How to tactfully handle employees who undermine your authority


Anecdotes are most definitely the best way to explain any process or system, so here's my two cents on how to deal with difficult employees. The incident narrated in this event happened way back in 2012 - not that way back but what's life without some melodramatic effect. It was the year I completed my engineering and landed my first job in sales at a small web development company in Chennai. As most managers, my first one wasn't the nicest to work under and it was during my brother’s engagement that I found out that the devil truly does walk around in the human form.

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A day before the engagement, I got the dreaded call which cut-short my three-day sojourn to a mere one-day running around pillar to post nightmare. No matter how much I reasoned the devil had already decided my fate, and as a testament of my immaturity I walked out of the office in haste. To add more fuel into hellfire, I took an extra day's leave just to get on his nerves.

This transgression raised red flags in the organisation, with the CEO himself contacting me, a month later, seeking for an apology email. Now, my insubordination was an act more in defiance towards curbing my right than being a wayward employee, but I clearly undermined the authority of the manager and for which I could have been fired.

What if you are a manager or a CEO who works with employees who undermine your authority without rhyme or reason? What do you do? It is extremely unsettling when one’s rank or position is not given proper due. This is when you should be prepared to take measures because if left unattended it becomes irrevocable.

Here is what you should do maintain your control:

Be tough, but judicious

If you are a fan of Game of Thrones, you would have observed that all the kings, queens and the lords keep tooting their horns by introducing themselves by their rank. Well, you do not have to do it. How ridiculous is-“I am Rahul, CEO to the employees here, VP at my previous company, sold my previous startup for $80,000 and have an Audi A6 parked outside my house.” Instead, the tone of your order or request would be more than enough to set the ball rolling. An “I want to get this done. Now!” will work with someone who tries to undermine your authority, but there is no use to employ it on someone who listens to your commands. Use them tough words judiciously. “This does not happen here”, “We cannot afford such delays”, “I want you to work on this immediately”, etc., are sentences that makes come across as authoritative and still comfortable in your role.

Be friendly, but not friends with your employees

You do not want to talk to your employee about problems with your mortgage, do you? No. You can be that nice boss everyone keeps raving about and being friendly is perfectly fine, but do not strive to be friends with them. Once the employees see you as a friend, it will be difficult to get things done. Be careful in tread that line - of being friendly and showing interest in their personal lives.

Pull them to your side

It is easier said than done. It is hard for an employee who undermines you to go out on a limb for you. Make it easy for them to join you without confronting them about their disobedience. Invite them to give their opinions, ask them for their help on things that are beyond your capability. Thank them for their good work done. After a point, it gets difficult to go against someone who respects you. Talk to them as if you know that only good will come out of them.

Fire them

Isn’t that a little strong? How many of you have heard of “saam dhaam dand bedh”? It was Chanakya, principle advisor to Chandragupta Maurya, who coded this principle of negotiation. Let us take the perspective of the boss-employee relationship to explain this. Use this negotiation technique when there are issues. ‘Sham’ here means that the boss explains you about the significance of the job. ‘Dham’ is the next step where you are showered with gifts to appease you or make you work. ‘Dand’ is when you tell him that toeing the line will have consequences, while ‘Bedh’ means total annihilation, which in this case you can construe as firing. Follow Chanakya’s neeti when you know that there is no other way to make the situation right.

Introspect to know why your subordinate does not listen to you and tries to put you down. Are the deep-seated problems because of something you did or a reflection of who the other person is? Is there any problem with their personal life owing to which they are showing their frustration with their work? Ask questions to this person before you take drastic steps.

Read Also: What to do when your employee is an excuse-making machine