Great leaders lead by permission, not authority.

Your job title may be CEO or president of your small business, but that doesn’t mean employees will automatically follow you. Sometimes, employees don’t listen.

And worse, sometimes they challenge or undermine you.

What should you do when employees or staff are actively undermining your authority at work? Here are a few examples, along with tips to effectively manage the situation.

1. When an employee deviates from a stated rule, process, or guideline.

This one is easy. Processes can be changed or improved, but only when the decision to change—and how to change—that process has been made. 

You want your employees to think outside the box, be creative and innovative, and continuously search for better methods. But you don’t want them to change a process or guideline unilaterally. In short: If you don’t like the rule, don’t break the rule. Instead, come up with a better process together.

For example, say you expect your customer service reps to not just field customer queries, complaints, and so on, but to also proactively call three current customers each day, just to check in and maintain the relationship. One of your reps does not.


“We agreed to follow this process because it makes a huge impact on our customer retention rate. So why haven’t you?”

Maybe they will say they were too busy, or that he feels making those calls is a waste of time. Whatever the response, until you revise or change the practice, expectations are expectations. 

When an employee doesn’t follow the rules, best practices, or guidelines, step in immediately. 

Fail to do so, and the employee isn’t undermining your authority. Through your inaction, you are.

2. When an employee holds the meeting after the meeting.

Say you meet to discuss a process change. You describe the problem. You ask for suggestions. In time, the group agrees on the best solution. Great! 

But then one employee holds the informal “meeting after the meeting” to discuss issues he failed to bring up in the formal meeting. They bring up potential roadblocks they failed to share in the official meeting and what they feel should have been decided instead. 

In the meeting? They agreed. Later? No way.

It’s okay not to agree. Jeff Bezos calls it having the ability to “disagree and commit.” 

As Bezos says, disagreeing and committing is a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of views. It’s also a chance for a team to weigh those views and come to a quick, sincere commitment to go with the group’s decision. 

As an old boss of mine used to say: “It’s fine to disagree in this room… but out on the shop floor, we all need to be totally behind [this].”

When you learn that an employee is undermining your authority by disagreeing with or failing to support a decision, tackle the problem head-on. Say:

“During the meeting, everyone agreed, including you, that we would do [(this]). Now it appears you don’t support that decision, even though you didn’t share that in the meeting and didn’t come to me later to discuss any reservations you have.

 By telling people you think it’s a bad idea, you’re negatively impacting the effort everyone is putting into [(this].)”

Say you want people to share different opinions, to play devil’s advocate, to debate pros and cons—but that it’s just as crucial for people to be able to disagree and still commit.

Also be sure to say that going forward, you expect that commitment—because to make complex things happen, everyone needs to be a part of the team.

3. When employees demotivate other employees. 

Say a newer employee works harder and smarter, exceeding targets and expectations while also helping people around them perform better, too. (The best employees are like a rising tide that floats all boats.) 

But then a longer-term employee (it’s always an employee with tenure) tries to undermine them. They may say the new employee is too ambitious or just “kissing up” to you, or that their performance makes other people look bad in comparison.

Or they might say that no matter how hard the newbie works, you will still reward and promote the people you like, not the people who excel. (Think that situation doesn’t happen? It did to me: Both as the employee working really hard, and as the boss with a superstar direct report.)

Some employees spend more time trying to make other people look bad than they do trying to make themselves look good.

Granted, having that conversation won’t be easy. So, keep it simple. Just say:

“Our goal is to be as supportive of each other as we possibly can. We encourage, motivate, and inspire each other, and any behavior that serves to discourage other people is unacceptable.”

Then, have the discussion that ensues. And stay on top of the situation, because an employee with an attitude like that will find it hard to change.

4. When employees use their job description to create teamwork boundaries.

When you run a small business, you need to wear many hats. Sometimes you need to wear all the hats, at least for short periods. 

So do your employees. The smaller your business, the more the people on your team need to quickly adapt to changing priorities, be fast on their feet, and at times drop everything to do whatever it takes to get something done.

Yet that spirit of teamwork, of esprit de corps, can be ruined when one employee says, “I’m sorry, but [that’s] not in my job description.”

Granted, you shouldn’t ask employees to perform higher-level jobs without commensurate pay. But any employee who refuses to take a step sideways or even “down” the hierarchy totem pole immediately undermines not only your authority but the overall cohesion of your team. 

Employees who say, “I won’t do [that],” erode the sense of common purpose you hope to build.

(That’s why every job description should include the phrase, “… and other duties as assigned.” And why every job interview should include a discussion of your expectations regarding teamwork, adaptability, and the willingness to pitch in wherever needed.)

If an employee says, “That’s not in my job description,” say something like:

“I understand… but in order to meet the customer’s delivery date and maintain our trusted relationship, that’s what we need to do.”

Always share a little context to help create a sense of purpose, as well as a clear “Why?”

And if that doesn’t work, it may be time to find an employee more suited to the needs of your business.

The bottom line: The key with any of these conversations is to be sure the employee in question knows their job is not in jeopardy. (At least not yet.) Your feedback should improve performance, strengthen interpersonal relationships, facilitate teamwork—in short, build a better business. 

Feel free to start the conversation by saying, “You’re doing a good job, but there is one thing you can do better, and it will definitely help us as a team.” 

Most people be open to listening.

And if they’re not, they might not be the right fit for your business.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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