It’s a frustrating situation when employees undermine your authority. You feel like you’ve done everything right, but they just don’t seem to follow any of the rules and regulations set forth by management.
Here’s how to deal with employees who undermine your authority, according to experts.
Creator, Intentional Career Design | Dream Job Coach
If you want to appraise a leader, watch how they respond when someone challenges their thinking, decisions, and overall authority.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dealt with managers and leaders who moan that members of their team are undermining their authority, making snap judgments, and saying things like those who ask questions aren’t a good fit for their team.
When we pull back the curtain a little further, we see that there is usually more to the story than meets the eye.
Managers and leaders respond differently to this kind of situation. Managers issue quick summary judgments, and end up in their HR office talking about the undermining of their authority. True leaders take a moment to consider the root cause of the question. They begin with the idea of seeking to understand, rather than rushing to conclusions.
High performance workplaces nurture those who challenge the status quo. They disrupt the groupthink phenomenon and ask questions like ‘why are we doing this’. They also are not acquiesced easily and want to understand the deeper motivation. The more senior and dynamic your team is, the more questions will come up, and critical thinking should be celebrated.
I invite you to consider that different viewpoints may actually help you do better work and create more buy-in with your team.
Here’s a 4-step process to objectively evaluate whether an employee is actually undermining your authority:
Assume good intent
Many times, we can make quick decisions that someone isn’t a team player, isn’t a good fit, or is a problem child based on asking a single question that triggers the leader.
Make it safe to raise your hand. Create a standing ground rule that allows your people to ask questions and raise challenges without feeling like they will be penalized.
Seek to understand
Instead of feeling attacked, take a page out of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and seek to understand. A key phrase here is “help me understand what you mean when you say (insert whatever their question is here).”
Listen to the words spoken rather than waiting for your chance to respond. If you feel the need to validate the information provided, respond with “Based on what you said, this is what I am understanding, is that right?”
Paraphrasing their words and confirming with “did I understand that correctly?” is a sign of understanding and lets the employee speaking feel heard. You may also learn the root cause of why that person has an objection or is creating additional challenges.
Be cognizant he said that they may not be aware of how the delivery of their initial response sounds, and give them the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.
The big secret here is that you do not need to be all-knowing or right all the time. Key phrases to use here are, “I hadn’t considered that” or “I don’t know the answer to that but I can find out”.
If you feel that your thoughts/decision/leadership are the right choices after taking the steps of assuming good intent and seeking to understand, then begin moving forward with overcoming their objections. Help them to understand the bigger vision and reasoning behind the decision.
Choose one of three – align the vision, table the topic, or escalate when necessary
If you’ve gone through steps one through three and have the support from your team, begin painting out the future of your decision that you’ll be working towards together.
If the objector has concerns that you feel you’ve addressed, thank them for expressing their thoughts, and tell them why you still feel aligned to the vision and gather agreement from the remainder of the group.
If someone is unwilling to let it go, ask to table the topic and have a conversation outside of the room using the 4-part framework. Be sure to thank them for being willing to express their views, but firmly guide them that you will all be heading in the same direction as a team.
Most situations can be resolved with the 4-step framework. The last resort is only if someone is deliberately undermining authority. In this case, it’s best to seek out guidance from HR. If an employee has a history of being obstinate, let HR know and have them help guide you on how to move forward.
Executive and Leadership Coach | Founder, Christina Eisinger Coaching
Staying curious is broad, especially in the context of applying it to handling an employee who has undermined a managers’ authority. I’ll break it down. But first – a brief discussion about what it means to stay curious overall.
Curiosity and judgment are opposites- as is said in the coaching world. When my clients feel judged, I work with them to become curious about their current mindset, different ways to reframe a situation, how they have contributed to the situation, and what they can learn.
It is the process of staying curious that allows them to take a step back, work through their emotions about a situation and develop a rational, well-thought-out plan of action.
Staying curious helps prevent impulsive and rash behaviors.
Many managers get offended when they learn an employee has undermined their authority; they feel judged. Further, they become concerned about the optics and reputational damage (both long and short term) their undermined authority might have.
In short, their egos are triggered and are in protecting them from further emotional harm. In an impulsive reaction, they might lash out at the employee, give the silent treatment, sabotage the employee’s efforts… all very poor responses to this situation.
By staying curious – they are given a necessary pause to reflect and consider the best next steps.
Specifically, what is the manager in this situation to stay curious about?
- What are the A-B-Cs:
- Antecedent (what lead up to this situation)
- Behavior (what exactly did the employee do/not do that was observable)
- Consequence (what is the impact of this employee’s behavior)?
- What was the employee’s intent? (in some cases the employee didn’t intend to undermine their boss, however, in other cases, it is an intentional power move.)
- What is my current level of political and social capital?
- What role did I play in creating this situation?
The answers to the above questions will inform the strategies the manager can implement to handle the situation. Regardless, there are some key best-practices:
- Discuss it: leaving these behaviors unaddressed with the employee typically encourages the behavior more (regardless of intent). Transparent, upfront, skillful feedback is a manager’s #1 tool.
- Develop an action plan: Work with the employee to understand what needs to change in order to create a more agreeable outcome.
- Document it: follow the company’s policies and guidelines for proper documentation.
Founder & Executive Director, Professionals In Transition® Support Group Inc.
In the situations where an employee has undermined my authority, it was when being newly promoted and/or early in my career when I was a weak manager. However, it can (and did to me) happen at any time in your career.
It usually began in small ways like:
- Requested tasks undone or done the way “they thought” was better.
- Not meeting deadlines as assigned.
- Not telling you about special events/meetings.
- Instructing others to come to him/her for decisions on issues that are not there to make. It’s usually positioned (without your knowledge) as “He’s/she’s so busy. We don’t need to get him/her involved. This is what I want you to do.”
Off with their head:
- Nip defiance in the bud.
- Clearly communicate to the employee undermining you: (1) their job description, (2) scope of authority, (3) job expectations, (4) consequences.
- Implement a Personal Improvement Plan with the bully employee utilizing the above criterion; along with a 90-day review.
- They may think you are not serious. Plan to interview at least (3) people over the next 90 days. Be sure to give them a tour of the office when the person who is undermining you is sitting in the office. You might consider introducing them.
Chief Strategist & Transformation Artist | Founder, McLaughlin Method
In general, my feedback for managers deals with refocusing on listening, reconnecting to your team members, and consider something from their perspective.
If you find yourself in a place where you feel like you have been undermined there’s two sides to that story — there is your reaction to what the other person did and there’s their actions.
All of our actions, emotions, and reactions come from our own layered understanding of people. Our perspective is made up of our experience, social norms, systemic racism, religious influences, and gender bias.
We can’t immediately look at the actions you should take when you experience being undermined as a manager. If we do that, it denies the very situation that happened.
Check your privilege
For too long the power dynamics in manager-employee relationships have continued to drive inequities in the workplace. Our own privilege gets activated when we start talking about an employee who undermines us.
So before you think about reacting, consider the actions your employee took. Write them down and strip away all of your own emotional reaction out of it. Identify the facts of what happened. Then ask yourself if you would have reacted differently if that person was of a different race, gender, or other identities.
If you answered yes, then you have work to do to change that reaction and perspective. Do your own work before you even think about responding.
Sometimes the feeling of being undermined as a manager comes from your own place of insecurity. I know that imposter syndrome is something that is talked about quite often and people of all shapes sizes and experiences can experience imposter syndrome. I bring up insecurities or impostor syndrome not to attack you, but you acknowledge your humanity.
At our very core, humans are pack animals. Anything that we do that might jeopardize our standing in our social groups can cause insecurity, fear, anxiety, or even depression. So for some leaders who feel they’ve been undermined, it’s important that you first look at yourself and why are you having the reaction you are having.
Sometimes the actions of our employees can be very hurtful. And I just want to acknowledge that. It doesn’t feel good to be undermined. Many times when people are hurt, they lash out at others. That might be what happened to your employee. Take time to consider their perspective.
Understanding the root cause behind your employee’s hostility is the first step to improving this situation. As leaders, it is our responsibility to always listen and pay attention to our employees.
Toxic work situations can be resolved when we recognize the problems our employees are facing and make an effort to acknowledge and resolve them. There may be a legitimate grievance that needs to be addressed to help repair the relationship with this employee.
Once we are able to address the cause for this toxic behavior, we also need to make sure that we’re modeling the behaviors that we want to continue. When a leader is demonstrating the skills that they’re asking of their team, the team has the opportunity to see the skills in action and see how effective those skills are. I
It is demotivating to an employee to have a manager ask for something that they are not willing to do themselves. If you begin to model toxic or difficult behaviors like one of your employees, you are implicitly communicating to them that their behavior is okay or acceptable. Watch yourself — have you undermined your employees?
SPHR-Certified Human Resources Consultant | Executive Coach | Author, “It’s About You Too.: How to Manage Employee Resistance to Your Diversity Initiatives and Improve Workplace Culture and Profitability”
Make your expectations clear
This situation should be handled like any other situation that a manager may face, which is by providing and delivering effective feedback to the individual to compel them to change their behavior. The idea is to have a conversation about the situation and make your expectations clear.
How do you do this?
First, when providing feedback, the key is to identify the issue and explain the impact of the behavior you are seeking to change. This part of the planning stage for the delivery of feedback is critical because it will set the foundation for why you are raising the issue in the first place. Yes, the individual may be defensive when you seek to provide guidance but the way to minimize this defensiveness is to explain why you are raising the issue in the first place.
If the individual is undermining your authority, they likely will not be concerned about you and your success, so you will need to describe the impact of the behavior on the individual who is engaging in it.
You will want to explain you are bringing the situation to their attention because (and this is critical) is it impacting them. Why should the employee care? Is their job at risk? Do others notice this behavior and therefore become less willing to follow their advice in other areas? Does it make the Department look bad, which might result in lower raises for the entire team?
If you describe the impact in the right way, it should be easy for you to obtain employee buy-in for the need to make a change. Ideally, the impact of the behavior that needs to be changed will be presented in a way that the person learning of the impact will agree an adjustment needs to be made.
From there, you will recommend a specific plan for the employee to follow in order to address the behavior. What exactly do you want the employee to do in order to address the situation? It is likely not enough to tell the employee to stop undermining your authority but rather be very specific.
When I ask you to do something, please complete it by the deadline and inform me within 24 hours of the deadline if you will not be able to meet the deadline. If I ask you to do something at your disagree, please put a meeting on my calendar so we can talk it through and see if there is a better way.
Understandably, someone who is undermining your authority in the first place may not be open to hearing this feedback or making a change to address the concern.
The idea here is to provide the individual with the benefit of the doubt and work to remedy the situation. Perhaps there is a lack of trust and if this is the case, you want to learn more about what you can do, if anything, to start to build that trust.
If you expend some efforts to address the issue and are unable to gain any traction then, depending upon the extent of the disruption the conduct is causing, you may have to place the individual on a performance improvement plan to formalize your expectations—and you will want to be sure the plan includes specific measurable consequences if the behavior does not change.
Founder, BU Coaching
Communicate your boundaries clearly
Often when it comes to communicating boundaries people beat around the bush in an attempt to avoid being ‘pushy’ or ‘abrupt’. All this does is lead to a lack of clarity and a ripe environment for misunderstandings.
When communicating your boundaries, especially with someone who struggles to respect them, remember that being clear is being kind.
Lead by example
Once you’ve communicated a boundary with someone it’s worth asking yourself whether you lead by example in upholding that boundary yourself.
For example, if you’ve set a boundary with your boss about not being contactable on weekends yet you continue to reply to work emails on Saturday nights you’re sending a clear message that you don’t respect your own boundaries, so why should other people?
When it comes to upholding boundaries it’s important to take personal responsibility and demonstrate the behavior that you want other people to model.
Be OK with stepping away
If someone consistently ignores or doesn’t respect your boundaries it’s a clear sign that they don’t respect you. In this case, you need to be ready to step away from that relationship.
Whether this means applying for new jobs, leaving your relationship, or taking some breathing room from friends or family members it’s important that you prioritize your own mental and emotional wellbeing.
Leadership Strategist | CEO & Owner, Maven Coaching and Consulting
Inevitably during the course of your career, you likely will work with someone who undermines your authority, but in most instances, it has nothing to do with you.
Undermining is a defense mechanism and could be a symptom of a larger problem. As human beings, we all want to safeguard ourselves against perceived threats or shortcomings, which can trigger this defensive mechanism. Undermining behavior could stem from the employee not feeling valued, or worse, distrust in the company’s leadership.
As leaders, we need to approach the situation with empathy while holding firm on our expectations and authority.
If you find a difficult employee is challenging your authority and disrupting workflow, here are some steps you can take to reverse the course:
Active listening is an essential leadership skill. Active listening is the ability to focus deeply on a speaker so you can understand what they are sharing and respond in a way that makes them feel heard.
Schedule a 1:1 meeting with the employee in question. Calling them out publicly could exacerbate the already undesirable situation. This is the time to listen not lecture.
Control the conversation by keeping these three things in mind:
- Pay attention: Avoid distractions and be present.
- Paraphrase: Share back what you hear.
- Clarify: Understand what the speaker is saying by asking clarifying questions.
Half of communication is listening. Listening helps us to understand, build relationships, enhance collaboration, and increase productivity.
Ask powerful questions
The most effective way to understand the undermining behavior is by asking questions that are evocative. Go deep.
My rule of thumb is to ask open-ended questions that start with “what” and “how.” Avoid questions that might suggest actions, that can be answered with “yes” or “no” and that might come off as judgmental.
By using “what” and “how” questions you can help someone unlock their deeper wisdom, solve problems more effectively and cultivate stronger relationships.
Being empathetic means that you are truly seeing someone. Great leaders have the ability to put themselves in others’ shoes to help change their trajectory.
When someone is engaging in undermining behaviors, I would ask myself, “what are they afraid of” or “what are they protecting themselves from?” For example, are they in a position where the tasks are outside of their skillset? Are they not confident in their abilities? Were the expectations clear or murky?
As a manager, if you can begin to unpack and understand what is going on for the individual, you may be able to build trust and camaraderie to move past the undermining behavior.
HR Manager, ResumeLab
I’ve had numerous managers approach me to privately discuss this sensitive issue. It can happen to anyone, but oftentimes, undermining occurs when someone is newly appointed as a manager. There may be some resentment or unwarranted questioning from other employees.
They make it a point to undermine the new manager in order to make them look unsure and unable to handle their new responsibilities. Naturally, there’s a psychological aspect to undermining. I explain to the managers the concept of the tall poppy syndrome.
Tall Poppy Syndrome
That’s what my Australian friend calls it. This is jealousy and badmouthing of someone who’s risen to a higher level than the other poppies in the field.
Being a tall poppy means you stand out. You’ve risen to that stature with good reason. Of course, some will look at you and feel threatened. They’ll try to bring you down and make you look incapable.
This can come in the form of backhanded compliments, disagreeing with your decisions or stance in a condescending way in front of others, pretending to have better alternatives for business decisions to trick you into changing your mind, or stealing your great ideas to make themselves look good.
But—what to do?
Address the underminer
It can be intimidating, but I say the best approach is to address the person doing the undermining. Confront this behavior head-on shortly after they’ve done it. For example, your underminer says: “It’s great you came up with such a technical solution—for a woman!”
Take a deep breath and address this comment right away. Ask why they’re giving you a backhand compliment. Set boundaries and stop sharing too much information with this person if possible.
And remember—you’re doing great and have nothing to prove. This is their issue. Try to let your positive actions speak for themselves. Plus, if they keep it up, let it add fuel to your fire and give you the impetus to rise even higher.
HR Manager, Resume Lab
You can either ignore them or address the matter in private
It all depends on the frequency and extent of them undermining you. If it’s minor and rare, then there’s no point in even paying attention to it. No one likes a petty boss who can’t handle at least some opposition and disagreement.
“Speak softly and carry a big stick” comes to mind. After all, if you have confidence and self-assurance in your own skills, knowledge, and authority then there’s no need to power trip your subordinates.
On the other hand, if someone consistently tries to undermine you with clear premeditation and a desire to show you up, a 1-on-1 meeting is in order. There, you should maintain poise and give them a chance to explain their actions and try to pin down their motivations.
Being comfortable, able to speak up, and even question decisions from above is healthy and should be encouraged across all organizations.
On the other hand, you should sternly inform them that certain courses of action need to be completed where sabotage from within isn’t going to be tolerated. If the person disagrees with your management style or the values of the company, it may be time for them to consider leaving.
Either way, the employee should leave the meeting knowing why what they did was detrimental to the team and why they’ve been asked not to continuing acting that way in the future.
Career Expert, Zety
Give a clear feedback before the nettle grows
One of the best ways to handle an employee that’s undermining your authority in the workplace is to give them clear feedback before the nettle grows.
The thing is, most managers are slow to take action. They tend to think about the direct report’s negative impact on other team members without giving them corrective feedback right from the start. In the end, it could lead to dented employee morale on a team-wide scale and less trust in your leadership skills.
So, if one of your employees starts to undermine your authority, schedule a 1:1 with them, provide corrective feedback, and explain what they need to do differently in the future. It’s also a good idea to bring the actual examples of the employee’s misconduct to make your discussion more effective.
If the situation doesn’t improve further down the road, communicate the consequences to the employee, which doesn’t necessarily need to mean termination. It could be transferring them to another team or cutting their training budget.
Community Manager, LiveCareer
Have an honest conversation in private
Any tension or conflict between you and even just one colleague might negatively impact your team. That’s why it’s essential to tackle the issue head-on rather than wait and hope that the problem will solve itself.
If you see that one of your employees constantly undermines your authority, you need to take action and have a conversation with that person. Your role as a manager is to improve the situation and understand the reasons behind particular behavior.
My advice is to avoid taking things personally. When conflicts escalate, we often think that others want to humiliate us and undervalue our work. The truth is that our colleagues’ behavior usually has nothing to do with us. They might struggle in different areas of their life not related to us or our work style.
A good first step is to ask about your employee’s behavior openly and look for ways to improve the situation. It’s a good idea to focus on specific things that don’t work in your communication and think of actionable items to make it better.
The key lies in showing that you’re open to feedback and willing to go the extra mile to make changes in your leadership style. Such an approach will help you contribute to a more pleasant working environment for you and your colleagues.
Digital Strategist, Bambrick
Earn respect by your deeds
Your efforts as a leader earn you the admiration of your employees. This implies that you lead by example and are able to do whatever you ask of others. Some managers attempt to gain respect by inciting fear in their employees through intimidation. While this is effective at obtaining enforcement, it is ineffective at gaining respect. Staff will act in compliance with the wishes of that type of boss, but they will not trust or value him.
On the other hand, many managers strive to be liked to the point that they compromise their own leadership role, resulting in poor results for the entire team. Managers who are too casual with their employees are often taken advantage of. As employees realize they can take advantage of a boss, they are less likely to value him or her as a leader.
The best way to gain respect is to earn it by your deeds, to lead by values rather than whims or moods. Everyone understands that when a manager makes decisions based on values, they will be handled equally and that decisions will not be made personally.
This establishes working relationships in which management can provide constructive feedback without making employees feel intimidated. Employees feel safe and are willing to work at their best because they know they can trust their boss.
Brand Ambassador, Herrman and Herrman, PLLC
Hear their voice
Take time to hear what the team member has to say. What is causing their insubordination? Does their dispute have any merit? The conflict may not be the team member’s fault. A good leader empowers their team to speak freely and creates solutions for workplace issues.
When a team member is continuously detrimental to a leader’s authority, they may require feedback on how to correct their behavior. As a leader, it is vital leadership can provide positive feedback on correcting their behavior without making the team member feel attacked or defensive.
If the team member’s misconduct is not appropriate, it is crucial to document the behavior for future reference. The documentation will only be necessary if the misconduct continues leading to suspension or termination.
Follow through with consequences
After the first three steps, if the team member is still undermining the team and management’s authority, it is time to establish consequences for their actions. Consequences do not mean immediate termination, but it may mean transferring them to a new team or a short suspension.
Pay close attention when someone is doing poorly
Oftentimes, when an employee is troublesome, we lose track of what is actually happening. We’re annoyed, the situation seems intolerable, and we’ve already formed an opinion about the employee – so we divert our focus elsewhere, out of a mixture of avoidance and self-protection.
However, the best managers pay close attention when someone is doing poorly. They realize that their best chance of resolving the problem is to have a complete understanding of it – which includes understanding the perspective of the difficult employee
Additionally, in some instances, merely listening may be life-saving.
You may learn about a genuine issue that is not the employee’s fault and that you can resolve; the difficult employee can change dramatically until he or she feels heard, or you may discover legitimate problems that need to be resolved.
Digital Writer, Resume-Now
As a person who started a professional career early in life, I always gave the impression of young blood in the staff. My friendly appearance, always smiling manner, and agreeableness, in this case, was not always an advantage. All these features made me an easy target for undermining my authority.
When I was working on training and creating communication processes – I had to deal with agents who, despite their shorter work experience and being subordinate to me in matters of communication, undermined my authority.
In these situations, I always tried to understand the other side first. After all, it’s understandable that someone with much more life experience may distance themself from a person who seems to be still very young from the perspective of age. Often the reasons were different, but observation allowed me to guide the next steps better.
Focus on friendly but precise communication
In my work, I always focus on friendly but precise communication. That is also how I act in such matters. The first conversation should be casual and gently inform that such situations cannot take place. I also always try to provide instant feedback each time someone deviates from my instructions or is openly rude.
Set clear expectations
When such a conversation doesn’t work, I move on to specifics and setting clear expectations. I inform the other side that they are expected to operate as a team member and that their behavior is counterproductive and introduces an unfriendly atmosphere in the team
After such discussions, I ensure that I conduct regular follow-up conversations with clear feedback to ensure that both parties clearly understand their expectations and responsibilities.
I am a conciliatory person by nature, and in my private life, I always compromise and put others before myself. Still, these experiences have taught me that assertiveness is essential for effective work.
Co-founder, Trainer Academy
Give them clear feedback
A very good way to deal with employees who undermine your authority is to give them clear feedback. When an employee challenges your authority, it’s natural to reflect on the employee’s bad behavior and complain about it to others. Some managers spend months stressing about difficult employees without ever providing them with direct behavioral input.
Giving tough and judicious feedback is, without a doubt, one of the most difficult tasks a leader would have to do. It is, however, one of the most important skills you must acquire as a leader. Great leaders learn how to do it well and are prepared to do so if and when the need arises.
It’s worthwhile to practice providing corrective input to your employees and become comfortable with it.
Keep in mind that they are flying blind without your input. Let the employee know what they need to do better in order to correct their negative behavior and, as a result, increase their chances of success. When delivering this type of behavioral feedback, the best way is to reduce the other person’s defensiveness and provide them with the relevant details they need for change.
Consider the issue solved if the employee understands their bad behavior and starts to administer the corrective feedback after you’ve completed these two measures. If the condition does not change, you will need to take the following additional measures.
CEO and Managing Partner, Berry Law
Listen to the employee and gather their perspective
As a firm specializing in a niche field, we must maintain professionalism and adhere to the parameters of what the literature of the law suggests. If we have a staff member engaging in practices that undermines our objective in any way, it derails from our mission to provide the utmost respect to our clientele.
Additionally, suppose there are disruptions at work unrelated to our clients but still a distraction or attempt to go against the company guidelines. In that case, it can be detrimental to the unity of our team.
If this occurs, it’s best to always listen to the employee and gather their perspective. Assuming that the employee is a valuable asset worth keeping around should be your first assessment. Offer valuable feedback while following a deliberate process involving documenting the behavior and take action if needed per your firm’s policies.
An amicable resolution is what everyone wants. However, in the end, trust your instincts and go with what you think is best for the company.
Look for telltale signs of a toxic environment
A toxic environment may start off in one department, but it can spread like wildfire. If you’ve heard the saying about “there’s one in every group,” it’s usually true. There’s always one team member who has to push the envelope and act like anything but a “team” member.
That’s why it’s important for leaders to pay special attention when an employee doesn’t seem particularly pleased to help out other employees, or begins to undermine your own authority when given the opportunity.
This type of “out for myself” mentality will stunt the entire workforce, and make teamwork a thing of the past. That’s why it’s important to hold regular meetings, and to stress just how important it is that everyone is a team player.
When there is conflict that requires intercedence, be sure to openly stress the company’s values, and adhere to them when making decisions on how to resolve the conflict – especially when it involves you. This can create an even more distinctive company culture, and rid the workplace of toxic people and their toxic traits.
Licensed Insolvency Trustee | Founder, Remolino Associates
Sometimes, problematic behavior persists even after you’ve shared clear feedback. If that happens in your team or department, it’s time to get specific.
I normally give employees with behavior problems eight weeks to change their tune. During this time, I make sure the employee has my full support and attention. I also make it a point to share corrective feedback as and when needed as well as set proper expectations of what to expect if the behavior persists.
In my experience, this works nine times out of ten. Those who still persist in being difficult are either reassigned to a different team or fired if their actions have negatively impacted operations or colleagues in a big, significant way.
Lifestyle and Relationship Coach, Womenio
Approach the employee with a single objective in mind: to put an end to the defamatory activity.
- Clearly communicate the business’s objectives, purpose, and values to the employee.
- Describe how the particular occurrences you recorded jeopardize the company’s fundamental beliefs. Justify the negative consequences of each event.
- Discuss the modifications that the employee must undertake to ensure his or her success and that of the company.
- Offer your assistance.
- Determine the motivation behind the employee’s self-defeating conduct. Determine if his conduct is just disrespectful or the consequence of a control problem. Determine if he is attempting to be cute or amusing.
- Inquire about what you may do to assist him in changing his behavior. Offer professional therapy, but do not coerce, if you believe the employee’s personal difficulties deserve it.
- If his concerns are organizational in nature, coach him, listen to his thoughts, and advise him toward a more favorable end for both him and the firm.
Head of People and Culture, Tidio
Become extra attentive and careful
We should try to get to the bottom of the disrespectful behavior and understand what stays behind it. We should think about the situations when the undermined behavior occurs and ask ourselves: Is there any chance our employees were right when they objected to us? Are my employees struggling with any difficulties I should be aware of? By identifying the root of the problem, we can address issues quickly and start working on an improvement plan.
Set up a one-on-one meeting to provide honest and straightforward feedback
Provide honest and straightforward feedback to employees each time they openly disrespect us and precisely explain what we expect from them, what behavior is unacceptable, and why.
We should also set up a one-on-one meeting as soon as possible and try to calmly but firmly discuss inappropriate behaviors. We should try not to be defensive during the conversation, give specific examples of undermined behavior, and avoid general accusations without supporting them with solid evidence. However, if employees don’t want to cooperate and seem unwilling to change, it’s time to proceed with additional steps.
Utilize a performance improvement plan if needed
We can prepare for a 2-month improvement plan to help our employees to correct their behavior. What’s crucial, we should support them in this process and share corrective feedback when needed.
If the worst comes to the worst and employees still undermine our authority and don’t have the goodwill to cooperate with us, we should consider switching them to another team.
You have to be firm
The same way that I say to my kids: “I’m not asking you, I am telling you”. You need to be using phrases that are firm like this: “This has to be done till the end of the day today” or “I want you to start working this right now”.
In case they are saying that they want to do something else, that is not your request – you can simply say: “This is your current priority”. Your intent is not to come across as rude or demanding but more unwavering as a matter of fact.
Be friendly, but not too close
With this employee, you want to make sure that you’re always friendly but not necessarily friends. You do not need to be everyone’s best friend. You need to be friendly and firm, but not best friends.
Try to get them on your side
Now, this is more of a long game approach but it can definitely work wonders. Outside of direct orders ask these people for their opinions. Ask them for help if they’re more knowledgeable in certain areas than you. And show them gratitude saying thank you.
If people feel they’re respected by you it is much harder for them to be disrespectful.
Show the importance of discipline
I personally avoid doing this as much as I can. But the reality is that everyone needs to understand that there is a line. And at some point, there have to be consequences for people’s actions.
You can’t constantly argue with or justify yourself to an employee, especially in front of a group. Debate or constructive questioning, that’s great! However, the employees need to know how far is too far. And at moments the only way to get through to someone and make them listen is to put it in writing.
I remember once one of our managers was trying to set up a picnic for his crew. He was a new hire in the company and really wanted to make his crew work as a team. He thought this was the way to bond, he was right in my opinion.
Anyway, after the initial proposal, he had everyone on board. Two days later while having a debrief one of the extremely negative people decided to announce in front of the crew there was a foolish idea. That she wouldn’t join and was doubting if, in reality, anyone actually wanted to do it.
This manager was deflated and he asked my opinion. My opinion was this what I would have done is – I would have pulled her aside after it happened and in private, I would have firmly told her that such a rude outburst in front of the team was never to be acceptable. She could have easily and discreetly gone to the manager or me and opted out.
Also, I would ask her for her opinion on how to create a better team. You’re the leader and you are the one that has to be accountable for what does and doesn’t get done under your watch. Always remember that.
Ideologist and CEO, Plerdy
Have followed up discussions with clear feedback
The best way to deal with employees who undermine your authority is to have followed-up discussions with clear feedback. If you have a conversation with them about their toxic attitudes, make sure you follow up. Explain what they did, the negative effect it had on the team, and the goals for the future.
Be clear with your messaging regarding the effect of their toxic actions on the whole team when dealing with employees who threaten your authority. Don’t let the bad attitudes slip because “they’ve always been like this.” You are the one who must put an end to this action.
In order to avoid chaos at a workplace, it is important for the authority voice to be heard and respected. However, every organization has at least some rule-breakers. These employees refuse to bend to the rules and regulations creating a disbalance within the workspace.
The following techniques may help you deal better with employees who undermine your authority:
Let them speak first
The headstrong people often have strong views and speak more truthfully than the others. Therefore it is important to listen to your employees who deny authority before making judgments.
However, even if their complaints turn out to be valid, your actions need to be reserved. Their feedback can help you understand the ways you need to handle your authoritative voice.
Address any misconduct immediately
Employees can have issues with authority or disagreements all the time. However, misconduct in delivering their issues should not be tolerated and needs to be addressed immediately.
Repercussions for unacceptable behavior need to be planned out
A forgiving authority may not be the best suit for employees who disregard an organization’s rules and regulations. Hence there must be clear warnings and action needs to be taken if such behavior continues in the workplace.
Find out their motivations
Do a bit of research to find out why your employee is acting this way. Is there something you did that upset them? Do they feel disrespected or underappreciated? Speak in private with other team members who may be able to give you some insights on the employee concerned.
Engage them directly
Take your employee aside each time they undermine your authority. Ask them to explain their behavior and listen carefully to their response. Don’t be quick to judge and focus on understanding their perspective. Be open to the fact that they may have a valid point that could be worth hearing out.
Set clear expectations
Let your employee know that they are expected to work as a team member and their behavior is disruptive. They are not only undermining your authority but are also hampering the ability of the team as a whole to work together. Make it clear that they need to respect you and the other team members to receive respect in return.
Head of Marketing and Partnerships, Time to Reply
Preventative measures during the hiring process
Conducting efficient hiring techniques during interviewing is a big part of mitigating potential insubordination by choosing the right candidates that intend to set their job performance as a priority over workplace dominance.
Weeding out candidates that act like they “know it all”, seem “over-confident”, or give any indication through remarks or comments that they lack patience for promotion or different work styles is vital for professional harmony.
Related: How to Deal With Know It Alls
Note that it is important to understand the distinction between an employee who needs dominance and an employee who wants to improve and move up.
Learn to let go
Being in management can have connotative meaning for subordinates AND the people who carry the title. For one, no one is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes-especially those in management. The problem arises when managers and bosses don’t take ownership and admit they messed up.
Sometimes employees feel the need to undermine the authority of their supervisors because the supervisor gives them reason to believe they aren’t suitable for their position (which some are not).
An easily-made mistake by a supervisor can have lots of negative repercussions for employees that are expected to clean up the mess. By owning up to their own mistakes and shortcomings, supervisors can foster respect and may avoid being undermined by employees that honestly just don’t want to do more work for mistakes they didn’t make.
After all is said and done, unfortunately, there may be subordinates that have less positive and unjustified reasoning behind undermining a boss or supervisor. The real way to avoid any damaging escalation for either party is to follow a few steps:
Document everything that constitutes as subordination, wrongful intent, or anything else that someone can use against you. Only refer back to it if there is a reason to prove your innocence.
Be communicative during management meetings and one-to-ones with your own supervisor. Without being accusatory, let the people who need to know the goings on of interpersonal activities that something may be unordinary or potentially concerning.
Learn more about the motives behind the insubordination. Be professional, courteous, and understanding when dealing with the employee, and make responses instead of reactions.
Remember that you’re there to do your job
As someone in management overseeing others, your performance should be maximizing their performance. If someone is not ill willed but perhaps takes the initiative and wants credit, take your ego out of it and let them perform how they perform. You are ultimately judged by your ability to get others to perform, so there’s nothing wrong with others receiving praise or accolades for their hard work.
Zach Reece, CPA
Certified Public Accountant | Chief Operating Officer, Colony Roofers
Always de-escalate the situation
It’s tempting to fight fire with fire, but the worst way to handle an employee that undermines you is to also be passive-aggressive and confrontational.
Whenever your defiant employee undermines you publicly, simply recognize his comment and defuse the situation with a comment like “I appreciate your insights, Bob, but I think the others in the group want to move on to the next part of the project.”
Speak to the employee privately
Confronting the defiant employee publicly will simply add fuel to the fire. If the situation gets particularly heated, always ask to speak to the employee privately.
If other employees see the two of you get into a highly emotional argument in front of the group, it’ll make you look terrible as a leader and make others think “Wow, so if I have any issues with the boss, this is how it will be handled?”
Lead with empathy and conduct an “accusation audit”
In an accusation audit, you immediately address all the points of contention that your employee has in order to show him that you empathize with his point of view.
For example, if it seems that he believes you’re a micromanager and doesn’t give employees enough autonomy, you could say “I know that you think I’m a micromanager that doesn’t give you and your colleagues enough freedom to make your own decisions in projects. I completely understand why you would think that.”
By essentially “accusing” yourself, you defuse the situation and disarm the employee of his complaints. It’s incredibly effective.
Co-Founder and Marketing Head, Incorporation Insight
Consider the context
When an employee begins to undermine your authority, there are numerous variables at work. It could be because they regard you as a threat, don’t respect you, believe they know more than you do about a particular subject, and so on.
Employees do this most of the time because they are frustrated or dissatisfied so make sure you get to the bottom of their behavior so you can take the best course of action.
Be clear about unacceptable behaviors
State what the employee did and explain why it is unacceptable in a clear and professional manner. It’s best to do so at the first sign of such behavior so that it doesn’t persist.
Consider having a private conversation with them to tell them unequivocally that such behavior must cease, and then give them specific instructions for what they should do in the future. Make a point of emphasizing the consequences of their actions if they continue.
Business Coach | Director of Search Marketing & Digital Strategy, Pixelstorm
Lead by example
The best way of dealing with employees who undermine your authority is to be competent enough that everyone knows you’re better than them. Also, listen to what the disrespectful employees have to say about your authority and performance.
When you’re treating everyone in a just way, performing better than everyone else, and are more skilled and knowledgeable than the employees who undermine your authority, their actions and attitudes will be unjustified.
This will define a company culture of treating employees politely – even if they’re challenging your authority – and nullifying their opinions through your performance.
One of the most obvious reasons that your employees are undermining your authority is because they don’t like your habit of micromanaging them.
So the best way of dealing with individuals who challenge or undermine your authority is to maintain the necessary distance and space with them, and allow them to do their work freely and independently. This will make them respect you and they’ll stop undermining your authority.
When an employee is being tough, some leaders’ initial response is to construct an opinion about the individual and cease paying attention to what is really happening. We’re annoyed, and the situation seems hopeless. As a result, we believe it is best to divert our attention; this is often a sort of self-protection and avoidance.
However, exceptional leaders understand that the best course of action in these circumstances is to increase their vigilance. They make an attempt to get the most complete picture of the problem feasible – this includes understanding the problematic employee’s perspective.
This is often the first step in resolving the issue. Indeed, in numerous instances, merely listening and paying attention will address the issue. It is likely that the employee has real concerns that you may address.
Alternatively, you may learn of a legitimate workplace problem that is not the employee’s responsibility and must be remedied. Once the tough employee feels heard and appreciated, they may even begin to behave differently.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I tell if an employee is undermining my authority?
Openly questioning or criticizing your decisions: If an employee frequently questions your choices in front of others or criticizes your judgment, they may be undermining your authority.
Ignoring or bypassing your instructions: Employees who disregard your instructions or bypass you to seek the approval or guidance of others may be undermining your authority.
Spreading negative gossip or rumors about you: If an employee shares unflattering information about you or your leadership style with other team members, they may try to undermine your authority.
Encouraging other employees to defy your directives: An employee who undermines your authority may try to influence their peers to question your decisions or ignore your instructions, thereby weakening your authority on the team.
Constantly taking credit for your ideas or accomplishments: Employees who claim credit for your work or ideas may try to diminish your perceived value and undermine your authority.
To accurately assess whether an employee is undermining your authority, observe their behavior over time and watch for any patterns or recurring problems. Also, consider asking other team members for feedback to gain a more complete understanding of the situation.
What if addressing the behavior doesn’t work?
Even if you confront the employee who is undermining your authority, it’s possible that their behavior will continue or escalate. In this case, you may need to take more formal action, such as:
– Document the behavior and communicate it to HR or another manager.
– Issue a written warning or disciplinary action against the employee.
– You should focus on improving your credibility and communication skills.
Remember that this is a difficult situation, but if you remain professional and keep the team’s best interests in mind, you can resolve the issue in a productive and beneficial way.
How can I restore my authority after it has been undermined?
Rebuilding your authority after it has been undermined involves:
– Reflecting on the situation and figure out what changes you can make to improve your leadership style
– Addressing any underlying issues or concerns that may have contributed to the undermining behavior
– Demonstrating your competence, commitment, and dedication to the team’s success
– Strengthening relationships with your employees through open communication and active listening
– Consistently and fairly enforcing expectations and boundaries for behavior and performance
How can I determine the cause of an employee’s undermining behavior?
– Conduct a self-reflection to evaluate your own leadership style and possible areas for improvement.
– Have an open and honest conversation with the employee to understand their perspective and concerns.
– Observe the employee’s interactions with other team members to identify any patterns or recurring issues.
– Seek feedback from other team members about the employee’s behavior and underlying causes.
– Consider any external factors or changes in the workplace that may have contributed to the undermining behavior.
When is it appropriate to involve upper management or HR when an employee undermines my authority?
It may be appropriate to involve upper management or Human Resources when:
You have tried to resolve the problem through direct communication, and the problem persists.
The employee’s behavior is negatively impacting team morale, productivity, or the overall work environment.
The undermining behavior includes harassment, discrimination, or other serious violations of company policy.
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