When our general manager promoted me to lead our department, I felt stunned but excited. I’m a hard worker but never the one who thinks of himself as a leader, and so this promotion felt like an acknowledgement of my commitment, past sacrifices and hard work. I’m also excited because I have a lot of ideas on how to make our department better.
There is one problem. One of my former coworkers thought he should have received the promotion. He’s worked here longer than I have, is highly skilled, and considers himself superior to me. When I reached out to him to tell him I valued his talents and thought we’d make a good team, he rebuffed me, and said, “Your promotion’s a joke” and “Hope you don’t f--- things up too bad.” I didn’t tell the GM about this exchange because I felt I it was my job to handle it and didn’t want him to have doubts about whether he’d made the wrong choice because I couldn’t handle “team drama.”
After talking to each team member, I brought them all together for a meeting and told them the changes I planned to make. This employee questioned everything I said and rolled his eyes and snorted when I made key points. Several times he took over leading the discussion as if he’d been promoted.
When put on the spot, I’ve never been able to think of quick comebacks. I felt everyone’s eyes on me, wondering how I’d handle it. I didn’t know how to respond. I forgot much of what I’d planned to say. My face turned red. It was awkward for everyone.
I’d planned to hold weekly staff meetings but feel I made a mess of this first one. I need to know how to handle him.
Talk to him in private. Give him a chance to get all his concerns on the table. Then, let him know any drama between you and he needs to be handled outside of staff meetings. Let him know you welcome contrary views, but not eye-rolling, snorting antics.
Next, give your manager a heads up. He promoted you for a reason; he could have chosen your former coworker, and possibly expected what’s happening. He may have positive suggestions for you.
While some employee or peer critics attack in private, others pounce on their targets in front of audience, knowing the pressure of watching eyes makes handling snipes more challenging. Your coworker realizes he gets under your skin when you redden.
If you learn to handle his questioning strategy, he won’t be able to foot-sweep you into reacting. In the coming week, practice slowing and deepening your breathing whenever you feel tense. When we breathe rapidly and shallowly in response to being put on the spot, we can’t easily simultaneously access left and right hemispheres. Our left hemisphere controls language, problem-solving and sense of future consequences; our right hemisphere controls reaction, emotion, intuition and creativity. We need both to handle public confrontation.
Get ready for the next meeting by imagining statements your employee might make and preparing an arsenal of responses. For example, imagine he asks, “Where’d you come up with this crap?” when you propose how you plan to move your department forward. If you respond, “What are you getting at?” you take control of the interaction and force him to answer your question.
Two can work the crowd game and your employees depend on you to lead your department forward without time-wasting drama. Take charge by distinguishing between legitimate attacks on your proposals and personal sideswipes. Welcome the former from this and other employees. Handle the latter by saying, “let’s take the rest of that discussion offline.”
You earned your promotion. Don’t let a teammate who thinks he’s better than you derail your ability to make positive change.