I’ve been a manager for about two years, and I have a subordinate who has no respect for my position whatsoever. When he disagrees with my decisions, he gives me the silent treatment and has even gone over [my head] to get his way. I feel like he’s always trying to conspire to undermine me. Any advice?
—Bethany, Dallas, TX
I know how frustrating it can be when you finally get into a leadership position – only to find that no one is following. But here’s the deal: People don’t respect positions. They respect people. Since you can’t “make” your subordinate do anything he doesn’t want to do, the trick is you’ve got to get him (and everyone else on your team) to toe the line with your influence – NOT your authority. Here’s how to get started.
First, keep in mind that while you may not control the trigger, you always control the response. Sure it sucks to be disrespected, but if you react emotionally or, specifically, in anger, you’re only going to reinforce the impression that you are indeed unfit for leadership. This is a biggie and it starts with a shift in perspective. I recommend that you sit down and think deeply on this question, “What are the three words I want my colleagues to use when describing me?”
Then, write down the specific action steps you could take to build that reputation for yourself. When this employee pushes your buttons, use those words as a filter for your behavior. For example, two of my words are positive and mindful. I’m constantly asking myself, “Am I being positive right now?” and “Am I being mindful right now?” If the answer is no, I adjust my behavior accordingly – even if that means simply removing myself from the situation until I cool off.
Next, as his superior, I would take the opportunity to formally remind him of performance expectations, including being an encouraging presence versus an obstructive one. (Captain Obvious Alert: You need to model the behaviors you expect from your team as well.) In addition, I think it’s worth a separate meeting with your boss to discuss this co-worker as he should not be leapfrogging you to get his way. I would hope that your relationship with your boss is good enough that you can tell him/her to direct any future inquiries from your coworker to you and not to handle them personally. Of course, you need to phrase that in a way that doesn’t sound like an order, but you get the idea. As long as your co-worker feels like he can jump over you, he will, so you need to shut that down stat.
Finally, I know this is going to sound counterintuitive, but remember that problems should be embraced. The higher you go within an organization, the more complex the challenges get – especially when it comes to HR issues. Your job as the leader is to solve those problems so everyone can function at their highest level. So instead of thinking, “GAH! That son of a b*^$%!” simply think of your disagreements as challenges that need to be resolved. That way, you’ll have a mental firewall in place that will prevent you from taking his behaviors personally – and you can get back to focusing on the team as a whole.
Emily Bennington is the founder of AWAKE EXEC, mindful leadership coaching for professional women, and the author of Who Says It’s a Man’s World: The Girls’ Guide to Corporate Domination.
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