Managing A More Experienced Individual

I screwed up at work and I turn to all of you for help.

I’m an Environmental Engineer and I’ll be completing my 3rd year with same company (first job out of school) in May. During my last performance review in November, I got a promotion that put me in charge of managing two “monitoring” programs. i.e. Getting everyone out to the site, getting them the maps and proper equipment, making sure the data collection runs smoothly.

In most cases, the people doing the monitoring are Junior Engineers like me (and I do go out 75% of the time) and technicians/contractors. The technicians/contractors conduct field work pretty much all of the time. They all have more experience than I do. One guy has at least 15 years of experience and he’s the one I’m having the problem with. He’s can be a nice guy but he’s very “professional” and not very friendly or personable.

Part of the problem is that I screwed up. He asked me to do something and I forgot. Now that I’ve fixed the problem (which was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things) and apologized to him (I told him, I have no excuse and I screwed up) and he continues to act like an ass to me. It’s not a matter of impeding work on project, he’s just not being as helpful as he should be.

I’m probably the 5th or 6th junior engineer that he’s had to deal with running the program but I haven’t come in trying to revamp the whole system. This is the first time that I’ve ever had to manage people and it’s been a disaster. I’ve only been doing it for 4 months and I’m still a little overwhelmed by it all. I’d like to smooth this out without having to go the project manager.

Any tips on managing people with more experience than you?

I’ll take a stab at it coming from the other side. I’m a machinist who has worked with and for young engineers.

Technically, I understand they won’t have much experience and that colleges don’t seem to teach much practical knowledge these days. I see lots of unnecessarily tight tolerances, features that are hard to machine, and sometimes the physically impossible. The first two take much more effort and time to achieve which equates into more expensive parts. It’s very frustrating to put a lot of effort into something only to find out it was designed that way just because it looks cool. Just because something can be drawn in CAD doesn’t make it a good design.

So I appreciate a engineer who will respect my knowledge and ask questions about what is reasonable to do and is open to my questions and suggestions.
On the other hand, I realize I often don’t have the big picture of why something is designed the way it is. So if it’s necessary and on the print, that’s the way I will make it.

On the management/people skills side, I expect to be treated professionally and with respect and I will return the favor. Someone who doesn’t won’t get the extra mile from me. Someone who is a prick and treats me like a unskilled idiot will get exactly that from me. Exactly what they say and nothing more.

Some guys who come up from the bottom will always have a chip on their shoulder about “college boys”. Not much you can do about that other than try to earn their respect.

I understand mistakes will be made due to inexperience. That’s fine but if the same mistakes keep getting repeated I will start to lose respect for that individual. I try hard to do good work and expect the same from co-workers and those above me. Most skilled tradesman are the same and respect competence.

The ideal situation is like the scenario in war movies where the old, crusty platoon sergeant is the one who teaches the baby-face 2nd Lieutenant to be a soldier and leader.

Sorry, I got long winded. Learn from your mistakes, treat your people professionally and respect & use their knowledge but don’t forget that at the end of the day you are the boss. Good luck.

As another old fart who’s seen managers come and go…

You already did the most important thing; you apologized for screwing up. Now move on.

I agree 100% with moldmonkey. Treat him like a professional. Solicit his input on the parts of the job that he’s involved with. Do what you can to get him the resources and information he needs to do his job (which is all I really ever expect from a manager).

You say the guy “acts like an ass” but he’s not impeding the project in any way. So don’t try to be his buddy. Be professional, be clear on what you need from him, make sure you give him what he needs from you, and learn from the experience.

Great advice. I ran into this problem early on and got through it by being professional, consistent, honest, and pleasant. Then it went away.

You made a mistake about something that is minor, apologized, and fixed the issue. That is completely professional. His behavior towards you changed and now he is acting like an ‘ass’, that is clearly not professional. I can’t imagine a single, minor mistake being reasonable grounds for him being difficult.

He is a ‘faux professional’ – someone who pretends to act within the guidelines of professionalism, but in reality is waiting for you to mess up so that they can justify their pre-conceived notions.

Regardless, your response should be the same as Flipshod and others said, continue to be:

and it hopefully it will go away.

Managing people is difficult regardless of the experience level. A couple of things I’ve learned over the years:

  1. Don’t try to know everything. Collectively the entire team is smarter than you as an individual. Your job as a manager is to harness that knowledge and experience to make decisions.

  2. Know EVERYTHING. You shouldn’t have to micromanage or hover over your team. But you should be aware of everything that’s going on.

  3. Treat people with respect. Even the idiots. Yelling at people just pisses them off and makes them resent you.

  4. Set clear goals and expectations. Everyone should know what’s expected and when it’s due.

  5. Don’t pretend to be smarter than you are. You’ll just come across as a big fake idiot.

At some point, if you treat him professionally, he will either drop it, or not. If you have the unpleasant experience of the not, then you’ll need to confront him about his unprofessional behavior, ask him to stop, tell him you will escalate to his manager (I’m assuming you are the project manager, not his direct supervisor). And perhaps even ask that he not work on your projects.

Points 1 and 2 seem to conflict…?

Two of my direct reports are older than I, and while neither has my experience in this field, they both know the company better than I do, and how to “get things done” around here.

I stay out of trouble almost automatically because I have always been a believer in “servant leadership.” I am here to get the roadblocks out of their way, take the heat, and support their success. I try to make sure I show my respect for their knowledge, experience, and effort. I say “Thank You” a lot, and do battle with HR to see that they are fiscally rewarded as well.

I think your basic question is really “How do I earn this guy’s respect.” Is that true? If so, I’d say you’re on your way there already. He will likely continue to “dare you to succeed” for quite some time. The worst thing you could do would be to follow him around like a puppy trying to get a pat on the head.

You’ve already taken the most important step, which is being willing to admit when you are wrong, or when you don’t know something. Now get the word “curmudgeon” in your head as regards this guy and stop looking for rainbows to fly out of his butt. (That’s what he’d say, right? If not, ignore it.)

Occasionally asking an intelligent question is worthwhile, and showing up just before he does will probably get noticed.

It’s work, not a social club. Define the bargain, and keep your end of it. Expect him to keep his. Get on with your day. After about ten years of this, you will hear from someone else that he speaks well of you when you’re not around.

Lots of great advice above. Just to add a bit, or expand on some:

  1. Don’t kiss his ass. He won’t respect you for kissing his ass. Just do your thing. His respect may or may not come your way. Either way - it doesn’t really matter. Do your job. As long as he does his job, then don’t worry about his attitude. But trying to make him like you most likely will have the opposite effect.

  2. Try doing things that get him involved and allow him to showcase his experience. Try things like asking him to train new people. Or asking him to review something you did and check for mistakes. It doesn’t really matter what it is - but giving him a task that shows you respect his skills might help.

  3. Over time, you’ll realize that you may have to adjust your managerial style for different people. You’ll develop your own basic style. But you’ll often have to adjust it to suit individual challenges (i.e. - be more direct, or more detailed, or less controlling, etc.).

  4. Realize that learning to manage people takes time. A lot of time. I’ve found that managing people is typically much more difficult than any technical aspect of my job. With technical challenges, you often find out right away if what you did worked or not. With managing people, however, you may never know if you did the right thing. But those challenges will always be there. For example, I once had an employee tell me I had to fire our receptionist because he was having an affair with her and he didn’t want to ruin his marriage. Another time, I had an employee go through a sex change from man to woman, and afterwards nobody wanted to share a bathroom with her. Somehow I never learned how to deal with these things in grad school.

All in all - it sounds like you’re doing fine. It’s very difficult to manage people. All you can do is be honest, respectful and over time, you’ll develop your own managerial style. Until then, best of luck.

Also - don’t kiss his ass.

My read was:

1–Don’t think that it is possible for you to know every single fact related to this professional specialty.

2–Make sure you know everything that is happening in your group: what projects each person is working on, what the status is of each, what has succeeded, what is proving difficult, and what you plan to do to help your staff overcome the difficulties.

Having been in the same boat when I was first a supervisor, when I had to manage someone who was the same age and had a lot more relevant experience than I did–but that didn’t translate to management skills, which I DO have, so that’s ultimately why I was the manager.

Realistically, msmith537 is right on–act professional, stay out of the way of the worker bees but know that what they do is the reason for your position’s existence, and just do the best you can to keep getting stuff done to spec. Respect will come eventually.

I learned this from my first boss, many of whose people went on to become managers, including me. It is excellent advice.

The only thing I can think of not already covered is to look for a case where he wants something which will help him do his job is better, but which is hard to get due to red tape or whatever. If you can help him get this, it will help a lot. Do not give him random awards or bonuses or whatever - that won’t help at all.