How to deal with undermining subordinates

Updated February 21, 2017

Our business relationships are critical to our professional success. Those who work in environments where trust and integrity are prevalent are fortunate: Many business places are filled with discord and manipulation. Work environments may be poisoned by dysfunctional relationships between colleagues or between superiors and subordinates. Some people believe they can advance their own position by denigrating others. It is important to know how to deal with such people. Fortunately, you can learn a few basic principles that will help you deal with undermining subordinates.

Confront your subordinate as soon as you recognise there is a problem. Do not ignore the situation, hoping it will go away or resolve itself without your intervention.

Speak to the subordinate privately. Do not confront him in front of colleagues. Set an appointed time and tell him you want to meet in your office. Do not inform him in advance why you want to meet.

Invite your union representative, if there is one, to join you for the meeting, especially if you suspect that your subordinate might ignore your request and not show up.

Be specific when speaking to the subordinate. Do not rely merely on vague statements about how you feel. Avoid general statements such as, "I felt you were dismissing my directives during the staff meeting." State facts instead, such as, "When you called out, "No way we will!" during the staff meeting, that was undermining my authority and it was inappropriate.

Inform the subordinate of the consequences that will follow if the undermining behaviour continues. Follow up by sending a written communication to the subordinate that summarises what was said at your meeting.

Speak to the employee again if the undermining behaviour continues. Consider getting the rest of your team involved. Emphasise the importance of working together for the common goals of the organisation.

Examine your own behaviour if you are having difficulty with more than one subordinate. Conduct yourself in a professional manner. Always keep the channels of communication open. Determine the source of the discontent and make changes in how you interact with your staff.


If you realise the discontent is widespread among your subordinates, you must inform your superiors and elicit their support. If you do not, you run the risk that your subordinates will go over your head and report you as the problem.

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About the Author

Freddie Silver started writing newsletters for the Toronto District School Board in 1997. Her areas of expertise include staff management and professional development. She holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Toronto and is currently pursuing her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, focusing on emotions and professional relationships.