Dealing With Bossy Co-Workers
Managing Dominant People in the Workplace
You've just arrived at your office and started on your first task of the day. Suddenly, your colleague Bill pops into your office, and you groan inwardly.
Bill is the most domineering co-worker in your department. He's given himself an "invisible promotion" and acts as if he's your boss. He's constantly telling you what to do, and giving you feedback on how you can improve. In short, he drives you crazy with his bossiness!
You definitely want to stop Bill from being so domineering, and you want him to start treating you as a colleague instead of a subordinate. So, what should you do? And how do you handle this, without starting a workplace feud?
Most of us have had to work with an overly controlling colleague in the past. You might even be working with one right now! Bossy or domineering co-workers not only create additional stress and tension in the workplace, they also lower morale, reduce productivity, and increase employee turnover.
In this article, we'll look at how you can assert yourself with overly-dominant co-workers, and we'll discuss what you can do to defuse the situation.
This article focuses on working effectively with over-dominant co-workers. If, however, you're dealing with someone who is intentionally causing you emotional pain, whether consciously or subconsciously, then this is a much more serious problem. Our article on Workplace Bullying addresses this issue.
Bossiness at Work
If you've ever worked with a colleague who's overly controlling, then you know that it can be frustrating, stressful, and even humiliating. Your colleague may not even realize how his or her behavior is affecting you.
Co-workers who are overly dominant often manipulate people and situations to reach their goals. This could involve using official, supervisory power that they have as part of their roles, or it could involve using power that they've taken upon themselves, such as a personal assistant taking on the power of being a "gatekeeper" to his boss.
Being a "know-it-all" is another form of dominance, and this type of bossy co-worker might only be trying to help. For instance, when your colleague tells you what you need to do to improve, he might sincerely want to help you grow professionally. There's a good chance he has no idea how annoying or frustrating his behavior is.
Other times, colleagues can be bossy because of narcissism; they really believe that they know how to do everyone else's job better, and they don't hesitate to share this "knowledge." People like this can simply have no sense that ordering others around leaves those people feeling devalued.
Your boss can also be "bossy." Yes, your boss has the right and the responsibility to tell you what to do and to provide feedback. However, bosses can sometimes cross the line and go too far by micromanaging your work, or by trying to control areas of your life that should really be your own business.
How to Handle Bossy or Dominant Colleagues
When others exhibit bossy behavior, it often brings out the worst in us. No one likes to be controlled, and when the person doing it isn't our boss, we may feel stress, anger, frustration, annoyance, and even fear.
That said, it's important to realize that we have a choice in how we react to other people's behavior. A bossy co-worker only angers us because we allow him to do so. Always remember that your feelings and reactions are entirely up to you.
You can use several strategies to deal with overbearing colleagues. We explore these below:
1. Clarify the Other Person's Power
The first thing you need to do is clarify the other person's power. Is she truly being bossy, or does she have the right, as part of her role, to tell you what to do?
Everyone has different forms of power at work. Your colleague might have power over you because she's been at the organization longer. She might have "expert power" and feel that she has the right to tell you what to do because she knows more about a particular topic than you do.
It's helpful to clarify the other person's power and determine whether that person truly has the right, whether explicit or implicit, to ask you to do work. (Our article on French and Raven's Five Forms of Power teaches you how to identify the different forms of power in the workplace.)
2. Try to Understand Their Behavior
People exhibit bossy behavior for a variety of reasons.
For instance, colleagues might be domineering because they want to see work done well, and this may make them feel that they have to micromanage the work around them. Or, they might have been on the team longer than you; and this may lead them to feel that they have a right to boss others around, even when that's outside their role.
Others might exhibit bossy behavior because they want to feel important, respected, or even loved by their colleagues. And sometimes a colleague might act in a dominant way to hide their fear or insecurity.
Try to use empathy, and put yourself in your colleague's shoes. If you suspect that your colleague's bossiness is a coping mechanism, then a little compassion on your part could go a long way toward stopping the behavior. Our article on Transactional Analysis can also help you decipher why your colleague is showing this behavior.
3. Stand Your Ground
Once you've clarified their power and have thought about their behavior, you need to confront the problem assertively, by standing your ground and setting
boundaries. Make sure that the other person knows that their behavior is upsetting you.
For instance, you could say, "Susan, I appreciate your desire to make sure all of the work gets done. However, I can't work on projects unless our boss gives me the go-ahead. Do you want me to talk to her about these assignments?"
Often, a conversation like this will serve as a reality check for your colleague, by reminding her that she isn't the boss and that your real boss might not appreciate her interference. If you're nervous about confronting your colleague, then use role-play to prepare for this conversation. Our article on Assertiveness will also be useful.
In addition, knowing how to prioritize upcoming tasks plays a role. Your colleague might think he's in the right for handing out assignments, but ultimately, the most important projects come from your boss. As well as this, there are several ways that you can say no to a task while still maintaining a good relationship with your colleague; and our article, Yes to the Person, No to the Task, explores this.
It can be difficult to stand your ground, so learning effective conflict resolution skills can also help you be firm and diplomatic with your colleague.
If you don't like someone's behavior, it's easy to forget to thank them when they actually do something that helps you. When this happens, put your ego aside and show your gratitude appropriately. Just be sure to continue using the other strategies we've highlighted here, as well!
4. Consult Your Boss
If you speak with a colleague about his or her bossiness but you don't see any improvement, then it may be worth going to your boss for advice. If you explain the situation and how your colleague's bossiness is affecting your work, you might inspire your boss to take action.
However, keep in mind that your boss won't always stand up for you. Sometimes your boss can stop the behavior, but, ultimately, you need to be assertive and stand your ground. This is not only effective but also very empowering.
Managing Your Emotions
Working with bossy co-workers can be a real challenge, especially if they refuse to change their behavior. Often, these situations can result in stress, unhappiness at work, or poor morale. It can even affect your productivity, and the quality of your work.
Be aware of how you're feeling, and manage your emotions so that they don't affect your work.
First, keep a stress diary. Sometimes, writing out your thoughts and feelings can help lower or even eliminate the stress you're feeling. Thought awareness, rational thinking, and positive thinking can also be useful here; this tool guides you through a process for identifying negative thoughts and emotions, and for challenging them, so that you can live life in a more positive way.
Using meditation to manage stress is often highly effective. You can even calm yourself down by sitting at your desk with your eyes closed, and by breathing deeply for a couple of minutes.
People exhibit bossiness for a variety of reasons: they might sincerely want to help you do better, they might have a valid reason for giving you feedback or extra assignments, or they could be looking for recognition or validation.
You can do several things to deal with bossy colleagues:
- Clarify the person's power.
- Try to understand their behavior.
- Stand your ground assertively.
- Consult your boss.
If you experience stress or tension because of a bossy colleague, then you need to manage this appropriately – try keeping a stress diary, or even using meditation to relax.