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Advice for Dealing with a Bossy Co-Worker

Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley
Staff writer

When dealing with a bossy co-worker, follow these five steps.

Co-workers play a significant role in how we feel about coming to work each day. Having supportive, fun-loving colleagues can make you feel eager to come into work in the morning, while toxic co-workers make you dread each workday.

One type of co-worker that is especially difficult to handle is an individual who is overly bossy. A bossy co-worker is generally someone who dictates the room, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and shares their opinion as fact. Their behavior may consist of telling you what to do, critiquing you on how to do your job or even monopolizing brainstorm sessions. Dealing with a bossy co-worker is frustrating and sometimes impedes productivity.

If you have a bossy co-worker who is making your life at work miserable, follow these five tactics to create a more even playing field.

Step 1: Create boundaries.

It is important to create and enforce transparent boundaries between you and your co-workers. This can be easy if you have different job titles, as you can then simply divide up the workload based on your job descriptions. Having predetermined responsibilities can be helpful in deflecting unreasonable requests from bossy co-workers.

Selena Rezvani, author of Pushback and vice president at BeLeaderly, suggested proactively discussing your job description with your manager to determine what tasks are superfluous to your role and worthy of passing on. 

"Contract verbally with your manager that they'll back you up and provide cover if and when you say no to a task," said Rezvani. "If your boss endorses the boundary you've created, you have a much better chance of overcoming pushback from your colleague later on."

Step 2: Acknowledge and decline demands.

It can be difficult to just outright ignore someone who keeps telling you what to do, and it is unlikely to resolve the situation anyway. Often, bossy co-workers just want to be heard. Therefore, you should politely acknowledge your co-worker and decline their offer.

Andres Lares, managing partner at Shapiro Negotiations Institute, said it is best to first neutralize your emotions, since dealing with a bossy co-worker can be an emotional challenge.

"The more emotional you are, the less rationally you behave," said Lares. "Conversely, the more your emotions are in check, the more you can be in control of a positive outcome."

Additionally, Rezvani suggested having a few friendly but firm retorts ready for a bossy colleague, should they tell you to do something outside of your job description. Instead of saying "That's not my job," reply using one of the following responses:

  • "That's an interesting project. I'm not sure it's realistic given my workload."
  • "Let me steer you to someone who knows more about that."
  • "OK, thanks for the feedback. I'll discuss that with my manager."

"At a minimum, train yourself to buy more time and not to give a yes in the moment," said Rezvani.

Step 3: Address the situation.

If your attempts at deflecting the situation remain futile, politely confront your bossy colleague about their actions. To best address the issue, identify the cause behind your co-worker's bossiness and prepare the proper invitation.

Identify the cause.

Based on research he conducted for his book Bullies, Tyrants and Impossible People: How to Beat Them Without Joining Them, Lares believes there are three basic types of difficult people:

  • Situationally difficult: Those whose situation or circumstances make them difficult.
  • Strategically difficult: Individuals who believe being unreasonable is effective.
  • Simply difficult: Those with an ingrained personality characteristic.

"The key is to figure out why they are being difficult (the type) in order to decide what strategy is best for dealing with them," said Lares. "Once you know which type of individual you face, you can employ the appropriate techniques to help shape and determine the outcome of the encounter."

Prepare the proper invitation.

When you are addressing a bossy colleague for the first time, Colin McLetchie, president of Five Ways Forward LLC, said it is important to have a practiced, well-thought-out opening request. According to McLetchie, the four key components of your request are as follows:

  • Affirm the value of the colleague and your wish for their continued success, assuming this is true.
  • Express that you have a concern about something you've noticed.
  • Connect those things with "and," not "but." This deliberate response sidesteps the emotional trigger most people have to hearing "but."
  • Ask permission to share, which allows the other person to make a choice. If the answer is yes, you likely have their full attention to what you're about to say.

McLetchie said one example of an opening request might be "Thomas, I hope you know that I very much value our working relationship and your efforts on our team, and I've noticed something in our interactions that is causing me concern. May I share what I've noticed and make a request?"

After your opening, McLetchie said you should share your observations and make your official request.

He suggested saying something like "I have no doubt you have the best of intentions when we're working together, and what I've noticed is that I often bristle in our conversations, because it feels as if you're telling me what to do as opposed to collaborating with me on who will do what. It would be more effective for our partnership if you asked me more than telling me. Is that something we can work on together?"

"There is no reason why your conversations can't be both kind and clear, and also drive to action and commitment," said McLetchie.

Step 4: Wait for a change.

After approaching your colleague and settling on an agreement, give the other party time to change. Since some people are bossy by nature, it may be difficult for them to drastically change right away. Allow time for growth and inform them if they are repeating offensive behavior.

Do not confuse this with letting them get away with their old behavior. If you aren't seeing any improvement in their actions, it may be time to escalate the situation further.

Step 5: Involve a manager or HR.

According to McLetchie, leaders love it when team members resolve collaboration issues on their own and resort to manager and HR interference as a last-ditch effort. However, regardless of the attempts you've made to resolve the situation independently, you should always feel safe to report inappropriate behavior. Your manager or HR department should consider your statement with respect and resolve the issue in a professional manner. 

For managers or HR staff, if an employee approaches you with a complaint about another colleague, especially in the sense of workplace harassment, promptly acknowledge and address the issue.

When approaching the bossy employee, it is best to address them from a place of concern, rather than attack. For example, you can let them know that their actions upset someone else, but that you know that wasn't their intention. Agree on a set course of action and monitor future behavior.

Image Credit: Image credit: Pressmaster/Shutterstock
Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley
Business News Daily Staff
Skye Schooley is a staff writer at business.com and Business News Daily, where she has written more than 200 articles on B2B-focused topics including human resources operations, management leadership, and business technology. In addition to researching and analyzing products that help business owners launch and grow their business, Skye writes on topics aimed at building better professional culture, like protecting employee privacy, managing human capital, improving communication, and fostering workplace diversity and culture.