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The coach: ‘How do I manage a tricky colleague?’

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Careers expert Matthew Turner helps an architect who feels they lack the management skills needed to deal with a bloody-minded employee

I have to manage someone but I find them very hard to talk to. The person is a good worker, but sometimes a bit bloody minded, and they get really prickly when criticised. Recently this person has started keeping variable hours, the partners have told me they don’t want this to spread to others, and have asked me to deal with it. How do I talk to them without things flaring up? I find this kind of thing really hard, and try to avoid it at all costs. The culture of the office doesn’t help me to develop as a people manager, as the partners in the practice, while brilliant in many ways, aren’t much help.

Matthew turner

Architects often end up managing people with very little training or support, and practice directors often aren’t that skilled at this either – it may be one of the reasons they started their own firm in the first place.

Though managing people does make some squirm, it is part of your job, so you should work to establish your position, through being professional. Soften the edge of feedback; don’t turn it into a scarily formal session, but do it in a place that has a degree of privacy. 

And do it soon, as it is much better to discuss things quickly after they arise, rather than let things slide or fester.

Soft skills are key. Something quite tame can blow up into a major affront because of the way you handle it, causing you all sorts of headaches later. A tried and tested way is to provide what is sometimes called the ‘feedback sandwich’, where the difficult thing you are trying to communicate is slipped in between positive affirmation. In this case you should be at pains to confirm this person is an asset to the office, and that this is a view widely shared. 

You should be at pains to confirm this person is an asset to the office

Another good way to give feedback to strong-minded people is to report the affect on others. So, to take a simple example, if you have a colleague who others say is too noisy, instead of saying ‘others have complained that you talk too loudly’ (immediately confrontational and opening up the discussion of ‘who’?), you could frame this same issue more obliquely: ‘It is great you are such a spirited person, many people love having your strong character in the office. However, you’ll know others aren’t nearly as outgoing as you, and I imagine they might find it harder to assert themselves. You’ll recognise we are all different, and this office benefits from all types of character. So it would be great if you could have a thought to them when you are in the open-plan space as they may not need or want to hear you.’ 

This approach may sound long winded, but it is much more likely to make the feedback easier to accept.

AJ coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. To contact him with your questions, tweet @TheAJcoach or email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com

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Readers' comments (1)

  • J Hawkins

    Another good way to give feedback to strong-minded people is to report the affect on others. So, to take a simple example, if you have a colleague who others say is too noisy, instead of saying ‘others have complained that you talk too loudly’ (immediately confrontational and opening up the discussion of ‘who’?), you could frame this same issue more obliquely: ‘It is great you are such a spirited person, many people love having your strong character in the office. However, you’ll know others aren’t nearly as outgoing as you, and I imagine they might find it harder to assert themselves. You’ll recognise we are all different, and this office benefits from all types of character. So it would be great if you could have a thought to them when you are in the open-plan space as they may not need or want to hear you.’

    What if the 'strong minded' are the one(s) in charge? Definitely time to move on; after speaking your mind in the most kind and concise manner before the inevitable departure to 'pastures sane'...Possibly abroad, to more mature cultures beyond the more internecine UK work environment?

    Where is the hinted at and fabled pluralism in the workplace suggested in this piece, beyond the UK perhaps?

    What does the 'spirited' word precisely mean? A form of 'possession'? It is more redolent of 17th century theism rather than the 21st, for us currently unfashionable secular but occasionally hedonistic types, less prone to rhetorical fancy and the ascetic new modern puritanism, which some may equate with those planar modernist expanses of 'the spotless white mind' psychological interior? Too Pavlovian perhaps, for for the more cerebral and less conditioned. Never judge a book by its cover; even if the publishers have spent thousands designing it, hoping for conditioned responses?

    They have come to take me away ha ha...

    A sense of humour is often the thing that helps in most work situations, but due to current economic restraints is now no laughing matter...?

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