How to Handle Having Your Authority Questioned


None of us like to have our authority or our ability challenged. But if your job requires effective teamwork such challenges require careful handling. Because challenges such as these cannot go unanswered.

Added on 23 January 2014 by Roger Delves,Sona Sherratt

If you can conquer challenge or adversity without becoming overly emotional and reactionary your team will respect you. No one wants to follow a leader who can’t stand up for themselves. But compassion and rational situation analysis will serve you better than high emotion raising of voices or complaining.

Understanding the motivation for any such challenge will give you a framework for your response.

Relish fair challenges

Being in a management role means that you will be challenged often appropriately and often to the benefit of the team you are managing. So your first task is to decide whether this challenge is appropriate or inappropriate. When challenged you will have reacted to the culmination of a complex chain of events. If the person who has challenged you is someone with authority whom you respect who has spoken with you discreetly and privately you may react in one way; if the challenge is overt coming from somebody who many have a hidden agenda and is done in a public setting you may react differently.

You must separate how you feel about being challenged from the validity of the challenge itself. Regardless of how you’re challenged if the challenger is making logical sense then what is being said must be acknowledged and examined. You will need to respond to the challenge either by accepting the criticism and agreeing to change or rejecting it and explaining why you don’t think it’s appropriate. Depending on the nature of the challenge it may be that business as usual isn’t possible until a resolution is achieved.

Differentiate between public and private challenges

A challenge made in private is less likely to be politically motivated and more likely to be grounded in genuine concern than one made in a public area. Challenges to your authority that are made through third parties or on the grapevine are insidious and are the work either of people who lack the courage to confront you or of people whose motivation is political and mischievous. If you suspect such activity you should confront the individual in a private meeting. You should be quite stern because this sort of behaviour will spread like poison and quickly undermine your authority and the team’s culture.

Consider carefully the context in which a challenge is made

Context is extremely important. Challenges to your authority or competence must be framed within an understanding of variables like: your status within the team or organisation the respect in which you are held and your level of experience. Your challenger may be someone who wanted your job and is bitter. Or it may be a newcomer to the team who believes you can be usurped. Analyse your particular circumstance so that you have a full grasp of the challenge that is taking place.

Sometimes a challenge to your authority or competence is more of a signal of discontent or frustration or dissatisfaction. Such a signal can often be sent in times of turmoil sudden or unexpected change or business or economic pressures. You need to be sensitive to these signals and deal with the underlying cause rather than focus simply on the signal of the challenge.

Decide if there is a long-term intent to undermine you

Not every challenge is an overt single event. Often people will attempt to undermine your position or your competence over a protracted period of time and in a subtle even sly way. This sort of challenge is much harder to combat. The risk to you is that you will appear to be defensive and over-reacting because others are not aware of the constant subtle attacks on you. They will only see the small incident to which your response may seem disproportionate.

In such a case your best option is to seek a private meeting with the person who you believe is undermining you. Make sure you are well armed with examples to make it clear that you are aware of what is happening and are determined to make it stop. Keep a cool head and don’t become emotional. You are in a battle for credibility and the fastest way to lose it is to over-react to a situation.

If this approach does not work your two choices are then either: to elevate the issue involving more senior management; or to be as well prepared as possible for likely continuing attacks during meetings. At these meetings you must be seen as being firm but fair in your responses. Keep your tone assertive and professional; do not allow this to become a personal battle

Don’t duck!

The sorts of challenges we describe here are an inevitable part of a manager’s life. You will need courage and resilience to face them coupled with a thick skin. You must be prepared to listen to friendly critics or take on the occasional adversary. They are potentially dangerous to you your team and your company.

Remember you must seek to understand the context in which the challenge is being made and the motivation of the person making the challenge. This will help you to deal with the situation in the best possible way.

This article is based on an excerpt from the book The Top 50 Management Dilemmas: Fast Solutions to Everyday Problems by Roger Delves Director of the Ashridge Executive Masters in Management programme and Sona Sherratt Ashridge Faculty member and leadership expert.