How to Handle Direct Challenges to Your Authority

What's the Big Idea?

It was a quiet afternoon, as almost the entire team was out for an offsite retreat. It had been three months into my new job and I was left holding the fort. Then the phone rang. The CEO’s office wanted some analysis in an hour. Someone had to go and present the data. That someone had to be me!

But while the query was routine, the database was managed by an IT guy who had issues with female authority figures. Other women had warned me about him.

I requested the report from him and explained the urgency the best I could. The simple report should have taken ten minutes. Yet, after anxiously waiting for forty-five minutes and despite an email reminder, I still did not get it. Finally, I walked up to him and asked him to “please hurry it up as the meeting starts in fifteen minutes.” That’s when all Hell broke loose.

He yelled on top of his voice “You better wait. I will give it to you when it is done. You are not the boss, so stop behaving like one. I don’t care if it is urgent.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the room. Everyone stopped to stare at me.

My stomach was in a knot, my mouth was dry, but I knew I could not let it go. Then with every ounce of courage I could muster, I amazed myself by telling him, “ Mr. Johnson, no one has, no one will and certainly not you, will ever talk to me like that.”

Then I walked out of the room trying not to reveal my shaken up demeanor. I somehow regained my composure in the restroom recognizing the timing of the presentation at hand. On my return, the room was still silent but the report was on my desk.

What's the Significance?

 Traditionally women have not been found in positions of power in the corporate world. Consequently many stereotypes and unwritten norms exist around how much authority and voice they should have. Some challenges to women’s authority are direct, while others are more passive aggressive (delay in reports, bad attitude, withholding data, and even gossip and alliance formation). What I faced was a direct challenge, based not in any logic or the spirit of pushing ideas forward, but one meant to undermine my standing. Looking back here is what I took away.

1. Respond (you must), but keep the context in mind. It is natural when our authority is challenged that we feel off balance. It is important not to let it pass. It is critical to tackle the challenge head on, as it can set the tone for future interactions. However, you must modulate your response to fit the situation. For instance, your style will have to differ based on the power equation at hand. Remember though, power is determined not just by rank but also by a host of other factors such as gender, age, ethnicity, and expertise. The challenge could arise as result of insecurity felt by the perpetrator on one or all fronts.

Learn to read between the lines. Each situation must be assessed on its own merit. Also be aware of the larger cultural context. In Asian cultures, for instance, a direct confrontation might make matters worse. And finally, before you respond, remember you need not attend every argument or challenge you are invited to. Differentiate between irritants and actual threats.

2. Build emotional resilience. Given the intensity of the interaction, it would have been easy to wallow in the pond of self-pity, and/or let the anger take over. However, I saw that the opportunity in front of me (to meet the CEO) was bigger than the threat the other person posed. I could not let my feelings of vulnerability get better of me.

Someone once said, “Feelings are like waves, you can’t control them, but you can choose which ones to surf!” Sure you can go home and pour yourself a glass of wine and discuss this with girlfriends all evening, but in that moment, you need to be bigger than the situation. Professionalism demands that you ‘appear’ in control even if you feel you are not. Perpetuating the drama of the situation feeds the other person’s appetite. Don’t fall for that trap! In the moment, if it helps you, think of how your role model might respond. Sometimes adopting a persona makes it easier to move past the situation.

3. Anchor yourself in your worth. Iyanla Vanzant once said, “We cannot outperform our level of self-esteem. We cannot draw to ourselves more then we think we are worth.”

Women who have strong self-esteem navigate the challenges to authority better. The rest of us mostly engage in extensive post-mortem of the situation to see what we could have done differently or blame ourselves for the events. However, one must remember the other person’s criticism of you may be a closer reflection of who ‘they’ are and not what ‘you’ really are. Self-awareness and self-appreciation are fundamental for self-confidence. Not everyone will like you. And that is fine. As Byron Katie notes, “You don’t have to like me. That is my job!” Learn to like and appreciate yourself in order to stand up for yourself.

The higher you get, the more risks you take, the greater the reward. However, your ascent will be matched with the rise in criticism and challenges to your authority. Develop an appetite for it. Someone once told me that power is never taken away, it is relinquished. Make sure you hold onto yours!

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