This article originally appeared on hbr.org.
At a meeting, a low-level leader thought he was being helpful by pointing out why the CEO’s ideas couldn’t be implemented. The CEO did not find this endearing, and she conveyed that message to the employee’s boss. The manager trapped in the middle turned to me for help: how could he protect his employee — who was good at his job — from a CEO who now saw him as a naysayer?
If you have an employee who consistently delivers what your team needs, but your boss doesn’t like him, it can be tough to figure out what to do. You might consider doing nothing, hoping the conflict blows over. You could feel pressured to get your team member to change, or in the worst case scenario, you might even feel pressured to nudge your employee out of the organization.
It might be tempting, or even seem more fair, to try to protect your employee from negative feedback that you don’t agree with, but if your boss has complained to you about your subordinate’s behavior and hasn’t seen immediate change, the ongoing tension could affect your own relationship with the boss. In a case like this, a mid-level manager I coach found that every weekly meeting with his boss included negative feedback about one particular subordinate’s weaknesses and inadequate performance — not a pleasant experience or a productive use of limited face-to-face time.
So how can you balance the requirements of managing both your subordinate’s performance and your boss’s expectations? You might have the impulse to make a “business case” for your subordinate’s value — but that’s not likely to win the day if you can’t also satisfy your boss’s underlying preferences for style, tone, and demeanor. Instead, here are some approaches I’ve used successfully with clients.
From the outset, it’s important to uncover the source of the friction. Typically, in this situation, you may have been willing to overlook the behaviors or styles that your boss doesn’t like, either because you see the benefit of the trait or because you know it’s not standing in the way of performance or collaboration. One common example is a personality difference. At one of my clients, the senior leader had a strong personal preference for extraverts, and tended to discount the effectiveness of quieter, less grandstanding employees.
To make sure you understand precisely what triggers your boss’s dissatisfaction, ask focused questions to identify concrete behaviors and actions. For example, does “more assertive” mean to speak more definitively or more loudly in meetings, or to be willing to interrupt others? Or is it more physical, like looking more confident and decisive based on posture, gestures, taking up more space? Once you learn what your boss’s turn-offs are, you’ll be able to coach your subordinate in a more explicit and understandable way.
Next, plan to give your subordinate minute and detailed feedback about things you never thought necessary before. Explain the risks of not taking the senior executive’s displeasure seriously. You might need to give personal or stylistic recommendations including details like how early to arrive for a meeting, a particular format for writing email, or even grooming or wardrobing. For example, I suggested to one client that her subordinate wear his “louder” shirts on presentation days. He was overlooked among his peers and was perceived as having less authority. He needed to speak and appear more colorfully to keep the attention of my client’s boss. As petty as some of these things may sound, they’re completely non-trivial if the change gets a positive response.
You might also try to delay the inevitable by reducing the level of interaction between your subordinate and your boss. One of my clients calls this “Don’t Poke the Bear.” This approach can work in the short-term, but it’s usually stressful and draining because you have to do much more work running interference. On the other hand, if it preserves a much-needed skillset or other important relationships it may be worthwhile as an interim tactic. Just keep in mind that the problem is likely to crop up again, and put more work on your shoulders.
It can feel unwarranted and even demeaning to oversee your employee in this way, when you don’t perceive the need yourself. But keep the bigger picture in mind: Perhaps your boss has heard negative feedback about your subordinate from colleagues who haven’t been candid with you. Or your boss could have seen evidence of culturally inappropriate behavior, skill gaps, or attitudinal problems that you haven’t noticed because your subordinate is careful to keep you happy.
If your employee resists making the required changes, consider your alternatives. Their career and peace of mind may benefit more if you to recommend them for another role elsewhere in the firm, or even negotiate a generous exit arrangement. You’re not necessarily doing them any favors by keeping them on a team where the senior leader just can’t stand them.
It’s possible that your boss and your subordinate may never take well to each other. Rather than shrugging off the problem as personal preference, it makes sense to explore the situation more deeply. If you can help your subordinate to improve performance, you’re more likely to preserve a valuable person while maintaining your own productive relationship with your boss.