In the midst of a tough assignment, don't be undercut by employees

Employees may disagree with you, but when they stab you in the back and go to your boss, you need to stop them in their tracks

Dear Bob ...

I'm dealing with a reorg. It isn't my reorg ... it came from a couple of levels above me. The long and short of it is that we're going to start working closely with another part of the company that my staff is accustomed to thinking about in disparaging terms.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "When is bypassing the chain of command OK, and when does it violate protocol?" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

Unsurprisingly, they are accustomed to thinking about us the same way.

The other manager and I have begun an exchange program, so our employees can get to know each other personally, work together, and cross-train. It wasn't a smooth start, but it's been getting better.

Except for Ralph.

Ralph is a talented employee who knows his job and does it well. Ralph has also told several of his friends that because of his now having to spend part of his work week "living with the enemy," he's going to get me fired. I know for a fact that he's written at least one memo to my boss, cc: HR, explaining how incompetent I am, and what a poor manager and leader. I'm concerned that because he fired the first shot that I'm at a disadvantage.

I should also say that there are some employees who are listening to Ralph, and starting to grumble more and more about the exchange program.

I'll also tell you that while my boss and I get along fine, my time in this position hasn't included a lot of strong support from him. He's a laissez-faire kind of guy.

What do you think? Should I let the situation ride, assume my boss has my back, and figure Ralph will settle down?

And if not, what would you suggest?

- Herding cats

Dear Cat-herd ...

Don't let this go a day longer. Every day Ralph encourages his colleagues to be disrectful and nothing happens is a victory for him, and my guess is that Ralph is the sort of person who needs periodic victories over his imagined enemies.

You need to inform both your boss and HR that you're aware of Ralph's behavior, consider it unacceptable, and plan to deal with it directly and immediately. Thank them in advance for their understanding that reorganizations do cause discontent, and that you will be working with all of your team on this front as well.

Next: Call Ralph into your office. Let him know you're aware of his plan to get you fired and inform him that he has three choices: decide that he really, really wants to work for you, very hard, to make the reorg work; decide that he wants to leave the company; or decide that he wants to work in the "enemy" department instead, starting tomorrow. (You might, of course, want to confide in your counterpart on the other side so that you can make good on this alternative should Ralph be dumb enough to call your bluff.)

Document the conversation, including Ralph's response. Don't, however, allow Ralph to subvert the conversation and turn it into an argument regarding the wisdom of the reorganization itself or of how you've been handling it. If he tries, let him know that this is your meeting with your agenda, and that subject isn't on it. At another time, if he would like to talk with you regarding his perception of your management style, he can make use of your open door policy to do so.

Then: At an all-hands or staff meeting, bring your employees into the problem-solving process. The way to start this is to sell the problem.

Not the solution. Not the plan. Don't say anything about not having had any say in the matter yourself.

Explain the reason the company decided to make this change, and explain it as persuasively as you can. If the employees challenge the logic, that's OK. You can then tell them that the company's top leadership spent a lot of time making this decision, didn't make it lightly, and that for better or worse, it was the decision. "Our job," you conclude, "is to figure out the best way to make it work."

That's when you explain that your plan started with the exchange program, but that you're open both to alternatives and to additional steps you and your counterpart can take to smooth the transition.

All good ideas are on the table for open debate, until you and the team have made a decision. Once the decision has been made, from that point forward everyone's energy needs to focus on making it work, not on second-guessing it.

Two other suggestions:

As ideas come up, number them. That way, when someone inevitably insists on repeating a point over and over again, you can say, "I think that's Point No. 6. We already have that one logged. What's next?"

And if there is a contingent who insists that this is the end of the world as we know it, you might consider something I like to call the "here's what real problems look like" gambit:

On the whiteboard, put the number 1 at the bottom and 10 at the top, leaving room for the rest. Ask everyone on the room to tell you what the worst problem they can imagine might be. That goes next to No. 10, and if they only come up with trivialities, ignore them and write "Darfur." Next to No. 1 write "Case of the hiccups."

Next, ask them what might reasonably go next to No. 5. If necessary, fill in a couple more, then ask, "Where does 'work with our counterparts on the other side of the organization' fall on this list? Clearly, it's worse than a case of the hiccups and better than living in Darfur, so we have it bracketed. Where exactly do you think it should go?"

Anyone placing it above about 2.5 doesn't know what a real problem looks like, and I'd bet other members of your staff, who have experienced real problems up close and personal, will be more than willing to let them know in no uncertain terms.

- Bob