A reader writes:
I manage a public library. I have recently been tackling some personal issues among the staff and I'm not sure how to proceed.
A lot has changed about the way we provide service in libraries, and recently two employees have really stepped up to the plate. I plan to promote them to either supervisory or full-time positions and I'm thrilled for them and us. But the two people who I am promoting are terrified of what their co-workers will think when they find out about the promotions. There's a lot of competitiveness on the staff right now and more than a bit of "Why her and not me?" type stuff. I try to deal with it when I hear about it but, most often, I don't hear about it directly. Other staff members tell me but don't want me to bring it up to the offender. I feel like I need to honor that to some degree, but I also don't want people to be freaked out every time we reward them for hard work.
I'm not quite sure how to move forward. I would like people to be happy for their co-workers because they have worked very hard and earned these promotions. But right now, I have two people who are worried about even announcing the promotions because they don't want to be ostracized. Any advice?
Well, it's possible that the two people who are worried about what their co-workers will think about their promotions are overreacting. But if it's a close group, sometimes people do feel weird about being singled out, even when it's for something good. So given that you've seen seen competitiveness among the staff, I'm going to assume you think it's a reasonable concern for them to have.
Here are some things you can try (and conveniently, these are all worth doing anyway, so they won't steer you wrong even if your employees' worries turn out to be unwarranted).
1. Transparency. The clearer and more transparent you can be about how you make these sorts of decisions, the better. That's true not just with promotions, but with anything that might inspire jealousy or competitiveness -- project assignments, professional development opportunities, or whatever it might be. If people understand the factors that go into these decisions, they're more likely to respond the way you hope they will. In this case, that means that when you announce the promotions, you should make a point of talking about what these employees did that helped earn them.
2. Talk to people one-on-one too. If people are jealous because they want an opportunity or recognition that someone else got, talk with them about what they can do to position themselves as strong candidates for those things in the future. If you lay out a clear path -- and where relevant, explain the gap between where they are now and where they'd need to be to get the things they want -- they're more likely to focus on that (or to realize they don't want to do those things) than on competing with their co-workers.
3. Coach the people you're promoting about how to deal with jealousy or other weirdness. That's especially important if they're moving into management positions, where they'll need to be equipped to deal forthrightly with problematic behavior. Or, if it's less about outright bad behavior and more about "we used to be friends and now it doesn't feel like we are" -- well, as tough as that transition can be, it can be a pretty normal part of managing. It might be helpful for them to hear that, so that they know this isn't something about them, but rather the nature of moving into a position of authority over people who used to be peers. If you can help them realize that's often a normal part of moving up, that might be all they need to be more OK with it.
4. If you hear about people responding inappropriately, don't let it fester. You don't need to respond to every "why her and not me?" remark that you hear about secondhand, but if people actually ostracize their promoted co-workers or otherwise behave rudely or hostilely, you must take that on directly. It's entirely reasonable to say, "I need you to be pleasant and civil to everyone here" and then hold people to that.
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