There is no doubt that some people will test your leadership during your career. Your team members will try to push boundaries and see how you react in different situations.
For leaders managing a new team, this “feeling out” process is common. People will test your leadership and see if there are any cracks.
Ultimately, I think that team members who are testing your leadership are asking the question: “Should I respect this person?” or “Are they worth following?”
To Respect, or Not? There’s Tension In Testing Your Leadership
I notice an interesting tension in teams that are testing their leaders. I believe that most team members don’t come to work trying to be nasty, difficult or disrespectful, but it can seem that way when your leadership is being tested daily.
I’ve always believed that your people want to trust and believe in your leadership.
Some team members need to see evidence that you are trustworthy, credible, capable and worthy of their respect.
Once you can provide this, they’re yours to lead.
Learn More: Liked or Respected: Which Would You Rather Be?
Sometimes a Bad Attitude Comes From a Good Team Member
Let’s look at a quick example.
Jason is working in a team that has just taken on a new manager. He has leadership aspirations of his own, and can see himself leading this team one day.
Jason is a good team member, but he starts to test the new leader. He questions decisions, tests their understanding of the industry and how the team functions.
On the surface, it seems like Jason might have an attitude problem. The thing is, Jason is experiencing tension.
Every day he comes to work, and he sees somebody in the role that he thinks he should be playing.
Thoughts begin to creep in. “Am I not good enough?”, “Why wouldn’t they pick me?”, “Why does this person deserve it more than me?”
This leads Jason to act out, which isn’t in line with his normal behaviour.
The purpose of this example is to highlight that when people test your leadership, it’s not necessarily because your team is full of nasty or incompetent team members.
It may be that they are experiencing tension from their own beliefs and motivations that are brought out by the situation.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #87: How to Fix Behaviour Issues In Your Team.
How People Will Test Your Leadership
Next, let’s look at some common ways that team members like to test our leadership. As we’ve already covered, it’s not necessarily malicious or nasty, but it can feel uncomfortable for a leader.
1. Going Their Own Way
Some team members will decide that their way is the best way. While this seems like a great idea when you’re singing the popular “Go your own way” song by Fleetwood Mac, it can be a real disruption for leaders and teams.
Team members may make decisions without consulting you, or assume that they can do whatever they like without asking.
This is a test of your leadership, because it can be tricky finding the right balance.
Giving people autonomy is great for motivation, but letting people do whatever they want can undermine your authority or the outcomes you are trying to achieve.
2. Pushing Your Personal Boundaries
Perhaps you like to keep your Friday free of meetings. Maybe, you like to leave early one day per week to make it to your boxing session. It could be that you dedicate two hours per day as “focus time” to help you nail your important priorities.
And then you find that a team member starts to step over those boundaries. They interrupt your focus time, they book meetings with you when you aren’t available.
Sometimes, this can even lead to questioning your commitment when you sometimes put your own needs ahead of others.
3. Questioning Your Decisions
Ever had a team member question a decision you made, or critique your knowledge of a topic or something happening in your workplace?
It can be quite uncomfortable.
Team members have valuable experience and opinions to share, but it can go too far. If you’re unable to make a call without being questioned at every turn, this can really test your leadership.
Learn More: Making Difficult Decisions: Essential Steps for Leaders.
4. Missing Deadlines
Some team members may miss deadlines that you’ve set.
This is an interesting test for your leadership, because it may be saying “I didn’t think your deadline was real or important” or “I don’t think the work really needed to be done at that time”.
What to do? Come out all guns blazing with punishment? Or back off and potentially set a precedent that will cause this to happen again and again?
Learn More: 3 Simple Reasons Your Team is Missing Deadlines and How to Fix It.
5. Building Relationships With Other Leaders
Another common occurrence in many workplaces is that team members will start to build relationships with other leaders. They may even work closely with your colleagues, confiding in them or discussing workplace issues without consulting you.
This is natural in complex work environments, where teams usually need to work together to achieve outcomes.
However, it can feel quite uncomfortable for leaders when they feel “out of the loop” and unaware, or not included in what is happening around them.
So, What Can You Do When People Test Your Leadership?
I always try to include some actionable advice in my articles, so here are some ideas of what you can do, when your leadership is being tested.
1. Be Patient
When your leadership is being tested, it pays to be patient. Building respect and trust takes time, because it happens incrementally with each action you take.
If you’re leading a new team, or have taken over from someone else, this will be a natural part of the process.
If you can remember that, you’ll feel much more patient when people challenge you along the way.
2. Remain Calm and Composed
Sometimes when people are testing your leadership, they’re looking for “cracks”. Little gaps in your armour where they can slide in a dagger and cause you to break.
Inexperienced leaders can become frustrated and engage in emotional outbursts that have their team running for cover.
But these displays of frustration are a clear sign to a team that is testing you:
“They can’t handle the pressure”.
Remaining composed will help you to engage with your team in a constructive manner when they do start to test you. However, this may sound easier said than done!
Here are some ideas:
- Visualise yourself responding constructively. Visualisation is a powerful technique that can help to wire your brain to respond better by instinct, even in tough situations. You can read more about how to visualise here.
- Use Alternative Explanations. Instead of automatically jumping to the conclusion that “Jason is a jerk”, think of some other alternative explanations for his behaviour. This will help to reduce the intensity of your emotional response.
- Be a Role Model. Do you want your team screaming and shouting, or bursting into tears? While we don’t want to become emotionless robots, we’d rather people could maintain a calm and constructive demeanour most of the time. Remember, what you do – people see, and emulate.
It can take practice to remain calm and composed, but with some effort, you’ll get there.
When people test your leadership, reduce the opportunities for them to say “They can’t handle the pressure”.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #124: How to Stay Calm In Tricky, Stressful and Uncertain Situations.
3. Be Clear
When people are starting to trample over your boundaries, miss deadlines and go their own way, you need to exercise some control over the situation.
Failing to do so will set a precedent for future behaviour.
In other words, if there are no consequences, why would anybody bother to change their behaviour?
While it can take time for a team to adjust and for you to build respect, drawing a line in the sand is important.
When someone does something that is not acceptable, use clear examples to describe what happened, and what you would have liked to have seen instead.
Engage in a conversation about the behaviour or attitude you are seeing, so you can find out what’s behind it, and communicate that continuing in this fashion is not acceptable.
Of course, sometimes people test your leadership because they aren’t being heard. So taking the time to ask for feedback can also help your people to feel understood and respected themselves.
Here are some questions to consider:
Can the situation continue like it is?
Well, what are you going to do about it?
Putting steps in place to address poor attitudes and behaviour is a key part of building respect from your team. It’s hard to respect someone who lets you roll right over them.
Learn More: 6 Steps to Deal With Behaviour Issues In Your Team.
4. Build Trust
Trust will help you to break down barriers and reduce the temptation for people to test your leadership. After all, the testing is to see whether you’re up to the job.
If your people trust you, there is no need for them to test any further.
It takes time to build trust and respect, through incremental action. Small, consistent positive signs show your team that you are on their side, and you want what is best for them and the team.
To build trust:
- Cut out self-serving behaviour. This simply demonstrates that you’re bigger than the team and will erode trust. Selfish, limelight-craving actions will show others that you’re just in it for yourself.
- Take small positive steps. Each positive interaction, show of support or recognition starts to build trust, because people see you’re on their side.
- Give credit. Giving credit where it’s due shows people that you aren’t craving attention to feed your ego. People will trust you, when you show you want them to do well.
- Ask for input. Telling people what to do all the time is not as effective as it used to be. Ask for opinions and feedback, to help people shape the team, to build trust.
- Stop focusing on being liked. Do the things that need to be done, not the things that will make people like you. A coaching client of mine once discovered during our work together “When they started to respect me, they started to like me more”. People like people who they respect. Be someone they can respect.
Trust is a huge factor in successful teams, and will reduce the tendency of your people to try to test you so much.
Over time, the testing will be over, because you’ll have passed with flying colours.
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