Some of the hardest employees to manage are people who are consistently oppositional. They might actively debate or ignore feedback, refuse to follow instructions they disagree with or create a constant stream of negative comments about new initiatives.
Most often, this conduct is meant to make the employee look strong and mask a fear of change, an aversion to anticipated conflict or the worry that they will look stupid or incompetent.
I’ve found in my 30 years of consulting for both public and private companies that there are three distinct approaches that can help you get the best from oppositional employees.
The first option is to adjust job responsibilities to leverage their strengths. One functional leader at a company I advised was known and appreciated for his technical expertise, but he was an extreme micromanager and treated employees with disdain, leading to high turnover in his department. Whenever his manager or HR gave him feedback, he dismissed their input because he felt that they didn’t understand what it took to succeed in his job.
It is common for technical experts to struggle in management roles and their resistance to feedback or support may be triggered when they realise they’re in over their heads but don’t want to be perceived as failing. One solution is to double down on their strengths and minimise their managerial responsibilities or give them a purely technical team. This worked for the functional leader, who, with a much smaller team of fellow experts to manage, ran into fewer obstacles and generated less unhappiness among his subordinates and superiors.
Another alternative is to temporarily overlook individual style while the person adjusts to their new circumstances. Some employees become oppositional when they feel insecure in a new role or with a significant change in their responsibilities. Rather than providing behavioural coaching on their negative or inappropriate communication, at least initially, it can be more effective to focus on the quality of their knowledge or output and only work on stylistic problems once the employee feels more familiar with the changes and expectations.
I once worked with a NGO executive with a deep institutional memory who was extremely sensitive to criticism, and became fearful and resistant whenever change was necessary, especially when new requirements were presented to her as fiats.
She was so concerned with not looking stupid, weak or out-of-date that she became excessively defensive and reactive. This was particularly problematic because her position involved supporting new leaders, who cycled in and out of the job every two to three years, and she had to form new relationships with each one. But her behaviour wasn’t oppositional all the time. Whenever she worked for a leader who showed respect for her skill and knowledge, she served with loyalty and tenacious effort. Showing appreciation for an employee’s knowledge and overlooking – for a certain time – their delivery can help build a positive connection you can then expand on.
Finally, it is worth considering that they may be right. At one service firm, a long-time department head expressed great negativity about the changes a succession of new bosses wanted to make. She began to change her attitude when one new leader paid attention to her complaints and took her challenges as clues that some of her “old ways” might still have merit. She became more willing to hear him out and to sign on to some of his new initiatives. Over time, he gave her more related responsibilities and opportunities to share her knowledge with other areas of the company. She continued to challenge some of his new directions, but warmed up significantly as she saw that her subject matter expertise was being taken seriously.
Know where to draw the line. At another client, a senior leader who was an external recruit felt that his track record spoke for itself and that he didn’t need to adjust to his new company’s cultural norms. When he behaved in ways that were counter to norms around work-life balance and demonstrated respect for individual differences, he was chastised and counselled multiple times by a colleague from HR, but he assumed that his financial performance would protect him.
In fact, he made it quite clear to colleagues that he didn’t have to “listen” to the feedback he was receiving. Despite the success of his work product, when too many employees complained that they felt denigrated and that he was damaging the organisational culture, the executive leadership got involved and he was let go.
Sometimes, the behaviour of an oppositional employee is so damaging to their team or colleagues that the company must encourage them to move on. But in many cases, after understanding their concerns and motivations, organisations can provide effective support to oppositional employees through job redesign and relationship building. Then employees who were once seen as problems can bring their greatest strengths to bear on behalf of the organisation, rather than against it.
This article first appeared in Harvard Business Review.