A reader asks:
I'm managing an employee, Lucy, who was recently moved to a different position on our team. Her old position was eliminated because it had evolved to require skills she didn't have, and so she moved to this job.
Initially, Lucy said she was a "team player" and ready to do whatever may be asked of her. Overall, the quality of her work has been OK. She's not getting everything right, but I think that's due to her learning curve and this being a new job.
But since the change has happened, she barely interacts with co-workers, keeps responses as short as possible, wears her headphones most of the time, and occasionally makes passive-aggressive comments. Last week, she gave my boss (whom she used to directly report to) a present back that was gifted to her six months ago and said, "I won't ever use this, so you can have it back."
When the change occurred, I took Lucy to lunch and expressed that I understood this must be hard for her, I was grateful for her being open to the change, I thought she was going to be a big benefit for our team in this position, and I wanted to keep communication open between us. At that lunch, I asked for her input and she said she was fine. She would only respond with yes or no or keep the answers as short as possible.
Before the change to her role, she was much more engaged. She would chat with her team members (myself included) and people from other teams who sit nearby. Now she might say a couple of sentences a day unless someone has to work with her on a task or project. During our department meeting last week, she didn't say a word, whereas in the past she always asked questions and would crack a joke or two (our team is pretty jovial). I have made it a point to stop by her desk almost every day, but she will only answer with short answers and won't engage. When she's done answering my question, she'll abruptly end the conversation and will pointedly turn her chair toward her computer so that her back is to me. She used to come over to my desk to chat every couple of days and that has ceased.
Our entire team did a personality assessment at one point, and one of her biggest things was that she likes to be social and feel included. She scored high on the extrovert/outgoing section, as well as had the shortest fuse out of everyone in our group.
What's the best way to approach this? This behavior isn't completely unexpected, because prior to this change she's had difficult interactions with almost everyone on our team. What is the best way to proceed?
Well, she's either (a) trying to make a point to you all that she's unhappy or (b) just legitimately unhappy and it's showing.
I think it's probably a bit of both, because some of what you describe is pretty over the top, like abruptly ending conversations and pointedly turning her back.
Of course, she's allowed to be quiet at work and not chat with people, and she doesn't have to crack jokes at staff meetings, even though it's a change from how she used to be. But you're allowed to notice that her demeanor is greatly altered and that it happened around the time that her job changed, and you're allowed to talk to her about that. You're also allowed to be concerned if her withdrawal is making it harder for people to work with her or for her to excel at her job. Answering questions as tersely as possible and not contributing to conversations that involve her work could both fall in that category.
I'd say this to her: "I've noticed a change in your energy and behavior since we moved you to your new job. I can give you specifics about what I'm noticing if you'd like, but the upshot is that you seem really unhappy. Will you talk to me about what's going on?"
If you get another terse answer and she denies that anything is wrong, then say this: "You're of course allowed to be less social at work, and you don't need to defend that change or even talk about it if you'd rather not. But the change in how you're approaching your work does concern me -- things like giving very short, terse answers to most things, and not engaging in real discussion about work issues. I'd like to figure out what's happening in that regard -- both because I want you to be happy here, and because it's impacting your work and other people on our team."
If you still don't get anything from her, I'd say this: "If you decide you want to discuss it, I'm open to talking with you any time. Meanwhile, though, I do need you to interact with people pleasantly and openly. You don't need to socialize -- that part is fully up to you -- but I need you to engage in real discussion when people ask you work questions or when we're in meetings, and not cut people off abruptly or turn your back while they're still talking with you, or make comments like X or Y."
And then, hold her to that. What that means in practice will depend on the specifics of how this impacts her work. It could be anything from letting her know it could impact things like raises, assignments, and promotion potential all the way to deciding to replace her in the role, if it's getting in the way of your team's ability to be effective.
Again, I want to be really clear that isn't about her going from being gregarious to withdrawn; she's allowed to do that. She's also allowed to decide that she doesn't want to stay in the new role she was moved into, and to be disappointed with the change. (And, hopefully, someone gave her a clear explanation of why her job was changed; if not, it's really important that you go back and do that now.) But what she can't do is to go on sulking in a way that impacts her work and the ease of working with her.
With someone who already has a history of "difficult interactions" with almost everyone on your team even before this change, and whose work you describe as only "OK," I wouldn't give endless slack here. It's reasonable to want staff members who don't make it unpleasant to work with them, and I'd be looking to her to pull it together pretty soon after this conversation.
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