Dear DILAN Delivers, I have several direct reports. One in particular, we’ll call her Susan, and I have worked together a long time. Susan and I have a professional relationship as well as a friendship. She has brought up with me issues she is having with a couple of her peers, namely, that she feels criticized by them and feels that they think her work is never quite up to snuff. Although Susan says things like, “I’m not telling you this because you should do anything,” I’m confused about what is the right thing to do as a manager. I don’t want to get in the middle, so I give Susan suggestions on how to handle these situations. But, the fact is, her peers are too hyper-focused on looking at what’s not right or at what’s missing in every situation. I do feel there is a coachable moment here, but I’m not sure how to say “stop pointing out flaws” if there are actual improvements that they’ve identified.

Dear Good Enough, There is a saying in the business world that “managers look to do things right, and leaders look to do the right thing.” You seem genuinely confused trying to figure out “the right thing to do” in this sticky situation, where you are feeling caught between your role as Susan’s manager and your position as her friend. These are never easy to navigate. However, if you approach such difficult situations in terms of how a good leader would tackle them — “doing the right thing” — then it helps clarify a path through this thicket.It’s helpful not to forget that managers’ and leaders’ primary obligation is to ensure the well-being and optimal functioning of the business and organization. So, even though Susan told you — as her friend — that you don’t have to do anything in response to her complaints about her coworkers, that doesn’t wipe away your obligations as both her manager and as a steward of the company. You now know a problem exists within the company. This alone tells you that you do need to take action to make sure that the issue between Susan and her co-workers is addressed appropriately.So, what to do? Here are a few options to consider

  • Let Susan know your obligations. Inform her that your roles as a manager and leader within the company compel you to address the situation. Also let her know that you will do your best to respect your friendship while you attend simultaneously to the needs of the organization.
  • Work with Susan on the sidelines. Coach her on ways she can appropriately respond to her co-workers’ complaints so that she can take ownership of working through these problems. Guide her in ways that she can direct her conversations with her peers away from just being the target of their criticisms and towards inviting her peers to collaborate with her on finding workable solutions.
  • Verify with Susan and her peers whether or not there are actual areas in which she can improve re: the quality of her work. Assuming that such areas exist, arrange for Susan to be mentored briefly by one or more of her peers whose work output is not subpar. Make it clear to Susan and her mentor that this is not a punishment for either one of them, but is instead an opportunity for Susan to raise her work skill level and for her mentor to pass along expert guidance. This also gets them to start acting like a solution-oriented, accountable-to-one-another team. As Lincoln said, “A house divided cannot stand.
  • Attend to the culture of this team. Is its culture one of collaboration, shared accountability, effective communication, and transparency … or not? Team members who operate as “gotcha” critics, hyper-focused on what is wrong or what is not working well, are an irritating source of frustration for a team at best, and can drain and kill a team’s morale, creativity and overall functioning at worst. Look for areas where the quality of this team’s culture needs clarification and possible redirection.With diligence from all parties, Susan, her peers, their shared workspace, and perhaps the entire organization as well can learn and grow as a result of your leadership and management of this situation.