Question: Dealing with a subordinate who does not respect lines of authority

I have a much larger managerial span compared to a typical manager in our organization (10 instead of 6 Direct Reports). Partially due to that, a team member has repeatedly spoken out-of-turn in meetings, or discussed topics with my boss and other stakeholders that he should have run by me first.

This employee has a high need for achievement and recognition, and I feel comfortable giving him autonomy. But it is awkward to not be kept in the loop.

What is the best way for me to take up the matter with him?

8 Expert answers

You present an interesting situation and challenge. As a basis of my response, I am going to presume that  your boss is willing to be supportive of your desire to be kept in the loop with this DR to the extent of asking if they have discussed the issue with you before taking their time to engage. If they haven't, the boss will refer them back to you.

I will also say that regardless of the number of DRs you have, of course it is important that you be in that loop as those above you expect you to know what your team is doing and thinking which reflects on your leadership.

I don't know that you have or haven’t discussed this in very clear terms with your report however, ultimately, this is necessary in resolving the problem and is what I consider the best way for you to address this issue. During such a discussion I would encourage you to simply get curious and be open for whatever response you get.  It should reveal a lot. Questions to be asked include:

1. What are you wanting to achieve when you take your thoughts/ideas to others in the organization and do not include me?

2. What are you not getting or worried about not getting from me in bringing these things to me first?

3. Why might my being involved be important to what we are all working to achieve in the organization? (the answer will reveal what things need to be clarified in terms of your role and the importance of that)

4. What are the ways in which you would like to get support from me that you value and may not be receiving today?

As self-serving as this may appear, once you have had your discussion, this person is an ideal candidate to work with a coach.  Through that relationship he/she can gain clarity around what it is he/she wants to achieve … in their position and in their career. Then they can explore and find a path to achieving this what doesn’t operate outside of the appropriate chain of command and/or alienate others along the way.

I applaud what you are out to achieve!

One of the most common responses people give to a less-than-glowing performance review is "I didn't know I was supposed to do that." Therefore, it would be good to have a conversation with your subordinate about exactly what your expectations are. These conversations tend to go better if they are not happening in the heat of the moment, i.e. when you are annoyed at just having experienced one of these behaviors.

With a larger managerial span you want to have self-starters rather than people who always wait to be told what to do. That means it is even more important to get clear on your expectations and objectives. What you want to accomplish, why it's important, and how you want to work together should be explicitly clear. You should be comfortable giving your team autonomy - they will all appreciate it, and you will too when they're working productively within the framework you've defined.

Schedule and prepare for a "confronting performance" discussion. Make this straightforward, direct and timely.

1. Communicate specific times, places, situations where direct report overstepped their bounds. Explain implications and consequences (real and potential) of their actions.

2. Ask for understanding and agreement that this is a problem. If the direct understands and agrees, proceed to step 3.

3. Discuss explanation of what happened, and why. Proceed onto a discussion of what the direct will do in the future to solve the the problem.

I believe Mike gave a great answer and I would add the half he didn't address. My curiosity is:

1. What has your boss said about this phenomenon?

2. How are the stakeholders and  your boss inadvertently or consciously supporting this behavior?

3. What conversations do you need to have with them?

The bottom line  in any organization for me is that somewhere, somehow, any behavior that is consistently showing up is somehow being rewarded. So without a compelling reason to change his behavior, it's unlikely he will.

You write: I have a much larger managerial span compared to a typical manager in our organization (10 instead of 6 DRs.) Partially due to that, a team member has repeatedly spoken out-of-turn in meetings, or discussed topics with my boss and other stakeholders that he should have run by me first.

Roza: Are you saying having 10 direct reports is too many in order for you to manage them appropriately? If you had 6, and this individual was part of your team, you will have time to manage him differently so that he doesn't end up going to others for direction instead of coming to you? I think the statement above lacks some clarity that might lead us to offer you suggestions that might not be appropriate.

You write: This employee has a high-need for achievement and recognition, and I comfortable giving him autonomy. But it is awkward to not be kept in the loop.

Roza: You have derived a diagnosis of your employee's behavior and subsequently have followed up with a choice of your behavior, "given him autonomy." If your diagnosis is accurate and your intervention appropriate, why is it not working for you?

You will benefit much more of investing in getting yourself some coaching instead of focusing on your employee. Your thinking above has contradictions that need to be challenged and then rectified. His behavior if it is not a direct product of your management style, is at minimum influenced by it. Question your thinking and the process by which you make conclusions.

This is a great opportunity for you to reflect on your approach to expectation management. As a leader, you have expectations of others – whether it’s that they produce a particular work product with certain quality standards, or whether it’s how they engage with you in a particular way as they do the work.  And often you don’t get the behavior or performance you want out of others. Often, in such situations, leaders make assumptions about why – but their assumptions are often wrong.  

So, it’s valuable to have a framework in your head for the potential reasons why the employee is not meeting your expectation.
- is your expectation unclear? (e.g. he didn’t know you care about being kept in the loop as you describe)
- Is he somehow blocked from meeting your expectation? (e.g. you’re out of the office at the times when he needs input)
- Does he lack the skills or knowledge to meet your expectation? (e.g. coming to you might involve a difficult conversation that he doesn’t know how to have)
- Does he see it as in his interest to do otherwise? (e.g. he gets more guidance/approval/etc. from the others he approaches)

The problem is, only the employee has the information about which of these reasons is at play. Your most effective approach is to inquire, open-endedly. I suggest a simple exploratory question, aimed at understanding the situation from the employee’s perspective. “I expected X, I observed Y, can you help me understand?”

Some additional guidelines may be relevant.
- It’s most useful to approach this conversation without anger or judgment.
- This is most productive as a dialogue. Be prepared to understand what the employee needs from you differently in order to give you what you need.

Good luck!

The bigger question here is why are your boss and the other stakeholders allowing/ entertaining this behavior?

I agree with what Mike said. I also believe you need to deal with this situation promptly and be very clear about your expectations and confirm it with your boss as well.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mike that engaging a coach for this individual. This would only work if the individual agrees to having a coach.