How to Handle a Colleague Who Doesn’t Respect Your Authority

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Ever had a colleague who dismissed your expertise and didn’t seem to think you had the authority to do your job? Maybe it was a coworker who always pushed back on your decisions even when they didn’t impact their own work, went over your head at every opportunity, or resisted doing work you sent their way – or all of the above?

When the person engaging in this kind of obstructionist behavior is a peer, rather than someone you have authority over, this can be tricky to navigate. Here’s how to figure out handle this kind of resistance from someone you need to rely on in order to get your own work done.

1. Be crystal clear about what you need and why. One of the easiest ways for someone to avoid giving you what you need is if you leave them room for plausible deniability. Don’t create a situation where the person can reasonably claim that they didn’t know what you needed from them, its importance, or when you needed it by. Instead, be as explicit as possible: “Jane, I will need this data set from you no later than Monday in order to meet our launch date.”

2. Don’t get defensive. If a coworker is constantly challenging your expertise or pushing back on your decisions, it can be natural to feel a little defensive. But if you let yourself react defensively, you’ll be weakening your own position and signaling that a little push-back rattles you. You’ll come across far better if you’re willing to entertain questions and engage in some back and forth with a dissenter. However, you don’t have to do that forever; there’s a point where it’s reasonable to say calmly and without sounding frustrated, “I appreciate your input and I’ve considered the points you’ve raised, but ultimately I’ve decided to do X.”

3. Address the issue head-on. If the issue is chronic and your colleague’s resistance is impeding your work, be transparent with the person about what you’re seeing. For example, you might say: “I’m noticing that you’ve disagreed with most of the decisions I’ve made on this project. I’m interested in hearing input, but after a point, I need to be able to make decisions and move on. When you keep bringing up the same issues over and over at our meetings, it makes it hard to focus on the next pieces of the project that we need to handle. I appreciate your input, but I want to ask you to understand that at times I may make different decisions than the ones you might make. Ultimately, Bob asked me to manage this project because of my experience in X and I’m bring that experience to bear in my decision-making.”

Or, with a coworker who keeps going over your head, you might say: “I’m the person managing X and I’d appreciate you bringing concerns about it to me to resolve. If we’re not able to reach a resolution and you feel the issue is important enough to escalate, you of course can do that. But I’d like you to start with me first so that I have a chance to hear your concern. Can you do that?”

4. If you can’t resolve it on your own, loop your manager in. You might feel like you’re expected to solve this kind of thing on your own, but if you try the above and it’s not working, a good manager will want to know about it. Keep the focus on the impact that this person’s behavior is having on your work (as opposed to your feelings about it), explain what you’re tried that hasn’t worked, and ask your manager for advice on how to navigate the situation.

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