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The Federal Coach

Help! A subordinate is undermining my authority

This week's questions come from federal managers and supervisors. Please continue sharing your ideas and questions by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

What are some strategies for leaders dealing with subordinates undermining their authority? -- Federal Supervisor (GS-14) from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration

This is a great question. Uncomfortable conversations, especially ones with a subordinate who is undermining your authority, are always difficult. To help you through the conversation, here are three discussion points to guide the resolution of this situation.

First, get to the root of their behavior. During your conversation, ask whether they're aware that their behavior is negatively affecting you and the team. If they do not recognize their impact, give them specific examples about events that have made you or others on the team uncomfortable. Next, ask about what may be motivating their behavior. Are they trying to be funny? Are they gossips? Do they not respect you?

Whether or not they're intentionally being disruptive, you need to make them aware that their actions are unacceptable, because they're detrimental to the team. Although it can be unpleasant to be so direct, you don't want any misinterpretation about the acceptable behaviors that contribute to a high-performing team. You should be as specific as possible without compromising your team's trust.

Finally, plan regular follow-up with the employee to reinforce the good behavior and be sure to identify specific examples if the bad behavior returns. Don't wait. If the problem reappears, catch them for a quick conversation immediately afterward to help process the lessons real-time.

How does one keep spirits up in the face of a boss with a negative attitude? Is there a way to let him know that he is losing credibility? - Federal Manager (GS-15) from U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Unless you can offer input through a 360-degree assessment -- an anonymous survey of a leader's supervisor, peers and direct reports -- you'll need to address the issue with your supervisor directly.

I've spoken with literally hundreds of federal leaders, and there's one thing everyone agrees upon: The most effective leaders are positive leaders. A leader's attitude sets the tone for the entire office, and while we all have good and bad days, the best ones know when -- and with whom -- it's appropriate to vent.

Begin by asking your supervisor for ideas on how the team can improve morale. Building on his ideas, you might suggest your own ones, including an authentic, positive expression of his appreciation for the team's efforts.

If this gentle approach does not work, you can try being more direct while remaining diplomatic. You don't want to say, "Your bad attitude is killing the team." Instead, suggest that your team complete a climate survey, or use your agency's Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, as a way to draw your supervisor into a discussion about the tone he sets for the office. Rather than focusing on his negativity, stress the need for positivity.

I'm interested in becoming a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES). What suggestions do you have for a front-line supervisor in a small agency who's looking to gain a greater understanding of the agency's management and operations? -- Anonymous

To become an SES you'll need to demonstrate that you possess all five of the governments Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs): leading change, leading people, results drive, business acumen, and building coalitions. It seems that you're asking specifically about business acumen, which is the ability to manage your team's resources strategically including human, financial and IT.

As you consider how to advance as a government leader, consider moving around your agency or even among agencies. There's no substitute for gaining a first-hand understanding of the various roles required to run an agency. An added bonus is the personal relationships that you'll build with your new colleagues who can help you get things done.

Of course, you don't always need to take another job. Consider pursuing a temporary detail to another agency, as well as joining a government-wide task force. You'll gain new insights, improve collaboration and be well positioned to drive real change in government.


By Tom Fox

 |  July 30, 2010; 5:30 AM ET |  Category:  Ask the Federal Coach Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Frazil, you must remember that a theory only becomes a theory after it has been tried & proven. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t go into the books as “a theory”. It gets thrown away as a failed & wrong assumption.

In today’s professional environment, we cannot operate under the assumption that managers are the only “all-seeing” and “all-knowing” masters who are privy to the secrets of the universe. Nothing could be more unfair to the employees who work with them. Most importantly, nothing could be farthest from the truth.

You are absolutely right that there are very difficult work realities that we all have to deal with such as dwindling financial resources, increased workloads, inoperable or faulty equipment, and any other number of problems you can think of. However, it is precisely because of all those problems that you need to work as a team…… yes, as a democracy, absolutely as a democracy (unless of course you are working in the government of General Mao Zedong).

You need the input, the insight, the ideas & the full participation of everyone to make it work. It is a statistical reality that the average intelligence of a group working together is higher than that of a genius working alone.

Employees whose hands are accomplishing the tasks are the only ones who can be trusted to know how to make it work more efficiently with fewer resources. They are the ones who will come up with the innovations & improvements. Give them the chance to take pride in what they do. When you make them part of the solution, they will not be part of the problem.

That said, we must remember that everything should be up for debate. Even when the whole team decides on a course, then something doesn’t go according to what they expected, the whole course should be put up for debate, re-examined, & re-directed.

As for “Curmudgeon10”s suggestion of “warn, put on probation, then fire”, I would like to point out that this will only lead to a waste of time, energy, & resources. It takes a lot of time and money to train an employee until he/she becomes a functioning member of the agency. Firing someone means wasting all that, then wasting it again by hiring a replacement & going through the training process all over again. This method also demoralizes the rest of the staff, injects fear, & inhibits free thinking & innovation.

When we are dealing with professional adults, we must remember that democracy is the only way proven to work. We cannot pick and choose which areas of our lives to apply it to. Please try not to think of the workplace in terms of a school where the teacher knows it all, the kids get punished if they don’t behave, & there is a report card at the end of the year. The “school” model does not apply to the professional arena. Nothing could be more destructive or counter-productive.

Posted by: hala1 | August 2, 2010 1:14 AM

Here's a more interesting perspective. Managers that believe they are being undermined by a subordinate ought to take a good look first at their own behavior and how it may be contributing to the problem. I don't believe that employees come to work to say "Gee, what can I do to make my boss' life hell today". When a manager sees problems in the workplace, it is a knee-jerk reaction to blame the subordinate as causing the problem. Here's something to consider; 2/3 of any problem in an organization is the fault of management and 1/3 is the fault of the employee. This is because 2/3 of what makes an organization a success is under the direct control of managers (RESOURCES and PROCESSES). The 1/3 of the problem is under the control of an employee (ENERGY). When employees are not supported in a workplace with the right resources and business processes then they probably will do something in order to get the job done or complain about it. Putting more time and energy into the work will not make a success out of a poorly managed organization.

Most managers think that they have some right to absolute deference to their "positional" authority. But, the reality is that with that "positional" authority comes a heavy responsibility. Managers don't deserve absolute respect because of organizational position. Let's face it, in DC you are going to be managing employees that are far more educated than most managers in a line function. Some of those people are experts in their field even. Hell, an administrative assistant could be more highly educated than most managers. What are you going to say to someone who knows more than yourself, "do as I say, not what I do"? You've got to be kidding me?

If a manager is truly a good one, then they should have learned this simple operational truth in back in management class rather than the "management backs management at whatever costs". How about this attitude...you can fire a subordinate, you can demand they resign...but in the end YOU (manager) are the one responsible for that mess (the work). It's still your problem and you would want to make sure that you aren't trying your best to push your weight around rather than fix the problem that belongs to you anyway. It's called Managerial Personal Responsibility. Try it for a change.

Posted by: kitten2 | August 1, 2010 12:29 PM

HALA, In theory I agree with you. However, when theory meets real world situations its not that simple. Many decisions from workload allocation to policies and practices are not up for debate. Organizations are not democracies. It is the managers responsibility to determine the direction and the best way to achieve the mission of the program, not the employee's decision. Once the determination is made, there is no debate.

Posted by: Frazil | August 1, 2010 12:08 PM

I do enjoy reading this column. So many situations, so many hurt feelings, so many "adult" ways to deal with all the problems.

I particularly like all the thought that goes behind dealing with subordinates who are ACTIVELY opposing their bosses' policies and objectives.

Out here in the real world, you could sum it up in a few words: a) warn and describe required changes in attitude and approach, provide fixed probation period b) if problem persists, fire.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | August 1, 2010 10:44 AM

When a manager asks "how do I assert my authority", what he is actually saying is: "I have not proven to my staff that I'm competent enough in my field of expertise. Therefore, they don't voluntarily respect my qualifications. I have failed in connecting with them on a personal level and we do not work as a team with a common goal. How do I force them to respect me without actually doing anything to earn that respect? How do I pull rank to intimidate my staff? How do I force them to fear my grade and what my position can do to harm their careers?"

It is true that these managers play favorites as well because they do not see that it is their duty to create a cohesive team. It is not a coincidence that 72% of the Federal workforce feels that promotions are not based on merit.

Posted by: hala1 | August 1, 2010 7:25 AM

Unfortunately about 50% of managers that feel they have arrived and retire into their jobs. They sit in their offices and delegate most of their job to already overworked staff. They do not seem to realize that they need to assist their staffs by planning, training, supporting and so forth.
These same managers tend to play favorites and to take the credit when things go well but blame their subordinates when things go wrong.
A manager who feels an employee is being insubordinate should think very carefully about how they are doing their own job and then should approach the subordinate.
It is a manager's responsibility to see that all of their workers are doing their jobs but it is also important for the supervisor to do their job well.

Posted by: OhMy | August 1, 2010 2:32 AM

"How do I assert my authority?" Answer: You don't.
"How do I criticize an employee in his rating?" Answer: You don't.

When managers ask such questions, then they urgently need extensive training in "Total Quality Management". These questions come from managers who failed to perform their main functions: connect, motivate, inspire, & earn the respect of their subordinates. The key word here is:"Earn" not "force".

Management is not authority or criticism. This idea went out with slavery when the workforce consisted of uneducated hand laborers who performed better when managers cracked a whip.

Employees do not perform because of two things and two things only. They either lack the skill or they have personal problems that interfere with their performance. It is the managers' job to identify the problem & fix it. Lack of skill is fixed by training; personal problems are fixed by connecting with the employee & jointly finding a solution.

Nothing could be more disruptive to the workforce & quality of work than ratings & criticism in ratings. Ratings are like looking backwards while trying to move forward. If managers expect such a policy to yield better results, then they are seriously delusional.

It is time the Federal Government moved into the 20th (not 21st) century & learned about the Very American "Edward Deming" whose management theories brought Japan from the ruins of war to the forefront of the industrial nations.

Managers are the steering wheel of the car. If the wheel is broken, the tires will not cooperate and move in the desired direction. When the steering wheel is properly fixed, there will be no need to criticize or admonish the tires who will gladly respect the authority of the steering wheel.

In this day and age, educated professionals who spent an arm & a leg to graduate from college, don't simply go to work to "disrupt" or not perform to the best of their abilities. The self-satisfaction & pride an educated person gets from a job well done are more important than food and water.

Teach managers how to manage.... steer in the right direction. An SES position doesn't bestow divine powers on the managers, it burdens them with the responsibility of allowing the employees to produce work at the highest level of quality. If the employees don't, then the manager failed.

Posted by: hala1 | July 30, 2010 10:25 AM

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