Ways to Handle Staff Power Struggles

Most of us have the joy of supervising people who are mild-mannered, team-players, and get along with their co-workers. But occasionally we have those vocal staff members who feel the need to be in charge. Unfortunately, they are typically untactful in their approach and this creates discord among the staff. This can eventually lead to conflicts and, ultimately, a lack of production. The situation can be worse if you have multiple staffers who enagage in the same behavior.

As the leader of the group, you need to be able to quickly and efficiently handle power struggles that will occur on your team before they get out of control.

Here are some tactics you can use to alleviate team power struggles:


Hire for Attitude – Take the time to thoroughly assess candidates for postivie attitude, getting along with others, and the ability to work effectively on a team. Purposely ask questions that assess for potential staffers’ need to control and be in charge. Examples include: Tell us about a time you felt that you had to take charge of a situation? Give us an example of when you had a conflict with a co-worker over an assigned task? While we certainly want staffers to take control of situations, we don’t want them power hungry and starting staff civil wars. Mark A. Murphy better illustrates this in his book Hiring for Attitude: A Revolutionary Approach to Recruiting and Selecting People with Both Tremendous Skills and Superb Attitude.

Employ the “No Asshole Rule” – Robert I. Sutton recommends that supervisors utilize the “No Asshole Rule,” which essentially means not tolerating those who act like bullies with whom they work or are supposed to serve, particularly subordinates. Setting this expectation during staff recruitment sessions, training, and supervisory one-on-one’s are important tactics in helping to maintain a drama-free staff. I highly recommend Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t. He includes a short survey to see whether or not you yourself display these types of behaviors in the workplace.

Be the Role Model / Set the Standard – Staff will typically emulate your example in how they conduct themselves and interact with their co-workers. If you exhibit pushy, demeaning, and demanding behaviors, your staffers will see this and potentially use the same approach with their colleagues. Take stock in how you rare representing yourself to your employees. Humility goes a long way in setting a positive example. Dan Rockwell (@leadershipfreak) explains more in Secrets to Leading without Position or Authority.

Illustrate the Chain-of-Command & Discuss Expectations – Fully explain who reports to whom and who is in charge of what. Additionally, illustrate what tasks and responsibilities staffers are NOT in charge of or are NOT supposed to be involved with. This helps to clarify expectations so there is no confusion among staffers. These expectations should be directly tied to specific job descriptions and supporting literature in employee handbooks.


Channel & Direct Their Energy – Give those who need to be in charge something to do. And I don’t mean busy work for work’s sake. Create projects or new responsibilities purposely for them to allow them to stretch their wings while also being challenged. Keep a close eye on them and have them report their progress during your regularly scheduled supervisory discussions. However, be careful not to “feed the beast” by enabling their ability to boss around their staffers with the new project(s). This can be accomplished by having it as a solo project or by having them work exclusively with you.

Supervisory Discussions – Use one-on-one supervisory meetings to quickly address staffers that are extending their reach. Seek to understand why they are getting overly zealous. They may actually perceive that they are being helpful when, in fact, they are creating more problems than solutions. If necessary (and use this very sparingly), tactfully remind them that you are ultimately the supervisor of the team. See my previous post, 10 Tips for Mentoring & Supervising a Know-It-All, for more advice.

Limit Work Scope – Supervisors who have a laissez-faire attitude about what can and should be done among staffers can create an environment that breeds uncertainty. While some staffers may become aloof, others will see this as an opportunity and will go overboard trying to solve or fix things that may not be broken (including their colleagues). As stated previously, clarify roles and position expectations. Staffers with unlimited reach can create complications.

What are some insights and stories that you can share related to staff power struggles? Share your comments below you will be entered into a drawing to win a copy of  The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t by Robert I. Sutton.

4 thoughts on “Ways to Handle Staff Power Struggles

  1. Steven K.

    Boredom within their position is something I’ve noticed with staff members who constantly feel the need to be in charge. To them, they’ve become experts in their position and no longer are challenged. That is when I like to challenge them with a different task and allow them to work on special projects that will not only benefit the staff (and for my purposes the building community) but build additional skill sets for said staff member. If that doesn’t work, serving some “humble pie” may become necessary.

    1. studentlifeguru

      That is a great point, Steve. Boredom can also happen during August and mid-year trainings for those staffers who have been through the same training multiple times. Your suggestion of involving them in special projects during this time applies well here. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Donna Schaeffer

    Over the years I have become a huge advocate of capitalizing on the strengths of each individual staff member. One of the ways to increase leadership skills is to pair up staff on projects based on strengths and areas of improvements. Each one has an opportunity to be the teacher and the student, providing learning experiences for both, as well as the ability to exercise power and experience a bit of humility at the same time. We cannot be experts in everything, but we can certainly attempt to develop an understanding and appreciation of all things.

    1. studentlifeguru

      Great point, Donna. One way to potentially do this is to use the Strengths Finder assessment to attempt to match staffers up on projects based upon their strengths. Staff can learn from each others’ strengths.


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