Direct Report Talking Trash Behind Your Back? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am the new regional sales head of a large pharmaceutical company. I have put together a team of real stars. One of my team members (I’ll call him Bob) is a young man I brought with me from my old company. He is a fast learner and a hard worker, and we get along really well.

Here’s my problem. My boss has informed me that Bob is regularly taking meetings with my boss’s peers, which he has no business reason to do. My executive assistant, who also works for two other execs and is dialed into to everything and everyone, has told me point blank that Bob is talking trash about me to others outside the department.

What the heck? Why is this kid stabbing me in the back? And what should I do about it?

Fly in The Ointment

Dear Fly in The Ointment,

Congratulations on your new gig. Isn’t there always a fly? Here is what you should do:

Who knows why Bob is doing this—but the better question is: who knows if he really is? You don’t want to jump to conclusions. So first, take a big breath, step back, and make sure you have your facts straight. Regarding the skip-level meetings, maybe Bob is being smart and looking for a mentor. Perhaps your EA has an ulterior motive and is feeding you incorrect information. It’s also possible someone is being really Machiavellian and the EA is being manipulated. You may think I am kidding, but I have seen it. There is really no end the political shenanigans in organizations—and in big pharma the mayhem is legend. It’s hard to know what is essentially rumors and gossip. You may find that the drama is being created by someone else and it has nothing to do with Bob. Put on your detective hat, enroll some people you trust, and get the scoop.

If it turns out that you are being stabbed in the back, discuss it with your boss so you know he or she has your back no matter what. Then go at it head-on and confront Bob. Tell him you know what is going on, that you won’t tolerate it, and that it needs to stop right now. Don’t discuss it—he will deny and ask for an explanation and you will fall into the trap of making your case. Don’t do it. Just say, “I know what you are up to and I won’t tolerate it, and you need to stop it right now. If you have feedback for me I expect you to give it me, and I request that you not discuss it with anyone else. If you continue to trash me to others, I will be forced to take action.” I am a fan of this approach because it models direct communication and courage. Of course, if the behavior continues, you will have to fire him.

Now, you could go subterfuge and make it hard for the kid to succeed. Just slowly, quietly, reduce his access to you and resources and accounts. This is what most people would do. Employees are frozen out of their jobs all the time by managers who can’t face a direct conversation. I am not a fan of this approach because you are stooping to his level with the same type of indirect behavior he is using to hurt you. Is this the behavior you want to role model for your team of stars? I think not. But it is an option.

What you can’t do is nothing. You did the kid a favor, so it might be hard to get your head around the fact that he might be intentionally hurting you and gunning for your job—but that also happens all the time.

What you also can’t do is try to have a deep, heartfelt conversation with him about it. If Bob is out to get you, he has lost the assumption of best intentions and goodwill. You do not owe him the courtesy of a challenging conversation. You are smart to worry, but don’t launch into action until you know exactly what you are dealing with. Then decide your approach and be strong and firm.


Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

3 thoughts on “Direct Report Talking Trash Behind Your Back? Ask Madeleine

  1. Once again Madeleine great food for thought. Especially appreciated your suggestions of putting on the detective hat to enroll the people they trust to get the scoop. Also loved the idea of talking to the boss so “Fly in The Ointment” knows the boss has their back no matter what.

  2. Pingback: “People Think You’re Having an Affair at Work?” Ask Madeleine Top Questions of 2019 | HCL

  3. I loved reading this after a difficult day with a staff member I needed to read this and think about my situation

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