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What To Do When You Think a Coworker Resents Your Promotion

Dear David,

I have recently been promoted and am now responsible for a group of program managers and their projects. I have been with the company about two years and am the newest member of the team. One of the program managers has taken significant issue with my promotion. He has changed his entire demeanor towards me. He was the person I worked closest with when I first came on board. Now, I am his boss. We used to chat all the time about topics unrelated to work, but not anymore. He continues to be a productive member of the team, and makes it clear when he accomplishes a task, but avoids me since the promotion. I want to discover the issue and find some common ground. I’ve tried to sit down and discuss the matter, but to no avail. What should I do?

Promoted and Estranged

Dear Promoted and Estranged,

I often see leaders write off employees like yours. One leader told me, “An employee, who was a bit tipsy at a holiday party, gave me what he might have thought was a compliment: ‘Even though I’ve never thought you should have gotten your promotion, I have to say that you’re doing a really good job.’ He’ll probably never know it, but that was the end of his career here. He will never get another pay raise or promotion as long as I work here.”

As a leader, it’s tempting to write off a pouting employee, to work around the person, or to push them out. I’m glad you’re not taking that route. Sometimes, there is more going on than meets the eye. Sometimes, you’ll discover that you’ve misread the situation or that you can repair the damage and recover a valuable employee. Below, I’ll outline some ideas you might try.

In Crucial Conversations, we observe that “If you don’t talk it out, you’ll act it out.” As humans, our emotions leak into our expressions, our tone of voice, and our actions. Because of this, others know—or have a pretty good idea—what we are thinking and feeling, even when we try to keep it to ourselves. In this case, it sounds as if your employee continues to have issues about your promotion. But please allow me to challenge this conclusion at least a bit.

Facts and Stories

The story you and I are telling ourselves is that your employee resents your promotion and that this resentment is impacting his behavior towards you. What are the facts behind this story? You mention his change in demeanor, his efforts to clarify his accomplishments, and his ending of any small talk. Examine these incidents. Ask yourself if there are any other reasons that might explain them. For example, is he taking extra care to clarify his accomplishments because he believes you or others have overlooked them in the past? If so, is he right about that? Could there be other reasons?

Clever Stories

A “clever story” is an explanation or conclusion we tell ourselves that makes us look good, makes the other person look bad, or that justifies retaliation or bad behavior on our part. Often, these clever stories tell only our side of the story. Is it possible that there is more to this particular story? Ask yourself, “Is there anything I did at the time of the promotion or since the promotion that might cause a reasonable, rational, and well-intentioned person to respond the way he is?”

When we ask you to examine your story, we have two goals: The first is to help you see the bigger picture and to examine the facts from all perspectives. The second is to increase your empathy and understanding—to soften your heart toward the other person. You won’t be able to restore your relationship with him until you decide that you want to.

Start With Heart

This is the next step. Ask yourself what you really want, long-term, for yourself, for your employee, and for your working relationship. Do you really want to restore your relationship? You probably have your own resentments over the employee’s behavior. Can you get past these feelings? And what would be the benefits of an improved relationship? Would these benefits be worth the investment of your time and ego? If you decide to move forward, then see if you can find common ground through a Mutual Purpose.

Imagine a Mutual Purpose

Even though it might be tempting to write off this employee, try to imagine a mutual purpose. Currently, he may see you as standing between him and his advancement. Do you want to be an obstacle to his career? Or, could you imagine working with him to help his career? Is there a different purpose that he values strongly enough for it to serve as your common ground?

State Your Path

Meet with your employee and share your thinking. Begin with your observations, and then share the story you are telling yourself. Try to make your story as balanced as possible, so that it doesn’t come across as an attack or a condemnation of his behavior. Then, use your listening skills to encourage your employee to share the way he has experienced the last few months. If your employee denies any resentment, you can decide how hard to push. Maybe the denial is a harmless way for him to save face. Or, maybe you need him to admit that there is a problem in your relationship.

Share Your Intent

Explain what you really want and suggest a mutual purpose. Check to see if your employee is open to considering that there is common ground. What you may see is some verbal agreement followed by a period of skepticism and testing. This is to be expected. After all, you haven’t walked your talk yet.

Demonstrate Your Commitment

Once you’ve shared your intent, act on it. The most convincing way to demonstrate your commitment is to sacrifice your time or ego to support it. For example, find a project or series of projects that you and your employee can work on together, projects that will give him visibility with the people above you and that will demonstrate your support for him.

I hope these tips help you in finding the common ground you seek.

Best of luck,

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5 thoughts on “What To Do When You Think a Coworker Resents Your Promotion”

  1. Alliston

    The story shared is, unfortunately, a common scenario. The feedback is quite interesting; should unmask true intentions if not, by now, obvious…

  2. BD

    I recently heard of a story from a co-worker who is transgender… same situation, but the comments and feelings behind the resentment are fueled by something else entirely. It would be nice if you took this same situation but applied it to a situation which included a situation involving race or gender. I thought about sending this to my coworker, but the suggestions on how to resolve this situation really don’t apply to her.

  3. Devorah Shoal

    There’s a much simpler explanation to this story. The writer is now this person’s boss and potentially has input into his evaluations and employment recommendations. It appears that the person is maintaining his strong performance (productive member of the team) and continues to accomplish job requirements (and communicates these). However, there is a senior/junior relationship here that changes the dynamics of a peer-peer relationship.

    Maintaining that “close” relationship prior to the promotion AFTER the promotion could subject either or both to allegations of favoritism or other negative comments. Getting input from HR could be helpful on understanding what is protocol at this company (since the writer is the newest member of the company).

    Of course, the person could still be hurt that he was not selected for promotion as evidenced by the difficulty in discussing this situation. To get around the difficulties in sitting down with this person, the writer could schedule one-on-one’s with ALL members of the team so the person is not singled out. Sometimes, just giving someone distance to grieve and time to process the hurt is the best gift (but a specific date should be scheduled so the situation doesn’t continue).

    1. BAS

      I agree, sometimes unfortunately relationships change when a friend becomes a boss. You loose the close connections you and probably the other person valued. As a co-worker, he can share personal things with you. As a supervisor, its a finer line.

  4. Elizabeth

    I think we’re selling the employee short. Did he have a close relationship with his former boss? If not, then it seems that he is simply drawing some professional boundaries. He and the new manager are no longer peers, and the new manager needs to recognize that there is now a division and that professional boundaries need to be respected. Unfortunately, this is one of the hardest things that happens when a peer moves to a supervisory position.

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