What to do when one of your staff questions your authority
People generally do what their supervisor asks them to do. As humans we are tuned in to understanding a pecking order and adhering to the requests of those above us on it.
So why do some people not comply?
“Mark, I thought I asked you to take out the garbage and recycling before 11?”
“You did, but I thought it would be better to ask Chris to do that on his way out at 2.”
This is the decision point. Do we engage in debate with Mark?
The answer is no.
If it is clear that the person understood your request, had the capability and opportunity to carry it out and simply choose not to, you have just been called out. Your authority has just been challenged and it would be a mistake to engage in debate.
The reason people don’t comply with our instructions is that they don’t respect or perceive our authority. The first line of defense for many who have just undermined our authority is to try and re-engage in debate about the issue at hand. If we play along, the conversation will end with no resolution and with your authority being undermined just a little bit more.
“So you understood my instructions Mark?”
“What were they?”
“To take out the garbage and recycling before 11.”
“And you chose not to do that?”
“Yes, but I had a good idea. If Chris did it when he left, it would save both of us time.”
“So you understood my instructions and you chose not to follow them?”
“Yes, but I thought of a better way to handle it. If Chris did it at 2 pm, it would be much more efficient.”
“When I give you a specific instruction like this one, it is not your place to vet my decision after we agree to it. You need to do what is asked or there will be serious consequences. Are we clear?”
“Yes, I guess so, but I still think what I did makes more sense.”
“Are we clear that you need to follow my instructions in the future or there will be consequences?”
This whole approach may run counter to common thinking about getting buy in through discussion or leading without authority, but when someone is challenging your authority nothing good can come from beating around the bush. Mark’s plan with Chris may be better than yours, but that is not the point. The point is that your authority is being tested, whether Mark means to or not.
Once you establish with Mark that you are the authority and he needs to take you seriously, you can then work on building your credibility with him, allowing his ideas to shape the work more, and getting buy in. Before that can happen, however, he needs to understand and respect your authority.
In my experience and those of leaders I talk with, we agree that almost everyone gets it. There is often no need to play the heavy. With a few people, especially those new to the workforce, there is sometimes a need to help them understand that a workplace is not a democracy. There is a chain of command and they need to respect those in authority in order to succeed.
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