A reader writes:
I started at my current company in a junior role, but thanks to my previous experience, I was able to get up to speed with my responsibilities and do them well very quickly. I got a lot of great feedback and became fast friends with my boss and colleagues.
Shortly after I started, Fergus joined our team as the same junior role as me. He was noticeably very anxious and insecure, and he struggled with getting the basics down. The job includes giving feedback on others’ work, and I noticed that I kept having to ask him to fix the same basic issues (like spelling errors) constantly. I didn’t shy away from giving him feedback directly but professionally – the same way I give feedback to everyone else – and while no one else in the company seems to have a problem with me, he would get angry and defensive when I critiqued his work. He was hot and cold socially; sometimes he was kind and funny, but other times withdrawn and sullen. I made an effort to invite him to events outside of work, and invited him to coffees with our other colleagues, in the hopes that being friends could improve our working relationship. But I don’t think he made any friends in the company. I eventually complained to our boss about both his work and his attitude after the amount of time I was spending pointing out his errors became unsustainable and didn’t seem to be yielding results.
Over time, I was promoted from my junior role to a more senior one, and then our boss announced that he was leaving the company. I applied for our boss’ job and I got it. Fergus abruptly took the next day off and emailed HR his resignation (without talking to our boss or me). The timing of his resignation seems too immediate and sudden to feel like a coincidence.
Alison, I’m having so much trouble figuring out what happened and if I could have prevented it. I’ve spoken to multiple people about the situation who agree it’s a distinct possibility that Fergus didn’t like having so much direct, non-sugarcoated feedback come from a woman, especially one who was on the same level as him at the time, and especially one who was younger than him. I’ve also wondered if I should have been gentler when I was giving him feedback – but I didn’t want to condescend to him by assuming he couldn’t take it, and his work had so many obvious errors that I felt that letting them slide would have negatively impacted the quality of our products.
Worst of all, I have to manage him for the next two weeks. It feels like he found me so intolerable that he didn’t think it was even worth giving working with me a shot, so I’m not sure how to deal with talking about his remaining projects that I’ll have to help him hand off to someone else. What can I do to try and keep the peace until he leaves? And is there anything I can do differently to avoid a situation like this ever again?
What you’re doing is interesting: All the data you have available here says that this is about Fergus, not about you, but you’re feeling responsible for it and wondering what you did wrong.
Take another look at this:
* You mastered your job quickly, got great feedback, and got promoted because of your work.
* You get along well with your boss and other colleagues.
* Fergus struggled with the basics of his job from the beginning, produced work with numerous errors, and didn’t improve even after repeated corrections.
* When he received professionally-delivered feedback, he got angry and defensive.
* You made social overtures to try to help build a relationship, but he was often sullen.
Why are you worrying that you’re the problem here?
To be clear, it’s definitely good to do some self-reflection to make sure that you don’t have blind spots, especially when you learn someone doesn’t want to work with you.
But if all the available data says that people respect you and enjoy working with you, and that he didn’t because he was bad at his job and didn’t like getting feedback on his work from you … it’s okay to conclude that this is about him, not you.
You asked if you should have been gentler in giving him feedback. Assuming that you weren’t unkind and that you were direct, matter-of-fact, clear, and not punitive or personal … I doubt it. If gentler would mean sugarcoating things or handling him like a delicate flower, then definitely no. And if you’re right that he didn’t like getting feedback from a woman, or from a younger woman, then doubly no. But who knows, maybe it wasn’t that and he wouldn’t have reacted well to feedback from anyone; some people are like that. Regardless, if he couldn’t deal with direct feedback, this likely would have gotten a lot worse once you became his manager.
And really, it’s not a problem that someone who was performing poorly and responding unprofessionally to feedback decided to move on. That’s actually the easiest and best outcome — for him and for your employer, and also for you, since it sounds like otherwise you probably would have needed to let him go at some point.
You said you’re struggling to figure out what happened, and it sounds like what happened is that you worked with a dude who was bad at his job, gave him direct feedback about his mistakes as part of your own job, he didn’t like that, and he wasn’t willing to work for someone who he could tell was going to hold him accountable. (Of course, his version of this is probably something like: “My coworker was always nitpicking my work and wouldn’t cut me any slack, and when I found out she was going to be my new boss, I said hell no.” And it feels crappy to know that someone out there thinks of you that way, but sometimes that’s how it goes when you’ve got a colleague who’s bad at their job and handles feedback horribly.)