Direct Reports Think You’re Mean? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I have been a manager for many years. I came up through the ranks and have been steadily promoted because of my technical and analytical skills—also, because I am almost always right. I try not to be a jerk about it, but it is the truth.

I recently had a performance review with my new boss, who has been here for only about nine months. He told me I am doing pretty well on my goals, but that my people seem demoralized and beaten down. Apparently, there have been complaints that I am “mean.”

I am offended. I make sure everything that comes out of our department is top notch and I always thought I was a good manager.

My boss told me I had to be “nicer.” He also wants me to find ways to promote the good work my team is doing to the larger organization. I said I was willing to try, but I have no idea how to do those things. I thought he would help me, but all I got was a blank look.


Big Meanie

Dear Big Meanie,

Wow. It’s hard to hear that kind of feedback. It sounds like this is the first time you have been made aware of how you are perceived—and you have never received management training—so really, this is not your fault. I encourage you not to take it personally.

I appreciate your willingness to reflect on your boss’s advice, take it to heart, and make an effort to improve. That itself is a win right out of the gate.

I do take issue with the use of the word “nicer,” which is hard to define. I would submit that you might consider simply being more kind. This means:

  • Remember, people who aren’t like you have feelings that can be easily hurt. It’s not that you don’t have feelings, it’s just that you don’t consider them relevant.
  • Stop to think before you speak—put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Remember to praise good work instead of taking it for granted as a requirement for the job.
  • Critique in private—and be sure to critique the error or behavior, not the character of the offender.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt if they have shown evidence of best intent. No one is trying to screw up, generally speaking.

I have a couple of other ideas for you.

  • Ask your manager if there is anyone in the organization who has a reputation for building team morale and who is good at building PR for their team. Or perhaps you know someone—a former boss, perhaps—who would be good at this. Go to this person and ask them to mentor you in these two areas.
  • Ask your manager or your HR/Learning department if any training is available that could help you build the requested competencies. They might have something for you.
  • A lot of research has been done on psychological safety in the workplace. Do your own reading on how leaders can establish a safe place for their own teams. There are certain behaviors you can probably implement immediately that won’t require you to change your fundamental personality.

Talk to each of your direct reports in private. Ask what you do that makes them feel bad, and how you might change to make them feel more supported and appreciated. Most people just want to know that their manager has their back, so find out from each person what that looks like to them. Reflect on what you can and can’t do, and don’t make promises you can’t keep other than “I will try to do better.” This will be a good start toward helping you build the best way to lead each individual on the team.

There are some tactics you might consider when it comes to sharing your team’s good work with the larger organization. I would say the first step is identifying which peers need to be more aware, and developing relationships with them. You can get more detail on that here. Many analytical people can see this as a waste of time; however, it is critical to your success because the higher you go, the more important strong relationships are.

(Well, actually, relationships are critical at all stages in your career, but this is just now becoming a potential derailer for you.)

Let’s not forget that you do bring tremendous value to the organization. As a leader in a business myself, I can attest to how much organizations depend on people who value accuracy and get things right. Your considerable intelligence and analytical skills will serve you well in your quest to be a better manager.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

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!

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