Why does my staff hate me?

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If you’ve ever managed people and (like me) are somewhat empathic, you’ve had this experience: you walk into the office, and you can feel the waves of disgruntlement radiating from your staff. You’re not sure why or what happened, but they’re grumpy.  If it were just one or two of them, you could easily brush it off.  But instead it seems that the cranky fairy visited your department and liberally sprinkled his gift around.

So you pull someone (in my case, usually one of my managers or senior folks) into your office and ask.  Maybe said someone just glowers and says “nothing,” or maybe the conversation goes something like this:

Me: So what’s up around here?

Someone: I don’t think people are happy.

Me: Do you know why?

Someone: They’re not happy about <something you probably did, said, or asked them to do>.

The first time I had one of these conversations, I was honestly bewildered.  I had no idea why it seemed like my staff suddenly hated me.  Sure, there were some times that I did things to which a grumpy response was inevitable, but what I’m talking about here was boss-hating out of left field.  I’ve developed some theories as to why this happens:

  • You (the boss) represent the establishment. If your firm or company is doing something that they don’t particularly like, you are sometimes perceived as the immediate representative of The Man.  I find this is more common with new direct reports or folks who don’t know you well enough to know your motivations yet.
  • The “heart” of your department feels hurt. This doesn’t happen with every team, but there are often one or two employees who are the “heart” of the team (think Kaylee Frye on Firefly).  However this person feels is how the rest of the team will feel. And something happened to make this person unhappy.
  • You did something wrong. Or at least you did something that made them grumpy and you didn’t realize it at the time you did it.

So how do you deal with these situations?

  • It’s tough to be part of “the establishment,” but you can’t get away from that to some extent, since you are your team’s main point of contact for the Powers That Be.  If you realize this is going on, reassure your team that you’ll fight for their best interests, and work on building relationships with them so that they realize that you’re not The Man.
  • It’s pretty easy to deal with your team’s “heart” if you get along well with him or her.  You can take him out for a cup of coffee, find out what’s going on, and address the issue.  If you don’t get along with him, however (and I’ve had both situations when I’ve been a manager), you’ll have to slog through more emotional muck before you can get down to addressing the issue.   It won’t be quick or easy, though, and you might have to just wait for the current situation to blow over before working on building your relationship with him.  I’ll bet you didn’t realize that you’d become part shrink when you became a manager, eh?
  • I have a very simple formula that I follow when I’ve done something wrong or sub-optimal: own up to it, apologize for it, and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Trying to shift blame or defend your actions to your already pissed-off team will only exacerbate the crankiness and undermine their trust for you.  Find out what you did wrong, take responsibility, apologize, and fix it.

I realize that I’ve only scratched the surface here; what situations have I missed?  How do you handle it when your team seems to suddenly hate you?