Almost everyone I know has had this problem at some point in their career: someone who reports to you or a more junior team member is not giving you the proper respect. This can take many forms. Maybe it is your direct report and they challenge you or ignore you rather than following directions. Perhaps it is not your direct report but still someone more junior to you on a team; they may go around you when they should consult you or intentionally leave you out of conversations to go directly to the top of the pyramid. However this behavior manifests, it’s frustrating and it gets in the way of teams performing at their best. Here are some strategies to use when faced with this situation.
1) Ask, Don’t Assume
Ask, don’t assume, is one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned in my career. In this context, it’s especially important to step back from the frustration and consider where the other person is coming from. If they are your direct report, one of the best ways to diffuse the tension is to make sure you understand their goals. Often their reluctance to be managed comes from feelings that their career isn’t progressing quickly enough. The tendency is for them to take this out on you. To counteract that, try to have an open dialogue where you explore what their goals are and make sure they are on a plan to achieve them. It may see counterintuitive, but spending more time to focus on their development is likely to make them a better team player in the long run.
2) Set Boundaries
Many times, the tension arises because the more junior person has one of two things: more experience at the firm (institutional knowledge), or subject matter expertise. Diffuse this tension and unite your team by setting very clear boundaries around who is responsible for which things, and what each person’s strengths are. In many situations, I would walk into a team that had complex and business-critical responsibilities, and I knew they were thinking something along the lines of, “This girl doesn’t understand my job. What makes her at all qualified to lead me?” And that is a very good question. After much trial and error (seriously, a lot of error) I realized I needed a better approach. Start your first interactions by outlining your strengths and relevant track record in your areas of expertise. Take the time to acknowledge each person’s strengths and track records. It is important to make it abundantly clear that you know you could not do their job, and that you respect and appreciate their expertise. This is a fine line, though- do not sell yourself short- give yourself credibility by talking about past results and explaining the areas where you are the expert. This approach shifts the mentality away from you vs. them, and creates a conversation where each person realizes how their strengths fit into the overall organization of the team.
3) Be Direct
In conjunction with the other two strategies, being direct and clear about your concerns is a necessary step. Some people find this very uncomfortable, and some work cultures are more encouraging of direct feedback than others. So adapt this to suit the environment you work in, but know that expressing your concerns in a constructive way is necessary for creating change in behavior. As with point #1, it may seem obvious to you that they are acting inappropriately, so you may think they are already aware too. This is a dangerous assumption. It’s best to have the conversation, frame it as your observation and your concern about what the behavior will result in. For example, “I’m concerned that if you don’t keep me informed we will not be able to explore all sides of this problem and we may not present complete information to the people who need to know.” Above all, know that what is obvious to you may not be obvious to others, so the only way to know for sure that they understand they are acting out of turn is for you to tell them.