Handling Direct Challenges to Your Authority

tanvigautamContributed by Tanvi Gautam, PhD

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.

Lessons Learnt

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!

Tanvi Gautam, PhD, is the Managing Partner of an HR consulting and training firm ( aimed at creating high engagement work places. Tanvi is a strong believer in the power of storytelling for managing change at the individual and organizational level. When it comes to women and leadership she reminds her clients: “If not you, then who. If not now, then when ?” Follow her  on Twitter (@tanvi_gautam) or contact her at

13 Responses

  1. Dee

    Excellent article! Thank you for publishing your thoughts on this topic. I have experienced several similar instances in my career. One time I was in my SVPs office with the overbearing CLO. While I’m not sure it had anything to do with my gender, I did have to tell him he was making my blood pressure rise well before Noon and that was unacceptable! I try to use humor to defuse sticky situations. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you have to take the serious road. I also feel it is my duty as a woman in my predominantly male industry to help other women stand up for themselves. I like to say that I insert a backbone into my female co-workers backs. I see so many of my female co-workers getting railroaded. I stop it the second it happens and don’t look back or feel guilty about it. Great article! Thanks again.

  2. Gloria

    What about when the challenging remarks come from a male superior in the midst of your peers (also male)?

  3. The tenor of this article sounds rather defensive, as though the author is trying to say that women don’t deserve their positions of authority (we presume they do) and therefore must take a rather defensive hostile approach towards authority challenges. We would recommend that the ladies sit down over a cup of coffee and discuss the challenge with the challenger and find out what’s bugging him or her.
    John Heinrich,Chief Mentor
    American School of Entrepreneurship

  4. Thank you for writing this article and for your excellent advice on how to handle these kinds of situations. I’ve worked in executive level and management roles and I have also experienced my authority being challenged in the workplace simply because I am a woman. It is often subtle, as you mention examples such as withholding data, gossip, forming alliances against you, or otherwise simply being uncooperative. Sometimes a woman may not even recognize this kind of discriminatory behavior and conclude she is not being effective in some way. Take some time to reflect and trust your instincts. Navigating this kind of environment can be tricky. The tips in this article give a very good foundation for dealing with these situations. Every person should be treated with respect in the workplace, so you should expect it.

  5. cads

    What about when the challenging remarks come from a female superior in the midst of your peers and subordinates in a mixed setting?

  6. Tanvi

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Really appreciate it !!

    I was very conflicted about if I should share this story but the response has confirmed that the article needed to be written.

    Interestingly, I have had many men share it on Twitter and my own husband told me a story or two on how he handled such challenges at work. The example he shared was a challenge from a woman who felt the need to mark her territory when no threat was even being posed ! So Gloria & Cads, absolutely, there can be so many situations and angles to this (men-men, men-women, women-women, superior-subordinate, gender based or not and so on). I was just writing about ‘one’ such scenario.

    Dee: Yes, humor is a VERY powerful no threatening tool. I wish I had more of it at times (LOL !). Not always easy to see the lighter side when in the midst of the situation, so if you were able to do it, hats off to you. I admire your willingness to do what is right.

    John: We would all love a cup of coffee and conversation 🙂 In some situations though it is not always possible. Which is why I proposed that response be modulated. If coffee does it, sure why not 🙂 Moreover, as Lindsey says it so well, we must trust our gut instinct in handling the situation.

    I would love to hear more stories on challenges and responses. Please feel to email me if you wish. This issue does not have a black or white solution but many shades of grey which each of us can navigate only within broad guidelines, and through experience sharing.

    @tanvi_gautam (Twitter).

  7. Erica

    I have experienced little, if any, sisterhood at work. In my experience, my most trusted female colleagues have been the most trusted colleagues to both women and men; that is to say, they behave similarly around all of their co-workers regardless of gender. I have experienced several instances in which women absolutely could not stand the existence of a female upper-level manager. The unacceptability of a woman with authority seems to exist within both women and men. I work in the United States and have worked closely for more than 20 years with hundreds of people born in Western Europe, Russia, China, Korea, India and Japan as well and I have observed this attitude among some workers from all of these cultures.

    cads, to answer your post: the response could be the same to a female curmudgeon head of IT as it was to the male one. The IT curmedgeon is still a curmedgeon regardless of internal plumbing and needs to be dealt with as such.

  8. Kathleen Gillespie

    Dr. Gautam – – I appreciate and value your perspective. For example, you employ the word “respond” in your article to describe your “lessons learned.” I like how you think. Your insight is applicable to any leader in today’s dynamic and competitive marketplace. The professionals entrusted with leadership (should) consistently choose to “respond” and not “react.” “Respond” implies an awareness and a consciousness about the context which is vital. No where is this “awareness” more critical than within the IT industry. Hardware and software systems are highly complex. The technical systems our organizations depend on are only as good as the professionals who (are supposed to) collaborate to design, build, and maintain them. I applaud your article and the assertive stand you took at work. I am impressed by your forthright description of how uncomfortable your male collegue’s comments made you feel. As a woman in a tradtionally male industry, it is all too easy to simply emulate the traditional “command and control” leadership style. Actually, this is what your male collegue did. He seems to have definitely and correctly understood you. You were making an intentional and appropriate stand. He incorrectly interpreted your behavior because his thinking is still anchored in the traditional “command and control” perspective entrenched in our organizations from the 20th century. His words demonstrate he views you first as a woman, and not a leader. Accordingly, he turned a work request in service of the organization into a gender issue. We all need new ways of thinking about work – – especially in fields where technology professionals are responsible for the systems we depend on. Words matter. Congratulations on navigating a tricky work context professionally and for sharing your lessons learned. .

  9. Tanvi

    Erica thanks for sharing your experiences. Your spread of work ex validates my hunch further ! If you have any stories, please, please email me.
    Kathleen, wow ! Your interpretation are spot on and have given me a new perspective on the situation. Thank you so much !
    @Tanvi_gautam (Twitter)

  10. Kathleen Gillespie

    Dr. Gautam – – you are welcome. It is my honor and pleasure.

    A great deal of my time in the work world has been employed learning how to positively navigate challenges to the authenticity of my leadership by other IT professionals. It should be noted that both men and women can adopt the autocratic leadership style.

    I am very happy to know there is a benefit to someone else from all the time I have invested in understanding the dynamics of the autocratic command and control communication in the non-military civilian workplace – – and how to best respond.

    As women in leadership positions in non-military organizations traditionally dominated by men — such as science, technology, engineering, and math — I believe we have the unique opportunity to understand the command and control dynamic and respond in affirming and assertive ways.

    It is all too easy to return aggression with aggression. That type of aggressive response works on genuine and clearly understood REAL battlefields where our military, fire, police, and emergency professionals live their lives.

    However, aggression is not the response I need in the workplace or from any co-worker. As an IT professional and as a woman who leads, when I am working to achieve obvious organizational objectives, I expect cooperation and support. My experience has been, that as a woman leader, the same level of cooperation and support enjoyed by my male counterparts requires at least TEN times the effort on my part. And unfortunately, there have been times when no matter how hard I have tried, nothing worked. But, I always give it my absolute best effort. That’s how I learn to do better the next time. This requires personal resilience.

    I wonder sometimes, what past, current, and future innovations in science, technology, engineering, and math have been and will be lost because highly educated and qualified voices are silenced? It takes time and energy to contend with the regular drama of no longer effective corporate cultures where regular displays of micro aggression is the unspoken “norm.”

    We all stand to win by learning new ways to be effective in the 21st century workplace.

  11. Joe

    Interesting article, I think everyone has been in a similar situation. As a vendor I have had to “motivate” people to get things done that do not work for me. While I will use humor or being friendly at first, if that doesn’t always work. In this case having to go to them after 45 minutes you have to assume something has gone wrong. In those scenarios I go thru the encounter in my mind before I actually talk to the person so I have a strategy ready. This person was trying to change the focus from his failure to produce the report into an argument about who worked for who. I stay focused on my goal (i.e getting the data) and refuse to play their game.