Two Reasons Why Employees Challenge Your Authority

In This Article

Why Your Challenging Employee May Be Helpful
Why Employees Challenge Your Authority
How to Handle Employees Who Are Undermining Your Authority
Video: How to Handle Employees Who Are Undermining Your Authority
Survey: Working with Employees Who Challenge Your Authority

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Why Your Challenging Employee May Be Helpful

yellow road signs with black lettering that say "trouble ahead"You’ve probably faced this situation before.

You are working with your team members to implement needed change in your organization. As you conduct your weekly implementation team meeting, you can see the body language of one of your more experienced —and vocal— team members start to change.

Irritation fills his or her face as you explain the next steps for the project. His or her eyes constrict and their facial muscles tighten when you look at him or her.

You continue with your discussion but you get a familiar rush of adrenaline as you watch the dynamic unfold around you.  You’ve been here before and you know what is about to happen. Your experienced and vocal team member is about to derail this team meeting with another verbal dismantling of your plans for your group.

Sure enough it happens!

Your team member cannot keep silent any longer. He or she presents a list of problems with your approach in their customary devastating barrage of anecdotes, facts, and organizational observations.

As your team member finishes talking, you look around the room at the rest of your team members. Once again you see the confusion in the faces of the rest of your group.

You’ve been taking some management training so this time you manage to withhold showing your irritation with your team member. You may appear calm to your group, but the truth is that inside you are seething with anger.

Recognizing that you need some time both to respond intelligently to the devastating barrage of your team member and to manage your emotions, you agree to postpone implementing your next steps for the project. Instead, you quickly pivot to another topic and you effectively redirect your group from focusing too much on this latest conflict with your outspoken team member.

After the meeting ends, you do some reflecting about this team member. Your thoughts center on the following:

  • What’s the issue with this team member?
  • Why does he or she keep challenging your authority?
  • Does he or she want your job?

While you do not have a definitive answer to these three questions, what you do know is that you have had enough of their challenging behavior. You’re ready to give them your own verbal dismantling.

You may be ready to confront your team member, but, before you do, take a moment to exercise some of your emotional intelligence. Take a little time to manage your emotions and look at the situation objectively.

As you do this, consider the unthinkable: Maybe, your team member was right to “challenge your authority.” Just maybe, your team member’s observations about your implementation approach were correct.

If so, take some time to evaluate the best strategy to use to resolve this conflict with your employee. Ultimately, doing what is best is not only good for your operation but it’s also good for your leadership reputation in your organization.

Employees who challenge your authority may be doing you a favor! Click To Tweet

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Why Employees Challenge Your Authority

The word WHY written on a chalkboard


There can be many reasons why one of your team members appears to challenge your authority, and those reasons may not be because of some ill will they have towards you.

As you think about how to respond to your team member who challenges you, it is important to separate appropriate from inappropriate behavior. In general, you want your team members to challenge your opinion so you can get the best results.

This is something that you can actively encourage in the workplace. Ask for disagreement especially if you feel you are missing valuable feedback.

If you have a team of yes-people who always agree with you, then they're not necessary because they are not helping you to be a better leader. Click To Tweet

As you evaluate your team member’s behavior for appropriateness, here’s an important point for you to consider: Your team member may be challenging you because he or she has a better understanding than you of what needs to be done.

How is this possible?

In general, your team members are closest to the work that you do so their perspective is valuable. It’s possible that your team member knows better than you what should occur in the organization, and your team member is simply expressing what she or he knows to be right. If this is the case, then you want to add his or her voice to your operational decision making. You do not want to shut him or her out as he or she has information that can help your organizational effectiveness.

Evaluate your team member’s position based on the merit of what she or he is proposing and not on how you feel about her or him. When your team member is correct, acknowledge it and incorporate her or his feedback in your operations. If you do this, you may find that her or his behavior starts to change toward you. Sometimes a person can appear to be acting out when all that they want is to be heard.

It's OK and even good for your leadership career for your employees to disagree with you at times. Click To Tweet

Some people can come across as hostile because of their personality style. For example, in their communication with you, a team member may be opinionated and quick to express how they feel. They may even do this with emotion.

In these cases, your team member may be challenging you because he or she has a different personality style than you.

For example, you could be more cautious and unemotional in your communication style. You might use data and facts more than your opinion to express how you feel.

In this instance, you may be viewing your team member as being hostile to you when in fact they are just different from you. If this is the case, you have to allow people who work for you to be different. As managers, it’s not our job to make everyone in our own image. We have to find a person’s unique value and incorporate that into workplace operations.

In allowing people to be different, you improve your leadership effectiveness. If you look beyond your team member’s style, you may notice that he or she is often right in their opinions. Their value to you may be his or her ability to quickly and accurately assess a situation (without all of the data). That’s something that you want to incorporate into your business operations.

Don't mistake personality style differences as a challenge to your authority. Click To Tweet

There can be legitimate reasons why your team member may be constantly challenging you in the workplace. Here’s one approach that may work for you:

One way to avoid awkward situations like these where it feels like your authority is being challenged is to invite feedback from your team members earlier in the process. If your approach is to ask for feedback from your team only when you have independently developed a plan, then you leave them no other option but to challenge your ideas. 

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How to Handle Employees Who Are Undermining Your Authority

the word "how" shown on a white backgroundSometimes situations like these are more of a mixed bag.

There may be some adjustments you need to make as the leader of your group, AND there may be some adjustments your team member needs to make in what she or he does.

For example, a problem managers frequently face is how to deal with a team member who talks about the manger behind the manager’s back. Let’s say that this is what you are facing too. Your team member is probably knowledgeable and productive, but you find that he or she frequently criticizes you behind your back. And, they talk about you behind your back to anyone who will listen to them.

Why does this employee badmouth you behind your back?

It’s probably because he or she does not agree with the decisions you make. They may even feel that they should have your job. You do need to address this issue and you will need all of your emotional intelligence to do so.

Addressing Inappropriate Behavior

After you make this evaluation, you may find that certain aspects of your team member’s behavior are unproductive. He or she may be right in what they have to say but they may also be creating tension in the organization.

For example, once you heard and considered everyone’s input and made a decision, your team member may still actively undermine your credibility by criticizing you to everyone that will listen. If this is the case, then you need to address his or her behavior.

Before you do however, it’s critical that you identify the impact of your team member’s behavior. While you may feel justified in just putting a stop to their continual criticism, you need to tell them something more than, “Stop the criticism!” You need to explain the impact that their behavior is having in the workplace.

For example, does productivity suffer because team members start to question what they are doing and why? Are you losing time having to respond to multiple inquiries from your peers and boss about what you are doing? Are you losing customers because the team is not following your instructions?

Once you identify this information, it’s time to have a coaching session with your team member. Your goal here should be to change your team member’s behavior not get rid of him or her. They have value to you and your organization; you just need your team member to change his or her behavior.

To achieve these two goals, I’d suggest that you use the 7 Step coaching model that I outline in this article: Motivation – 7 Steps for Coaching Difficult Employees.

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Video: How to Handle Employees Who Challenge Your Authority

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Survey: Working with Employees Who Challenge Your Authority

Employees who question what you are doing may be doing you a favor! Would you prefer them to speak up or do you want them to blindly follow you as you go over a cliff? Click To Tweet
Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

This article is accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge.
Content is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional advice in business, management, legal, or human resource matters.

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

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