Very few managers have had the privilege of being the head of a team in which everyone gets along splendidly and not a single person rubs anyone else up the wrong way. Such a team is almost as far removed from reality as a married couple who never fights.

Most managers have encountered at least one person in their team whom they simply could not stand. The employee has the uncanny ability to irritate you by merely being present. They find your buttons and keep pushing them, incessantly.

Fatima van Toorn, labour specialist and owner of FvT HR Consulting, says that in many instances the manager and an employee are at odds because of poor work performance. Some people show their best side during the interview, but once in the job, their attitude changes.

Older managers may also struggle with millennials, because they are under the impression that the young ones lack an old-fashioned work ethic. Then there are the smarty-pants who sometimes are better qualified or cleverer than the manager – but in most instances, these individuals simply want to put their managers in their place publicly.

“This causes major disruption because other colleagues will notice, and the manager will be left exposed and humiliated,” explains Van Toorn. The manager might have inherited a team and find that they dislike one team member merely because they’re incompatible. They may have different political opinions or different values.

Paul Waldeck, a culture consultant and founder of Winspire People, says the responsibility rests with the manager to find out what their own buttons are, how these triggers got there and why they react in the way they do when these buttons are pushed.  Waldeck focuses on “culture discovery” and how the misalignment of values causes interpersonal conflict. Negative emotions and reactions are – generally speaking − triggered due to value mismatches.

The value mismatch: There are some key values that act as the filter for the way people interact with each other or perform tasks. “If there is a value misalignment between the manager and a team member – which often happens – the connection is broken. It becomes a negative communication spiral purely because of the different value languages,” Waldeck explains. The task of the manager is to understand the values of the people they are managing. He says that in a world where people “have things to do”, managers often neglect to “manage people” by understanding who they are, what their values are and what makes them do things in a certain way. Instead, they are managing items on their to-do lists. Van Toorn says clear indications of a breakdown in relationships include: lack of respect being expressed non-verbally (like eyes being rolled when the other person is not looking) or body language indicating an unwillingness to communicate (like turning a back or crossing arms).

Other things to look out for is when a team member goes over the head of the manager, to another manager or even to the manager’s superior. Also, when one-liners are the only way of communication, or a team member seeks every opportunity not to be at their desk – longer smoke breaks, lunches, or staying off sick for the slightest sniffle – you know something is up, she says.

Waldeck says people are creatures of habit and tend to stick with behaviours that worked in the past – even if it is clear that they are no longer working.

The manager might be avoiding the irritating team member – and may even start communicating through other team members with whom they have better relationships. Finding the solution. It is up to the manager to implement change and come up with a solution, Waldeck notes.

According to Van Toorn, a first step can be an “offline” discussion between the manager and the problem employee, without the presence of third parties. She calls it a “clear-the-air” session.

“Talk openly, and share your experience with the employee, and see if the employee is mature enough to work on the relationship.” If that doesn’t work, and you’re not able to set “the rules of engagement” going forward, it is time to call in the experts. This can be the manager’s own boss, a human resources (HR) specialist, or a career coach who’ll act as facilitator. It will probably take more than one session – it is almost like marriage counselling.

If the employee is at fault, they need to be aware of the consequences. They have chosen to act in this way, and have to make a career decision to work with the manager and give their full cooperation. If the employee has legitimate problems with the manager, then the manager’s behaviour needs to be addressed. “However, if the employee is not fitting in, and this causes disruption and influences work performance, or he or she is bad-mouthing the manager and it impacts on the company’s reputation, then they must know that their actions could lead to dismissal.”

When Waldeck does executive coaching, he uses an innovative way to teach managers how to be sensitive to the value language of their team members – horse riding. He teaches them the basics of horseback riding and then gets them to complete an obstacle course on horseback while being timed. Once they are done, Waldeck explains what makes the animal feel safe – in other words, he helps the people on the course speak the “value language” of the horse. “Once you understand what the horse needs, the dynamics change,” he says, using the example of a manager who had never been on the back of a horse. She did the initial course in two minutes. After understanding the “value language” of the horse she cut her time by a full minute.

Van Toorn’s advice to employees who have been given the opportunity to clear the air and to work with and not against the manager, is to choose to be happier. Otherwise you have to choose to be unhappy somewhere else, she says.

The don’ts in a troubled relationship:

  • Don’t take it personally.
  • Don’t pick on the employee.
  • Don’t abuse your power by overburdening he troublemaker.
  • Don’t be provoked by what the employee does.
  • Don’t ignore the issue.


The dos in a troubled relationship:

  • Try to get to the bottom of the problem.
  • Deal with the matter sooner rather than later.
  • Act fairly.


By Paul Waldeck of Winspire