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How to Deal With a Subordinate That Undermines Your Authority

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If you’re like most managers, you probably want your employees to have a positive experience while on the job. To accomplish this goal, you’ll need to deal with insubordination in a timely and effective manner. Negative behaviors from an employee are harmful not only to you, but also to the employee himself and the rest of your staff.

Communicate Expectations

Everyone has a different upbringing and background, which means everyone has different standards of what’s appropriate and what’s not. Failure to clearly and consistently communicate what’s expected of employees can result in misunderstandings. Body language, for example, is commonly misinterpreted and may be wrongfully perceived as someone undermining your authority. According to Body Language University, women’s nonverbal communication tends to be warm and encouraging. Women tend to smile and lean forward during conversation to show the other person they are listening. Men, on the other hand, tend to be more dominant in their nonverbal communication and often use straight, sharp gestures. Differences such as these can result in perceived insubordination when the intent was never really there.

Conscious Insubordination

Of course, there will be certain occasions in your career when an employee is knowingly being insubordinate by purposely challenging your authority. According to Gallup Business Journal, there are more than 22 million disengaged workers in the United States. These workers may show and voice their unhappiness in various ways including undermining you by ignoring you, gossiping about you or rolling their eyes when you talk. When this happens, it’s important to address the issue quickly, otherwise your credibility and office morale are likely to suffer.

Focus on Solutions

When you believe conscious undermining of your authority is taking place, have a conversation with the employee in private. Communicate what you perceive is happening in a calm, respectful manner and allow the employee to explain. Spend the majority of the conversation talking about solutions for the future and what you want, rather than what you don’t want. Focusing on the solutions instead of the problems will help you and your employee feel like a team and increase the likelihood for success. Document what you both have agreed upon and follow up on these commitments in the future.

Dig Deeper

A subordinate undermining your authority may be symptomatic of a deeper problem. It’s easy to just write the employee off as disrespectful and rude, but many times there’s something else going on that is resulting in these behaviors. Remember that a worker's personal life and work life are greatly interconnected. According to Gallup Business Journal, a correlation exists between negativity at home and active disengagement at work, which includes acting out and undermining co-workers. Many contemporary social problems can affect the workplace including racism, sexism, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty and mental illness. So, when you talk with your employee ask questions that can help you find out if any underlying issues are affecting her behavior.


Sydney Neely has worked in the education arena for more than 10 years, teaching general education, the arts, communication and finance. She holds Bachelor of Arts and Master of Education degrees from Arizona State University. Neely also holds several state and federal financial licenses in life insurance and investments (Series 6 and 63).

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