my employee is acting like a manager even though I’ve told him to stop

A reader writes:

I have a problem as a manager that I can use some help with. 20+ years of managing others and I’ve never run into something quite like this.

First the background. I work for a small tech startup. We are developing a new product where I needed to create a new team to support it. The initial team is 3 people with me at my location, and another 3-person team at a location in a satellite office in another part of the country. If the product does well, we are going to expand both of these teams to 10 people each by the end of this year. The team at the satellite office was not going to have any management onsite. I do my best with managing remotely, on-site visits, and video conferencing. But even so, I’ve managed remote employees before, so I knew I was going to need to have a team of self starters and leaders to handle the volatility of the first several months of building a new product.

With the leadership needs and team expansion in mind, when I hired the initial staff 6 months ago, I targeted an individual who would be interested in a managerial path. I needed someone who had the technical acumen required for this aggressive project, with the entrepreneurial spirit and ambition to work long hours to make this a success, and someone who is well suited to become a manager when the team size grew. I think I did pretty well at hiring my first 3 remote employees, and one of these peple really embodies all of these characteristics I was looking for. We’ll call him Rich. When I interviewed Rich, we discussed his career goals and my vision for the next 6-18 months for the team and the team’s goals. He was very excited to start at the ground floor, and eventually get the opportunity to be a manager. He was hired on as an individual contributor and a title that clearly indicates that. I would be lost without him. He’s the MVP of the project and has exceeded my expectations. If we hit our target goals for the project and are able to grow the staff, there is nobody else I would rather have manage it.

Which leads to the challenge I’m having. I’ve had several situations where Rich is behaving as the manager. I’m not talking about exhibiting leadership and mentoring the rest of the team – because that’s exactly one of the roles I expected him to play. Unfortunately, he’s gone pretty far down the road as behaving as a manager with hire/fire responsibilities. Everything from having his peers clear their time off with him to assigning them tasks to giving them feedback on how their performance needs to improve if they would like to grow with the company. I’ve had to speak to Rich a couple of times now about overstepping his bounds and that he has to remember that these are peers. He shouldn’t be assigning tasks with deadlines, and he shouldn’t be getting involved with HR type issues such as PTO.

Rich’s peers are very confused by his behavior. One of the members of the team won’t even email me without copying Rich. If I email the team member, he’ll add Rich on the CC line on the response. He has created a situation where he is acting as the de facto boss since I’m physically not there, even though I’m on a video conference call with all of them several times a day. But the second the camera is off, Rich tries to act as “the boss.” I regularly point that out to him that he should engage me immediately if he witnesses things that concern him such as workload, productivity, behavioral issues, or other HR situations. Rich’s response is, “Well, I’m the team lead, so handling this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” My response is, “No, you are an individual contributor, and you were hired as such. I would love to make you a team lead or a full fledged manager. But as previously discussed, we need to hit some target goals as a team and as individuals before we can do this.” I have had this conversation with him at our weekly one on one for the past month. But it isn’t having any effect. He’s using “team lead” in his email signature. Today, I got wind of him addressing an HR violation committed by one of his peers that should have immediately been brought to my attention. I won’t go into details, but it was a clear action that should have resulted in a verbal warning or possible write-up with HR present. When I asked Rich why he didn’t call me right away, his response was once again, “Because I’m the team lead.”

Now I have to do something, and I’m not sure of what. Rich interfering in an incident like this has complicated my ability to address the employee who caused the incident. And as much as I am impressed with Rich’s daily work, he is not a team lead. He also apparently isn’t very good at being a team lead, based on the micromanagement that I’ve witnessed. But I can’t worry about coaching that behavior out of him right now since he isn’t even a team lead! Rich’s title has been made clear to him. His continued insistence that he is in a position of authority and resulting behaviors are undermining my ability to manage my team. It’s apparent that my attempts to remind him of his role have not had any impact, so I will need to be more forceful. I really think I’m at the point where I have to be very blunt. But I’m afraid that if I push back on him too hard, he may just decide that it isn’t worth his time to wait until I am able to give him the title he so desperately wants. If he moves on, my project will fail. I’m not sure how to address this anymore without risking upsetting him. I think he is well intentioned, but the ambition that has made him so good at the job I hired him to do is just overflowing to his ambition to achieve a short term career goal. How do I stop the aggressive behavior towards his peers without stifling the aggressive behavior that has kept our project moving forward?

Oh dear. You’re telling this guy in no uncertain terms “this isn’t your job and I need you to stop doing these things” and he’s continuing to do them anyway, even going so far as using the title you said wasn’t his in his emails?

One of two things is happening here. Either:

1. Rich is unable or unwilling to hear clear, direct communications from you. This is a huge problem if so — huge enough that you need to seriously reconsider your long-term plans for him, because someone who won’t heed clear directives is not someone who you can put in a position of authority.

or

2. You are not being as clear as you think you are, and haven’t been all along. This might seem farfetched, but when you say, for instance, “I really think I’m at the point where I have to be very blunt,” it does raise the question of whether you haven’t been direct and straightforward up until now. Is it possible that Rich is acting like the team lead because you haven’t said explicitly, “You are not the team lead and you cannot act like one, call yourself one, or engage in behaviors X, Y, and Z”?

I don’t know which of these it is … but you can probably figure it out by asking yourself questions like: Have you used words like “you are not the team lead” and “I need you to stop doing X” with him? Or have you been more delicate about it, using language that perhaps felt more diplomatic? When you hear words like “you are not the team lead” and “I need you to stop doing X,” do they feel awkward to you or overly direct? If you feel uncomfortable at the prospect of saying them, chances are good that the words you have been saying have not been explicit enough.

As for what to do now…

If you realize that you haven’t been entirely clear with Rich, you have to do that now. It should sound like this: “Rich, it’s possible that I haven’t been clear enough in the past, but I want to be very clear now so that there’s no room for misunderstanding: You are not the team lead. There is no guarantee that you will become the team lead in the future, although it’s a possibility if things goes well. I need you to stop acting as anything more than a peer to your colleagues. This means that you should not do X, Y, or Z, or anything similar. I’m sorry if I haven’t been clear enough about this previously. To make sure that we’re aligned about this now, can we talk through our mutual understanding of what this means going forward?”

(And if you realize that you’ve been really unclear with Rich, put more emphasis on the”I’m sorry for miscommunicating” side of this. If any reasonable person in Rich’s shoes could have made the mistakes he made, you want to make sure your tone and your words account for that.)

But if you’re confident that you’ve already been explicit enough, then you have a serious problem on your hands. And while I realize that you don’t want to risk losing Rich because you need him for your project, you’ve got to let go of that — because otherwise you’re going to be held hostage to some very, very damaging behavior (and the high likelihood of even worse in the future).

Whenever you find yourself feeling “I cannot lose this employee, regardless of repeated terrible behavior,” that’s a flag to revisit those assumptions. You should never be so dependent on any one employee that losing them could seriously jeopardize your business — because after all, you could lose the person tomorrow for reasons you’d never predict (hit by a bus, won the lottery, family moving, accepts another job, etc.).

Right now, you are being held hostage by at least one thing (fear of losing this guy) and possibly two (fear of being blunt).

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