How to manage someone who doesn’t respect your authority

Think back to elementary school for a moment. Remember some kids who would roll their eyes at assigned tasks they did not like? Or maybe they interrupted the teacher while she talked, refused to listen when she asked them to sit down, or called her names like “stupid” behind her back (or even to her face)?

Fortunately, people generally develop better ways of expressing themselves as they mature. Unfortunately, though, some individuals still exhibit this type of disrespectful behavior in the workplace. They gossip about their manager or try to smear the leader’s reputation. They openly ignore or defy their boss’s instructions. They publicly challenge a manager’s competency or authority in a hostile, embarrassing way.

Managers subject to this childish behavior need to squash it. Morale and productivity suffer when direct reports undermine authority. Failure to put a stop can appear wimpy, causing others to lose faith in your leadership skills or encouraging them to engage in similar actions. Even innocent bystanders suffer, as witnessing colleagues disrespect the manager is highly uncomfortable.

Here’s how to manage someone who doesn’t respect your authority.

Figure out the cause

Handling the problem becomes easier when you identify the root. Reasons behind an employee’s behavior vary.

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Disrespectful treatment frequently stems from one of the following:

  • The worker views you as incompetent. Perhaps he thinks you lack the right qualifications or experience. Or, he may believe he or someone he prefers should have received your position.

  • The two of you clash. Maybe she dislikes your managerial style or highly disagrees with your personal beliefs (which is one reason to keep things like politics and religion out of the workplace). Or, you could simply have opposing personalities.

  • You are significantly older or younger than those you manage. A worker may consider you a dinosaur who clings to out-of-date ways of doing things rather than moving the company forward. Or, an employee may not be keen on taking direction from a “kid.”

  • Prejudices and stereotypes rear their ugly head. Some employees may act poorly toward a leader based on that person’s gender, sexual identity, race, culture, religion, or disability. They may see the manager as inherently unworthy of respect or want to “take the person down a peg.”

  • The past influences the present. Perhaps you rose from the ranks, and your buddies do not reconceptualize you as a leader. Or, they might be trying to “keep you grounded” or even just seeing what they can get away with because of your friendship.

  • You are a new manager. Some employees erroneously feel entitled to “test your mettle” or figure out your insecurities.

  • You did something wrong or hurtful. You may not even know what you did or meant the action in any bad way. But, if your behavior was negatively interpreted, it can lead to feelings that you do not “deserve” respect.


Like it or not, you need to call out disrespectful employees. Schedule a one-to-one, private meeting to get to the heart of the problem. Identify what behaviors need to change and why. Stay calm, and listen to what the person has to say.

The possibility exists that the person really did not realize she was being disrespectful. Drawing attention to the matter may lead to an apology and no further incidents.

In many cases, though, the disrespectful employee is fully aware of what she has said or done. Find out why. Do not assume you know the reason. The truth may be totally different than what you think.

For instance, perhaps you bring in an older worker who routinely makes snide comments about your management style. You assume the problem stems from him thinking you are too young for the position you hold. It turns out, however, that this employee thinks you show favoritism. He tells you he cannot respect a leader who does not treat all staff members equally.

Using this new-found insight, probe for examples. You may be able to clear up misconceptions. Maybe he is ticked that various colleagues seem to come in late without a word said — not realizing they had made alternate scheduling arrangements with you because of the local train’s new arrival time.

Or, consider that certain things you do might genuinely give the impression of unfair advantages. You can now work on eliminating that perception (or the behavior itself, if that is true). Ask the employee to please come to you whenever he feels favoritism may be in play. You’d appreciate it drawn to your attention. What does nobody any favors, though, is disrespectful behavior. Ask that it stop at once.

Managers do make mistakes. They need to own up to them and apologize. They need to go through self-evaluation and institute changes accordingly. Welcome employee feedback as a way of improving your management style. But, insist that team members deliver constructive criticism in a mature, helpful, and discreet manner. Do not tolerate public embarrassment or outright defiance.

In some cases, you may need to simply lay down the law. You are in charge. Employees are entitled to their own opinions, but they cannot create a toxic environment. Displaying a lack of respect needs to stop at once, period.

Take punitive measures

Despite your best efforts, sometimes disrespectful behavior continues. If this happens, disciplinary action might be a necessary course of action.

Can you punish someone for insubordination or negative behavior toward authority? Yes. As mentioned earlier, such things impact the work environment. You owe it to yourself and the rest of the team to put a stop to the harm caused.

Generally, managers can discipline for a bad attitude in much the same way as any other type of unacceptable behavior, such as dress code violations or failure to follow safety procedures. Your employee handbook should clearly state that the organization does not tolerate unprofessional behavior or insubordination. Use this document as a common point of reference when starting disciplinary procedures.

In addition to drawing the employee’s attention to company policy, point out the stated consequences. Policies offer consistency, which is important to help ensure fair treatment and avoid legal issues. Handle things “by the book.”

Many organizations employ progressive discipline. This notification structure provides various levels of warnings that increase in severity if the employee fails to change ways. A common first step is a verbal warning. If this does not lead to improvement, a manager may need to create a write-up or letter of reprimand. Putting things in writing often gets the difficult employee to take the comments more seriously. The action also typically brings human resources into the mix. Seek that department’s help on how to properly document everything. A paper trail is vital should the employee later claim unlawful termination.

Hopefully, the employee in question will be motivated to change. Managers can provide clear expectations regarding the elimination of disrespectful behavior. They also can offer encouragement by letting the person know how important his positive attitude and energy are to the entire team.

Some organizations utilize a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) to formally outline desired improvements. This document serves as an action plan. What does the worker need to do to right the ship? Specific metrics and a timeframe provide guidance on expectations.

If written warnings do not solve the issue, leaders have no choice but to issue stated disciplinary consequences. This might take the form of a demotion, suspension, mandatory training, or even termination.

Work to build respect

Managers would like to believe that respect automatically comes with their position. Great leaders know, however, that earning the respect of team members creates a stronger, longer-lasting bond. What things might a manager do to further the cause?

Model respectful behavior

Treat others the way you want to be treated. Be polite. Show common courtesy. Avoid name-calling, swearing, ranting, and other types of belittling or demeaning actions. Engage in active listening rather than interrupting others or jumping to conclusions.

Honor dignity

Hold difficult conversations behind closed doors rather than in front of others. Point out mistakes gently and privately.

Avoid micromanaging

It is difficult to feel positive toward someone breathing down your neck. Give people the tools to do their job and let them perform. Demonstrate that you consider them professionals, not naughty or incompetent kids. Coach rather than dictate.

Stay consistent

Enforce rules across the board. Avoid favoritism. Set clear expectations that staff members understand how to follow.

Create a psychologically safe environment

Actively seek opinions from everyone. Listen thoughtfully. Encourage people to be themselves. Do not allow colleagues to shut someone else down. Promote an atmosphere where innovation and risk-taking thrive because team members know others have their back.

Be truthful and transparent

Prioritize communication. Keep your word. Admit mistakes. Share information. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so and offer to find out.

Prioritize respect, not popularity

Concentrate on leadership rather than friendship with direct reports. Realize that making tough decisions, carrying out discipline, problem-solving, and dealing with uncomfortable matters comes with your job. You will not always make everyone happy.

Look and act the role

Workers expect those in charge to appear professional. Maturing your wardrobe, using proper English, and developing confident body language can boost how others perceive you.

Show appreciation

Value the work of each individual. Thank them for their contributions. Share credit. Frequently point out how each person’s role adds to the overall success of the organization. Develop a company culture where management and employees enjoy a positive working relationship.