What's your problem: Workplace tension

How do I patch things up with my colleague?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Q: There has been some underlying tension between one of my reportees and me since I became national sales director 18 months ago. He is five years my senior and seems to have a problem taking orders from someone younger. He is also a bit of an old-timer; he has been at the company for eight years, so always thinks he knows best. It all came to a head last month when we played a 'friendly' game of football. It was supposed to be a laugh, but he was taking it really seriously and when we both went for a ball, it all ended in tears. His dirty tackle meant I had a nasty fall, breaking my leg. I'll be out of plaster in a few weeks and I want to just put the whole incident behind me, but his attitude doesn't show much sign of improving. How do I approach this?

A: When faced with just about any relationship problem, your first instinct should always be to put yourself in the other person's shoes; to try to see things through his eyes; to practise empathy. Empathy's an overused word. It doesn't just mean supercharged sympathy: it's the rare ability to understand another person's feelings.

So back-track 18 months and put yourself in this old-timer's place. He's been with the company for years and prides himself on knowing the ropes. Younger colleagues treat him with respect and ask his advice. Management has hinted that he could well be in line for promotion - and he's mentioned this to his family. Then a younger man is brought in from outside, over his head, as national sales director.

About the only way he can cling on to some remnants of self-respect (he thinks) is to be seen to challenge your authority; to point out your misjudgements.

I'm not suggesting you condone his behaviour; just that you understand the underlying reasons for it. If I'm right, the beginnings of a solution immediately present themselves. You don't have to 'win'; you don't need to. You already hold all the cards and he knows that. Instead, you should involve him.

There will be things he knows and skills he will have that could be useful to you. Use that broken leg - a real opportunity, this - to say that you've been thinking and that, from now on, you'd like him to be openly responsible for certain specific areas of your work. You'll know what they are and it's crucial they be real.

He'll be wary to start with. But, as he begins to make useful contributions, and you acknowledge that he has, his resentment will begin to fade and his self-esteem return. Make sure he has some quite specific achievement that he can mention to his family. He'll probably irritate you slightly by claiming to colleagues that you've finally recognised his value, and not a moment too soon; but that's a small price to pay if it works.

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