Roger Delves helps a senior manager struggling with political infighting in the office.
Workplace doctor: colleague’s undermining behaviour has to be addressed
I am a senior manager in a team of 40, with four staff above me. I have to make decisions on a daily basis that affect the general running of the team and when I make a decision, I expect it to be executed. However, one of my colleagues – on the same management level as me – regularly undermines my decision or overrides it. Her belief is that her management method is better or more effective than mine. Surely this is purely subjective? How can I handle this delicate issue? SM, Sharjah
A delicate issue? There is nothing delicate about it. This sounds like classic political infighting. To those watching – your team and hers – this is like having a front-row seat at a bare-knuckle fist fight. There are no rules, anything goes and the winner is the last one standing. Nothing much will get done until this is resolved. And that’s no way to run a business – which is why you simply have to tackle this head-on with your colleague.
You will need to think carefully before you act, though, as a wrong step might plunge you into a serious conflict that you can’t afford to lose. Now, in my opinion, views on successful management practice are not necessarily subjective. Some ways really are better than others and it is possible she actually does manage better than you. So take a cold, hard look at your own behaviour, and decide if you need to change yourself before challenging her. Maybe that’s the best way to shut her up. Ask others that question. We can all improve, so if she really is better than you, you need to shape up or ship out.
Let’s assume she is no better a manager than you. Undermining or aggressive, competitive behaviour like this often has an underlying cause. You need to know what that cause is. Make sure you see the bigger picture, perhaps to do with office politics, organisational change or personal ambition. Think about her motivation, look to identify where her self-interest lies.
Once you decide to confront your colleague, you must address the behaviour and unearth the reasons behind it. You don’t just need her to stop undermining you; you also have to understand why she feels she had to do it in the first place. Don’t expect this to be an easy or a comfortable meeting. It could get downright difficult. If you are not up for this and she is, then maybe she is a better manager than you, better suited to standing up and being counted.
If her antics are restricted to you alone then you need to establish if it’s disrespect or dislike that you’re facing. It is quite possible to work in a successful team of peers with someone who doesn’t like you; it is far harder to do so with someone who doesn’t respect you. At a minimum, you must be able to demand professionalism, even if you cannot win respect.
There might be a more innocent explanation for her behaviour. If she is new to the organisation perhaps the culture she has left behind really is better than the culture you have set for your team. Or she may have come from an organisational or national culture where it is OK to behave in this overtly competitive and aggressive way. It might not be a better culture, but it is one she is finding hard to let go. In this case you may need to emphasise the different culture that exists within your organisation.
Don’t forget that you can also call on the four people above you both in the organisation. Perhaps to ask for advice, perhaps to ask their support in drawing her attention to her behaviour and the impact it is having on you, and by extension on your team. These are the sorts of interpersonal issues that good senior managers can help to solve, and your management group should be willing to help. Be aware that their help might be to suggest you need to be more like her.
One thing I do know: if you don’t address this meddling and put a stop to it, then it will get worse, your authority will become undermined and your position will become untenable. You can’t have peers undermining you or overriding you.
Doctor’s prescription: I can’t guarantee you’ll win this fight, but you do have to have it.
Roger Delves is the director of the Ashridge Masters in Management at Ashridge Business School and co-author of The Top 50 Management Dilemmas: Fast solutions to Everyday Challenges. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice on any work issues, whether as an employee, a manager or a colleague
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