Feeling Bullied by Direct Report? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am the director of HR who was hired by an early start-up to rebuild the talent team. In the past four months, I have been creating a new team of seven and working to get them up and running. This is a total overhaul of the team, including re-defining of processes, tools, and structure.

One of the direct reports I hired, “Alex,” was positioned to be the most experienced team member. We set expectations during his interview about the team restructure situation. But since he came on board, Alex has made it clear he sees the rebuild as a weakness of my leadership. His priorities for team collaboration and execution are very different from mine. For the last three months, I’ve had to constantly remind him about what we need to focus on for our quarterly goals.

Alex is also going behind my back and creating chaos both within the new team and with cross functional stakeholders. All our weekly one-on-one meetings are about how other team members come to him with complaints and challenges. I’m very close to the rest of the team; I am a hands-on manager ready to help and I have my finger on the pulse of where the challenges are. My direct boss is in the loop. I have asked for feedback from my team and other stakeholders and have found Alex’s comments to be false.

Now he is saying someone on our team told him they wish he could be their manager. He recently told my direct boss that I’m not good at building new things. And he intentionally removes me from important conversations, which creates confusion.

I am ready to part ways, but he just showed his first success in his role. I am conflicted. He is someone I can’t trust—in fact, I feel bullied. Most important, he clearly doesn’t believe in my leadership or the direction in which I am taking the team.

I am not a new manager, but this is the first time I have experienced this kind of behavior. Is it wrong for me to let him go?

Hurt, Worried, and Conflicted


Dear Hurt, Worried and Conflicted,

I had to move this one to the top of my queue. Your letter literally kept me up the last two nights because it is so obvious to me that you are at risk. I got so upset on your behalf, I had my husband read your letter as a reality check. He agrees that you are being intentionally undermined. We have a code word we use when we see this kind of situation—it is the name of someone who wreaked havoc in our small start-up back in the day.

Let’s start with this: Get rid of Alex. Today.

Only a completely decent, lovely human being would find themselves in this position. You are clearly a really nice person who takes full responsibility for her own actions, is eager to learn from mistakes, seeks and acts on feedback to improve, and works overtime to build a culture of inclusion. You would never in a million years behave the way Alex is behaving, so you just don’t see it. Instead, you give the benefit of the doubt, look for reasons to justify behaviors, and continue to look for the best in everyone—even someone who is plainly gunning for your job by gaslighting you and undermining you with your team members.

That’s what Alex is counting on. Your great gifts of building a coalition and allowing others to shine has a dark side. He knows it and is using it to his advantage. Psychopaths are brilliant at finding people’s weak spots—in your case, your geniality—and using them to suit their own purposes. You haven’t seen this before because it is rare, weird behavior. (Psychopaths make up a very small percentage of the population.) Anyone who hasn’t encountered this behavior before almost always attempts to normalize it, which is what you are doing. But it isn’t normal and it isn’t okay. Do not be fooled or allow yourself to be manipulated for one more minute.

I hope you don’t think I am a terrible cynic. I really am not. I have just experienced this before, and I have seen how entire teams of well intentioned, psychologically stable people can be decimated by one very smart, often charming, crazy person.

Stop feeling hurt and get angry instead. Stop worrying about all of this extra noise and static and simply turn it off. There is NO CONFLICT here. The only question is: how fast can you cut this guy loose and recover from the damage he has done?

Whew. Okay. I just had to get that off my chest.

Thank you for writing to me; I deeply value your vote of confidence. I hope this isn’t too harsh or too direct. I feel strongly that you must stand up for yourself, the hard work you have already done, and the future of your new company right this minute.

And don’t beat yourself up. It is deeply messed up to use a person’s best qualities against them, and you just weren’t prepared for it. And please don’t let this make you bitter—the good news is it may never happen to you again. But if it does, you’ll be ready.

Keep me posted so I know you are okay.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

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 soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

One thought on “Feeling Bullied by Direct Report? Ask Madeleine

  1. Often gentalness and humane approach of team leadership is being either misused by over smart junior team members on behest of weak top leadership. Top leadership should know the right person and support true leaders.

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