when you manage someone who you personally dislike

A reader writes:

I work in a small company (35 employees) in a team of four people. We are a “young” company (average age around 30) and we get along; many people have become friends and about once a month we go out for drinks, invitation open to all.

Some four months ago, I was appointed team leader and around that same time we hired a new colleague on to our team. He is young and this is his first office job. He is openly grateful for being employed (in today’s economy) and very eager to learn. He does his job quite well.

The problem is that I found myself really disliking him personally. He is very smug and often condescending in everyday conversations, and very intense (trying to become close friends with everyone very quickly). I also notice that he is sometimes a kiss-ass, both within the team and with our higher-ups. Regarding the rest of the team, another team member mentioned that he sometimes annoys her and the fourth member has mostly worked in another location and likes the New Guy’s work but has mentioned no personal impressions.

I don’t talk to other team members about my personal feelings. I don’t want to be petty and I don’t want this problem I’m having to influence the team (I have seen how damaging a personal dislike between two people, when allowed to flare, can be to a team). The New Guy, as I mentioned, does good work and I don’t think he is malicious or would be intentionally damaging. But we work very closely together, in the same office, he attends the company’s unofficial social events and although in an ideal world I could only focus on his work, I’m afraid that me finding him personally obnoxious could become an issue.

Do you have any advice on how I can handle my own feelings?

First, stop seeing your relationships with colleagues in terms of who you like and who you don’t like. Your job as a manager isn’t to be friends with the people who work for you — in fact, it’s to not be friends with them. (You need to preserve professional boundaries so that you can objectively assess their work, give feedback, make tough decisions about their tenure with the company if necessary, and generally be their boss, not their friend.)

That means that you need to focus on his work, not whether you enjoy hanging out with him.

However, if his behaviors are impacting his effectiveness, then as his manager, you’re almost obligated to talk to him about that. And that might be a legitimate issue here, since it sounds like you’re partly identifying a problem with how he’s fitting in with your office’s culture and expectations about behavior. (I say “partly,” because I think this is only true of the smugness and condescension; his attempts to quickly become friends with others are really not your business.)

I’d think a bit on what the impact of the smugness and condescension is. Is he coming across as if he doesn’t respect his colleagues’ opinions, which is bad for his working relationships with others? Is he acting as if he has nothing to learn, which would legitimately worry you as his manager because it might mean he’s blocking out important information he really does need to learn and/or turning others off from helping him? Is is bringing a negative energy to meetings and discussions?  These are the types of things that you should talk with him about, because these are legitimate areas for you to care about — they affect his own performance and they affect your team in general.

But again, you should be approaching this utterly dispassionately — it’s not about whether you like him (irrelevant); it’s about his impact in the workplace, good and bad.

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