Notes for new managers: Assert your authority early on

It's common for employees to test a new manager's authority. When it happens, a combination of backbone and composure matter more than patience

Dear Bob ...

I need a quick response, because I'm going to have to deal with this situation no later than Monday afternoon:

[ Also on InfoWorld: "Starting a new job? Relationships come first" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

I just took on a new management position. I started last week. It's a "desk o'death" job (to use your phrase) -- I'm the fourth manager in the job in the last couple of years, and per your advice I'm viewing it as a big opportunity.

Yesterday I needed some information and asked one of my direct reports to get it for me. He seemed nervous about taking on the assignment since it wasn't his job -- I'm getting a sense my department of 32 employees consists of 32 organizational silos -- but did agree to do what he could.

He did a good job of it.

This afternoon, another of my direct reports, a manager with a half-dozen people reporting to her, left me a voice mail. The tone was unbelievable -- she tersely chewed me out for asking anyone other than her for the information in question and pointedly told me how things are done around here.

Silly me. I thought that as the boss I had the authority to decide how things are done around here.

Anyway, my immediate thought was to call the woman to slap her down hard. Instead I counted to 10 (several times) and decided to ask your advice, and catch my breath, before taking any action.

What do you think?

- Challenged

Dear Challenged ...

I'd advise against slapping her down hard, because it implies you would express anger in her direction. Doing so would make you less executive and something of a bully in the employee's eyes, and word gets around quickly with this sort of thing. Your version of events wouldn't be the one making the Grapevine Headlines.

In terms of tone, a combination of amusement and condescension would, I'd think, work better for you.

You're right that you have to deal with this situation without delay. And you're right that you can't let this challenge to your authority stand. Here's why: Some people define their social world as a pecking order. Everyone they know and interact with is either above them in the pecking order or below them. They have no peers and are entirely baffled at the notion that there might be such a relationship.

You can't change how they view the world, so you only have two alternatives -- they can see you as their pecking-order superior or as their pecking-order inferior.

I trust you don't need my guidance as to which is the better outcome for you.

Here's what you do: Drop by the employee's cubicle and let her know you want to meet with her today. If she says she's too busy, say, "I only need 15 minutes of your time. I'm available between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Decide what you're going to reschedule, because we are going to meet today." It's step one in establishing your higher-elevation position in the pecking order.

(If the employee doesn't show up, drop by her cubicle at the end of the day and deliver her first verbal warning. Make it clear it is official and the next time she refuses direction from you she will receive a written warning.)

In your office, play back the voice mail. In your tone of amused condescension, ask, "I'm curious -- why would you think this tone of voice is appropriate when dealing with me?" Most likely, the employee will deny there is a tone of voice. Say something like this in response: "If you really can't hear the problem, I'll work with HR to find you some training in how to improve your interpersonal interactions. Regardless, we need to make something clear between us, and that's who reports to whom. Is there something about this that isn't clear to you?"

"No," she will likely reply.

"Here's what's going to happen. If there's no recurrence I'll delete this voice mail. If there is, it will be included in your next performance review, and I'll consider the next occurrence grounds to begin formal disciplinary action. Your tone of voice was annoying, and while I value everyone helping me learn the ropes here -- and that includes you -- there's a big difference between that and having someone who reports to me think her job is to chew me out when she disagrees with one of my decisions.

"Let me make something else clear to you: As of right now, you stop being territorial and start being cooperative, and that's with everyone else in the department. Consider that to be work direction from your manager. If you need it in writing, tell me and I'll put it in writing. Are we clear?"

"Yes."

Then make it stick. As your next step, by the way, I'd advise that in your next senior staff meeting, you inform all of the managers reporting to you that you've already become aware that the department suffers from too much territoriality and too little collaboration. Ask everyone to spend the next week thinking about what has caused the situation and what you can do together to fix it.

One manager left you a voice mail. It's unlikely she's the only territorial manager you have.

- Bob

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