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Managing someone you don’t like takes perseverance

Columnist Dave Conrad says conflict can, if you work at it, lead to a new way of thinking.

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Dear Dave,

I manage several employees and I get along well with almost all of them. However, there is one employee I have tried my hardest to like and warm up to — and it just is not there. I think he and I have personality conflicts, and I can’t help but treat him differently from everyone else. I wish I could say that he does good work but be doesn’t. What can I do?

— T

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Dear T,

We can’t like everyone, but if we manage people, we need to get over it. Not everyone will win your popularity contest. Also, you mention that his work may not be the best. Do you review him and his work? It becomes easier to dismiss someone if their performance is poor.

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However, if this person is causing trouble and not doing his job, he does not deserve to be carried, nor employed. As a manager, it is crucial to recognize the difference between an employee who is underperforming and one who is just unlikable. Your termination options rest mostly on the fact that this employee may be underperforming for the entirety of his employment — and if you have his performance reviews documenting his lousy work, it will be much easier to say "Adios."

Often those employees who provoke or challenge you — the people you find hard to like — may be the ones providing fresh insights for innovation. Simply, human resource challenges — those that involve a manager, staff, and their work — may enliven your thinking and motivate you and your team to search for creative, fair and appropriate ideas.

It’s not possible to build a team comprised entirely of people you’d invite to Sunday dinner but disliking this employee can cause problems. Consciously or unconsciously, you might mismanage him or treat him unfairly and fail to see the real benefits he can possibly provide. This is when your mismanagement can get you in hot water.

See things differently

First, stop seeing your relationships with your employees in terms of who you like and who you don’t like. Your job as a manager isn’t necessarily to be friends with the people who work for you — however, it is your job to be friendly. But don’t make your friendly demeanor come across as phony or forced. Employees can spot a fake management “nice guy” behavior a mile away.

Your responsibility is to come across as professional, supportive, and positive. This means that you need to focus on his work and professional development. However, if his behaviors are negatively impacting his effectiveness, or the well-being of his teammates, then it’s time for a crucial conversation based on facts and not feelings.

Approach him with as little emotion as possible — it’s necessary to objectively view only his performance and behaviors. Do some reflection and analyze the situation he is in. Ask yourself: Is he creating bad working relationships with others? Is he openly challenging your authority? Is he creating negativity in the working environment?

The answers to these questions will help you determine if there are real problems here and not just a personality conflict.

Stay calm, carry on

Keep an open mind. It might help to spend more time with your employee. Try collaborating on a difficult task or try to solve some nagging department problem. Your perspectives can change by the experiences you have with him.

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Also, stay cool and don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve. Remain fair, calm and composed. If you’re having trouble, talk to another manager who is familiar with the employee’s work and see if your impressions match the other manager’s perspective of the employee. But remember, these conversations are about feelings and opinions and are not data driven.

Finally, check your bias. Think about why you are reacting the way you are and if you have an attitude and perspective based only on who you put into your private "in group” or “out group.” This factor can be a major source of dissatisfaction and stress — and it is all based on the way you do or don’t get along with an individual or group of people.

When I think back on some of the biggest employee conflicts I’ve had, they were generally with those individuals who challenged me and took me out of my comfort zone. Fresh thinking and creativity became byproducts of some relationship tension, conflict and agitation. And I generally found that I was wrong about individuals when I really got to know them.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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