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As a new manager, a technical rock-star defied my authority.

Shivani Pradhan

Product Management, Azure DataBox Edge at Microsoft at Scality

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Problem

A few years ago, I inherited a new team as part of a reorganization of my company's engineering teams. This is when I had a subject matter expert, with over 30 years of work experience, reporting to me who challenged my authority. The first time I showed up in his cubicle, he told me he didn't think I was qualified to be his manager and that I should not get in his way, and claimed he had seen enough managers come and go. He said he would not like to see me at all and did not intend to attend my staff meetings, as he believed he didn't need any information from me. If I needed any information from him, he felt email would do. He was hostile, arrogant, and insolent but at the same time had over 15 patents, was a true subject matter expert and was known to be a little crazy and rude. I smiled at him and told him I would try my best to stay out his way, as long as he ensured that I got detailed email responses to my queries. In addition, I said I would keep my emails short and would only reach out when really needed so I expected timely responses, and for him to keep his end of the bargain.

Actions taken

I knew that the only way for me to deal with him was by truly winning him over by earning his trust. I needed him to trust that I would be professional, fair and supportive of his technical proposals and not vindictive because of his brutal honesty and hostility. I had to be very tactful and diplomatic if I wanted to be in his good books. Forming relationships cannot be rushed. Trust and credibility are not an entitlement. They have to be earned. I did this in several ways:

  • The first thing I had to do was empower him and show him that I was here to help him and make him more successful. His success was my success.
  • I ensured I did my homework on the technical front so I could ask good, relevant, and constructive questions in design reviews, which showed thought leadership. I was very careful to use the right tone and body language.
  • I made sure to demonstrate my fairness, even though he had no respect for me. For example, I defended his tech proposition at a meeting he did not attend, and it went through.
  • I adapted my rules for him. For example, I allowed him not to come to my meetings and told him I would never come to his cubicle, but would email him instead.
  • I tried to find some common ground with him and to get to know him better at a personal level. Over time, in carefully planned casual conversations, group lunch conversations, team hangouts after events and from folks who would hang out with him regularly, I learned about his hobbies and life outside of work. I was glad to learn about things that gave us a shared experience. For example, we were both parents and I figured this was common ground that would help break the ice and would help us to connect.
  • I took advantage of a moment at a non-profit event to break the ice with him. I asked him for some advice about summer camps and kids and saw his attitude totally change.
    It was very important for me to be dignified and realize that my behavior impacts my leadership style and the confidence of the rest of my team. At the same time, it was very important to not come across as needy and dependent on this employee's approval. My success did not depend on him. I had decided to take the high road and be very professional in how I handled him and his defiance in front of the rest of the team. I always reacted by saying "He is a passionate individual and means well. I am working him out before I react. We never know someone else's perspective without walking in their shoes. We should give him the benefit of the doubt." Earning his trust and getting him to accept me as his manager was a very challenging, self-determined goal. The whole process took between three and five months, but by the end, things had improved so much that we even became friends.

Lessons learned

As a new manager, I would recommend earning trust by:

  • Being professional, positive and constructive.
  • Earning credibility. Take a thoughtful, studied stance and then stand by it. If you find you are wrong, be very professional and admit to it, and if it makes sense suggest how you plan to avoid the mistake in the future.
  • Empowering them by giving them the tools and letting them solve the problems they have.
  • Watching their back and defending your team.
  • Giving them the benefit of the doubt. You can't always walk in their shoes to get an idea of their perspective.
  • Having honest conversations and not talking behind their back.
  • Forming strong teams and having a deep-rooted camaraderie. Be vested in forming deeper relationships and play to the strengths of each team member. You shouldn't try to change people. However, you can influence their outlook and work around their weaknesses.

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Shivani Pradhan

Product Management, Azure DataBox Edge at Microsoft at Scality


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