Practically every leader I have ever coached or consulted to has told me about having at least one difficult employee who seems to continually challenge their authority.

This is perhaps one of the most testing aspects of management.

Employees who undermine your authority sabotage teamwork and cause problems for everyone.

Whether this person is intentionally challenging your leadership, or is unaware of the effect of their behaviour, their actions are harmful for them, for you, as well as for the rest of your staff.

Of course, it’s very unsettling when one’s position is not given proper due. All good leaders want their employees to have a position experience on the job.

To achieve this goal, you will need to tackle insubordination in a timely and effective manner.

If you find your authority being challenged by a difficult employee, here are some steps you can take to reclaim control:

How to Handle Employees Who Undermine Your Authority

  1. Listen attentively to understand the difficult employee’s perspective.
  2. Provide clear, direct feedback on the unacceptable behavior.
  3. Document instances of insubordination or misconduct.
  4. Set a deadline, like 8 weeks, for the employee to improve.
  5. Take action, like reassignment, if there’s no positive change.

Step 1: Listen Closely

When an employee is being difficult, the first reaction that some leaders have is to simply form an opinion of the employee and stop paying attention to what’s really going on.

We feel irritated, and the situation seems hopeless. And so, we feel it’s better to turn our attention to other things; this is often a form of self-protection and avoidance.

However, great leaders know that the best way to deal with this situation is to become extra attentive. They make an effort to develop the clearest possible understanding of the situation – this includes understanding the point of view of the difficult employee. This is typically the first step towards improving the situation.

In fact, in several cases, you can resolve the problem in itself simply by listening and paying attention. It’s possible that the employee in question is facing legitimate problems that you can address. Or, you may find out about a real workplace issue that’s not the employee’s fault which needs to be resolved. The difficult employee may even start behaving differently once they feel heard and acknowledged.

Step 2: Give Clear Feedback about Them

When an employee undermines your authority, you often end up thinking about the employee’s negative behaviour and complaining about it to others.

Some managers spend months fretting about difficult employees without ever giving them actual behavioural feedback in a straightforward manner.

Granted, giving tough and judicious feedback is one of the most uncomfortable things that you will have to do as a leader. However, it is also one of the most critical skills that you must develop as a leader. Great leaders learn to do it well, and they are ready to do it if and when a situation calls for it.

It’s worth becoming comfortable and proficient at giving corrective feedback to your employees. Remember that without your feedback, they are flying blind.

Let the employee in question know what they need to do differently to correct their negative behaviour and therefore be more likely to succeed.

The best approach to giving this type of behavioural feedback is to lower the other person’s defensiveness and provide them with the specific information they need for improvement.

If the employee acknowledges their negative behaviour and begins to apply the corrective feedback, then consider the problem resolved once you’ve taken these two steps.

However, if the situation does not improve, you’ll need to consider the following further steps.

Step 3: Document the Undermining of Your Authority

It’s at this stage that the employee is being difficult despite your efforts to reach out, listen, and share corrective feedback. Now that you are having significant problems with this employee, don’t forget to write down the key points.

This can’t be stressed enough.

If worse comes to worst, you may not even be able to let the employee in question go because you will have no record of their unacceptable behaviour.

Many managers do not document incidences of misconduct in the hopes that this will be an isolated incidence.

However, great leaders understand that it’s prudent to create a record of this sort of behaviour. Even if you are able to resolve the issue before it comes to suspension or termination, you can simply put the documentation back in the drawer.

But, if it doesn’t exist in the first place, you will have no grounds to base your next actions on.

Step 4: Set Consequences for Future Occurrences

If you have been noting a pattern of negative behaviour and insubordination for weeks now, despite having shared clear feedback, it’s time to get specific.

As a general rule, if you have identified an under-miner on your team, in your department, or in your company, give them eight weeks to change their tune.

From weeks one through eight, make sure that the employee has your full support and attention. Feel comfortable sharing corrective feedback during this time as and when needed.

Hopefully, before the end of week eight the employee themselves will proactively tell you that they acknowledge their actions and recognise you as their leader, and want to be part of your team. However, if by the end of week eight you are still noting subordination and difficult behaviour, move them off the team.

This doesn’t necessarily mean termination. If possible, you can also consider switching them to another team in the organization. Look for creative ways to ensure the employee can’t affect you or the team.

If things are going down a road where termination is inevitable, in the weeks following up to it, let the employee know that their insubordination may have a real negative impact on their position in the company.

Say some version of the following:

“I still believe you can turn this around. Here’s what turning things around would look like.”

Laying someone off is one of the most difficult tasks for every leader. If it does get to this point, do it right, without making excuses, or putting it off, or making someone else do it.

And, if things do turn around, then be courageous enough to accept that someone you thought wasn’t salvageable is now working hard to prove you wrong.