how to handle a coworker who doesn’t respect your authority

Ever had a colleague who dismissed your expertise and didn’t seem to think you had the authority to do your job? Maybe it was a coworker who always pushed back on your decisions even when they didn’t impact their own work, went over your head at every opportunity, or resisted doing work you sent their way – or all of the above?

When the person engaging in this kind of obstructionist behavior is a peer, rather than someone you have authority over, this can be tricky to navigate. Here’s how to figure out handle this kind of resistance from someone you need to rely on in order to get your own work done.

1. Be crystal clear about what you need and why. One of the easiest ways for someone to avoid giving you what you need is if you leave them room for plausible deniability. Don’t create a situation where the person can reasonably claim that they didn’t know what you needed from them, its importance, or when you needed it by. Instead, be as explicit as possible: “Jane, I will need this data set from you no later than Monday in order to meet our launch date.”

2. Don’t get defensive. If a coworker is constantly challenging your expertise or pushing back on your decisions, it can be natural to feel a little defensive. But if you let yourself react defensively, you’ll be weakening your own position and signaling that a little push-back rattles you. You’ll come across far better if you’re willing to entertain questions and engage in some back and forth with a dissenter. However, you don’t have to do that forever; there’s a point where it’s reasonable to say calmly and without sounding frustrated, “I appreciate your input and I’ve considered the points you’ve raised, but ultimately I’ve decided to do X.”

3. Address the issue head-on. If the issue is chronic and your colleague’s resistance is impeding your work, be transparent with the person about what you’re seeing. For example, you might say: “I’m noticing that you’ve disagreed with most of the decisions I’ve made on this project. I’m interested in hearing input, but after a point, I need to be able to make decisions and move on. When you keep bringing up the same issues over and over at our meetings, it makes it hard to focus on the next pieces of the project that we need to handle. I appreciate your input, but I want to ask you to understand that at times I may make different decisions than the ones you might make. Ultimately, Bob asked me to manage this project because of my experience in X and I’m bring that experience to bear in my decision-making.”

Or, with a coworker who keeps going over your head, you might say: “I’m the person managing X and I’d appreciate you bringing concerns about it to me to resolve. If we’re not able to reach a resolution and you feel the issue is important enough to escalate, you of course can do that. But I’d like you to start with me first so that I have a chance to hear your concern. Can you do that?”

4. If you can’t resolve it on your own, loop your manager in. You might feel like you’re expected to solve this kind of thing on your own, but if you try the above and it’s not working, a good manager will want to know about it. Keep the focus on the impact that this person’s behavior is having on your work (as opposed to your feelings about it), explain what you’re tried that hasn’t worked, and ask your manager for advice on how to navigate the situation.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. LSP

    Story of my life last year. Just because you were hired at the the same title/level doesn’t negate the fact that I have been here for a few years and have to show you the ropes.

    Unfortunately I had to do #4 and involve my manager because things got so bad.

    A year later and both of them finally realized that I’m not their competition, but their wiser/helpful colleague.

  2. Ash (the other one)

    Interesting. My experience with this was more with a new boss who came in and didn’t respect what I had been doing in my job for 3 years prior and made it impossible to do my job anymore. What do you do in that case? Me? I quit (to a new job, which was more miserable)…and I still somewhat regret it…

    1. Christine

      Ha, I was just coming here to ask a similar question. I’m still in the job where the newish director doesn’t respect or trust me– or the rest of my co-workers, as far as we can tell. He’ll tell me that I’m the expert and that I’m doing a great job, but then he constantly undermines my work, disregards my suggestions, and constantly tells me that I should be giving away large parts of my job to freelancers. (We’re severely understaffed, and in the year since he started, he’s hired one new full-time staff member… and brought on six or seven freelancers. We’re all pretty sure that he’d much rather fire us all and replace the full-time staff with a team of remote freelancers.) It hasn’t reached the stage where it’s impossible to do my job, but it’s definitely wreaking havoc on my morale.

    2. ThursdaysGeek

      Ah, it would be interesting to see what advice Alison has when a new boss doesn’t respect or care to understand what you’ve been doing.

      Maybe you’re doing work that isn’t needed and your previous boss never bothered communicating it. Maybe you’re too defensive or insecure, and need affirmation from your boss before it’s warranted. But sometimes it’s the boss that is the problem: someone who doesn’t take the time to understand what is being done; someone who listens and believes the first thing they hear; someone who just doesn’t like you for some reason; someone who is in over their head.

      I know meeting with them and letting them know what you are doing is important. What if they don’t care to listen or understand?

      1. Marketing Girl

        THIS! “sometimes it’s the boss that is the problem: someone who doesn’t take the time to understand what is being done. I know meeting with them and letting them know what you are doing is important. What if they don’t care to listen or understand?” SO MUCH THIS.
        Currently I have two bosses; CEO (my direct supervisor) and the CFO – the CEO kinda gets what I do, but not really. Just understands marketing is kinda important, but he at least makes an effort at times when we meet. CFO hasn’t a clue and no matter how many presentations I do or data sheets I run to show the value & growth it’s over his head since they’ve never done it and can’t understand what it takes to get it done. Because of that I feel I get a lot less respect than other employees (I am a department of 1). (But I also work in a very male dominated industry where my male predecessor could do no wrong in spite of their lack of knowledge, but I digress… that’s for another topic.)

    3. Beezus

      I was in that position. My new manager was new to managing and had a weird perspective on authority – she didn’t think she should have to learn anything from anyone below her rank, she couldn’t stand coming to us for answers on anything, and she didn’t like being told (from experience!) the best method to handle anything.

      I leveraged my experience to transfer to a team that handled performance measurement and analysis and process auditing for the company. They didn’t have an expert in OldTeam’s processes and they needed one. I was still below her in rank, but I was compiling and sending out reports that included her team’s performance, and when things weren’t up to par, it was my job to figure out why and report objectively on that, too. I was able to tie her refusal to prioritize important tasks because she *didn’t understand them* to the resulting performance problems when they didn’t get done.

  3. MR

    All I can think of is Cartman running around town demanding that people ‘respect his authoritah’ after Barbrady deputized him…

    1. Petronella

      ^^ I also have had much more experience with people attempting to take authoritah on where it is not warranted, than with myself or others having people not respect that authoritah. Honestly, if you are in the same position as a coworker, not officially their boss, why would you expect them to defer to you?

      1. TT

        Well, I expect people to defer to me if they have an issue that sits firmly in my field of expertise and will need my help complete. I do the same when others who are at the same pay level as me, and even below me, if they are the expert and I need their help. There are many types of authority and I fully recognize expert authority. The problem (for my department at least) is that we are the communications and marketing staff in a larger group of engineers and science-y folks. Most of them don’t understand that being an expert in their field does not automatically make them an expert in ours. That’s when I have to pull out my polite version of, “you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

        1. JMegan

          >> is that we are the communications and marketing staff in a larger group of engineers and science-y folks.

          Oh, I get this! I’m in information management, which means that I have to work with everyone in my organization in some capacity. And it also means that a lot of people know at least a little bit about what I do, which apparently means they feel like they should be weighing in on *everything.*

          I’m like, that’s great, but I have a Masters degree and fifteen years of experience in this field. Do I get to tell you how to do your job as well, based on what I saw on the news last night? No? Thought not.

      2. QualityControlFreak

        I think that goes to what Alison said about “I’ve been asked to take the lead on this project.” I’m not a boss, but I do lead two workgroups. I do a lot of listening to my coworkers’ input, but ultimately I’m responsible for the work both groups are doing, so when there’s a decision to be made, I do expect them to respect that decision. I don’t care for the word “defer” in this context. I don’t expect or want them to be deferential, but I do expect cooperation, and constant questioning and pushback isn’t cooperative. It’s obstructionist.

    2. Mallory Janis Ian

      Ha, me too! It doesn’t help that my son keeps using “respect my authoritah” around the house. For instance, he and his dad were running late to my oldest daughter’s graduation, and they had to park far, far down the street from the venue. When they finally arrived at the venue after a long walk, my husband saw that there were parking spaces nearby. Our son said, “Yep, I saw those while you were driving past them.” My husband said, “Well, why in the world didn’t you say something?!” And my son said, “Because you wouldn’t have listened, because whenever I try to tell you anything you’re always like, ‘Respect my authoritah!'” My husband was a little speechless, but I think he realized it was somewhat true! He can be pretty gruff and dismissive when he thinks he’s right.

  4. Leah

    I wish I had this article to read two weeks ago when my new-ish (3 months to my 1 year in the company and I’m the longest-tenured person here which is a whole other issue) colleague told me, “I don’t care what you think!” to my face in front of two other co-workers when I was sharing my opinion on a fairly urgent situation that he was in the middle of mishandling. What I did was grab my phone and go for a walk around the block, during which I called my dad crying tears of frustration for him to talk me out of walking out of my job right then and there (and I’m very actively seeking other employment because of this incident and a myriad other reasons).

    It’s not so much that I need him to respect my “authority,” but that I expect all co-workers to keep thoughts like that to themselves in a professional setting. Because God knows he’s given me plenty of cause to disregard his opinion (being unreliable and incompetent the entire time he’s been here chief among them), but I don’t tell him to his face how little I regard his input.

    I deal with it by getting my job done and following some of Alison’s advice re: being specific about what I need from him and when, and letting him know when his lack of follow-through is affecting my work. I’ve also escalated it to my boss who I’m pretty sure has him on some sort of PIP. And I was in a terrible loop for a few weeks of tracking what he did, documenting it, and getting really mad about his screw-ups and how they affected me and our company, including the employees he supervises. But I’ve since backed off from that behavior and attitude and find I’m much calmer and happier, both at work and in my personal life.

  5. LizM

    Yup. I was hired as part of a fellowship for recent grads with masters and professional degrees in the Federal government. I have a law degree, but am female and fairly young (was 26 when I was hired). Part of the fellowship is a fast-track to leadership positions, that’s the whole point. However, my agency’s culture is that you start on the ground, and work your way up – some of my peers had been with the agency for 20 years to get to the level I got to in 3 years. It’s also a very male-dominated agency. This created an interesting dynamic where I had a lot of older peers blow me off.

    A couple things that worked for me:

    – be willing to listen to people with different experience. Even if it was eventually my decision, spending a few minutes hearing them out gave me a different perspective, and often improved my final decision. Also, when people saw their input in the final decision, or understood why their input wasn’t included, they seemed to respect it and accept it more readily. Eventually we built relationships where this didn’t have to be as formal.

    – be straightforward and blunt and put everything in writing. If I had someone blow me off, it’s a lot easier to point to an email that they blew off than a phone call.

    – understand the chain of authority. Another challenge is that as a program manager, many members of my team don’t actually report to me, or even to my boss. If an individual continues to blow me off or be outright hostile, I need to be able to understand when I’ve hit my limit and I’m not going to be able to get through to them, and elevate it the appropriate manager. No one likes to be a tattle-tale, but wasting weeks trying to handle a situation where the individual is literally not answering my calls or opening my emails would be useless. If I don’t have the tools to get my team to perform, I need to involve the people that do have those tools. This is where putting things in email is helpful.

  6. msbadbar

    I had this happen once as a contractor, and it was confusing because of my status as a non-employee. This new person, a peer on my team with a different title and function, was kind of a “my old team/company did it better.”
    Also, he once had a job somewhat similar to mine, although he was not currently working in my field. I think this was the main problem. While standing right next to my desk, he told someone that he used to do my job, and that “you don’t need a degree in it.” (He doesn’t; I do.)

    I was managing a long-term project, and he said “we need to do x, y, and z.” When I told him I had a fiscal year strategy that I created, presented to management, and gained approval for (and was in the middle of implementing), he said, “What is your role on this team?” in a tone that was not one you’d use with a peer.

    He went to my boss and tried to convince her to change course. She said no to x, y, and z, and supported me, but he *constantly* brought up his grievances in meetings (“If we’d just do x, it would be so much better”). He would purse his lips and roll his eyes, and subtly deride my project. (At this time, I was getting a lot of praise from management and the other team members). He did all this while acting nicey-nice to me. It was strike, then smile.

    It was pretty horrible, and I had *no* clue what to do. (I eventually found a permanent job elsewhere.) I love Alison’s tips in this article.

  7. _ism_

    I wish I knew how to translate this into my situation. My undermining co-worker is the HR person at my company, but she’s not my boss. She also is the Safety person, apparently. I don’t know her official title. She has 20 years at this company, and it’s my first year.

    So she has *some* vague authority over me and uses it to undermine my work on things she has no clue about. Like the time she asked me to use a printer several buildings away for some time-sensitive material, because she was busy printing much larger documents for her own project and said I was “hogging the printer.”

    For things she does have authority on, like employee benefits, she shuts me down and calls me names and tattles to my boss about my attitude. I only went in with some complicated questions about my healthcare, and was given 24 hours to figure it out on my own or miss enrollment because she didn’t like how I asked my questions. Which I thought was perfectly respectful, but it was complicated and so I had to explain the situation. I guess my explaining came across as “argumentative know it all” somehow.

    She handles all the employee safety stuff, too, and I was given a project by my own boss regarding employee safety. (My own boss is not involved in the safety programs). I spent six months meticulously working to bring our facility up to current federal employee safety standards. This woman called me in for an update one day, (I hadn’t been told I was reporting to her) and when I began summarizing all the new procedures and changes we need to make, she shut it down, flat out said to me “I haven’t done the research but we don’t need to follow the federal law. Let’s just do it my way.” I *Did* the research, set things in place for change, and am working with staff all over the facility on our implementation plans. Equipment has been ordered, procedures have been started, new training is implemented…. and this lady cancelled it all out in 30 minutes.

    So again she’s not my boss, and nobody told me I’d be reporting to her for my safety project, and that she had veto power over every single piece of work I did for six months for nothing. But she apparently feels entitled to cancel out any and all things I’m working on or trying to accomplish whether it’s her department or not. I’ve told my boss who is obvious uncomfortably not wanting to disappoint either me or the HR lady and just advised me to “let her handle it now and comply with her requests.” Sigh. We’re going to be fined for non-compliance and I guarantee you she’ll make it my fault.

    1. Stranger than fiction

      What a bully. I’m sure you already do, but make sure everything is documented

    2. Swarley

      As an HR person, this drives me up the wall. For what it’s worth, I’d be much more direct with your boss about this, especially if the compliance portion is a part of your job. If you are audited and found to be non-compliant, you’re right, you might lose your job. And if you push back on this hard enough, you might also lose your job. But I’d much rather be the person who lost their job trying to do the right (and legal) thing rather than explain to potential employers that I was terminated for not performing an essential function of my job.

      The firing part is extreme and it probably won’t come to that, but I really urge you to talk to your manager one more time and be as direct as possible. I’d say something like this to your manager:

      “Bill, I’m currently working on X, Y, and Z to make us safety compliant. These are federal regulations that we have to comply with under the law. I know you mentioned that we should go with Lucinda’s strategy of handling X, Y, and Z her way, but I’m concerned that we’re putting the company in an really unfavorable legal situation, where X consequences will happen if we’re audited.”

      Depending on how your manager responds, you’d want to decide if you want to continue in the job under those terms. I spent a number of years in HR dealing with things like I-9 compliance and various other federal requirements, and I’d never risk my reputation by knowingly ignoring the rules.

      And obviously I’m not in a position to tell you what to do by any means, those are just my thoughts from my own experience. Best of luck.

      1. _ism_

        I had a very similar conversation with my boss the week this project was “taken” from me by HR & Safety lady. I stressed my concerns that we would not meet compliance standards with her “plan” and expressed my concern for my job should we be audited and fined. My boss basically just said “let HR lady handle it and she’ll be held responsible if we fail, you’re fine, don’t worry about it. She’s been here 20 years, she’s an HR professional, she knows what she’s doing and besides we never get OSHA audits anymore anyway.”

  8. Cough!

    I’ve been at my organization fewer years than most of the people I deal with every day, but I’ve been in the profession for decades and bring solid experience to the job. It took a few years to get people to stop patronizing me. I just suck it up and nod, but a few times I’ve had to point out that I didn’t just roll off the turnip truck. I do it politely but I can’t be a true colleague if I’m being treated like a child.

  9. YaH

    Unfortunately none of the advice offered will be helpful with my colleague. This person is genuinely hateful and is blatantly disrespectful towards many coworkers- as well as towards our supervisors. She actively bullies and openly insults extremely well-qualified and effective employees on our staff because she thinks we don’t provide valuable services and we don’t do as much work as she does. (Here’s where I remind myself that a master’s degree is the minimum requirement for my position, while hers only requires a bachelors. Yes, I’m starting to become hateful myself.)
    I’ve been on staff for almost 10 years and because our supervisors are either afraid of her or just don’t care enough to address it, it’s make the workplace unbearable. I don’t rely on her to get my job done but I am the expert in my workplace on my specific skill/knowledge set, and she takes real pleasure in undermining my professional authority & expertise.

  10. Anxious Adult

    I am currently working in a new job where my new colleagues are not as “fun and friendly” as the people in my old job. It is actually a more rigid work environment. There is no big drama in my new job yet. But I do feel that the people in my new job are harder to get along with.

    I am taking over some of the client project duties that my colleagues had been doing in the past. My manager told me the I can just ask my colleagues about anything that I do not know about the client. When I ask some of my colleagues for client information or client documents. Some have told me to contact the client myself in order to get it. I did not say anything back to my colleagues or to my manager. I guess the way the work was assign had them assume that I will take care of everything from now on and they don’t have to work on it anymore.

    I have a very passive personality–a very critical flaw! I took to contacting the client myself. I did get the information I ask the clients for so far. But I cringe whenever I am in such sticky and hard to handle situations. I also had experience more embarassing moments at work where I have forgotten things very easily and portrayed as not understanding things well. The stress and the fear is hard for me. I still have a lot of trouble dealing with colleagues that might be mean, rough around the edges, and quick-tongue.

  11. James

    Most times, that works as a result of envy or insecurity especially when you are so good with what you do. You just need to show some love to them to make them more relaxed towards you.

  12. "Practice Manager"...NOT!

    I recently started at a private Mental Health practice in October, upon relocation for my husbands job. I was hired as Practice Manager, but I don’t feel like that my actual position. I’m consistently biting my tongue with these “women” who have done nothing more than give me a hard time. Every change I make for the better (at least I believe so), is met with resistance. Every step I take there’s push back, as if their jobs will somehow be in jeopardy if I do mine. I really do enjoy my job, and of course the added bonus, of flexibility when it comes to having my kids with no family help (now that we’re not HOME). I just don’t know if my sanity is worth playing it cool. I feel like I was hired to do a job that I’m not allowed to do.

    Going to the Doctor that hired me, has been kind of pointless. All she does is call “communication meetings” and act as if she has no idea whats going on. I am very certain that there’s plenty of chatter among these “girls” (some young & some older) because of body language every time I walk into a room, and things that have come back to me. I don’t have time for fake, and I don’t have time for petty but that’s the urge I get every single time I work into my job over the past 2-3 weeks. I’ve explained to the Doctor that although I’m not one to complain…..Blah blah blah, you hired ME! You knew there was something missing, and that the office lacked adequate supervision for various reasons. I NEED YOU TO BACK ME. & she just acts LOST, and gives me some BS.

  13. FEDUP

    Its very difficult dealing with difficult colleagues. I have just been transferred to a new branch(almost 6months ago. The previous branch I worked really well with most of my colleagues and we got on well. BUT this new place…there is gossiping, social undermining and sabotaging ever since I arrived I mean they criticize everything including why I bought an car(an car too expensive for me according to them). I have just been made a shift supervisor because of qualifications and this has made everything worse. They go out of their way to undermine me and go to the manager gossiping about me. Im usually not worried about gossip but Im worried that their false rumours will affect my reputation and credibility. I believe I have been doing a great job even our reaults improved significantly. My manager has mentioned his concerns that my subordinates are trying to sabotage me and ruin my reputation but he hasnt done anything to address them directly. It has become really frustrating and stressful to go to work because Im always worried about the hostile working conditions. Im still young,just turned 24 maybe they feel Im too young to lead them since they are older and have been with the organisation for a longer period. But the job requires atleast a bachelor and they are high school graduates. Even if I get fired they wont get my job. I have tried to work with them and involve them in decision making but as soon as I have a different perspective they start their pouting. Its just so frustrating right now because I cant just make bad decision to please them as that will affect my Job(perfomance rating).

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