Undermining Authority

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

What is the best way to explain undermining authority to a supervisor who is doing it to another supervisor? Also, can you give me examples I can use?

Before I offer direct advice (yes, I have some specific thoughts), I would like to extend the opportunity for feedback from fellow readers. If you have some advice, please post a comment. -TF

21 thoughts on “Undermining Authority

  1. CAS

    I wouldn’t think that an EXPLANATION of “undermining authority” would have to be given to a person who is already in a supervisory position. If that’s the case, he or she shouldn’t be in that position.
    In my experience I’ve found that when someone is undermining the authority of another (especially between supervisors), it is an intentional action and should be addressed directly.

  2. Larry Stamper

    I have experienced this first hand. First off, when this happens, the upper management usually sees right through it. If it’s not clear, a meeting should be held where everyone can voice their views and opinions. An honest team leader will share information, education and facts. The underminers will be tight lipped and give dishonest replies when confronted with their recent tactics.
    Honesty and truth will prevail as long as the upper management is fair and honest. In my case they were and the miners are now looking for a new mine. You must have faith in the intgrity of your conmpany’s leadership in order to be confortable any of these types of situations that may arrise. Always convey the sharing of support and leadership to all of your subordinates and the bad seeds will weed themselves out.

  3. Babs

    A disruption of the commitment to the cause is the undermining authority of it’s leader. This is not necessarily something that occurs from another supervisor, sometimes it happens from within the team.

  4. Andre

    Thanks to everyone who have responded thus far, but no one has answered my question or given me examples. I don’t know if I was unclear with the question I asked, but again the question is: What is the best way to explain undermining authority to a supervisor who is doing it to another supervisor? Also, can you give me examples I can use?


    1. LINDA

      An example: there is a Director of a Security Dept who has been trying to sabatash an employee and four of his supervisors know it. The supervisors have become a pawn in his games, they are afraid to lose their jobs, one of the supervisors let it be known that a plot had taken place, The supervisor made the employee aware of a CD in which the director has used to suspend the employee, this cd dose not contain the informaton used in the write up. So now the Supervisor who has given some hope to the employee is now considered to have underminded the director of the department. He is said to have damaged the Morale of the Department. this is a sick case. true example… hope this helps.

  5. Lisette

    Undermining authority is when you are given a supervisory title but your manager that gave you the position allows one of your subordinates or anyone that should not have the power, to have the authority to overrule your decisions making it impossible for you to execute the duties of your position for the benefit of your department or unit instead of the hidden agendas of that individual allowed to undermine you. Example you want to hire a bilingual staff member that has great qualifications, certifications, education and over 10 years of experience. You are sending the hiring package to HR and this person in the office sees the candidate in your office and asks you what is that person doing there. You explain that is the candidate that you are submitting for the position in your office that is vacant and that will meet the needs of your customers and your office. Faster than a speeding bullet or cup cakes disappear at a birthday celebration in a school the opportunity of that person to get the position disappears because this person does not like people of that ethnicity in the office and this person has great influence and power given by the office manager over you. Therefore, the hiring is denied and the position is given to the second runner up which was the person that this powerful person the under miner really wanted there. The rest of your team sees this, and you know what happens they know now where the real power is placed and you are like a decorative king or queen, you have the title but not the authority and they will gravitate to that power like flies to the honey. It gets worse when the under miner is the ex spouse of your manager.

  6. jim

    in my opinion undermining authority is when you have given authority to an individual and you don’t support the decisions that person has made. A lot of times the individual undermining the authority will go around that persons back to the other individual and tell them something different or tell them to do something different.

    example – the president of the company trains you a certain way then gives you the authority to make decisions – the owners wife comes in and wants things done her way – the owners wife only is at the business for 1 month out of the year. She lets everyone know that she is in charge and no body else. it makes the job very hard because you are accountable for results and you have been given the authority to make decisions but your employees know that if something happens they can call the owners wife and she will stick up for them and over rule and sometimes yell at them in front of the employee.

    weird example but

  7. SS

    Undermining authority is when your immediate supervisor does what they think is right interferring in your area of responsibility oblivious to your feelings, job title and remit.

    These people display difficult behaviour but might not be difficult people. They can be described as ‘outlaws’ (ignoring company and business best practice); ‘meddlers’ (interfering because they feel insecure about an aspect of their role so to detract attention from their own inabilities – busy themselves with others work to feel important).

    For example, your immediate supervisor instructs your team to carry out tasks without your prior knowledge and forgets to update you, or publicly supports your decision or approach on a matter but privately does the opposite, e.g. you recommend changing a supplier for factual reasons and have proof, but your supervisor has the ear of upper management and doesn’t support your idea thus discrediting you – creating extra work to manage your own reputation internally.

    Always very difficult to catch the underminder out. Best advice, keep your wits about you, when an instance arises of your supervisor undermining your authority address it with them privately and quickly. Cite the example backed by facts. Keep any emails or dates (descriptions) of when it happened and if their behaviour continues seek to meet with your supervisor’s supervisor to address the issue formally. You then have a track record.

    It does require energy and distracts you from the job in hand but unfortunately this is a common scenario in the workplace and longer-term, you will benefit as a manager from the experience.

  8. Sheena

    This is happening to me right now.

    It’s a long story but to make it short, I’ve been in charge of a project for nearly a year. I go away on vacation and come back and rumors about me all over the place and my boss pretty much gave my project away to a couple of brown nosers.

    I confronted him about it and he still says I am in charge so I boldly take charge and I think things are going ok again until I find out both he and the project manager is undermining my authority behind my back.

    Not sure what to do about it at this point.

  9. Cliff Stamp

    Sheena, are they issuing counter directives or simply taking responsibility for various aspects of the projects (usually the ones with the least work/skill required and highest/most obvious gains)?

    Have you had a frank discussion with the boss, not about this issue in a confrontation manner, but just concerning this project, centered on, but not exclusive to your performance and areas in which you can improve?

    If it is an issue where he is simply giving choice pieces of projects to those who survive on idle flattery, well that is not ideal, but on a long list of less than perfect working conditions that is pretty mild, though not aggravating.

  10. Tom Foster

    Your thoughts may be on target. Sheena will have to evaluate the reality of what is happening. If, indeed, these are minor pieces of the project, she may have found someone she can delegate more things to. You can never be promoted to the next level until you find someone to take over your current responsibilities.

  11. Nobody Special

    Office politics sucks. Stories like this make me dread working in an office again. I should’ve been an electrician.

  12. A manager

    “Underminig Authority” can be done accross a number or platforms and there is a lot ‘grey’ in this.

    Basically, to have your authority undermined you have to be in a position to execute authority in the first instance.

    Put simply: if you are a manager responsible for a team and you make a decison or judgement call on a particular issue that is within your delegation and job description, and a member of your team questions your decision and instead of discussing it with you, they go to upper management or the executive and have a discussion around your back, then the person they approach SHOULD defer them back to you or call a meeting to discuss with you. If they were to be undermining your authority then they would make a decision based off the facts of your employee without consultation with you; the manager, and overturn the original decision.

    Hope that is helpful.

  13. Change

    Undermining authority can occur no matter the position held in an organization. It can also be “unintentional” and as a result of pushing for or installing change or in an attempt to establish stable authority in an environment lacking clearly defined leadership lines or depth.

    Here is an example: A small business owner hires a top-industry executive (TIE) to help the company transition into its next phase of development. The owner, who is inexperienced with bigger business models, quickly gives more and more authority to the TIE. The TIE, now with accountability for 80% of the employees begins to “run” the company and make decisions based on the agreed upon strategy between the owner and the TIE. Shortly, the TIE is released by the owner for undermining authority. Why?

    There are numerous possibilities, yet here is the most common I have experienced–fear of losing control or imagination of loss of control. Often inexperienced top-executives worry about losing control so, they compensate by mirco-managing everything. This can work for very small companies, yet as the company grows this can hinder natural evolution of the company.

    The fear of losing control or trusting another to take control is hard for the small business owner. They have a hard time adjusting to new ways of thinking, stepping to the side and admitting there might be a better way to run the business. Their “egos” have a hard time adjusting and they begin to view the TIE as a threat to the kingship.

    This causes unprovoked tension. Though they both have a role in the new company, the owner is the strategic commander and the TIE is the tactical commander executing to the strategy, the owner tries to hold on to both command posts. Further, the owner begins questioning the TIEs motivations due the fear and insecurity felt by the owner of the new experience.

    Instead of re-grouping with the TIE and questioning motiviation and strategy the owner terminates them for it is easier to not change than to accept change both professionally and personally. The swift action shocks the employees, bringing them back submission to the the owner through fear. How ironic.

    What is disappointing is that the owner really never lost authority it has simply been recast to a higher purpose–focus on the strategic functions of the company verses energy being divided between two functions–tactical and strategic.

    The TIE is unemployed and wondering what happened…

  14. dawn

    i was a victim of undermining the exexcutive housekeeper and was not informed of any problems and found myself in a situation with them and the manager. heresay played a big part among the other employees and some how my name got brought into it. i was called into a brief meeting, off gaurd, after my shift{places are good for this}then, to my surprise, was suspended and then let go during that week.they said they investigated and found nothing and yet,i am without a job.during a phone call of my release, all of a sudden, there was two people that said they heard “something”.gossip can cost your job when someone is after it.the manager in charge was intimid by this and therefore had to do something. my job was already posted 2 days into my suspenion and the co-worker in question was the first to put in for it. sad.

  15. Jane

    I realize my response is three years after your question was posted so, most likely, it does not apply any longer. However, maybe it will be helpful to someone else…

    The best way to explain undermining authority to a supervisor who is doing it to another supervisor is to provide them with SPECIFIC examples of what THAT person is doing to undermine the other supervisor’s authority and explain to them HOW their actions are undermining that person’s authority.

    For example: Supervisor A repeatedly tells the employees that they never would have done something the way Supervisor B did it.
    Even if it was not their intention to undermine Supervisor B’s authority, Supervisor A is essentially making the employees question Supervisor B’s abilities (obviously, INSTEAD of providing a united front and setting a good example). This undermines Supervisor B’s authority by making it less likely that employees will trust Supervisor B’s judgement.

  16. Cray

    I feel that undermining happens from a lower level up whenever there is a weak manager in charge. A senior leader can always override their lower employees, that is inherent to be a senior manager.

    But it’s the lower level employees that try to go over their managers head, then Ask for the arrangement to be secret for fear of having to confront the manager. (That has happened to me several times.) the senior manager then has to act to fix the issues that plague the team. I want to fix the issue, but I am compelled to be protective to the employee sometimes over the manager, which makes the decision to act very difficult. Now my issue is that the manager should be able to identify when lower employees are unhappy or pissed off, but many don’t know or care. That’s where I come in. I need the entire team to be content, and effective. Iwill make the issue known to the manager over time. But I have to do it so that the rest of the junior team members don’t feel overlooked or disrespected. It’s tough be senior level management over a team where a manager just does not know how to manager with confidence.

  17. AgentX

    A pattern of undermining authority at a severely dysfunctional (and failing) non-profit:

    > Alcoholic founder who gets a reputation on socmedia for being stumbling-drunk at org events; is extremely passive and oddly apathetic, insists on remaining in some form of active leadership. He’s isolated, lonely, and chronically depressed.
    > The other two senior (read: have been there a long time) guys resist any change of any sort, and make a habit of complaining to founder about things they don’t like (any progress or slight action towards industry standards).
    > Founder uses these complaint sessions as a replacement for human intimacy and interaction, and inadvertently encourages more and more of them. The employees learn complaining is the way to get noticed and to create a false sense of superiority.
    > The org repeats a related pattern: giving responsibility to effective employees and consultants but always retracting/questioning authority at some point early on, making it impossible for the individual to get anything significant done. Or, as soon as the employee or consultant is making headway, immediately the founder will question even the simplest decision (that he previously supported) leading to endless re-hashing of decisions and bogging down progress. The questioning will be prompted by one of the 2 senior employees complaining (usually in a childish manner).
    > To make matters weirder, the founder will trust charlatans of every stripe over professionals with proven credentials and abilities, and he will never question the judgment of a charlatan. Thus the nonprofit goes through 2 episodes of embezzlement, followed by the hire of a charlatan to lead (followed by total lack of financial transparency and accountability), followed by loss of non-profit status due to the charlatan’s failure to file 990s for years, etc. Under the charlatan the org loses almost 50% of its funding, yet the founder pines for the charlatan and wishes to work with him again and again.
    One of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen.

  18. lab lead

    I was recently promoted as lead tech of a lab, my boss feels I undermine her for things I take responsibility for without discussing them with her first, for example our phlebotomist wanted to know how our occult blood kits were collected so she could inform the patients with clearer directions. I was told I had undermined my boss because of this. We have had issues with a dr and I asked our medical director in front of my boss if she was aware of the issue and I was told that I undermined my boss because I asked without consulting her first. I am wondering if its a lack of trust or if I am undermining her without meaning too.


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