My friend got so fed up that, despite her better instincts, she started giving them a talking to. She had only been speaking for a minute when one of the boys put his hand up and asked her what time the lesson finished. My friend couldn’t believe it; how could her student be so rude? She was their teacher, and she had a right to tell them off if they were misbehaving. But not only was the kid not listening to her, he had the nerve to let her know he was more concerned with getting out of the lesson!

Before reacting, my friend checked herself, reminding herself that the kids were living by definitions of respect and disrespect that simply didn’t match her own. In fact, this boy thought he was behaving politely because he had put his hand up like my friend had taught him. No one had told him that when someone is speaking, even about something he’s not interested in, the respectful thing to do is pay attention.

So back to the question about respect, or lack thereof, from a direct report in the workplace. Your first step in this scenario is to stop and make sure you fully understand the situation. To do that, you’ll need to listen. However unlikely it might be, you need to find out if your report is aware that they are being disrespectful. Do they know their behaviour is inappropriate? Are they aware that they’ve offended others?

Of course, there’s every chance they are being deliberate with their actions, so then what? You still need to understand what is causing the behaviour. Are they unhappy with you? Are they unhappy with their role? As their manager, it’s your job to find out what’s going on. You can start by asking them what they think of their relationship with you — what’s working well and what’s not working well. Listen avidly. If they say everything is fine, then you need to dig a bit deeper. And remember, if you are listening, they are the one who’s talking.

To have the best chance of changing your report’s behaviour, target their actions and not their character.

Next: Prepare

You need to document everything, and I mean everything. Every eye roll, every snap back, every mutter. In your question, you give the example of answering questions “with attitude” — you’ll need to be more specific than this. What, specifically, is she doing that suggests attitude? Note clear examples of the actions that are unacceptable and when these actions were displayed.

To have the best chance of changing your report’s behaviour, target their actions and not their character. We all identify strongly with what we see as our character and, rightly or wrongly, most people believe that character or personality cannot be changed. If you tell your report that her character is flawed or wrong, she’s likely to be offended and highly resistant to change. In contrast, most people don’t strongly identify with specific actions and are usually confident that they can control and change their actions at will.

If your report claims to be unaware that there is anything wrong with her behaviour, this preparation step will enable you to explain the issue in unambiguous terms.

Then: Address

Once you’ve figured out what’s going on and you’ve got your body of evidence, it’s time to address it with your direct report. Disrespectful behaviour can quickly become toxic in the workplace, and you don’t want other employees to learn bad habits from her.

How you address it will largely depend on what you learnt when you were listening. It might be as straightforward as explaining what acceptable behaviour is or as complex as trying to influence a person’s deeply entrenched attitudes.

Regardless of the situation, here are a few tips that will help:

1. Acknowledge it.

If your report tells you that she doesn’t get on with you, that she wanted the promotion you got, or that she doesn’t think you rated her fairly, acknowledge it. You don’t have to pretend that everything is great, and it will start the conversation off on a much better footing if you acknowledge and permit her feelings.

2. Remain emotionally neutral and professional.

The issue with disrespectful behaviour should not be that it has upset you, but rather that she is not behaving in a way that the company requires. This approach can also help the conversation seem less like a personal attack on the employee. Emphasise that she does not have to like you or any of the senior managers, but that respectful behavior is essential for you all to work together. If the report seems to have a specific problem with you, focus on what the company wants and needs rather than on you: “You don’t have to like me, but it is your job to take my direction and action it appropriately.”

You also want to ensure that you are positive and respectful with her. However annoyed or frustrated you are with her behaviour or with the conversation (and unfortunately there is a possibility that her most disrespectful behaviours could come out in this conversation) you must remain professional and calm to achieve the outcome you want.

3. If the conversation veers off-course, stop it.

If there’s any risk of you losing your cool, stop the conversation and come back to it another time: “We don’t seem to be getting anywhere with this, so I suggest we leave it for now. I will schedule another meeting in x days so we can become better aligned.”

Even if the conversation does not get heated, consider stopping if it does not seem to be going anywhere. There’s no point flogging a dead horse, and you might end up entrenching the behaviour more deeply if you push it.

4. Provide clear examples of the behaviour you want to see.

Hopefully, you’ve gotten to the stage where your report can see that their behaviour is problematic. To move the conversation into a positive and productive area, you now need to focus on the behaviours that you do want to see from them. Be specific and unambiguous. Cite previous examples of their inappropriate behaviour and describe what you would have preferred to see.

“When you disagree or need clarification on direction I’ve provided, here are appropriate ways for you to voice that…”

“When I am giving a weekly update to the team, I need to be able to complete my entire update before taking comments and feedback.”

5. Lay out the next steps.

You’ve told her what you expect to see from her going forward, so now you need to make sure she understands how soon you expect to see these changes and what will happen if she doesn’t improve.

Be realistic about the timeframe you set. Depending on what is driving the behaviour, you may need to give her some time to reflect and internalise the feedback. In the best case scenario, your report is mortified that she’s been unintentionally offending you with her attitude and the timeframe for improvement is short.

Schedule regular check-ins (every fortnight or so) to keep things on track. Use this time to acknowledge any improvements you see in her behaviour; a little encouragement delivered at regular intervals can go a long way towards reinforcing these behavioural improvements.

If you get the sense that your direct report isn’t taking your feedback seriously, take a moment to lay out what will happen if you don’t see the improvement you’ve discussed. Will she get another warning from you? What is the process for escalation? Who will be involved? Your report deserves to know the consequences if her behavior remains unchanged, and the escalation should not be a surprise to her if it comes to it.

Finally…

If your report does not change her behaviour despite numerous conversations with you, it might, unfortunately, be time to take disciplinary action. How to handle that step is a subject worthy of its own blog post, so all I will say is this: make sure you follow your company’s protocol exactly. For example, do you need to provide written warnings? If yes, how many? Ensure you’ve got all your evidence (you’ll have gotten lots of it during your preparation step) and that everything is done entirely by the book.

Good luck!

A global community of women working in Product Management.