Q: A senior manager in my company regularly swoops in to tell people in other groups what they’re doing wrong — sometimes he elevates it to his superiors. He’s been here much longer than most of us and definitely has a lot of institutional knowledge about the specific rules and regulations at the firm. But sometimes it feels like he uses that knowledge to bully others into following his lead or to squelch dissent. It’s hard to argue even valid points against someone who knows so much. Speak out too loudly and you risk looking insubordinate. Is there an ethical middle ground?
A: You’re the one caught in the middle here. You were hired to do a job, and you’re figuring out how to do it by drawing on your previous experiences, your training, feedback you’ve received from others above and below you, and your knowledge of the industry. While you are expected to incorporate all these streams of data into your job performance, it’s not within your abilities to know everything, especially about events that occurred at your firm long before you started.
It’s also not fair, or productive, for a higher-up to suppress your opinions at work just because he’s been there longer. In fact, a major reason companies hire from outside, instead of always promoting from within, is to bring in new ideas. If this manager succeeds in holding your organisation to the strictures of yesteryear, he’s likely doing you all a disservice.
“This is, first of all, a problem for your supervisor, since his or her leadership of your group is being undermined by the officious senior manager’s meddling,” said Dana Radcliffe, the Day Family Senior Lecturer of Business Ethics at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York.
Your boss needs to sit down with this manager, or the manager’s superiors, and decide who’s in charge of what. It’s not this manager’s job, presumably, to tell everyone in the office what to do. There are chains of command for a reason.
Don’t confront the manager yourself, Radcliffe advised in an email to Work Ethic: “Rather, you should have a low-key but serious chat with your supervisor, diplomatically expressing your confusion about the lines of authority.” Frame the conversation as an attempt to understand what your supervisor expects you do to when a manager from outside of your group starts giving you orders.
It’s quite possible that the meddling manager has some valuable points to add about how the company is deviating from best practices or from procedures that were long ago established for a good reason. But he’s doing it the wrong way.
“Whatever he has to offer these other groups isn’t being channelled effectively, a fact he seems not to recognize,” Radcliffe said. So it’s up to his peers, like your boss, to help channel his feedback so that it doesn’t get in everyone’s way.
While you're waiting for your boss to address the issue with higher-ups, consider how you can present ideas so that the meddling manager doesn't shoot them down immediately. Perhaps portraying your suggestions as rooted in company history will work. You may not want to call attention to how innovative or disruptive your plans are.
What if the problem is that your know-it all manager is strong-arming people into making the wrong decisions, based on his own faulty understanding of what was done before or what the competitive situation is today? Then you have a bigger problem, Radcliffe says: "Not only is he encroaching on other managers’ ‘territory,’ but his ill-informed ‘guidance’ may be interfering with the other groups’ operations." That makes it even more crucial that your boss get involved.
If your boss isn't up to the task of getting this manager to simmer down, you may be stuck tiptoeing around for a while — or even approaching a higher-level executive who can fix the situation by neutralizing the meddler.
Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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