How to Deal with Informal Leaders Who Undermine Your Authority

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Informal leaders undermine authorityYou’re the manager of a large surgical ICU. You have one assistant manager, 2 supervisors, and several charge nurses. When you meet with your leadership team, they all appear to be in agreement with initiatives, process improvement changes, etc. However, you suspect that one or more of your leaders are secretly undermining your authority.

What’s the Problem?

Your formal and informal leaders may be more influential than you are as the primary leader in your department. And, because they are in a leadership role, you make the assumption that they are “good to go.” That they will always back you up with any initiatives or process improvement changes. But as I have seen many times, these leaders can actually be your biggest problem if you’re not paying attention. They’re a problem because they can sabotage and undermine the primary leader’s efforts and many times, the leader doesn’t even know it.

Common ways undermining shows up at work.

  • The manager tells everyone at the staff meeting that starting Monday, everyone has to start bedside report. The assistant manager nods his head “yes” repeatedly and even lets everyone know that the leadership team will be making rounds to make sure nurses are complying.

On Monday, the assistant manager whispers to some of the nurses (his friends), “Just make sure you’re doing bedside rounds when the boss is here.”

  • There’s a new protocol for labeling specimens. The manager asks the supervisors to educate the staff on the new method. While instructing everyone, the supervisor says, “I think this is stupid but we have to do ‘what the boss’ says.”

These leaders have one foot in the leadership camp and one foot in the staff camp.

What is undermining?

Undermining literally means to dig a hole underneath something until it collapses. When undermining shows up among the leadership team, the effects can be devastating to the primary leader and to the team.


  • Damages credibility

Employees look to their primary leader as the authority. They need to believe their leader is credible so that they will listen and follow instructions. However, when another leader is downplaying or dismissing what the primary leader says, this causes employees to become uncertain. As a result, the employees are less likely to follow instructions.

  • Weakens the department’s goals/successes

Healthcare is in constant change – that’s a given. With each change, there is an intended goal or measurement of success. It could be quality scores, turn-around times, etc. If the leadership team isn’t all moving towards the same goal, they won’t reach it.

  • Breaks trust

Ultimately, when the primary leader doesn’t trust their formal and informal leaders, everything slows down. Why? Because they have to spend time and energy reinforcing initiatives, following up on process changes, and double-checking to make sure things are communicated appropriately. The primary leader can start to doubt them and then be referred to as a “micromanager” because he or she doesn’t trust that the other leaders are actually on the same page. This “social undermining” can take an emotional toll on everyone involved.

Why undermining occurs?

In general, people aren’t sitting around deliberating thinking, “hmmm…how can I undermine her/this project? How can I sabotage this new initiative…?” However, the end result is the same. But why are some people more likely to undermine someone’s authority?

Here are just a few reasons:

  • They’re not comfortable being direct.

If someone doesn’t feel comfortable communicating directly, they will find an indirect method to communicate their concerns, which typically is passive-aggressive.

  • They don’t feel safe speaking up.

I conducted a series of focus groups a few years ago. When I talked with the managers, they admitted that they did not feel safe to speak up with their directors. They feared losing their jobs if they disagreed with anything and therefore, said yes to everything – even though they knew some initiatives would fail.

  • They want the staff to see them as on their side.

When I go into organizations as a consultant to transform cultures, I typically find a divide between the staff and the management team. There are many reasons for this divide and we adopt strategies to close this divide. However, some leaders want the staff to view them as “on their side” so they bad-mouth the primary leader when around the staff yet bad-mouth the staff when around the primary leader. It’s a vicious cycle.

How to minimize undermining.

If you suspect your formal and informal leaders are undermining your authority, here are a few ways to make it better.

  1. Involve your leaders from the beginning

If this was just your department, and everyone reported to you, we wouldn’t have to add this other layer. But because there are other leaders, who are also involved, meet them for coffee, get together, meet for an adult beverage after work, whatever. Just say, this is my intent, this is what I’d like to do, and I’d like you to be involved. Be the role models for creating an environment here where people want to come to work. Where people support and nurture each other. I think we can do wonderful things here and say you need their help to do that.

Basically, you want to get their buy-in right from the beginning.

  1. Engage in honest conversations

If you suspect your leadership team is undermining you, pull them aside and say I’ve noticed that there have been times when we’re rolling out a new initiative that in front of me you’ve supported. However, I’ve then found out that you’ve complained about the initiative in front of the employees. Can we talk about this?

  1. Make it safe to disagree

Let your leadership team know that it’s okay to disagree. Encourage them to ask questions so that they can fully understand any new initiative or process change. Set precedence that as a leadership team, you’ll talk about any concerns with each other first. Make each leader feel that their opinion matters and they can make a unique contribution to the overall team.  Once the leadership team is on the same page, then you’ll be better able to communicate with the staff.

In Amy Edmonson’s video regarding how to create psychological safety, she gives great advice on making it safe for people to speak up. Click here to watch. Amy recommends that saying things like, “I’d love your input on this” can help make others feel that their opinion counts. When this happens, people are more likely to speak up even if they disagree.

While you may not be able to completely stop others from undermining, as a leader, you can reduce these incidents, especially among your leadership team. The key is to not assume that just because someone is in a leadership role, informal or formal, that they automatically support everything you do. To cultivate a professional, supportive, and respectful workforce culture where undermining, sabotage, and backstabbing are immediately rejected and professionalism because the norm, you need to first start with your leadership team!

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