Question authority

Leadership tips for managing team members who question authority

At some point, most leaders encounter someone who seems to want to undermine them.

Whether you’re leading an organization or put in charge of a project team, dealing with someone who is resisting your leadership or outright insubordinate is necessary before it damages your team, the esprit de corps or your reputation.

Often, questioning authority manifests in a few different ways:

  • Subtle sabotage during meetings or when performing tasks, for example by asking questions only intended to raise doubt or inspire discord or by complaining about assigned duties behind the leader’s back (often someone who is either the determined cynic, constant skeptic or know-it-all)
  • Triangulating — complaining about the leader to everyone but the leader
  • Gossiping to damage the leader’s reputation, be divisive and undermine team morale
  • Intentionally ignoring or defying directives
  • Intimidating or inappropriate comments or abusive language to denigrate the leader or leadership
  • Confronting the leader in front of others rather than having a conversation in private (not that team members can’t raise contrary ideas — good leaders can handle criticism — but rather that the intent here seems to be to make the leader look bad to others)
  • Missing deadlines, refusing to perform assigned tasks or duties or failing to perform them well as a protest against the leadership

Usually questioning authority becomes an issue when there is a personality conflict or resentment if someone feels that they are more qualified to lead than you are. There are also some people who will challenge you to test you — to prove that you are worthy of a leadership role (especially if they have more seniority or are more educated than you).

Here are some ideas for handling team members who question your authority:

Don’t take it personally. It’s hard not to, but you need to stay calm and in control. Try to be objective and listen to concerns with curiosity and the intent to understand. Use this as an opportunity to develop your executive presence so that your team sees you as a confident, credible, calm and consistent leader.

Clarify roles and responsibilities. Remind whoever is questioning your authority that you were assigned to lead by X (name the manager, director or board) and that you are taking the position seriously. Be clear about their role and that you value input from them in that role.

Help them see their role as a teammate. Whether someone is a direct-report on a team of folks who report to you, or they’re a peer on your own team, it helps to do some team building to build trust or strengthen relationships with our Five Behaviours of a Cohesive Team workshop. This helps them step away from seeing themselves as the expert in “X” to instead being a member of the team where everyone works better together.

Deal with conflict head on. If there is someone who relentlessly pushes for their own approach after a decision has been made, listen and reiterate what you or the decision-maker have decided. Swiftly redirect if the conversation is being derailed and take control of meetings calmly and assertively. Sometimes leaders hope that if they ignore problematic behaviour that issues like this will disappear, but generally they don’t and that’s when other members of the team start wondering if you’re going to continue letting this person undermine you. Others start to wonder if you have the skill to lead.

Set boundaries. A usurper needs to know that you will not relinquish your leadership and that there are clear boundaries and consequences for crossing them. Don’t ignore serious breaches of behaviour. Difficult conversations are essential, so arrange to speak privately with someone questioning your authority about the behaviours that need to be corrected. Does the employee acknowledge there’s a problem and their role in it? Be specific, provide neutral examples and identify consequences. Make it clear that team members can disagree with you civilly and that there are times when they must accept decisions they might not fully agree to.

Document misconduct. If you need to speak with a team member about poor behaviour, take notes about problematic situations and who witnessed them. When you meet with the team member, record briefly what was discussed, including when you spoke and what you agreed the next steps would be and when you’d follow up. Hope for the best (the situation will be resolved), but prepare for the worst. If you do need to let someone go — either from your team or from the organization — termination shouldn’t be a surprise and you’ll want the documentation to back it up.

Seek bad news. Leaders need to be hearing the good, the bad and the ugly. If you’re soliciting honest feedback — and listening — your critics might become very good allies because they know that they are being heard. Your business will do better when you’re making informed decisions based on as much feedback and information as possible. You don’t want people telling you only what you want to hear.

Encourage good conflict. Yep! Encourage it. Dissent or contrary views aren’t inherently bad, it’s how they are shared and worked through on your team that matters. Building productive team conflict and healthy team dynamics are essential to success. Sometimes you’ll discover that the person questioning your authority just needs to feel heard and may have very valuable concerns that have been ignored by others in the past.

Be clear on decisions. After you’ve encouraged everyone to share their concerns and raise conflicting points, and you’ve shown you’re listening and considering those views, make clear that a decision has been made and the full team must commit to the decision — even if it’s not the way they would have done it. Someone has to be the decision maker and that person must listen to new ideas and other ways of doing things and then select what they feel is the best option. Everyone else must support them in implementing that decision.

Try a Coach Approach. If you want your team to thrive, try using a Coach Approach instead of problem-solving everything yourself. This shifts the conversation from you as the leader directing others to asking, listening and getting others to think through problems. Confidently leading your team with a Coach Approach allows your team to learn and grow.

Coach’s Questions:

When have you struggled with someone questioning your authority or undermining you? What is the biggest challenge for you? What behaviours “push your buttons”? What can you do to build a cohesive team and foster good, productive conflict while setting clear boundaries on what is good and what is bad conflict?