Authority questioned? Here's what to do

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As an HR professional, you often have to make unpopular or difficult decisions or recommendations. You may want to implement a new approach to performance management, for example, which managers see as unnecessary or time-consuming. Or perhaps you are struggling to get a team leader to understand why they have to follow the correct procedure when they want to discipline or dismiss a member of staff.

It’s a fact of life that not everyone will agree with or accept the path you are recommending. Indeed, getting management to prioritise HR initiatives can be a challenge in itself in some businesses.

None of us like to have our authority or our ability challenged. But, as an HR manager, it’s important that you handle the challenges that come your way effectively and professionally.

If you can conquer challenge or adversity without becoming overly emotional and reactionary, your colleagues and team will respect you. No one wants to follow a leader who can’t stand up for themselves – but they will equally not respect someone who throws their toys out of the pram every time a decision or recommendation is questioned. A compassionate approach and rational analysis of the situation will always serve you better than high emotion, raising of voices or complaining.

Understand the motivation for challenges

Understanding the motivation behind peoples' challenges will give you a framework for your response.

First, think:

  1. Is there possibly a legitimate reason for this challenge?
  2. Is the challenger someone you respect?
  3. Are they motivated by self-interest, or do they believe the challenge is necessary if the business or team is to meet its objectives?
  4. Is this a particularly difficult time for the team or for the organisation?
  5. How were you challenged? In a private conversation or in front of a group?

Relish fair challenges

Being in a management role means that you will be challenged, often appropriately, and often to the benefit of the people you are managing or advising. So your first task is to decide whether a challenge is appropriate or inappropriate. If the person who has challenged you is someone with authority, whom you respect, who has spoken with you discreetly and privately you may react in one way. If the challenge is overt, coming from somebody who many have a hidden agenda and is done in a public setting, you may react differently.

You must separate how you feel about being challenged from the validity of the challenge itself. Regardless of how you’re challenged, if the challenger is making logical sense then what is being said must be acknowledged and examined. You will need to respond to the challenge, either by accepting the criticism and agreeing to change, or rejecting it and explaining why you think it’s not appropriate.

Differentiate between public and private challenges

A challenge made in private is less likely to be politically motivated and more likely to be grounded in genuine concern than one made in a public arena. Challenges to your authority that are made through third parties or on the grapevine are insidious and are the work either of people who lack the courage to confront you, or of people whose motivation is political and mischievous. If you suspect such activity you should confront the individual in a private meeting. You should be quite stern because this sort of behaviour will spread like poison and quickly undermine your authority and the team’s culture.

Consider carefully the context in which a challenge is made

Context is extremely important. Challenges to your authority or competence must be framed within an understanding of variables such as your status within the team or organisation, the respect in which you are held and your level of experience. Your challenger may be someone who is rejecting your ideas because they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Or it may be a newcomer to the organisation who believes you can be usurped. Analyse your particular circumstance, so that you have a full grasp of the challenge that is taking place.

Sometimes a challenge to your authority or competence is more of a signal of discontent or frustration or dissatisfaction. Such a signal can often be sent in times of turmoil, sudden or unexpected change or business or economic pressures. You need to be sensitive to these signals and deal with the underlying cause, rather than focus simply on the signal of the challenge.

If the person who is challenging you is senior to you in the organisation you must try to establish why you are being challenged. Do you represent a threat? Understanding the reasons behind the challenge will help you to decide the best course of action. If you have a wide network of influencers who are able to support you, be sure to engage with them.

Decide if there is a long-term intent to undermine you

Not every challenge is an overt single event. Often people will attempt to undermine your position, or your competence, over a protracted period of time and in a subtle, even sly way. This sort of challenge is much harder to combat. The risk to you is that you will appear to be defensive and over-reacting because others are not aware of the constant, subtle attacks on you. They will only see the small incident to which your response may seem disproportionate.

In such a case your best option is to seek a private meeting with the person who you believe is undermining you. Make sure you are well armed with examples, to make it clear that you are aware of what is happening and are determined to make it stop. 

If this approach does not work your two choices are then either: to elevate the issue, involving more senior management; or to be as well prepared as possible for likely continuing attacks during meetings. At these meetings you must be seen as being firm but fair in your responses. Keep your tone assertive and professional; do not allow this to become a personal battle

Don’t duck!

The sorts of challenges we describe here are an inevitable part of an HR manager’s life. You will need courage and resilience to face them, coupled with a thick skin. You must be prepared to listen to friendly critics, or take on the occasional adversary. They are potentially dangerous to you, your team, and your company.

Remember, you must seek to understand the context in which the challenge is being made and the motivation of the person making the challenge. This will help you to deal with the situation in the best possible way.

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