A mid-level manager recently asked me to help him “fix” his boss. The situation stemmed from a staff meeting where the manager felt that the “big boss” had undermined his authority in front of his team.
The story starts with the big boss asking if she could attend the monthly team meeting. The manager agreed and invited her to attend. At the meeting the staff were asked, as always, whether there were any changes they thought the organization should consider. A policy change was proposed, everyone was asked for their thoughts about it, and, on the spot, the big boss agreed to make the change.
The manager was furious with the big boss. Turns out he did not agree with the policy change. He did not say so during the meeting, but he thought the change would cost the organization too much. He had helped put the original policy in place to save money and he felt that by raising the matter with the big boss, his staff had gone around him to get it changed and the big boss had then undermined his authority.
My thoughts on this were not what the manager wanted to hear. I felt that far from undermining him, the big boss had merely exercised her right to engage the whole team and act on their input, if she so chose. My advice to the manager was to get in line and not undermine the authority of the big boss.
There is a fine line here. This policy was an organization-wide policy that was the big boss’s decision to make. The manager had been part of putting the original policy in place and had initially won over the big boss. The team then changed the big boss’s mind. Had this been a decision of the manager within his area of decision-making and the big boss overruled it based on input from the team, this would have indeed undermined the manager’s authority. But that’s not what happened.
The real important messages here are to make sure that it is clear who has authority over what, and that people respect the distribution of authority. Big bosses should work privately with lower-level managers if they don’t like what is happening and should never undermine them with their teams. Lower-level managers should never publicly oppose the decisions of upper-level bosses and should instead take it up with them privately when they disagree. This is the way things work in strong organizations with the right people in the right places, and with authority distributed effectively.