What New Managers Need To Do When Staff Undermines Them

If you’re in the first months as a new manager, your team members may sometimes undermine you. Not all, but some may do this. It’s one of the unpleasantries you have to go through as a manager, especially in the beginning.

What can you do when something like this happens?

When managers are undermined by their team members, the response has to be firm and professional. As a manager, you have to both address the incident and find the root cause, to lower the chances of happening again. You need to apply disciplinary action if everything else fails.

A little background story. 

When I was starting, I took the responsibility to expand my team and improve the workflows needed at the time. Most team members accepted me without hesitation.

Among them, there was someone who didn’t have a direct manager until then. (I was working in a startup, and “collaborative chaos” is pretty common.)

I’m mentioning this because that person told me something that affected me. Because it was the first time I encountered this situation and it happened in front of the entire team, I can still remember it vividly, even now. They said, “you’ll never get to boss me around”.

As you imagine, bossing anyone around was never my intention. In fact, I hate this attitude towards coworkers. I realized I needed to work more on my relationship with this person if I was going to prove myself as a manager and a leader.

Let’s see what you can do to correct someone who’s undermining you.

Acknowledge the incident and start taking action

As a first-time manager, you may not notice (or choose to ignore) when people undermine you. There are high chances of this happening if you’re not a confrontational person.

You should never ignore such an event and hope it will pass by itself. It won’t.

If you ignore it, the people who contest you will try again, even harder than before. It’s normal to not have strong leadership skills at this point (unless you’re a natural and have some experience), but it’s important to start developing yourself and take a stand.

Be careful not to mistake debates or brainstorming sessions for subversion. You want to have healthy discussions about group decisions, for example. Once you make your decisions, your coworkers need to be on board. 

If someone comes in at a later date and starts debating or badmouthing that decision, this is when you’re going to have a problem. The next step is to take action and remove all misunderstandings.

Be firm and professional in your attitude

First things first.

No matter what your personality is, you may tend to get angry when someone undermines you. 

If you’re easily offended or a sensitive person, it may be difficult to hide emotions.

Because you are an inexperienced manager, it’s understandable. In time, you’ll encounter other situations that will make this look insignificant.

While it’s true some people may “test” you to see how you react, I like to believe that most people don’t do this on purpose. This means that they have a concern that needs to be addressed, and the undermining part is just an effect.

Your attitude must be professional. It is, after all, why you are there. I’m not saying you should bury deep down everything you’re feeling. We can address this part in the feedback sessions, explained further in this article.

If you don’t maintain your composure, others will see how you react when you don’t like something. This will push them away from developing a relationship with you.

You don’t want to be classified as an unapproachable person.

Control your attitude and choose if you’d like to address it on the spot or prepare a separate meeting about this. Depending on the situation, you can make it a public conversation, or a private one.

Your team must learn what is acceptable and what isn’t. While you are an open-minded manager, you will not accept rude or demeaning comments addressed to you or your way of managing the team.

We can all jump in and improve the way we are handling things, and we can do it respectfully.

Develop the relationship with your team members

This is the natural, long-term approach.

Having private sessions with every team member is a given. It is especially important to allocate time for people who tried to undermine you, intentionally or not.

Find out why they acted like that. Was it personal, for some reason?

Is this how they think they will get ahead? Did they want to impress someone, or just show off their “communication” skills?

Maybe they don’t trust you. Here’s an article I wrote that goes into detail on why employees lose trust in their managers.

You don’t want to develop relationships to become best friends. It’s enough to get to know each other. Once you set the boundaries, it will be harder for them to step on your toes again.

Get to know your employees through feedback sessions

Feedback sessions are great for many reasons – and this is one of them. You can invite them to one and align expectations. If they know what to expect from you and the team dynamic, there won’t be as eager to undermine you.

Getting back to the topic at hand.

If they indeed didn’t mean to undermine you, having 1-on-1 conversations makes it easier to find out and adapt your “speech”. Your team members need to understand that their actions and words have consequences. 

By saying the wrong thing or doing something against your will, they will project a certain image about the three parties involved: them, the team, and you, the manager.

A feedback session can also be useful for you to hear them out. Allow them to speak out and see what they’re thinking. If their intentions were positive during the incident, you have a passionate worker on your hands. This is great!

That being said, they need to learn and understand how far is too far. Teach them what to do next time they feel they want to speak up. This is up to you. Encourage them to share their opinion in public respectfully, or reach out to you in private.

Shift their focus to something productive

To be clear, all I’m trying to do is make you see things from different perspectives (in most of my articles). 

If a coworker undermined you, there’s a chance they are fully invested in their work. In the beginning, they probably think of you as some sort of “intruder”. 

Maybe the perception is that you will slow them down or change their way of working.

Even in an unpleasant situation, there’s always a positive side. It’s good to see who wants to speak up and share a “different” opinion. You can use that attitude and transform it into energy for other tasks.

This is very important: adjust your actions to match the incident. If it was an honest mistake, maybe you need to do only 10-20% of what I mentioned previously. If it was intentional and there’s no other way, keep reading.

What if nothing works? Take disciplinary action

Presuming you’ve done everything in your power to not reach this point, you need to take a more direct approach.

You can’t justify yourself for a specific person repeatedly while the other members of your team are waiting for you. After a certain point, it’s simply a waste of time.

You have to try to make it work, but maybe that person has no interest in working with you towards reaching common ground. You must remove toxicity to have a healthy environment.

Because every company has different policies, consult with HR and see what the next options are: pay cut, suspension, termination, and so on. 

The most important thing is for the employee in question to understand that this can’t go on and then swiftly put out the fire. 

Depending on the style of management you’d like to adopt, this can be hurtful to your image and development. I strongly suggest you don’t reach this point and try everything in your power to reach a consensus in a friendly way.

Key takeaways

  • Don’t get angry and lose your bearings.
  • Be professional and start looking for the root cause.
  • Develop relationships and set some boundaries.
  • Challenge them with new opportunities to prove themselves.
  • Taking aggressive action is the only way after you’ve exhausted everything else.

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