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Like a Boss: “How can I rebuild trust with an employee who I feel isn't telling me the truth?"

November 21, 2020
By

Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.

Dear Boss,

I have an employee who has been really tough to manage lately. I have found on several occasions that the employee changes their story on things or tries to give reasoning to things when ownership should just be taken and has even tried to point the finger at me. When questioned on this, I am usually told that either they didn't remember what they said or they got anxious and gave false information. I have made it clear my expectations are transparency and ownership, but I am feeling very much like I can't trust this employee. Helpful advice?

Distrustful in New York

Dear Distrustful,

A few years ago, back when I was still a mid-level manager at a big tech company, I found myself struggling to meet the demands of a particularly ineffective boss. One afternoon, in the middle of a tense one-on-one, she told me, “You know what your biggest problem is? You don’t respect me. And this is never going to work if you don’t respect me.” She proceeded to tell me that, due to this lack of respect, she was taking away a part of my job I loved, and giving it to someone else.

I’ve thought about this conversation many times since it happened — about how complicated trust and accountability and, yes, respect can be at work. Like so many young employees, I was ornery and reactive. I didn’t yet hold the confidence to communicate an opposing point of view without blowing up. 

Though I was objectively good at my job and wanted more responsibility, in no way did I indicate I could be trusted with it. And, while she hadn’t always behaved in a way to earn my respect, my manager was right; my behavior was problematic. Still, the way she confronted me didn’t allow us to get to the core of the problem — I was overworked, overwhelmed, mismanaged, and now disciplined. My unhappiness at the company only grew from there. 

Employees of all maturity levels can be maddeningly disrespectful. Equally, busy managers often ignore, blow past, or fail to identify underlying pain points: Lying is usually a symptom of a problem, not a cause. From your letter, I don’t know enough about your employee’s performance or work history to know if this is a long-standing pattern, nor enough about the company to understand if there are larger issues endemic to the organization which could make the employee feel anxious enough (or, frankly, over it enough) to lie. 

But I do know that the effective resolution of most conflicts begins not with discipline, but with curiosity. This person is lying for a reason; they’re reacting to something at work that’s not working for them. Understanding this reason will help you make informed, thoughtful decisions about what actually needs to be resolved and how to proceed. It could also help you rehabilitate a fading employee.

To that end, the first thing I would do is set aside a calm, appropriate, mutually-agreed-upon time to ask your employee about their workload and what currently frustrates them about work. I’d ask them what they like about their job, what they think they’re good at, to identify any obstacles they see in their way, and what they believe could help them be more effective. If you don’t already know, ask about their personal goals, what they’d like to learn, and where they see their career long term. If you’ve already worked on a career growth plan with them (perhaps in Lattice Grow), this might be a great time to check-in on that plan. Ask them to give you feedback: As they see it, how could you, as their manager, improve?  

Finally, without blaming, making accusations, or dredging up the past, talk about the importance of trust and respect. Gently remind them about taking ownership, and tell them you’re there to help. Follow up with a positive, hopeful email outlining what you’d discussed. 

The goals for this exchange are threefold:  

  1. To make the employee feel seen, valued, and heard

Perhaps this person is a quality staff member who’s a bit lost (they certainly wouldn’t be the first to seek attention through misbehavior!). By giving them space to vent, you’re showing them that they matter to you and to the company. Remember the most basic rule of management: Employees who feel valued perform better than those who don’t.  

  1. To model appropriate behavior 

Staying open to and curious about your employee’s feedback, not getting defensive or taking what they say (or even what they’ve done in the past) personally, becomes a model for how to conduct a productive, honest, healthy, and supportive exchange.    

  1. To gather useful information

Listening (and, ideally, taking notes) allows you to see work from another point of view — some of this employee’s concerns will be valid, some will be silly, but by truly listening you’re identifying issues you may have otherwise overlooked and filtering information which could be helpful in not only managing one employee but the entire team. 

This process may not work, the employee may continue to act out and even to lie. You may need to start thinking about a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), you may need to bring in HR. Know that you can’t control this. You can’t control how the employee — or anyone — will behave. But by showing up appropriately, by having the courage to listen and engage, you’re doing your best and controlling everything you can.    


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