How to tell a manager their team members don’t like them

It’s one of the most awkward situations that you’ll find yourself in as an HR professional. What’s the best way to handle managers who are disliked by their team?

It’s a task that no one particularly wants to volunteer for, so when it comes to informing a manager that they are disliked by their team is honesty the best policy?

Brutal honesty can be difficult to administer, but in this case it is probably necessary, as a survey conducted by Harris Interactive last year found that 66% of employees said their direct manager has an impact on their career. Of these, one in five said that this impact is negative.

Ronald Riggio, Professor of Psychology at Claremont McKenna College, and author of books on leadership including Leader Interpersonal and Influence Skills: The Soft Skills of Leadership and Exploring Distance in Leader-Follower Relationships spoke to HRD about approaching disliked leaders.

“Leaders don't necessarily have to be liked, but they should be respected,” said Riggio. “A key measure that is used in much research is "satisfaction with the leader."  Naturally, that correlates with liking for the leader, but they aren't necessarily the same thing. One can be satisfied with the leader in that role, but not necessarily want that person for a friend.”

Riggio also told HRD that managers’ quest to be liked could be their own undoing. “One problem that leaders can encounter is trying too hard to be liked,” he said, pointing out that this could lead to them failing to fulfil their leadership duties, which often includes hard decisions, such as reprimanding someone, or letting them go.

Key things to remember:
  • Be Sensitive
Keep in mind that the manager hasn’t necessarily gone out of their way to become disliked. There are countless reasons that they may not be well-liked. Also remember that the individual may become upset if they were unaware of the situation, so try to avoid explicitly using the words “like” or “dislike”.
  • Be Realistic
When approaching the subject with a disliked manager, it is important to remember Riggio’s view that “followers will respect someone who is competent and fair – even though that may not spill over to liking them as a friend.” The most important thing is that employees are satisfied with the quality of leadership.
  • Find the root of the problem
“The critical thing would be to investigate the reasons for the disliking and pass that on to the leader,” said Riggio. “This can be, and often is, done in the context of a performance review.  Upward appraisals are very useful in this regard. Telling leaders what their followers are dissatisfied with is an important part of the leader development process.”
  • Keep it confidential
Don’t aggravate the situation by accidentally letting the name of the employee with complaints slip. Riggio said that issues submitted to HR “should be kept confidential so that there is no fear of retaliation.” Anonymity protects the employee and the manager – the problem may have come from someone they considered a friend.

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