how I can be more authoritative now that I’m a manager?

A reader writes:

I’ve recently ascended rather quickly into a new leadership role at my company and I am struggling with communicating to those on my team such that everything is not a collaboration and debate. There are times when I need people to do what I am asking them to do, simple as that. Yesterday, a direct report looked at me and said, “Are you the lead on this or am I?” when I was instructing him on how a certain part of a project I’d assigned to him needed to be handled.  Today I will have a conversation with him about how he is the lead on projects I assign him, but that he is under my direction, meaning when I step in and say something should be handled a certain way, it’s not a suggestion, but a directive.

I believe in creative collaboration and it’s important to me that all team members contribute ideas, but I also need to clearly communicate directives that are received as directives and not suggestions. I need to figure out how to stop talking/being heard like I’m asking for people’s permission and buy-in, and start talking/being heard like the person in charge.

Much of this is about simply being clear with your language and your tone, so I’d start by taking a good look at those items. For instance, consider the difference between these statements:

  • “It would be great if you talked to Kathy and got her thoughts on this before you start working on it.”
  • “Please talk with Kathy this week and incorporate her input in your draft before you send it to me.”

You might think that they’re both equally clear, but the first can be heard as a suggestion, whereas the second is a clear directive. So if your statements tend to sound more like the first example, try more directive language and see if that changes anything. Also, ensure that you’re speaking in declarative statements and not ending sentences with a question in your voice, unless you truly intend it as a question. If you sound hesitant or unsure, people will assume you’re not speaking with authority.

If you’re speaking clearly and confidently but still getting push-back, you can simply acknowledge the staff person’s different viewpoint but reiterate your request. For instance, if you assign a project that you need by Friday and encounter resistance, you might say, “Thanks for that input. I do need you to do this by Friday, but I appreciate hearing your point of view.”

And if you notice a pattern of directives being ignored – or if someone openly undermines your authority – then you need to tackle that directly. For instance: “Bob, there are times when I’m going to look to you for input and ideas before we solidify our plans, and I value the contributions you make to those discussions. However, I’m going to make the final call on some things, and there are times when I’ll simply need to assign you work and know that it will be done in the way that I’ve requested. For instance, with the XYZ project, my instructions to you there weren’t suggestions, but you seemed to respond as if they were. Is there a better way for us to communicate in those situations?”

Of course, in all these cases, make sure that you really are listening when your staff pushes back – they might be giving you important input that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Don’t get so caught up in asserting your authority that you miss valuable information or tune out viewpoints that are worth hearing. (And in fact, adjusting a directive based on new information can strengthen, rather than weaken, your authority, because it demonstrates that you’re not defensive or insecure.)

And finally, eventually this should all come naturally the way you speak and act. When you’re truly confident in your own authority, you can simply be direct and straightforward – both in assigning work and in asking what’s going on if someone doesn’t respond well to that.

I originally published this at Intuit Quickbase’s blog.

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I agree with Alison – being clear is so vitally important. I think for some people (myself included) this is a hard concept to implement because of the fear of coming across as mean or bitchy. I am seeing the consequences of indirectness in my current job. My current manager phrases everything as a suggestion, or as a “good idea”. His tone and body language imply insecurity and a lack of confidence. As a result, things don’t get done how he wants and then we get dinged when it comes to reviews (never before, of course!). Then it creates resentment among direct reports because nobody is sure what Boss really wants, Boss doesn’t speak up until a lot of time has passed, and Boss isn’t receptive to input from staff. We are all learning to ask A LOT of follow-up questions about projects, but it would be a lot easier and more efficient for everyone if Boss could just clearly state what he wants and when.

    1. Christine*

      I bet a lot of managers are like that due to being promoted into management positions without access to any real management training. Also, managing people is just not for everyone.

      1. just me*

        Exactly. I can’t tell you how many people I have seen get promoted to supervisory/manager positions because they are seemingly able to DO the job but the company not realizing that doesn’t mean they can manage people.
        Just because someone can bake really good cookies doesn’t make them a bakery manager.

        1. Jamie*

          This happens so much.

          I work with people who manage whole departments of employees on the line, including temp fluctuations, with so much grace and professionalism. There is a real art to that, but the good ones are so apparent because they know their people and strengths and weaknesses and have to both look long term and deal with immediate stuff like new temps going to the bathroom and not coming out for an hour, or leaving on break. And who had a flat tire and who was late – who can cover for who.

          That would be a nightmare for me. I manage people more indirectly in that I have people reporting directly to me on specific projects and I manage everyone when it comes to the computers and system…but I really have the best of all worlds when it comes to the people themselves because if someone isn’t working out on a project I can switch up the team (but no one loses their job) and if someone really excels I have the ear of tptb to make a case for advancement and more opportunities and rewards and my input is taken seriously.

          I have the authority to act when something egregious is happening, but I don’t ever have to care how long someone is in the bathroom.

          Back to my point – managing people properly is an art and not everyone who is excellent at their job proper is the natural choice to do that. It’s a different skill set.

  2. Michael*

    I agree, Alison. Teddy said it well also: speak softly and carry a big stick.

    Probably the best thing you can do is to simply not over play your hand. The great thing about having authority is that you don’t need to justify your authority. You don’t need to get flustered or angry. If someone doesn’t do something then simply work within your authority to correct problems. However, as Alison said just be clear and you probably won’t find much reason to need to use said authority.

  3. Coelura*

    I would also add that when challenged like this OP was, I wouldn’t wait to have a separate conversation about it – I’d answer the question immediately, “you are the lead, but I am your manager and I’m sharing my specific directions with you.” Waiting and addressing this type of feedback can breed resentment because the employee isn’t immediately redirected.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! It also allows the person to think it’s appropriate to make comments like that, at least until the follow-up conversation happens.

      Also, letting it wait makes it look like you don’t have confidence in your authority, because presumably if the person had said anything else obviously wrong, you would have addressed it in the moment. For example: “The blue envelopes arrive on the 22nd.” Your response: “No, we ordered red ones, and they came yesterday.” You wouldn’t let it sit for a while and then go back and address it.

    2. Michael*

      I’m not so sure I’d be as confrontational in tone though. You can get the point across by simply stating “yes, you’re the lead but this aspect needs to work this way.” I’ve just seen no good come from environments where managers throw around “I’m your boss” statements. They’re really only for situations where outright refusal or similar push-back comes from a subordinate but otherwise if things are at that point I’d really be questioning if the person I’m speaking to has their vision aligned with the company/department/etc.

      Also, if the other team wasn’t clearly communicated with that this person was their new direct manager then it could be clouding things and such statements could easily breed resentment on the end of the employee.

        1. Michael*

          Perhaps. I’m curious about the OPs statement about not everything needing to be a debate. In a lot of office environments dissent is spelled out as an encouraged workplace value where the meeting of the mind is a requirement. In one place in particular I’ve seen the president of the company called out by the proletariat and that was okay.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Sure, but “Are you the lead on this or am I?” is pretty inappropriate, regardless. So we know at least one staff member is behaving inappropriately and we have no evidence that the OP is.

            1. Runon*

              I am having a very hard time seeing how this is an inappropriate question. I think I’ve asked this question of my boss either this or “Is Michael lead on that or should I?” or “Who do you expect to take lead on this project?” Maybe it is because we aren’t always great on designating those things as clearly as we should but it seems like this is a perfectly reasonable question. What am I missing? (I’m slightly concerned that I’ve been asking inappropriate questions now.)

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                It depends on tone. If it’s said in a way that’s genuinely just asking for clarification, as opposed to challenging the OP’s authority, then sure, that’s reasonable — it’s just clarifying roles on a particular project. But it could also be said in a tone that would make it wildly inappropriate — which I’m assuming is the case here, given the context of the OP’s letter and the way in which she mentioned it.

                1. Runon*

                  Yeah if said in a sarcastic or other bad tone it is very inappropriate. Kind of amazing how much tone matters to something like that. On one hand a request for clarification of roles and duties, on the other something that is calling into question the authority of the manager and extremely rude.

              2. Josh S*

                The first time I read the question I though it was a clarification sort of thing, and I wondered how it could be construed otherwise and why it was a big deal. As in, “Who is the lead person on this project — Michael or Jane?”

                Then I read it again and could definitely hear how it would come across with a different tone of voice. As in, “I’m supposed to be lead on this. Why are you butting in!?” with the flavor of ‘leave me alone to do my job and butt out!’

                That difference is pretty significant, and if someone took that tone with me as their manager, I’d definitely have something to say about it right then to let them know that A) regardless of who is lead, I’m still responsible for and directing the project, and B) it is NOT ok to address me that way.

                1. businesslady*

                  yeah, I had that tone issue at first too–but if someone was asking it sincerely, I doubt it would be a catalyst for “how could I be more authoritative”? (I think we’re getting thrown off because, as a challenge, it’s a REALLY inappropriate thing to say to your boss–unless you’re obviously joking & have a really close relationship with management, as fposte alludes to below.)

      1. fposte*

        I don’t think that’s an appropriate professional response to anybody, be it boss, colleague, or report, and I’d want to address that. You don’t have to make a meal of it–I’m with the people who would have stuck to saying something on the spot, and you could cover both of these things in two lines. But that’s a rude and counterproductive way to communicate, and it’s not acceptable.

          1. Coelura*

            I don’t think it matters whether is was said in a joking manner or not. This direct challenge to authority can be spun as a “joke” but cannot be allowed to stand. Just like I don’t allow my teenagers to joke about who gets to set the rules because that leads to non-compliance with critical rules & constant arguing, I can’t allow joking about my authority at work either. My team does a great deal of joking around, but are comfortable about doing so because they know the boundaries.

            1. fposte*

              Thinking of specific situations and people, I can think of a few where I might let that go if it was genuinely a joke and not a disguised dig, or where my response might be simply to raise my eyebrows to suggest that things had gotten a little out of hand. It hasn’t happened, and honestly I can’t imagine anybody I work with saying this to anybody even in jest.

              And I’m guessing we’re not even talking about a joke here.

  4. fposte*

    Sometimes, too, when people are promoted to supervise their old positions, they struggle with the temptation to micromanage/do the jobs they used to do. That obviously doesn’t help either.

    I agree with talking to your direct report; I hope you also said something to him at the moment, though. That’s not something you want to leave hanging there.

    1. B*

      I was wondering the same thing. Perhaps it is looking to the employee that OP is micromanaging the project. Especially if they are being told exactly how to handle things to the minute detail. That may be why they asked who was taking lead, i.e. if there is a question should they come to me or you. It could be completely innocent but the OP is looking at is undermining her authority. I also could be completley wrong and they were out of line. But it is worth a look at the other side.

      Definitely agree, the answer should have been handled right away, not something circled back to.

      1. CoffeeLover*

        This is a good point. The coworker could genuinely be asking who the project lead is, but coming across as undermining OP’s authority. While this may not be the case, I agree that it should be kept in mind when discussing the situation with him. Although more likely it’s a case of OP having to put her proverbial foot down.

        1. Jamie*

          I wondered the same as well. Not about micromanaging, but since this seems to be a recent shift I wondered if this was a legitimate question of wondering if they were expected to lead or just carry out directives.

          If snotty then it’s a problem that yes, should have been dealt with on the spot ideally…but the thought that it was a valid request for clarification of roles crossed my mind. It’s hard to tell without tone.

  5. EngineerGirl*

    I’ve been in this position. I’ve had the biggest problem with former peers that were male challenging me. If you don’t nip it in the bud it can escalate. Then you come down hard and appear “unreasonable”. Have the conversation early. Let them know that you welcome input, but directions need to be followed.

  6. Lora*

    Oh, lord help me, yes. When you and your report disagree on something, *hash it out then and there* and make it clear that you have Decided and it is your responsibility to Decide.

    My new boss (whom I was transferred under in a bait-and-switch, grrrr) is the king of Avoiding Decisions. He will present what appears to be, to everyone in the meeting, a Suggestion. The people in the meeting will voice their objections and explain why this is perhaps not the best route to take. He says nothing in response, so we all move on with other agenda items. Two weeks later, in another meeting, in front of everyone, he says, “Lora, did you perform my Suggestion yet?” Put on the spot and never having been instructed to carry out the Suggestion, with none of the other managerial and proletariat objections even addressed nevermind overcome–I reply, no I have not, I was not aware that Suggestion was Decided, I thought we still needed to discuss Objections. Then he gets angry because I am insubordinate or whatever.

    This is crazy-making to me: there were all these Objections but he wants to stick me with all the responsibility for doing something that both I and every other manager and staffer completely disagree with and think is foolish. He doesn’t want to take the risk of his Suggestion failing or upsetting other people on his own by taking responsibility for a Decision, no–instead, he wants credit for a Good Suggestion but a Bad Decision’s blame should fall on me! From his perspective though, I am not respectful of him and have to be told everything and micromanaged to death, when in real life all I want is for him to man up and take some responsibility.

    He does this privately too, if I tell him (politely, professionally) that I disagree with a strategy because of Reasons, and suggest a different way to accomplish the goal, he just sits there completely silent for, no kidding, five solid minutes playing with his phone before changing the subject. Then two weeks later he’s mad that I didn’t do it his way even though he never discussed the disagreement or said, “thanks for your input but we are gonna do it this way because I said so.”

    Homeboy has lost 40% of his staff and he only started three months ago. You need to make your decisions clear and take responsibility for em. It’s important.

    1. Mike C.*

      Call him out in your meetings. I think it’s perfectly fine to say, “I was never instructed to perform X, and there are several roadblocks preventing X from being performed successfully”.

      It’s not disrespectful or insubordinate to point out that an item was never assigned to you or that there are significant roadblocks to the item being performed. A good manager should be providing clear direction as to what you should be doing, and working to remove roadblocks from performing those tasks.

    2. -X-*

      And ask him point-blank: “Are you telling me to do X? I’ve mentioned my concerns, but it’s your call.”

    3. BCranston*

      Oh I had one like this too, only with the added benefit of micromanagement. I was also expected to be a mind reader. When I called him on this trend of his multiple times he would get highly defensive and essentially accuse me of of insubordination and not respecting his authority. Looking back there should have long ago been a discussion on limits and expectations, but as a new manager with little to no training and overseeing work he used to do, this was a bad situation from the get go.

      The two people he had working for him both left to other positions. He just got promoted, again, despite having no direct reports at his level.

      I like the other approaches suggested below and will use those should I (hopefully never) encounter this position again.

    4. Rana*

      Sounds like he might be a good candidate for the clarifying email approach:

      “So, after our discussion today about Suggestion, and the issues with it, I just want to make sure we’re on the same page. Do you want me to go ahead with Suggestion, despite Issues X, Y, and Z not yet being resolved? Or did we decide to table Suggestion for now, until Issues are dealt with? If I don’t hear back from you, I will assume that we’re going with the latter strategy, based on what happened in the meeting today.”

  7. Geoff*

    All great advice, both from AAM and commentors. However, sometimes this situation can’t be resolved without a job change. If you go quickly from being someone’s peer to being someone’s manager, it’s entirely possible that they’re always going to look on you as a peer. Only a job change will help that situation.

    I saw the same thing when my wife rapidly ascended during her 20’s, despite following all the advice in this article. After the first job change, it was no longer an issue, of course.

  8. Henning Makholm*

    I’m a bit worried about this:

    For instance, if you assign a project that you need by Friday and encounter resistance, you might say, “Thanks for that input. I do need you to do this by Friday, but I appreciate hearing your point of view.”

    My response might well be that yes, I’ll do everything I can to make something that at least outwardly resembles that project exist on Friday, and I even estimate a 30% chance that it will be able to work once or twice, but there’s no way it will implement the entire spec, and it will probably tend to break down violently if you look at it funnily during the demo — not to mention it being an unmaintainable mess in general — so if you’re going to make it an order for it to exist as specced on Friday, meaning that I’ll be fired when it doesn’t, then you’re effectively firing me now, and intelligent self-interest would force me to spend some time updating my resume that could otherwise have been used to reach that 30% chance of working, so please don’t do that.

    Some things simply can’t be made to happen just because a manager decides they must.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Of course. Sometimes they can’t. But then that should lead to a conversation about priorities, how long the work should take, what could be pushed back to make room for it, etc.

      But sometimes it’s quite clear to a manager that it should be able to be done by Friday if the person manages their time well, because they’ve seen good performers in identical circumstances do it.

  9. ThursdaysGeek*

    This reminds me of a previous work situation where one person thought that she was a team lead over some others. I don’t know whether she misunderstood something the owner said or something else, but for months she would give directives to people who would mostly either ignore her or do it, if they agreed with it. It finally came to a head, with a screaming “you’re not the boss of me” situation, where it was determined that she really wasn’t the boss. Early communication on all sorts of levels sure could have helped.

  10. Trysta*

    This was one I had to learn the hard way. I went from a call center rep to the manager of the same group I worked in. Some were supportive, some not so much.

    In the beginning I was way too nice about it in hopes that it would just gradually get better and people would realize over time that my position has changed. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. I realized this after it started to spread from one staff member on to others and then another, etc. I take part of the blame for the escalation because I didn’t address it right away.

    If it isn’t addressed in a timely manner, it will become a bigger issue than necessary.

    1. Trysta*

      I also had to learn the part about tone and not being so timid when making requests. That has actually gone a long way.

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