What do I do if I just can’t connect with one of my direct reports?
I was recently promoted and inherited a whole new team in addition to the one I had before. The team is good and was well led (the leader left for another opportunity).
I get along really well with everyone on the team—except for one person. She never smiles. In my efforts to get to know her better, she has offered monosyllabic answers to questions. For example, when I asked her what she does for fun, or to relax, she literally said “nothing.” When we do our social connection stuff on team calls, she never contributes.
I have never encountered this kind of thing before. I am thinking maybe she doesn’t like me or maybe just doesn’t like men. (Her former boss was female.)
I find myself avoiding having one on ones with her and not thinking of her when it comes to giving out assignments, which I know isn’t fair. I am supposed to have career development conversations with all of my people, and I am dreading trying to do that with her.
Any thoughts on this?
Dear Shut Out,
There are any number of things potentially going on here. But no matter what, there is one rule of thumb that will help you as you sort through it:
Do. Not. Take. Anything. Personally. Ever.
Especially other people’s personalities or behavior. Especially anything your direct reports do.
OK. Now we are clear on that.
There are a couple of ideas you might consider. Get in touch with her former leader and ask if there is anything you should know. If that isn’t an option, call your HR business partner and ask if there is anything you need to know about the folks on your new team. If your employee who is making you uncomfortable is in fact Neurodivergent, someone in HR probably knows about it and possibly forgot to give you a heads up. If that is the case, there may be some recommendations or guidelines for you there. If that is not the case, you may very well be dealing with someone who is exceptionally introverted and/or shy. Maybe both. I know many introverts for whom the social aspect of team calls is a nightmare. I know many introverts who take a very long time to trust and warm up to new people. When people are introverts, it is simply a personality trait. It is not about you.
The question is: how is this person’s work—is it up to par? Does she meet deadlines? Does she work cooperatively with others? You don’t mention this, so I am assuming the answer to all of the questions is yes. It doesn’t sound like anyone on the team has complained about her. If this is the case, there is no reason to dread having a career conversation with her.
You can ask the questions, maybe provide them to her in writing before the conversation so she doesn’t feel put on the spot. Perhaps even give her the option of providing her answers in writing so she doesn’t have to deal with the discomfort of a video call. The questions might be something like:
- Are you engaged and satisfied in your current job?
- Do you think you are able to use your skills and strengths in your job?
- Do you see yourself moving or changing jobs in the company? If so, where?
- What/who is going to slow you down or stop you from getting there?
- What/who is needed to facilitate your getting there?
- Is there anything about you that you think I should know?
- Is there anything else you want me to know?
Possibly your company has given you a format for career conversations—you can certainly use that.
In the end, you don’t need your employee to like you, to smile, or to be friendly. You just need to build trust so she respects you, and let her get on with doing her job. I suspect the harder you try to get her to conform to the kind of behavior that makes you feel good, the more she will resist.
So relax. Let her be herself. Trust that she won’t attend the office bowling party and that it doesn’t have to mean anything, and be okay with it. Remember: the way people behave is not about you, it is about them.
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.
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